Two of the most exciting young light heavyweights on the Strikeforce roster will meet this Saturday night as former champion Muhammed Lawal takes on undefeated rising prospect Lorenz Larkin on the main card of Strikeforce: Rockhold vs. Jardine in Las Vegas.
Lawal proved he'd put a debilitating knee injury behind him in his last fight, a first round knockout of Brazilian jiu-jitsu world champion Roger Gracie this past September. In Larkin, he's hoping to hand his second consecutive undefeated prospect their first career loss en route to winning back his title.
Lorenz Larkin has feasted on local MMA products and had his way with the Strikeforce Challengers fighters in his young professional career. He feels that now is finally his time to make a mark in Strikeforce and he's going to have to get through one of the most talented 205 pound fighters in the world to do it.
Will "King Mo" experience against elite competition be too much for Larkin? Can "The Monsoon" rain on Lawal's parade with a huge upset victory? How does each talented light heavyweight secure a victory on Saturday night?
Let's find out:Muhammed Lawal
Record: 8-1 overall, 3-1 in Strikeforce
Key Wins: Gegard Mousasi (Strikeforce: Nashville), Roger Gracie (Strikeforce: Barnett vs. Kharitonov), 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. He then transferred to Oklahoma State, winning the Big 12 championship and All-America honors. 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.
After recovering from a knee injury, Lawal returned to the cage this past September and handed Brazilian jiu-jitsu master Roger Gracie his first MMA loss, knocking him out in the first round. The victory put him right back into top contender status and he'll battle Larkin for a crack at the belt again.
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. His fists are just as dangerous as his ability to take the fight to the ground.
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.
Unlike Larkin, Lawal does not use many flashy attacks. He's relies more on the basic fundamental strikes and he can be patient if need be. His fight with Roger Gracie was a bit of a staring contest before he exploded forward and knocked him out..
The thing that will be on everyone's mind for this fight is not if, but when Lawal shoots in for a takedown. Larkin hasn't shown much off his back thus far and he could be in for some serious trouble if Lawal can get him down early in a round. Lawal can lay the wood if he can posture up and create an avenue for ground and pound. Don't be surprised to see him stand long enough for Larkin to drop his defenses.
If Larkin refuses to drop his defenses for the takedown, Lawal is likely confident enough in his stand-up to go toe-to-toe with "The Monsoon."
Record: 12-0 overall, 3-0 in Strikeforce
Key Losses: none
How he got here: Lorenz Larkin has been one of the most active fighters out there. He began his amateur mixed martial arts career at the end of 2008 and went 7-0 with six stoppage victories in a matter of six months. He had turned pro by the middle of 2009.
Despite being very undersized, Larkin spent the majority of the start of his professional career fighting at both heavyweight and light heavyweight. From February 2010-February 2011, he fought eight times professionally and finished strong with six straight knockouts.
"The Monsoon" got the call to the big leagues when Satoshi Ishii went down with an injury and he not only stepped up on short notice, but destroyed K-1 kickboxing veteran Scott Lighty on the feet, scoring a second round technical knockout. He followed up his victory with two decisions against significantly larger fighters Nick Rossborough and Gian Villante, the former being his first Strikeforce Challengers main event.
After three straight wins on the Challengers series, the Riverside native felt he was ready to be tested against the big dogs in the Strikeforce light heavyweight division.
How he gets it done: Larkin has spent a significant portion of his camp working with Blackhouse wrestling coach Kenny Johnson, who he says has been helping him gain confidence in his striking while stepping into the cage against someone with an elite wrestling background.
"The Monsoon" is going to need all the confidence he can get against Lawal and he's going to have to fight smart. If he's too timid out there, afraid of the takedown, "King Mo" will simply outstrike him. If he's too aggressive with his attack, Lawal will likely put him on his back. It's a very fine line that he has to find early and he has to find it before the former champion gets comfortable.
Larkin won't be throwing the flash head kicks, but don't be surprised to see him go to work on Lawal's legs with some quick, short kicks that he can snap back before they're caught. He also will likely be snapping his jab while circling to keep from being a stationary target that's easy to either catch with a big punch or get tackled to the ground.
Fight X-Factor: The most obvious of factors is Lawal's wrestling. It's going to be in the back of Larkin's mind throughout the fight and will be a big factor even if he doesn't use it. We've seen time and time again that great strikers tone it down a notch for fear of the takedown. If Larkin does this and allows "King Mo" to get a groove in his striking, he could be in trouble in both departments.
Larkin needs to be smooth and confident, of he could be in some serious trouble.
Bottom Line: This should be a terrific match-up between two of the most exciting light heavyweights on the Strikeforce roster. "King Mo" is not a one-dimensional wrestler, he's only really used his wrestling as his primary offense in one fight. He's got lethal hands and packs some serious power so expect to see some terrific striking exchanges. If Lawal feels he's losing momentum, that's when he's going to shoot in. This bout should be fun if it goes to the ground because Lawal likely won't be afraid of Larkin's bottom game and will be aggressive with guard pass attempts and strikes on the ground. This fight could be over in minutes, or it could be a 15 minute thriller.
Who will come out on top at Strikeforce: Rockhold vs. Jardine? Tell us your predictions in the comments below!