It’s been over a decade since Ryan Bader and Muhammed Lawal faced off in competition, and both have achieved enormous success in MMA following stints as All-American collegiate wrestlers.
Bader burst onto the scene back in 2008 with a dominant run on Season 8 of The Ultimate Fighter. He became a top-10 contender in the UFC before making the jump to Bellator, where he captured the light heavyweight title in his promotional debut with a split decision win over Phil Davis last June, the second time in his career he’s beaten Davis on the scorecards.
“King Mo” began his career around the same time as Bader. His showy personality and natural knockout power made him an instant star in Japan and it took him just seven pro fights to become the Strikeforce light heavyweight champion, which he achieved by defeating Gegard Mousasi.
But once upon a time, he and Bader met on the amateur mats, Bader wrestling for Arizona State and Lawal representing Oklahoma State. By Bader’s own account, the meeting was less than epic.
“He whooped my ass back in college,” Bader told MMA Fighting.
Asked to elaborate, Bader recalls being unfamiliar with Lawal, who had actually transferred over to OSU for his senior year, but his coaches Aaron Simpson and Eric Larkin knew that the younger Bader was in trouble.
“I went out there and I didn’t know who the guy was,” said Bader. “He wrestled for Oklahoma State so I knew he was good and walked out there and he used to do the jump thing before. He literally jumped definitely higher than my head and I was like, ‘Oh s**t.’ I looked back and Aaron and Eric are just cracking up laughing, they knew how good he was.
“I just went out there as a freshman and he proceeded to tech me, which is pretty embarrassing, beat me by 15 points. It’s definitely nice to get some payback in a different competition.”
With that encounter taking place 15 years ago, it’s unlikely that their past wrestling match will compare much to their upcoming Bellator Heavyweight World Grand Prix opening round bout in the main event of Bellator 199, which takes place at the SAP Center in San Jose, Calif., this Saturday.
Lawal was actually supposed to welcome Bader to his new home last June, but he was forced to withdraw due to injury, leading to Bader’s fortuitous matchup with Davis.
Despite Lawal using some colorful language to promote the fight, Bader is keeping a cool head about the matchup.
“I don’t know, I think we’re fine,” said Bader. “We were fine when I was about to fight him when I first came over. He was going to be my first fight, we were in the cage after him and (Quinton) ‘Rampage’ (Jackson) fought and we competed before.
“I have no animosity towards him whatsoever. We’re going in there, we’re competing, he’s definitely a fierce competitor, great fighter, and that’s what makes fun matchups. We both want the same thing. He wants to get in there and win the heavyweight title, as do I.”
Had they not been placed in the tournament opposite one another, it was almost inevitable that Bader and ‘King Mo’ would cross paths anyway given that Lawal is a top contender in the division that Bader currently rules over.
In his first title defense, Bader made short work of two-time title challenger Linton Vassell, finishing “The Swarm” with blistering ground-and-pound work in the second round. The more success Bader has in the Heavyweight Grand Prix, the longer it will be until his next light heavyweight championship bout, but he sees this as a positive as it will give time for the division’s contenders to get sorted.
“I think it’s the perfect time to do this heavyweight tournament so a clear-cut contender in the light heavyweight division can come out,” said Bader. “So we’ll see what happens.”