Photo courtesy Esther Lin for All Elbows
Spike TV's recent announcement that they have signed "King Mo" Muhammed Lawal to a joint deal with Bellator Fighting Championships and Total Nonstop Action (TNA) wrestling is huge for all companies involved.
Lawal was possibly the hottest free agent in mixed martial arts (MMA) --after a haphazard release from Strikeforce -- and depending on how he is handled as a performer, his signing could be one of the best investments either company has made.
That "depending on how he is handled," is the tricky part.
Bellator has run a very savvy alternative MMA operation; the fact that it hasn't yet been swallowed whole by the monstrous Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC)/Zuffa conglomerate says that much. The ground their new TV Spike offers is fertile for continued growth.
On the other hand, TNA has already signed some of the top names in Pro Wrestling, past, present, and future, while remaining stagnant and irrelevant due to their inept and corrupt leadership. But let's pretend we live in a universe where TNA and Bellator are equally competent companies looking to make the most of this unprecedented deal.
For Bellator, King Mo brings them a legit top 10 level Light Heavyweight, the rarest species of fighter to come across outside the UFC preserve. He was released from Strikeforce with only one loss on his record and on a two-fight demolition streak. If he does well in Bellator he can add serious credibility to their division.
All of that might be less important for Bellator than Lawal's position as one of the most engaging and charismatic fighters in the sport. Lawal can talk intelligently about fight strategy, casually nerd out about video games, and trash talk with the swagger of a hip hop artist (or Pro Wrestler).
He appeals to a much wider base than just the Tapout T-Shirt demographic. He's the younger, better looking, more talented version of Kimbo Slice that can excite urban youth just as much as he can Japanese MMA purists and guys who think Forrest Griffin vs Stephan Bonnar was the greatest MMA fight of all time.
For TNA, "King Mo" presents a near Olympic-level athlete, with a larger-than-life persona and a deep love of Pro Wrestling. Unlike most of the other non-wrestling celebrities the company has brought in, Lawal has the potential to be a valuable long-term investment for TNA. He loves Pro Wrestling and isn't just cashing a check between reality show gigs.
There are two downsides to Lawal, though.
First, he had a positive test for anabolic steroids early this year. Second, he's never wrestled professionally before. Spike found a way to make these issues cancel each other out: as Lawal serves out his 9-month suspension, he will begin proper training as a Pro Wrestler at TNA's developmental promotion, OVW. Of course training is only one necessary component to becoming a Pro Wrestler, and there's no guarantee Lawal will take the sport. However, there are reasons to be optimistic.
While sending a relatively old, injured or inadequately trained Pro Wrestler to do MMA is often the dumbest thing any promoter could do (i.e. why Kurt Angle won't be in Bellator), bringing MMA talent in to Pro Wrestle has tended to work out pretty well. For example, former Pancrase and UFC champion Bas Rutten tried his hand in a few matches for New Japan. He wasn't half bad at it either, as you can see for yourself in this IWGP Heavyweight title match against Yuji Nagata.
An even more relevant example is Megumi Fujii.
She's the greatest female MMA fighter of all time, and is already a member of the Bellator roster and will headline their next card. Several years ago Megumi developed a friendship with Joshi Puroresu grapple queen Mariko Yoshida, which led to her taking part in a couple of matches with her.
There are many other examples of fighters turned wrestlers (top heavyweight fighter Josh Barnett is doing MMA in Strikeforce and Pro Wrestling in Inoki Genome at this very moment), and most are positive. A counter example would be Bob Sapp who is a terrible wrestler, but he wasn't exactly a great fighter to start with.
The athleticism and training required to be a top MMA fighter goes a long way towards preparing someone for Pro Wrestling. It goes even further when the athlete matched with opponents that can work mat-based, shoot-style type matches that play to strengths and hide weaknesses. From Samoa Joe to Alex Shelley to Austin Aries to Kurt Angle, there are many wrestlers on the TNA roster that could make a rookie Lawal look good.
I doubt Spike looked up Megumi Yabushita matches before concocting this deal, but their instincts could pay huge dividends. If Lawal can step up to the challenge in a year's time he could be a credible top name for both TNA and Bellator and, even more, a great ambassador for the network as a whole.
Lawal is as media friendly as any MMA fighter the US has seen. He's the guy that can guest star on an original drama, hand out trophies at the video game awards, and promote fights on Jim Rome or Conan or The View, if necessary.
There are kinks to work out. After his suspension is over, how much time will he be able to dedicate to Pro Wrestling when MMA fights take several months of intense, focused workouts? I don't think anyone expects Lawal to make house shows, but TNA will have to use forethought in his booking to accommodate his more lucrative Bellator fights, although this did not work out well in the case of Bobby Lashley. Here's hoping Spike provides the guidance (threats) needed to ensure TNA makes the most of whatever time they get with Lawal.
If this experiment works out as it should, things could get very interesting for MMA and Pro Wrestling fans. The ability to cross promote Lawal on Bellator events and TNA PPVs has rather obvious advantages for both companies, and if it works with him why not try Fujii next?
The benefits for Lawal are apparent as well. He will go from appearing on premium channel Showtime three times a year to appearing on Spike possibly ten times as much as that. That would mean extra eyes on Lawal and extra sponsorship dollars. If Lawal can prove Pro Wrestling a viable and lucrative side gig for MMA fighters in the US, you can imagine several names giving Bellator and TNA a call.
Most of this hinges on TNA being smart and not using Lawal to have bad matches with 50-year-olds. That will probably happen, but at the very least, being in Pro Wrestling will give Lawal the excuse he need to bring back this amazing entrance in all it's glory:
Leslie is the founder of DirtyDirtySheets.com, the world's only website dedicated exclusively to great Professional Wrestling.