Muhammed Lawal is one of the most talented and highly decorated wrestlers in mixed martial arts, but he has stated that, had his childhood circumstances allowed, he might have come up in the sport of boxing instead. For those who've watched his fights, this is not surprising. In fact, Mo has caught a lot of flak for frequently choosing to box his opponents rather than putting them on their backs and using his impeccable wrestling.
Recently, Mo entered Bellator's light heavyweight tournament with the whole MMA world touting him as an obvious favorite, and easily vindicated that belief by savaging his first opponent with ease. In the next round of the tournament, King Mo swaggered into the cage with his characteristic confidence and it was that confidence that gave so many MMA fans ample justification to mock him when he was knocked out in the first by a brilliant spinning back fist from Emanuel Newton.
Mo has the reputation of being a cocky fighter, and his hands-down mannerisms in the Newton bout didn't help his case much. The forums lit up with predictable derisive glee:
"That’s what you get for being a wrestler and fighting like a boxer!"--"He paid the price for fighting cocky!"--"Should have kept his hands up!"
You couldn’t find an MMA forum right after the Newton bout that wasn’t plastered with statements like these. It is an unfortunate aspect of MMA fandom, and sport fandom as a whole, that we’ll cheer, even laugh, when a man loses in such brutal fashion. I’m certainly not immune (I was "I-told-you-so"-ing with the best of them when Johny Hendricks knocked out Martin Kampmann), but I’d like to view Mo’s loss as an opportunity, both for Mo and for MMA fans around the world (or at least the ones that read Bloody Elbow) to learn something about the principles of good boxing and striking in general.
First, let’s look at Mo’s finest striking performance to date—his brief encounter with Roger Gracie at Strikeforce: Barnett vs. Kharitonov. In this fight Mo showed spectacular positioning. Take a look at the finishing sequence and then I’ll explain what I mean.
1.) Mo keeps his lead foot trained on Roger’s center line, pressuring him back into the cage and forcing Roger to constantly readjust himself to avoid danger.
2.) Roger steps in with a panicked jab. It’s clear that this is the only way he knows to keep someone at bay. And though simply throwing a jab out there would work against most MMA fighters (and has worked for all of Gracie’s other opponents), it was fruitless against Mo’s superior positioning. Notice the relative position of their feet—Roger has handed Mo the outside angle on a platter.
3.) King Mo takes advantage, but the distance is wrong, and they clash heads.
4.) Roger pulls away, likely hurting from the head contact. But he attempts to retreat as he has throughout the fight: by going straight backwards, and standing straight up. Mo, feeling Roger start to disengage, steps back with his eyes on Roger and his body still facing Roger’s centerline. As a result Mo’s dominant angle doesn’t change—in fact, it improves, because he now has the distance to work, and he cracks Roger with a swinging right hand that fells the Jiu Jitsu great like a tree.
The clash of heads aside, this is perfect execution of a principle known as "positioning"—boxing trainer Luis Monda (known as Sinister on the Sherdog forums) often describes proper positioning as "facing the center," and that’s exactly what Mo did against Roger. From frames 2-4, Mo has his weapons directed at Roger’s centerline, while Roger’s own body is not facing Mo at all. This is what boxing folks mean when they talk about "angles." Basically, Mo can hit Roger, and Roger cannot hit Mo. And angles are best attained by threatening and pressuring the center line of the opponent. Simply sticking a jab out there is not enough; you must first be properly facing your target.
The Roger fight was also the best that Mo's stance has looked in recent memory. He was often heavy on the front foot, but his knees were bent and his head off-center, and when Roger threatened him he not only drew away to create space, but changed elevation, sitting back into his stance to avoid incoming punches, and to absorb any shots that might find the mark. It was a far different story from the way Mo fought in his previous fight against Rafael Cavalcante, in which he was throwing his weight recklessly forward, standing up straight and engaging with the heavy hitting Brazilian in a reckless brawl. Against Roger, Mo went back to his wrestling stance, with some minor adjustments, and it paid off.
So why did he ever stop boxing like a wrestler? Apparently somewhere along the way, Mo began training his Muay Thai heavily, and his trainers got him standing upright, rather than boxing out of his wrestling stance and utilizing his already formidable understanding of leverage.
King Mo Training (via MelchorMenorTV)
The above padwork shows Mo working in a counterintuitive manner. He had already had a handful of fights before this training video was taken, and yet he looked more comfortable on his feet against veteran Travis Wiuff in his very first pro bout than he does on the pads with Mel Menor here. His weight is constantly moving forward. He leans into his punches, especially with the rear hand. And worse, his deadly power is dissipated. His stance is as far from a wrestling stance as possible, and yet a wrestling stance is designed to enhance leverage. That leverage advantage applies to punches and takedowns alike.
So Mo learned his lesson and did exceedingly well against a very dangerous opponent in Roger Gracie. Now he's a good boxer, right?
Well, let’s jump forward to Mo’s fight with Przemyslaw Mysiala, the unfortunate unknown who had just about nothing to offer Mo. And make no mistake, it was only Mysiala's inability to handle Mo's speed and power that allowed Mo to move on in the tournament, because he was showing a lot more holes in his boxing than he did in his fight with Roger.
