Henderson vs. Babalu Cover Story for MMA Worldwide Magazine (Uncut)

Sunday, November 28th, 2010 by Tony Reid

In the just released issue of MMA Worldwide Magazine I was fortunate enough to write the cover story that centered around the upcoming fight between Dan Henderson and Renato “Babalu” Sobral at Strikeforce: Henderson Babalu on December 4th at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis, MO. Grab a copy off newsstands or buy the digital edition to get the scoop. I have included the uncut version here!

It was February 26th 2000. After already beating Gilbert Yvel by unanimous decision and Antonio Rogerio Nogueira by split decision earlier in the evening Dan Henderson’s heavy hand was once again raised for a third time that night in a narrow split decision victory over Renato “Babalu” Sobral, to be crowned the 1999 RINGS King of Kings Tournament Champion.

Henderson, although very new to the sport, was no stranger to the tournament format and success there. He cut his MMA teeth in tournaments.  The first two fights of his career were tournament wins at the Brazil Open ‘97, which led to him capturing the Brazil Open 1997 Lightweight Title.  His next two fights were tournament victories culminating in him winning the UFC 17 Middleweight Tournament at UFC: 17 Redemption. These wins combined with his victories at the RINGS tournament had Dan Henderson sitting at 9-0 to start his MMA career, with ALL wins coming in tournaments.

Back then Decision Dan was a highly decorated collegiate and Olympic wrestler (he represented the United States in the 1992 and 1996 Summer Olympics in Greco Roman wrestling) who competed in MMA in part as a way to make some money. He, Randy Couture and Matt Lindland started to lay the groundwork for Team Quest in Oregon. They began cross training with strikers and submission artists to expand their knowledge and develop well rounded skills all aspects of combat sports.

Since that night in February of 2000, the 40 year old Henderson has gone on to create a legacy and solidify himself as one of the greatest and most accomplished mixed martial artists the world has ever seen. By taking his world class wrestling pedigree and his Hulk hands to PRIDE Fighting Championships, he fought his next 18 fights under the PRIDE banner.  The list of opponents (and his victories) is a who’s who of elite mixed martial artists including Wanderlei Silva, Renzo Gracie, Antônio Rodrigo Nogueira, Ricardo Arona, Murilo Rua, Murilo Bustamante, Yuki Kondo and Ryo Chonan.

PRIDE debuted its Bushido Series and Henderson won their first welterweight (183 lb) tournament, defeating Ryo Chonan and Akihiro Gono by knockout, and then defeating Bustamante by split decision in the finals to capture the welterweight title.

Henderson’s final fight for the PRIDE Organization was a rematch with Wanderlei Silva at Pride 33 in Las Vegas. For the first two rounds Henderson mauled Wanderlei on the ground and even opened up the Axe Murderer. In the third round the fight stayed on the feet and Hendo scored a highlight reel spinning backfist followed shortly thereafter by a left hook that knocked Wanderlei out cold as he fell to the canvas, arms raised, as if is he was riding a roller coaster.  Hendo added a huge right on the ground for good measure. Henderson leaped into his cornermen’s arms as confetti fell from the rafters as Chuck Norris looked on approvingly.  With the knockout over Silva he became the new Middleweight Champion, while still holding his Welterweight title. Henderson became the first fighter to simultaneously hold titles in two different weight classes in a major MMA organization.  Life was good for Dan Henderson. When asked to pick one fight from his career that he is most proud of this is the fight Dan chose. “Wanderlei was at the top of his game, he was the champ and it was a good fight…that one means the most.”

Henderson’s return to the UFC in 2007 was a bit of a letdown, initially. In his first fight back with the organization, after Zuffa’s purchase of PRIDE, he faced the UFC’s light heavyweight champion Quinton “Rampage” Jackson at UFC 75 in what was billed as a unification fight. The closely contested yet lackluster fight saw Henderson impose his will early but Jackson controlled the later rounds and won a five-round unanimous decision to retain his title and gain the PRIDE middleweight title.  No one really knows what has become of that PRIDE middleweight title. The unification of the belts became more of an elimination of the PRIDE belt.

Six months later Henderson would fight UFC middleweight champion Anderson Silva to unify the PRIDE welterweight and UFC middleweight championships. The two greats met at UFC 82 in Columbus, OH. Dan won the first round by clinching Silva, scoring a takedown, getting to side control and just making Anderson uncomfortable in general.  But Henderson took shots in the second as the two traded on the feet and Silva started to find his range.  Hendo got rocked, looked for a desperation takedown and eventually gave up his back and lost via submission at 4:52 of the second round by rear naked choke. Again, after the unification the PRIDE title was never to be seen again.

