After the 2006 World Freestyle Wrestling Championships in China, I could barely contain my excitement about the potential team the USA would field in freestyle wrestling at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
The United States had just crowned three new world medalists: Don Prtizlaff earned bronze at 74 kg, Mike Zadick grabbed silver at 60 kg, and Mike's brother Bill, who wrestled at 66 kg, was the proud owner of a new bright and shiny gold medal. From where I sat in 2006 looking forward to 2008, I imagined an American Olympic team with at least four past world-level medalists, as 2004 Olympic silver medalist Stephen Abas would assuredly return and retake his place at the 55 kg weight class. In the remaining three weight classes, I could see the rise of heavyweight prodigy Steve Mocco close by on the horizon, and two of the most physically gifted wrestlers in recent memory, Daniel Cormier and Muhammed Lawal, ready to contend for high honors at the 96 kg and 84 kg weight classes, respectively.
Sadly, the Olympic team I envisioned never materialized, and what ensued was a disaster. Pritzlaff and the Zadicks never regained their 2006 form. Mike Zadick, the only one of the three to even make it to Beijing, only qualified at the last minute by a bizarre series of accidents suffered by wrestlers from other countries(I'm serious), and lost his very first match. At 55 kg, Abas did return, and looked excellent in the final wrestle-off for the Olympic spot until he aggravated an old knee injury. Cormier fairly easily made the team, but then had to withdraw from competition after nearly killing himself making weight.
Lawal came one match away from a berth in the Beijing Games, but he couldn't quite get there either. In fact, his promising performance and seventh place finish back at the 2005 World Championships wound up as the first and last time he would ever represent the United States on the world level.
Back in 2005, this would have come as a shock. After finishing third in line for the Olympic team spot in 2004 (losing only to eventual gold medalist Cael Sanderson), and then assuming his place on the World Team a year later, Lawal looked like the future of American wrestling at 84 kg.
Possessing a dazzling amount of athletic talent, Lawal appeared to have limitless upside as a wrestler. In a sport where most successful athletes begin to hone their skills while barely out of diapers, Lawal did not start wrestling until the age of 16. Yet, a mere five years after entering the sport, he won an NCAA Division II championship for the University of Central Oklahoma.
Lawal's gifts were so impressive that in 2002-2003 college wrestling season he transferred to the legendary Oklahoma State wrestling program, and came awfully close to winning an NCAA Division I title as well. At the 2003 Division I Championships, Lawal entered the tournament as a the second seed at 197 pounds, and placed third after only losing in the last second to Minnesota's eventual champion Damion Hahn.
Even in losing at the 2003 NCAA Championships, Lawal solidified himself as one of America's most promising prospects in Olympic style wrestling. Everything a good freestyle wrestler needed, Lawal possessed a wealth of. He boasted dynamic leg attacks, smart handfighting and a deep love of the sport. In the years after college, Lawal's progression to the top of the USA's wrestling depth chart at 84 kg seemed certain and proceeded as expected, at least until the semifinals of the2006 World Team Trials challenge tournament.
At the 2006 World Team Trials, most of the wrestling public expected Lawal to retake his place on the World Team, but then Andy Hrovat happened. Early in their semifinal the University of Michigan product trapped Lawal in chest lock, and attacked the move with bad intentions. Look at the nasty amount of torque generated by Hrovat's legs as he twists Lawal onto his back and pins him.
This shocking upset started a trend of bad luck for Lawal. In his final two years as a wrestler, in 2007 and 2008, he would make the final wrestle offs for the world/ Olympic team, and fall just short. In 2007 he lost the best two-of-three wrestle off series to his friend Daniel Cormier at 96 kg, and fell again to Hrovat in the wrestle off for the 2008 Olympic team. Hrovat edged Lawal in the third period of their third and deciding match with this go ahead takedown and back exposure with mere seconds left (quality too bad to gif).
After missing the 2008 Olympic team by the narrowest of margins, Lawal moved on to mixed martial arts. The rest is, as they say, history.
Factgrinder Final Analysis
Lawal had the talent and skills to win world and Olympic wrestling as a freestyle wrestler, and actually came reasonably close.
Without squinting too much, however, you can notice a reoccurring pattern throughout Lawal's wrestling and MMA career. In both, he took the sports by storm shortly upon entering, wowing and tantalizing onlookers with rarely seen potential. Perplexingly though, every time Lawal seems poised to make the jump from the promising to the actual, he stumbles.
Lawal was the wrestler of the future, and is the fighter of the future. Hopefully that's not all he'll ever be.