A passing of the torch in one of fighting’s greatest dynasties will occur Friday night on the Red River.
Oklahoma State wrestling is known far and wide as the undisputed dynasty of the sport, but its lineage in the fighting world is nearly as superb.
At the WinStar World Casino and Resort in Thackerville, former Cowboy Muhammed Lawal is going into his final fight while Kyle Crutchmer is making his Bellator debut in his young career.
Lawal, 38, will be fighting Andrew Kapel in the co-main event of Bellator 233 with the main event featuring John Salter against Costello Van Steenis. Crutchmer, 26, will be fighting in the No. 4 bout of the preliminary card against Robert Gidron, who was just announced as Crutchmer’s opponent Wednesday after Crutchmer’s original opponent dropped out.
OSU wrestling coach John Smith said he is excited for his two former wrestlers.
“One coming in and one going out. Those guys are good kids,” Smith said.
Smith spoke about how he was impressed with Lawal’s career and that he tried out for the 2008 Olympics before hanging up the singlet for MMA.
“I think I was pleased to really see Lawal go for the Olympics before he chose that direction,” Smith said. “I ask them to do that if they have that potential. MMA and those things will come and go pretty quick for you that you won’t be in a little while, maybe a little longer since Daniel Cormier has proved that. But they are both good, both good students and both represented us well while they were here and it is fun to see them having some success.”
Lawal, who is know professionally as “King Mo,” lived up to the OSU lineage throughout his MMA career. Boasting a 21-9 record with 13 knockouts, Lawal won the Strikeforce light heavyweight championship in 2010 against Gegard Mousasi.
The former All-American, who was part of OSU’s 2003 national championship team, said he attributes his success to Smith and the Cowboys.
“I will never forget the day I met John Smith,” Lawal said. “I went to a dual meet and I was walking and he saw me and asked me if I wanted to come to Oklahoma State and train. I thought, ‘Cool!.’ I can train with Mark Munoz and Daniel Cormier and eventually, I wanted to make that move. Everything worked out just right. I am glad I went there, because it took my game to a whole other level mentally and physically.”
Growing up in Plano, Texas, Lawal initially went to the University of Central Oklahoma for the first three years of his career, winning a national title in 2002. But after meeting Smith, he knew that he could go to another level moving from Edmond to Stillwater.
“The wrestling room there is a doghouse,” Lawal said. “You know how Floyd Mayweather has a doghouse at his boxing gym, that is how it is at Oklahoma State. If you are weak mentally, weak physically and are just a weak person, you are going to get smashed and run out of the gym. When you go there, you have to be strong mentally, If you are weak, you better get strong quick, because you will get broke down quick and you will quit.
“Oklahoma State has had bums and champions go there. The ones who can’t make it end up being bums, the ones who do become champions. Oklahoma State is like Sparta in there. Think of all the killers that come out of that gym, there are some real killers.”
Lawal dominated in his only year in the orange and black, racking up a 30-4 record, winning a Big 12 title at 197 pounds and finishing third in the national tournament.
He has been involved in MMA since he was 19, working in the corner for mentor Jeff Lindsay when Lindsay was fighting in the mid-2000s. Being around the sport has been good for him, but he thinks this is a good time to hang it up so he can go wrestle professionally and continue his role as a coach at American Top Team in an official capacity.
Although Lawal doesn’t want to reflect on his fighting career yet since he still has the fight with Kapel (14-6), he remembers everything about his time in wrestling.
“The mat burns, the cauliflower ear, the smell of the mat like nail polish; that musty ass mat room; every wrestling room in the nation is always warm and hot; the ringworm and staph infections and fungus; the close matches and tech falls and pins. I remember it all,” Lawal said.
Lawal is ready to see the next generation take the reins in Crutchmer, though. The Tulsa Union High product has been a hot name in the fighting world and Lawal has taken notice.
