Strikeforce grand prix semifinals fight card: Muhammed Lawal vs Roger Gracie preview

An incredibly intriguing light heavyweight fight is scheduled to take place on Saturday night (September 10, 2011) as one of the world's most decorated Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ) black belts, Roger Gracie, takes on one of American's most accomplished wrestlers that has made the transition to MMA, Muhammed Lawal AKA "King Mo," on the Strikeforce Grand Prix: "Barnett vs. Kharitonov" main card.

Gracie is widely regarded as the most accomplished Brazilian jiu-jitsu champion to transition to mixed martial arts. He's destroyed the likes of Kevin Randleman and Trevor Prangley and he's finally ready for the big fish. It will be very interesting to see how he performs now that MMA is his top priority.

"King Mo" is finally back after taking over a year off while recovering from a knee injury that contributed to him losing his Strikeforce light heavyweight title to "Feijao" Cavalcante. He's refreshed, invigorated and ready to smash the decorated Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt with his powerful fists.

Will Gracie catch Lawal in his dangerous jiu-jitsu web? Or will "King Mo" force him to stand with his accomplished wrestling credentials? Which hyped light heavyweight will blink first?

Roger Gracie

Record: 4-0 overall, 2-0 in Strikeforce

Key Wins: Trevor Prangley (Strikeforce: Diaz vs. Cyborg), Kevin Randleman (Strikeforce: Heavy Artillery), Yuki Kondo (Sengoku 2)

Key Losses: none

How he got here: The grandson of the great Carlos Gracie, Roger Gracie got his start like any Gracie, in Brazilian jiu-jitsu. He was awarded his black belt in 2003 by Renzo Gracie and after a third place finish in the 2003 Abu Dhabi Combat Club, he began his devastation of the BJJ ranks. Gracie returned with a vengeance in 2005, winning both the 88-98 kilogram division as well as the Absolute division gold medals and submitting every opponent in his path including highly decorated BJJ practitioners like Shinya Aoki, Fabricio Werdum and Ronaldo Souza.

Gracie began his mixed martial arts career a year later, submitting Ron Waterman in Vancouver as well as Yuki Kondo two years later in Japan.

He would make one last terrific run in jiu-jitsu, winning the world championship multiple times at the Mundials in Brazil in both 2009 and 2010 at the Super Heavyweight division as well as the Absolute division before announcing that he was going to focus on MMA.

The world-renowned BJJ champ made his Strikeforce debut in 2010, surprising former UFC champion Kevin Randleman with his improvements in striking before taking the fight to the ground and ending it via rear naked choke. He would follow up that victory with an absolute destruction of South African Trevor Prangley in the first round this past January. He was originally scheduled to fight "King Mo" at the Strikeforce: Fedor vs. Henderson card in Chicago but the bout was delayed to this Saturday night, just over a month later.

How he gets it done: There's absolutely no doubt that Roger Gracie wants this fight to go to the ground where he can work his magic on the canvas. The problem is that "King Mo" Lawal is an incredibly accomplished wrestler and is not going to make it easy.

Gracie holds a four inch height advantage and has a long, lanky frame. If he were a decorated striker, this would be a huge strength for him but he's still got a long ways to go before he's knocking opponents out standing. 

They key for Gracie will be to avoid standing in the pocket. From a distance he can work some of his kicks and stay outside of Lawal's range. If "King Mo" gets too close, Gracie will have no problem clinching and either looking to utilize a trip takedown or instead work knees and elbows from up close. 

Pulling guard would not be a horrible option either as Gracie has suffocating hip pressure and he may be the one fighter on the planet that could force Lawal to stay on the ground with him if he can wrap his legs around the talented wrestler in closed guard to begin working his submission game.

Gracie will need everything to click if he wants to win this fight.

