If you tested the “What’s the first mental image that pops in your head when you think about Fighter X?” exercise with Renato “Babalu” Sobral, most people would probably single out the knockout losses to Chuck Liddell. The first one in particular is a highlight reel staple, as Babalu leans forward right into a Liddell head kick that makes him wobble like he’d been tased by the LAPD.
This should not necessarily be the focus when you think about Sobral, who gracefully stepped away from mixed martial arts after his demoralizing loss at the hands of Jacob Noe at Bellator 96. He choked up, made a heartfelt speech, set his gloves in the center of the cage, and walked away.
His career is full of notable happenings, but he never had that one performance where you thought “Uh oh, Babalu is putting it all together!” Even though he did get better over the years, you never really noticed because he was already a well rounded heavyweight by the time “Sex & Candy” was popping off, during an era where many fighters were still laughably one dimensional. He could punch you on the feet, he could take you down, he could ground and pound you, and he could submit you.
Let’s take a quick cruise through the career of a fighter that will be unfairly forgotten in 2 years …
1997-1999: Babalu wins his first eight fights, all at heavyweight. People forget that before he was a tatted, scary 205er, he made his bones fighting with no gloves and significantly larger breasts. I worded that last sentence weirdly, so make no mistake: I’m not pretending that I was watching MMA back then, because I was 11 years old. I was probably watching Salute Your Shorts. But the dude was a national wrestling champion in Brazil. Jokers from this era weren’t messing with him. During this stretch and a couple of other times (most notably against future Quinton Jackson victim Mikhail Ilyukhin), Babalu picked guys up and simply threw them out of the ring. He did this on a semi-regular basis. It was like a wordless protest against the ring as a fighting area.
“See, if we were in a cage, this would be impossible. Impossible!”
He was ahead of his time.
January 15, 2000: Fighting on a bizarre WEF card that featured all sorts of future stars, a bevy of weird rules, and a bunch of memorable finishes, Babalu’s stoppage takes the cake. He punches Brad Kohler in the face, and the overly muscled victim of lactic acidosis lunges in for a last-ditch-effort takedown. Babalu shucks it off, winds up, and kicks a 45 yard field goal using Kohler’s head as the ball. Kohler’s entire body lifts off the ground. And it’s … good!
February 26, 2000: After already fighting twice that night, Babalu tussles with Dan Henderson in the finals of the RINGS: King Of Kings tournament, and after two rounds the judges award Henderson a majority decision. RINGS rules were such that if a fight went two rounds and two or more judges saw it as a draw, then the combatants would fight an extension round to determine the winner. The weird thing? After two rounds, two judges had the fight a draw, and the other had it for Henderson. So Henderson was awarded a majority decision even though the majority of the judges scored the fight a draw. Henderson won the tournament, and his next fight was against Wanderlei Silva in PRIDE. Babalu’s next fight was against Travis Fulton on 4/20. Alter careers for no reason, much? I’ll say.
October 9, 2000: Bouncing back from the Henderson loss with a four fight winning streak, Babalu loses to Valentijn Overeem by way of toe hold. I bring up Valentijn’s accomplishments every time I can because his record and behavior during fights make them seem impossible.
September 6, 2003: Babalu enters into the IFC: Global Domination tournament. He wins the whole damn thing in one night, beating Trevor Prangley, Jeremy Horn, and a young buck named Mauricio “Shogun” Rua. The tournament victory was particularly meaningful for Renato, having lost his brother just two months prior.
“I had every reason to back out of that tournament. I had the feeling to just not compete, but when I went in there that night, I fought those fights for him. I gave those victories to him. That was a unique night for me because I felt like I had some extra powers inside of me.” – Renato Sobral
This was his greatest accomplishment, and to do it all in one night is relatively amazing. Hell, wins over Prangley, Horn, and Rua would still look good even if they happened NOW.
November 27, 2004: Babalu guillotines Cyrille Diabate while wearing grappling pants.
October 7, 2005: He becomes the first fighter to make Chael Sonnen scream in pain, that I know of. This will go on to happen many more times. What’s strange is that Sonnen didn’t tap to the obviously painful heel hook. He’s tapped out to way more pedestrian subs than that. No matter. He beats Sonnen with a triangle choke.
August 26, 2006: Riding a ten fight winning streak, Babalu gets his rematch with light heavyweight champion Chuck Liddell. 95 seconds of mindless flailing later, Liddell is spasming around the octagon while Babalu thinks it’s Tuesday.
I remember thinking that Babalu could beat Liddell, but you have to understand that I didn’t think he’d get tagged and just start windmilling. However, this fight was a classic case of me wanting a guy to lose rather than actually looking at the matchup. This was Babalu’s big chance at redemption, and he failed spectacularly. After he was knocked out by Jason Lambert that next March, his days as a respected light heavyweight seemed to be numbered. It was Jason Lambert, for Gods sake.
August 25, 2007: Babalu fights David Heath at UFC 74. At the weigh in the previous day, Heath wore a t-shirt that displayed Babalu’s mugshot (Babalu had been arrested prior to the fight). Babalu didn’t find this funny. In fact, he probably thought Noam Chomsky was funnier.
The next day, Babalu was a man possessed in the cage, doling a sobering ass whipping to Heath in the first round and choking him unconscious in a pool of his own blood in the second a couple of seconds after Heath had clearly tapped. Babalu defended his actions, talking about how Heath had to learn respect, which was coincidentally the name of UFC 74. Hey, David Heath, for future reference: You might not want to piss off a guy who is going to destroy you on paper and now has an extra motive to do so.This was Babalu’s last appearance in the octagon, as the UFC chose to release him after the incident.
January 24, 2009: Babalu taps Rameau Thierry Sokoudjou with a brabo choke at the infamous Affliction card that saw oodles of guys get comically overpaid, and true magic happens when Tito Ortiz steps into the ring to interview him. He begins with “I’m here with Seraldo Babalu”. In fact, I’m just going to stop right there. He’s here with Seraldo Babalu. That’s not even close. But it sure was humorous. Can we get Todd Harris in the booth with Tito Ortiz?
2009- 2013: Renato goes 2-2, dropping a rematch to Dan Henderson and getting knocked out by Gegard Mousasi in a famous snapshot that sees him staring up at the light fixtures like he just saw a grown man naked. He did post a nice win over Robbie Lawler during this stretch. After a last ditch signing with Bellator, Babalu goes down in flames in both fights, to Mikhail Zayats and Jacob Noe, respectively.
It was an anti-climactic end to a storied career. Babalu retired with a 37-11 record. He was in the fight business for 16 years, no small feat. He was a good fighter, but not a great one. But he mattered. He always mattered. And when history looks at his record and videos in 25 years, he still should.