“The bright thing is that the future is here in Kyle Crutchmer. He is here fighting on the same card. The past meets the present. He is the future,” Lawal said. “I am going to put on a show, but I hope he puts on a bigger show because he has big shoes to fill. You have guys like me, Johnny Hendricks, Randy Couture, Daniel Cormier, Mark Munoz. Oklahoma State has put out some stellar fighters and it is up to him to keep the streak going.”
Crutchmer, who has become popular for his social media presence along with his hot start to his career, has stayed humble and loyal to his hometown throughout the whole process. Despite a meteoric rise to Bellator after four wins in his first four fights, Crutchmer knows that OSU helped build him.
When asked what the secret is to why the Cowboys have had so much success in MMA, his answer was his old coach.
“John Smith. That sums it up,” Crutchmer said. “The way we trained and the things we had to do, he constantly tested us mentally and put us in situations that a lot of teams in college don’t do. People run away from competition a lot of times to save seeds, we never did that. A lot of our duals were traveling duals and we would go wrestle the best guys in the world. You would gain the confidence and are able to see things and train with the best guys. They build a work ethic at Oklahoma State that I don’t think you will see anywhere else.”
Crutchmer, who compiled 75 wins in his time at OSU before graduating in 2017, said it has been great for him to start off his career being an OSU alumnus. The network of Cowboys throughout the different levels of MMA is vast and he has help no matter where he goes.
“You are surrounded by a lot of guys who are trying to achieve very, very high goals,” Crutchmer said. “Whether it is the Olympics, world teams, MMA titles. When you are around guys like that and then go on and have successful careers, it is such a tight-knit group that they are always inviting you and telling you how to do stuff. You have guys you can look up to that a lot of organizations and colleges don’t have. I wouldn’t change it for the world. That is something that made me who I am today. I am blessed to be a Cowboy.”
Through connections with Cormier, Crutchmer has been training at the American Kickboxing Academy in San Jose, California, getting to spar alongside fighting greats, including current heavyweight champion of the world Khabib Nurmagomedov.
“I have a great coaching staff and am surrounded by the best fighters in the world so when you have that, your confidence skyrockets and you believe you are truly becoming an MMA fighter,” Crutchmer said. “I am going to be honest, I like punching people in their face so that is something that I have going for me.”
His OSU network has been supportive, but the main person in his corner is girlfriend, Jaci Allen, who has been with him through thick and thin.
“I love her. She has been an amazing girlfriend and understands what I am trying to accomplish,” Crutchmer said. “When I first moved out to California, I didn’t have a lot of money and she was helping me with groceries and things like that so just being able to have someone that no matter what happens, I have a good backbone and support system from her. I am extremely blessed. She is the love of my life and we are pretty happy. I don’t know how much she truly enjoys fighting as far as what has to happen, but she supports me and that is all that matters.”
Crutchmer and Allen are expecting a daughter in March, which he is extremely excited for. Between having his friends and family supporting him as well as getting to have his first Bellator fight in Oklahoma, Crutchmer said he couldn’t ask for anything better.
Against Gidron (4-1), Crutchmer will be sponsored by the BOK Center on his shorts, something he feels very proud of.
“It is something that helps me do what I do and achieve the things I want to achieve having my state behind my back and being able to rep my city and have the biggest organization in Tulsa on my shorts,” Crutchmer said. “That was a big thing for me and it truly felt like doing that, I had my city behind my back and a little more confidence knowing people are supporting me.”
Despite having multiple opponents for this fight, Crutchmer doesn’t mind. He is ready for Friday night and to keep climbing the ranks of MMA.
“I am in this to be a world champ and this is the right direction,” Crutchmer said. “I truly feel like I am ready and that this is my time. I am putting myself in the right situations and work pretty hard at this. It is a fight so I am excited to get in there and show everyone my progression.”
The preliminary card for Bellator 233 will begin at 5:15 p.m. and is streaming online. The main card begins at 8 p.m. and is televised on the Paramount Network.