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Luke Rockhold, ‘King Mo’ Lawal push each other to Strikeforce headliner status

First Strikeforce event of 2012 takes place Saturday at the Hard Rock

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Sam Morris

Strikeforce light heavyweight Muhammed Lawal boxes during an open workout Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2011 in advance of the Strikeforce: Rockhold vs. Jardine event on Saturday.

Strikeforce Workout

Strikeforce middleweight champion Luke Rockhold's head hits the ceiling during an open workout Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2011 in advance of the Strikeforce: Rockhold vs. Jardine event on Saturday. Launch slideshow »

If You Go

  • What: Strikeforce: Rockhold vs. Jardine
  • When: Saturday, January 7, 5 p.m.
  • Where: The Joint at the Hard Rock
  • Tickets: $35 to $100, Ticketmaster
  • TV: Showtime, tape-delayed at 10 on west coast

Luke Rockhold gave sparring partner Muhammed “King Mo” Lawal a nasty black eye a few weeks ago.

Lawal didn’t mind. It was only fair after he nearly broke Rockhold’s nose days earlier. The teammates at American Kickboxing Academy in San Jose, Calif., have also come close to knocking each other out on multiple occasions.

Rockhold and Lawal describe an unmatched intensity in their training sessions.

“Me and Mo have been training with each other and pushing each other to that next level,” Rockhold said. “No one is going to beat us like we beat each other. I guarantee that.”

Rockhold (8-1 MMA, 7-0 SF) and Lawal (8-1 MMA, 3-1 SF) are two of the headliners of Saturday’s Strikeforce card at the Hard Rock. Rockhold defends his middleweight title against UFC veteran Keith Jardine, while Lawal faces undefeated prospect Lorenz Larkin.

Lawal, a former Strikeforce light heavyweight champion who will fight for the vacant belt with a victory over Larkin, said working with Rockhold every day had forced him to improve.

“I’m going to be real with y’all — (Rockhold) is a top three middleweight in the world,” Lawal said of Rockhold. “We go hard. He’s legit — on the ground, in the stand-up, everywhere.”

Rockhold’s game surprised Lawal when he relocated his training to San Jose earlier this year.

Lawal saw Rockhold as an easy target on first impression. Rockhold hadn’t competed in more than a year after undergoing shoulder surgery, and he didn’t look like a fighter.

“Luke is cool, but he’s kind of like a fake Ken doll,” Lawal said he thought at the time. “I can’t wait until when I spar with Luke. I’m going to smash him.”

Lawal quickly got his wish to practice with Rockhold. It just didn’t go as expected. Rockhold was the one smashing.

Lawal recalled getting wobbled when Rockhold landed a head kick. The whole experience, according to Lawal, was humbling.

“I got beat up,” Lawal said. “I was like, ‘what the hell?’ I had to change a lot because I got exposed.”

The two fighters have grown a strong friendship since those initial sessions. They spend media sessions joking and, on occasion, answering questions for each other.

They take turns campaigning for one another to be recognized as among the best in their respective weight divisions.

“I’ve been in there with some heavy hitters and Mo, his speed and his power, is second to none,” Rockhold said. “This guy hits like a ton of bricks. People need to wake up on Mo because he’s a true top contender and true top guy who you need to look out for — in UFC, Strikeforce, anywhere.”

Both Rockhold and Lawal are identical 5-to-1 favorites this weekend. They both expect to launch up the mixed martial arts rankings ladder in 2012 by stringing together win streaks.

Their confidence comes in part from their work against each other in the gym.

“We’ll beat the (expletive) out of each other like we hate each other for three rounds,” Rockhold said. “Then, after it, we’re both getting our critiques in. Like, ‘you could have done this, you could have done that,’ trying to improve each other.”

Case Keefer can be reached at 948-2790 or [email protected]. Follow Case on Twitter at twitter.com/casekeefer.

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