LOS ANGELES – This time around, Renato Sobral is going to be on his best behavior.
The popular light heavyweight known to fans as "Babalu" kicked off a controversy the last time he was in the national spotlight. At August's UFC 74, the Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt held an anaconda choke on David Heath after Heath tapped out, not letting go until after his opponent was rendered unconscious.
But when Sobral returns to action Saturday and faces veteran Mike Whitehead at the Affliction: Banned card in Anaheim, Calif., Sobral promises there will be no unsportsmanlike antics. After all, his wife and his dad will both be in attendance.
"This is the first time either of them have been to any of my fights." said Sobral, who is from Rio de Janeiro and lives in Costa Mesa, Calif. "My wife doesn't like to see me get hurt, so she doesn't go to the fights, and my dad, this is the first time he's come up from Brazil. He got me started when I was a kid, got me my first punching bag."
Sobral has mainly had to square off with the punching bag since last summer, as he endured one setback after another. "Babalu" was fined $25,000 by the Nevada State Athletic Commission and did not have his UFC contract renewed after the Heath incident, which was the culmination of a week's worth of trash talk between the two.
"I don't even know what you're talking about," Sobral said with a wink. "That's all in the past. All I can tell the fans is that I'm going to come out and give them a good, clean fight Saturday night."
Sobral scored a win over Rodney Faverus in a match in the Phillipines in December, but then had his next two fights fall out. In January, Sorbal was slated to face veteran Vernon "Tiger" White at a World Cagefighting Organization card in San Diego. But the card was canceled by the California State Athletic Commission five hours before bell time, when it was discovered the promoters did not have enough money to pay the fighters. Then in May, he was set to compete for Canada's Hardcore Championship Fighting, but the promotion folded before the show.
"That was something I've never experienced before," Sobral said. "To get ready to fight, and then that day you find out the promoter is so unprofessional that you're not even going to get paid, I can't tell you how frustrating that was. Then after the second time a show was canceled, man, all I can tell you is that I'm glad to be a part of this Affliction card and I'm ready to fight again."
Sobral's game plan is no secret: 16 of his 29 wins were achieved by way of submission, and he hasn't won a fight via strikes in eight years. Whitehead, a Team Couture fighter with UFC and IFL experience, is a former collegiate wrestler with a 29-5 record who has never been submitted.
"A guy like Mike is a good challenge," said Sobral. "I know the fans want to see my jiu-jitsu and I know he can handle himself on the ground. I expect a good, respectful fight and I expect the fans will get their money's worth.
Former UFC heavyweight champion Josh Barnett spiced up an otherwise uneventful Affliction press conference on Wednesday by taking a swipe at the rest of the heavyweights on the loaded card.
Barnett stepped to the mic at the Hyatt Regency in Century City and griped that his match with Pedro Rizzo was too low on the card. "Sorry to tell you, we’re stealing the show. We’re going to blow the roof off that place; I hope they budgeted for repairs.”
The comment drew the ire of several fighters, including Tim Sylvia. The two-time former UFC heavyweight champion faces off with former PRIDE champion Fedor Emelianenko in the main event. "After you all go and get your popcorn and beers and drinks during Josh's match, then you can come back and watch Fedor and I fight," Sylvia said. "We're going to bring it."
After the main press conference, Barnett, who has played the role of bad guy during occasional pro wrestling ventures in between MMA fights, wasn't backing down.
"All those guys do at these press conference is go up and thank the promotion and say it will be a good fight," Barnett said. "I decided to go up there and tell the truth, and the way they're reacting to it, I guess they're having a hard time handling the truth."
Barnett won the UFC heavyweight title with a TKO win over Randy Couture at UFC 36 in 2002, but was stripped of the title after failing a steroid test. Since then, Barnett has only fought once in the United States, a submission win over Pawel Nastula at a 2006 PRIDE card in Las Vegas.
- Renato Sobral