Judging Renato “Babalu” Sobral

Ok, we've all seen the fight (and if you haven't, go watch it now).  We all know what happened.  We've all got our opinions.…

By: Luke Thomas | 16 years ago
Judging Renato “Babalu” Sobral
Bloody Elbow 2.0 | Anton Tabuena

Ok, we’ve all seen the fight (and if you haven’t, go watch it now).  We all know what happened.  We’ve all got our opinions.

Now let’s take a collective deep breath and look at this calmly.

First, what Babalu did was wrong.  Very wrong.  It was not only dishonorable and dangerous, it was also unethical.  While the athletic commissions, referees and the rules in place are responsible for ensuring mixed martial arts fights are safe and fair, the responsibility to be good stewards of the noble ethos of the sporting warrior falls squarely on the shoulders of fighters.  As we all witnessed, those arranging for and monitoring the fights have limited capabilities.  Steve Mazzaggati tugged mightily at Babalu’s arm and was unable to untangle it from David Heath’s neck.  The safety and nobility of the contest are compromised when rules that establish basic order are circumvented for reasons of personal vendetta.

And that’s exactly what Babalu did.  He used this sporting contest as a medium to settle what he considers to be a personal dispute.  Personal emotions and biases do have a place in sporting competition, but only up to a very clear and final demarcation: personal disputes end where the rules begin.  It’s perfectly acceptable to stir up real emotions to help one persevere in a fight.  And it’s perfectly acceptable for two fighters to seek out professional avenues to settle a personal dispute.  But in both cases the rules of the contest – the apparatus that gives these fights structure and boundaries – ultimately supersede and limit whatever active intentions either fighter has.  You are free to fight and you are free to fight out of hate, but regardless, you will fight within the rules.  Love your opponent, hate your opponent, feel indifferent about your opponent; it doesn’t matter.  The rules and ethics of fighting exist far outside and beyond any granular dispute amongst warring parties, and for very good reason.

But that brings me to my second point: what Babalu did is not an irregular or heinous crime.  Jaywalking and murder both exist outside the parameters of our legal framework, yet they are not the same infraction, either in intention or effect.  

Had there been no bad blood and had Heath chosen not to tap, Babalu would’ve been hailed for his incredible performance.  In other words, what happened in that Octagon was callous and dangerous, but hardly uncommon.  We are used to witnessing fighters render one another unconscious with a wide variety of chokes.  It happens frequently in sport jiu-jitsu, much less full on mixed martial arts.  This doesn’t make Babalu a better sportsman, but it puts in perspective the severity of his actions.  Babalu’s main crime is violating a very necessary law and code of ethics, not irreparably damaging Heath’s health.

By contrast, had Babalu chosen to hold a heel hook until Heath’s ankle was destroyed or had Babalu forced Heath’s arm to break by blatantly ignoring the surrendering tap, I would not be as favorable towards Sobral.  You can exact career ending injury on another man engaging in such behavior, thereby taking away his career and lowering his quality of life.  Sobral did not do that and this incident should not be viewed as such.  His actions were cruel and hazardous, but he was more after humiliation, not outright destruction.  Sobral achieved his goal and that’s why he remained so steadfast and proud of his actions immediately following the fight.  In his mind, he redeemed himself at the expense of a man not worthy of respect.  Under those considerations, is it any wonder he hasn’t been apologetic?

Remember, Babalu is Brazilian and got his start in the vale tudo days of fighting.  He was one of Marcos “King of the Streets” Ruas’s finest students.  Where he comes from, choking a man unconscious, even in professional competition, isn’t frowned upon when said man had it coming.  Heath antagonized Sobral, and Sobral made him pay.  Under certain guidelines, that’s behavior par for the course.

Again, make no mistake: I am not defending his actions.  At no point do I believe the cultural legacy Sobral inherited gives him license to spit in the face of decency.  But I also don’t believe Sobral is that terrible a person or that reckless of a fighter.  I support the commission’s decision to take half of his purse.  I also think the UFC should force Babalu to apologize to Heath for every fan to see.  Beyond that, I see no reason to take action.

Heath and Sobral will fight again if not against each other.  They will both move on from this experience, as will we.  But before we do, let’s recognize both the intention and the impact of Babalu’s actions.  They are dark in spirit and dangerous in practice, but the existence of that practice is downright routine.  The headache Heath likely woke up with Sunday morning came from the ghoulish laceration – exacted under legal conditions – not the nap he took.  Let’s keep that in perspective.

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