Against Mysiala, Mo did something he'd never done before: he held his hands up, both gloves well above his own eyebrows, several times throughout the short fight. Mo showed flashes of the same against Lorenz Larkin, but spent the majority of that fight engaged in grappling exchanges with the smaller man. Against Mysiala, however, Mo spent the duration of the bout on the feet, constantly holding both gloves high. Many were probably relieved to see this. Again, King Mo has fought with his hands lowered, and often with his left hand at his waist, his whole career. But in this fight, Mo's defense was worse than it has ever been. Mysiala was far below his level in terms of striking ability, and yet Mo looked wreckless and haphazard. Take a look at these stills of Mo defending jabs.
On the left, Mo defends the jab of Roger Gracie perfectly. He pulls his weight back, changes elevation, takes his head off center, and parries the punch with his rear hand, leaving his lead hand free to counter.
But on the right, Mo struggles with the telegraphed jab of Przemyslaw Mysiala. Roger's jab might not have been perfect, but he at least threw it with a decent forward step and some quickness. Mysiala's jab is inferior by far, and yet Mo doesn't seem to know how to deal with it. He ducks his head down, his weight still far forward, and flails at Mysiala's extended left arm with both hands, moving far out of range and consequently refusing himself any opportunity to counter.
The problem is in Mo's stance. Since fighting Roger, Mo changed from his wrestler-boxer stance to one common to modern boxers, and far less optimal for his purposes. Here he is sparring amateur boxer Andrew Tabiti.
King Mo sparring Andrew Tabiti (via Jazzy Jeff)
Notice the way he carries himself. It's a world of difference from the way he stood when he demolished Roger. His weight is almost entirely on his front foot, just like it was against Cavalcante. His head is even farther forward, too. It's clear from the start of the round that he's not comfortable with the range because, as against Mysiala, his reactions are jumpy and unrefined. Rather than the standard jab defense he used consistently against Roger, he improvises head movement, sometimes putting himself in harm's way to avoid punches, and swinging wild counters at his opponent. His head is also centered from the get-go, rather than being safely off-line like it was against Roger. And worse, he stands upright, far more modern boxer than wrestler. Not only does this make him less powerful, both in takedowns and punches, but it makes him more susceptible to damage. Fortunately Mysiala didn't have the tools to take advantage of these holes. Emanuel Newton, on the other hand, did and Mo suffered the consequences.
So why the difference? Why all the changes in style and approach?
Well, I hinted at it above, but Mo’s camp has changed completely multiple times, and his training has followed suit. He first began focusing on his Muay Thai before the Cavalcante fight and came in with a poorly designed stance and no ability to generate the power of which he is still fully capable. Following that loss, he spent some time training with Mike McCallum and Floyd Mayweather Sr., both legendary figures in boxing, and both excellent trainers. And he came in against Roger looking like just about the best boxer in MMA. But following his fight with Roger, Mo changed camps again, and started training with another member of the Mayweather family, Jeff Mayweather. And while Jeff was a fantastic fighter, his training has transformed Mo into a different kind of boxer altogether. Watch this padwork, and you can see how Jeff is reinforcing the negative aspects present in the sparring above and in both of Mo's last two fights.
King Mo and Jeff Mayweather padwork. Hilarious! (via JeffMayweather)
It's all there. Mo's head is very close to his coach. He blocks every simulated punch using his gloves. This might be a viable (and easy to learn) strategy in boxing, hence the prominence of head-forward volume punchers in the sport nowadays, but it's worthless in MMA. Boxing gloves will do a lot to protect the head from strikes. 4 oz. MMA gloves will not. Commentators and fans in both sports are very fond of the phrase "hands up," as if it has great meaning to a skilled fighter. In reality, defense is more related to proper positioning and stance than it is to where the hands are held. And this is even more true in MMA than in boxing, because of the equipment (see Lyoto Machida, a fighter whose style is trained bare-fisted, flattening the modern boxing-styled Rashad Evans for further proof).
Why Jeff Mayweather has Mo fighting this way is beyond me, but it's doing him far more harm than good.
The real problem, I think, is that King Mo is truly a student of the game. By all accounts, he is incredibly well read on all things boxing. He knows the greats of boxing history very well and is knowledgeable on many aspects of the sport. Unfortunately, this readiness to learn may make him too easy to influence. He seems to be rather fond of the left hook these days, for example, and that might be part of the reason he stands so heavy on his front foot. But that is not the style that brought Mo success in the past. His eagerness and curiosity mean that he will likely try whatever a qualified coach tells him, rather than sticking with what has already been proven to work.
Mo was right to say that holding his hands low didn't get him knocked out by Newton, but I fear that he and his camp may not realize the true reasons for his latest fall. Only Mo's next fight will tell us if he has made the proper readjustments, but he would be far better suited boxing like a wrestler and using time-tested principles of striking to his advantage, rather than simply putting his gloves in front of his face and presenting his jaw to his opponent in the hopes of landing a preternaturally well-timed counter. Roger Gracie can certainly attest to the effectiveness of those principles over the fluff that Mo seems to be learning now.
You know what they say: if it ain't broke, don't fix it.
Thanks for reading my first official BE piece, everybody. I'd love any feedback that you think appropriate--even vague ramblings and rude words are appreciated. I tried numbering my diagram this time for the ease of the reader. Let me know if it helps you follow along (I am referring to the four-piece diagram of Mo knocking out Roger). Thanks for reading! Here's to many more in the future. - Connor