Henderson returned to the light heavyweight division to face former UFC Middleweight champion Rich Franklin at UFC 93 in Dublin, Ireland. The fight was billed as a battle of former middleweight champions Henderson in PRIDE and Franklin in the UFC.  Henderson won the fight via a split decision and was selected to lead Team U.S. on season 9 of The Ultimate Fighter, with Michael Bisping coaching the opposing Team UK.

During the filming of the show animosity grew between the two coaches, instigated by Bisping that continued until their fight. Bisping played the antagonist while Hendo, true to form, just played it cool and kept to himself, always grinning as if he had a little secret for Bisping.

Well, he did and at the landmark UFC 100 Event at the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas, Henderson and Bisping finally got it on. Henderson became the first man to knock Bisping out…cold. Hendo landed his signature right hook to Bisping’s Jaw. Controversy arose from the fight due to Henderson immediately following up his knockout punch with a flying forearm to the unconscious Bisping’s dome before referee Mario Yamasaki could step in to call a stop to the fight. The knockout punch also won Henderson a $100,000 bonus for “Knockout of the Night” as well as a number of awards for Knockout of the Year in 2009.

Henderson signed a four-fight, 16-month deal with Strikeforce on December 5, 2009, after his contract expired with the UFC. Many felt that with this signing Henderson was being anointed as the next Strikeforce Middleweight champion.  He made his Strikeforce debut on April 17, 2010 at Strikeforce on CBS against Jake Shields. Henderson came into the fight in sub par condition looking very flat, pale and bloated. Despite hurting Shields with his signature right hand and knocking him down in the 1st round, Henderson was taken down and controlled for the remainder of the fight and went on to lose by unanimous decision. Hendo said “I don’t think they (Strikeforce) were very fond of Jake Shields as far as his fighting style goes. Whether he was going to win or lose they were going to let him go. If had won that fight they were going to let him go. He did win and they still let him go. Either way they weren’t going to keep him. Obviously they would rather have me win and have a champion but they understand it’s MMA and anything can happen.”  He attributed his lackluster performance to an issue with his weight cut due to a problem with medication he was taking at the time. “It was something new that the doctor wanted me to try. My back was giving me so much trouble. It probably wasn’t the smartest thing to try a week before the fight.”

Renato “Babalu” Sobral, whose nickname comes from a brand of bubblegum that he used to chew called Bubbaloo, since that night in 2000 has also fought a who’s who of elite mixed martial artists in a number of different organizations. He took on top level fighters such as Valentijn Overeem, Maurice Smith, Fedor Emelianenko, Kevin Randleman, Chuck Liddell, Mauricio “Shogun” Rua, Jeremy Horn, Chael Sonnen and Gegard Mousasi. Sobral is no stranger to success in tournaments, defeating fighters Trevor Prangley, Mauricio Rua, and Jeremy Horn in a single night at IFC’s Global Domination tournament.

After his loss to Henderson, Sobral fought five more times for RINGS before making his UFC debut at UFC 28 against former champion Maurice Smith in which he earned a decision victory.  He bounced back and forth between RINGS and the UFC picking up notable losses to legends Fedor Emelianenko by decision at RINGS: 10thAnniversary and to Chuck Liddell by KO at UFC40: Vendetta.  Nearly ten months after his loss to Liddell, Babalu impressively won the IFC Light Heavyweight Tournament by picking up a decision win over Prangley, a guillotine submission win over Shogun and a decision in the finals against Horn.  Nearly 16 months later he again fought under the UFC banner and went on a submission victory streak by subbing Travis Wiuff, Chael Sonnen and Mike Van Arsdale.  This impressive run lead to his title shot and chance for redemption against Liddell at UFC 62: Liddell vs. Sobral.  It wasn’t meant to be as Liddell continued his domination of Sobral and the Light Heavyweight division as a whole by ending Babalu’s night about a minute and a half after it started with a KO due to punches. Babalu went on to suffer a stunning knockout loss to Jason Lambert at UFC 68.

His next fight was against David Heath at ironically enough, UFC 74: Respect.  Babalu wanted to teach Heath a little respect after some derogatory comments made by Heath leading up to the fight. Sobral controlled the fight early via some vicious ground and pound that lead to a huge cut opening on Heath’s forehead.  The Octagon’s normally light blue canvas looked like a horror movie was being filmed there as Heath’s blood was spewing everywhere. In the second round Sobral quickly scored a takedown and worked an anaconda choke to which Heath tapped rather quickly.  Babalu refused to let the hold go even after repeated attempts by referee Steve Mazzagatti to break the hold.  Sobral held the choke until Heath went limp. In the post fight interview with Joe Rogan Babalu stated that Heath had made derogatory comments about him and that “he (Heath) has to learn respect. He deserved that. He called me ‘expletive’.”  The UFC Brass was about to show Babalu some respect as well.  They dropped him five days after the incident.  He didn’t set the world on fire with a 6-4 overall record while fighting for the UFC.

