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|FEATURE: Freestyle star Mo Lawal seeks a bright future with World and Olympic titles|
By Erin Phipps USA Wrestling
Colorado Springs, Colo.-Shy is a word that could never be used to describe No. 1 ranked freestyle wrestler Muhammed "Mo" Lawal (Colorado Springs, Colo./Gator WC). His off-the-cuff performances and out-going personality make Lawal a memorable figure from a new generation of freestyle wrestlers.
Lawal's wrestling career began when he was 16 and a sophomore in high school. At the time, Lawal was playing football at Plano East High School in Texas when his coach Alan Keobke advised him to take up wrestling as a way to stay in shape for football season. Already an accomplished athlete, Lawal found his niche in wrestling, due to his love of one-on-one sports. He was a state champion and a two-time runner up in high school.
"I like combat," says Lawal.
He continued with wrestling through his college career, first at the Univ. of Central Oklahoma where he placed second in the 2001 NCAA Div. II Championships and was the NCAA Div. II champion in 2002. He later transferred to Oklahoma State Univ. and placed third in the 2003 NCAA Div. 1 Championships.
Lawal credits many people for making a difference in his life, from those who gave him rides to practice, to friends and others who came to see his matches, as well the coaches who trained him. However, he acknowledges that it was his mother who instilled in him the values of hard work and dedication. As a single mother taking care of her family, she inspired Lawal.
"She was dedicated to her family. I thought I could at least do that with wrestling," said Lawal.
That dedication to wrestling and strong work ethic are paying off for Lawal. He made his presence known in 2004, placing third at both the U.S. Nationals and the U.S. Olympic Team Trials at 84 kg/185 lbs. In 2005, he reached the top, becoming the champion of both the U.S. Nationals and the U.S. World Team Trials. He went on to place seventh at the World Championships.
Lawal has also been a member of the U.S. Olympic Training Center (USOTC) Freestyle Resident program for almost a year. The program is designed to help the top freestyle wrestlers in the nation train to compete and win on the World and Olympic levels. The freestyle wrestlers are coached by Freestyle Resident Coach Terry Brands and National Freestyle Coach Kevin Jackson, both World champions and Olympic medalists.
At the USOTC, Lawal lives with the other top wrestlers and athletes in dormitories while they are in training. While in Colorado Springs, he also hangs out with athletes from a variety of other sports, such as weightlifters and even Olympic champion speed skater Apolo Ohno. Lawal also interacts a lot with the Greco-Roman wrestlers, who he wrestles with twice a week.
An added bonus to life at the USOTC is being constantly surrounded by some of the top wrestlers in the nation. In practice, Lawal trains alongside freestyle wrestlers such as No. 1 ranked Michael Lightner (Colorado Springs, Colo./Sunkist Kids). Lawal acknowledges that when he sees Lightner and others working hard, it pushes him to train even harder.
"It's good because it keeps me on toes," Lawal said.
In his training at this time, Lawal prepares for upcoming winter tours, taking everything one day at a time.
"I go to practice and work on my technique and do whatever the coach tells me to do," says Lawal. "I'm just practicing technique, eating right, and making sure not to make the same mistakes again."
One of those mistakes happened at the 2005 World Championships when Lawal lost a controversial match to Sazhid Sazhidov of Russia. He was penalized for fleeing from his opponent in the final seconds of the match. Even though Lawal scored the only technical point in the last period of the match with a takedown, Sazhidov won the match because he won the last point from Lawal's penalty.
Both of his regular coaches are confident of great success in Lawal's future.
"His talent level is extremely high," said Brands. "He's one of the few athletes with a high talent level that has that kind of work ethic."
Lawal is also getting recognized for his animated gestures during competition. When on the mat, Lawal has been known to dance, beat his chest and even bark at his opponent.
"A lot of people see him as cocky," said Brands. "It's more of an expression of what he wants to do on the mat. He's confident, but it's not an attempt at glory."
Lawal looks at his "performances" as a part of wrestling. His dancing and expressions help to keep him loose before a match, and also can intimidate his opponent. However, the crowd doesn't always appreciate Lawal's showmanship.
"I get booed, but it doesn't bother me," says Lawal. "Whatever makes me feel good before wrestling I do. People need to show their personality. Some wrestlers are worried about what the crowd will say. What I do is for me, not for anybody else."
Jackson refers to Lawal's dancing as the "Muhammed Shake."
"If I don't see that before a match I'd be worried," said Jackson. "It lets the coaches and staff know he's ready to go out there and do his thing."
Jackson characterizes Lawal's dancing and pre-match performances as an outlet and a way to showcase his skills outside of the wrestling room.
"He loves the sport," said Jackson. "He looks at himself as a wrestler, but also as part entertainer."
Although Lawal loves to perform, he takes his wrestling very seriously. He works diligently towards his goals, watching video tapes, studying opponents, practicing Greco-Roman. He is taking note of the smaller details, and looking for an edge.
"He's a student of the sport," said Brands.
Brands also notes that Lawal always wants a grade after every match, and asks his coaches to be objective and honest with him. His open-mindedness help him to learn from his coaches and to improve where he needs it.
"That's why he's gonna be the best," said Brands.
Lawal will have the chance to prove that he is the best in the upcoming Dave Schultz Memorial International in February. In 2004 he placed third in the competition, and in 2005 he placed second. This year, however, will be a different story, according to Lawal.
"It's time for me to win it this year. I'm defending my territory," said Lawal.
Although Lawal prefers not to plan too far into the future, he does know that gold medals are in his future.
"I live day to day," says Lawal. "The only thing I plan to do in the future is win titles. I gotta win those World titles and Olympic titles before anything."
There is little doubt that Lawal is capable of doing just that.