Muhammed Lawal

Record: 7-1 overall, 2-1 in Strikeforce

Key Wins: Gegard Mousasi (Strikeforce: Nashville), Mike Whitehead (Strikeforce: Evolution)

Key Losses: Rafael Cavalcante (Strikeforce: Houston)

How he got here: The story of Muhammed Lawal's wrestling career is truly a throwback to the motto, "hard work pays off." He began his collegiate career at the University of Central Oklahoma, becoming a Division II runner up in 2001 before winning the D2 college championship in 2002.

With the title in his hands, he transferred to Oklahoma State, winning the Big 12 championship, earning All-American honors and earning third place nationally. With his collegiate wrestling career behind him, Lawal began wrestling nationally and internationally. He won multiple tournaments world-wide and medaled in several others, including winning the United States Senior Freestyle national championship three times in 2005, 2006 and 2008.

"King Mo" began his mixed martial arts career after winning his last Senior national title in wrestling, competing in four consecutive Sengoku events in Japan at both heavyweight and light heavyweight. Lawal crushed the likes of Travis Wiuff, Mark Kerr and Yukiya Naito, compiling a 5-0 record before Strikeforce beckoned. 

He made his Strikeforce debut in 2009, destroying Mike Whitehead in the first round which earned him a title shot against champion Gegard Mousasi, a fighter ranked in the top 10 worldwide at light heavyweight. Lawal blasted Mousasi with his wrestling, repeatedly taking the Dutch fighter down and being completely unafraid of "The Dreamcatcher's" submission game off his back over the course of five rounds to win the title.

He attempted to defend his belt against Rafael Cavalcante with an injured knee and it showed. Lawal looked sluggish and didn't have much on his takedown attempts, eating multiple elbows and knees when he got too close. Eventually, "Feijao" hurt him badly and finished "King Mo" with strikes in the third round, handing Lawal his first career loss in MMA. 

It's been over a year now and "King Mo's" knee has been surgically repaired. He's 100% and ready to take on another challenge.

How he gets it done: While Lawal is an accomplished wrestler, he's also got devastating power in both hands. He smashed the likes of Travis Wiuff and Mike Whitehead with his hands standing and also blasted Mark Kerr with ground and pound after a takedown. If Lawal can find an opening to land his big bombs, it could be a short night for Gracie.

Lawal constantly changes his stance in the stand-up, trying to confuse his opponent and he's even been known to drop his hands and bait strikes. He utilizes strong footwork and is lightning quick with his movements which allows him to capitalize on the mistakes of his opposition. He's got a strong left jab and he can mix in a powerful right and left hook as well, the right hook especially has some knockout power.

Look for Lawal to stand in the pocket and try to take advantage of the small openings Gracie gives him in the stand-up. If Gracie isn't paying attention, the American also has a terrific superman punch that he can land accurately. 

What will be interesting will be whether or not Lawal shoots in and takes the fight to the ground like he did against Gegard Mousasi. He had no fear of Mousasi's ground game but Roger Gracie is a whole 'nother animal. It will certainly be something to keep an eye on. If he does take Gracie down, he will have to stay tight and not give the Brazilian any openings to sweep or throw up submission attempts off his back while trying to utilize some ground and pound from above.

Fight "X-Factor:" The X-Factor for this fight absolutely has to be whether or not Roger Gracie can get this fight to the ground. Sure, he's got some awkward and mildly effective striking but he's the best submission fighter on the planet right now. He needs to somehow put Lawal on the canvas and that will not be an easy task considering the impeccable wrestling credentials and the fact that "King Mo" is still in his physical prime. 

If Gracie is forced to fight a kickboxing match with the heavy-handed Lawal, he could be in for a world of hurt.

Bottom Line: This fight should be incredible wherever it goes. Standing, Lawal is a powerful striker with terrific footwork and some lethal attacks. On the ground, it will be a non-stop chess match as Gracie looks to find that one tiny opening which will lead to a submission. Even in the clinch both men will be jockeying for position and looking for a method of ending the fight. This bout is the most difficult to predict of the entire night and the winner will likely be headed to the top of Zuffa's light heavyweight division.

Who will come out on top at Strikeforce: "Barnett vs. Kharitonov" on Saturday night? Tell us your predictions in the comments below!

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