Babalu was courted by a number of organizations including the temporarily deep pocketed Affliction.  He went 2-0 under the Affliction banner, sandwiched between his two fights he managed to pick up a nice piece of hardware.  The Strikeforce Light Heavyweight Championship.  He scored a TKO victory, due to cuts, over Bobby Southworth to capture the title.  His title reign was short lived, make that very short lived.  He lost his first title defense in a minute due to a KO at the hands of buzz saw Gegard Mousasi.

Sobral wasted little time in calling Henderson out following his unanimous decision win over “Ruthless” Robbie Lawler back on June 16 in Los Angeles. It was his first win under the Strikeforce banner since losing the light heavyweight title to Gegard Mousasi last August. Most in the fight game consider “calling someone out” as having a negative connotation but Babalu did it with the upmost respect.  The two have shown nothing but respect for each other leading up to the fight.  When asked about the concern that showing too much respect leads to an in cage fight that might be less than exciting Babalu said “If by respect you mean we don’t talk bad about one another, then I get it. If you mean something else I don’t get it. Fans and the media like trash talk. Regardless, I don’t do it. It’s not who I am and I certainly don’t that that is who Dan is. So, if we need to talk trash to make it exciting, sorry, it’s not going to happen. To me what makes a fight exciting is being aggressive, smoothly implementing a carefully crafted game plan to the point of being the most dangerous fucking guy I possibly can be. I plan to win by any means necessary because the celebration that I refer to will be truest with my arm raised in victory.”

Babalu had stated previously that this fight would be a celebration of his career.  Elaborating on that he stated “Every true fighter has lost at one point or another in his career. One of my losses that has bothered me the most is my loss to Dan. I don’t know why but that’s the reality. So, 10 years later I get to fight a guy that beat me. A guy, who with me and many others, helped build the sport that people call MMA. Dan is an internationally known competitor with an amazing pedigree. It is an honor fight an opponent of Dan’s caliber 10 years after our first fight. I celebrate this opportunity especially because I know that I am better now than I have ever been before. When asked exactly how he sees the fight playing he simply stated “Wherever, Whenever, However…Victory.”

As you might imagine Henderson had a different idea about how the fight will go. “I think his game plan is going to be to stand outside, bang with me, throw a lot of kicks and try to take me down when I’m committing to some punches. Obviously I’m going to be trying to knock him out and put him on his back as well.” Hendo joked “Maybe I’ll pull a submission out of my ass.” When asked point blank for a prediction he said “I’ve got a better chance of knocking him out. I would say in Round 2. I’ll be ready to go December 4th.”

Although Hendo comes into this fight with the wrestling pedigree that is common knowledge even to the most casual MMA fan, Babalu is an excellent wrestler in his own right, as he was a Brazilian National wrestling champion. Sobral is also a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt under Carlos Gracie Jr. He has won six of his last seven fights including his win over Lawler last June. The 35-year old Brazilian had earned an opportunity to face former light heavyweight title-holder Muhammed “King Mo” Lawal with the performance but opted to pass based on his friendship with the then-champ.  When asked where he draws the line when deciding to fight friends and acquaintances he stated “The line is quite simple: I don’t fight my friends. I have many acquaintances and they would have to be assessed on a case by case basis. In a situation like that I would normally defer to my acquaintance. If they want to fight me then it’s on. They have drawn the line for me and I prefer it like that.”

Hendo’s position of fighting friends is drastically different. “If I was training with somebody every day and we were in the same weight class in the same organization there will come a point that if we are both doing well that we might fight each other and that’s fine. We beat the hell out of each other in practice.  We are still friends.  We might as well get paid and do the same thing.”

Henderson and Sobral also seem to take a dramatically different approach in the weeks leading up to a fight. Dan puts his work in at the gym and goes home to his family in part to avoid over analyzing the upcoming scrap. Babalu does the complete opposite.  He literally goes into seclusion, to the point of sleeping at his gym and having no contact with the outside world. When asked to give some insight as to why he chooses to do this he states “I didn’t choose to be who I am. It is just who I am. Doing what is necessary to train, diet and otherwise physically and mentally prepare for a fight sometimes requires one to deny oneself the comforts of home and the love of family. I know what I need to do. It’s no mystery. This is who I am and this is why I do it.”

Henderson came to Strikeforce as an established MMA Icon, groomed to be their next crossover star and world champion.  Coming off the disappointing loss to Shields he will be as motivated as ever to get back on the road to the title. Babalu will be as focused and determined as ever and intent on avenging a loss that still affects him from over a decade ago. Henderson said that he signed with Strikeforce because many of the potential matchups gave him goosebumps.  “The closer I get to the fight the more excited I get.  That’s where the goosebumps come from.” Tune in to Showtime on December 4, 2010 for “Strikeforce: Henderson vs. Babalu” to see if this battle gives fans goosebumps.