The story behind Babalu’s Strikeforce win

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Gracie Barra black belt Renato “Babalu” Sobral prevailed Wednesday night in his MMA Strikeforce bout against Robbie Lawler. The MMA veteran lost his last fight and his title to Gegard Mousasi almost a year ago and was looking to redeem himself. Conversely, the hype was high for Lawler who was coming off a come-from-behind, first-round knockout over Melvin Manhoef in his January 2009 Strikeforce fight.

Sobral lands a double-leg on Lawler. Photo: Mike Colón

As the fight began, both fighters came out aggressively. Babalu, who had been working diligently on his muay thai techniques with renowned coach, Rafael Cordeiro, came at Lawler with kicks and then a clinch, where he backed him into the fence. This scenario played itself out quite a few times; Babalu then relying on his Jiu-Jitsu skills, going for the single or double-leg to take him down, only to have Lawler slip away. A few times the fight went to the ground, but Babalu was unable to lock anything in. The two ended up in standup for the majority of the fight, exchanging blows.

Babalu measures up his opponent. Photo: Mike Colón

Round one went to Babalu. He dominated the fight with his standup game. Round two was no different. Lawler didn’t seem to know what to do with him. Babalu wasn’t playing his usual ground game and his boxing and muay thai skills were exceptional. Whatever Babalu got from Lawler, he gave back even more. As the crowd was chanting “Baba-lu, Baba-lu” he kicked Lawler so hard in the ribs, spectators could be heard saying, “Did you hear that?” Many said they heard Lawler’s ribs crack, and in fact, he favored that side of his body for the rest of the fight, a big red welt growing bigger and redder as the fight wore on. After that came a spinning back fist from Babalu that had the crowd shouting and whistling.

It wasn’t until the third round that Lawler seemed to find his rhythm. He came at Babalu with guns loaded. He split Babalu’s eye and bloodied up his face, but Babalu fired right back. With Cordeiro, his manager, Richard Wilner, his boxing coach, Justin Fortune, and his good friend and fellow MMA star, Fabricio Werdum (who’s set to face Fedor in the June 26th Strikeforce show) in his corner, along with the rest of his Metal Mulisha crew, the former Strikeforce light heavyweight champion couldn’t go wrong.

Post-win, Babalu and the crew. Photo: Mike Colón

As the bell in the final round rang, Babalu threw his arms up in victory, knowing he had dominated this fight. The decision was unanimous: Babalu wins; the seasoned veteran’s reputation was back intact.

On the way to the press conference, Babalu’s boxing coach Justin Fortune says Babalu’s confidence in the ring has increased significantly. “This is the first time he’s used that much hands and legs,” he says, “I’m happy with that. He used a lot of combinations that were really effective.”

Rafael Cordeiro concurred, “I am so proud of Babalu,” he says, “I’m very happy with this victory. He proved that he’s a warrior with a big heart.”  Cordeiro says that Babalu has one dream, and that is to fight Dan Henderson again. “Dan’s a real gentleman,” Cordeiro says, “He loves challenges, so I think he’ll take the offer.”

Down in the locker room after the fight, another scenario played out. Babalu is laid out on the couch, his face a mess, an ice bag on his ankle, but even through the pain, “During the fight I feel nothing….but now….F**K!” Even as he winces and grimaces with every move of his body, his happiness at winning is apparent and contagious. As Wilner wraps the ice around Babalu’s ankle and tends to his needs, he turns to the group and jokes, “Hard way to make a living, huh?”

The MMA event’s doctor then makes a call to check on the “patient.” He checks Babalu’s eye that is completely split and swollen to the size of an egg. As he sticks a needle all around Babalu’s eye to numb it up before stitching it back together, Babalu tells jokes, keeping everyone around him laughing. Once the doctor’s finished, he tells him he should go to the emergency room to have his ankle checked because it might be broken.

When asked how he felt about the night, Babalu says, “I feel great!” When asked how he felt about some considering him an underdog in this fight he said, “My camp and I thought I was going to win and I’m sure that (Fabricio) Werdum is going to win, too. The job is not done yet. The job is done next Saturday.”

As they wheel the bruised and banged up victor out of the locker room and up to the street where his SUV is waiting, Wilner describes their journey together. “Babalu worked so hard for this win,” he says, “One year. Every day. He trained and sacrificed – time away from his family, time away from his friends, the sacrifice of food. The whole team came together for this. It was a group effort and we want to thank everyone for their support.”

Up on the street two fans see Babalu and call over to him; trying to be respectful and keep their distance, but so excited to see him they can barely stand still. “Hey Babalu!” they say, “We love you, man! You’re the whole reason we came tonight!” Babalu looks over at them and sees the adoration in their eyes. In the middle of the street he takes off his shirt and throws it to them. It lands in front of them and the two dive for it and begin to laugh and fight over the shirt. Babalu digs into his bag, finds another one and throws that over to them as well. They are overwhelmed by his generosity and ask to take a picture with him. Babalu honors the request, even though his pain and fatigue grows by the minute.

And so goes the life of the MMA fighter. It’s a long, hard, grueling job, with little in the way of accolades. The rewards they seek are in the ring – winning a brutal hand-to-hand combat war, and in the eyes of their worshipping fans.

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