It’s time to back off Renato “Babalu” Sobral. Let’s call off the dogs and send the firing squad home before we get carried away with fines and punishments.
Sure, Sobral made a couple of mistakes at UFC 74. For one, he choked David Heath into unconsciousness even after Heath submitted. He ignored the referee’s instructions to release the choke, squeezing it for an extra three seconds or so, and then he smugly admitted to having done it on purpose in order to teach Heath a lesson.
Since this incident there’s been a hefty amount of public outcry denouncing Sobral. He was booed by the live audience at UFC 74, and Yahoo! Sports columnist Kevin Iole referred to him in an article as “Babaloser”, making this the first time in history that booing was the more mature way of expressing disdain.
Some have called for a lengthy suspension, and some even for a lifetime ban.
But as easy as it is to vilify Sobral, we should take a moment to make sure we know exactly what we’re upset about before we get out the pitchforks and torches.
Sobral claimed that the reason he held onto the choke even after Heath tapped out (and after referee Steve Mazzagatti clawed at his arms to get him to let go) was because his opponent had disrespected him before the fight.
At the traditional weigh-in staredown Heath allegedly taunted Sobral with some choice profanities, then further incited him on fight night by wearing a T-shirt with a picture of Sobral’s mugshot from a recent arrest.
This isn’t all that unusual – one fighter trying to take another out of his game by toying with him psychologically. But in the world of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, which Sobral grew up with, choking a disrespectful opponent even after he’s tapped out isn’t unheard of either.
It might seem like an awful, perhaps dangerously criminal thing to do (Iole somehow managed to liken it to the case of Charles Bush, a man killed by a police chokehold in 1990) but it isn’t. Most fighters choked into unconsciousness never even realize they were out, and the Anaconda choke Sobral used is not the trachea-crushing variety that police have been known to kill suspects with.
As brutal as the incident may seem, it comes from a sentiment we have long respected and upheld in other sports.
Think about our cherished game of professional football, for instance. If a football player went out of his way to disrespect an opponent before a game, or took a cheap shot at one of the team’s star players, we wouldn’t exactly be surprised to see him get blindsided at the end of a play. It happens every season, just as similar vigilante justice takes place in nearly every major sport.
Even in MMA this kind of thing is nothing new. It wasn’t too long ago that Robbie Lawler took a couple of completely unnecessary shots at an unconscious Frank Trigg in an Icon bout, then implied that he did it because Trigg “had no respect”.
As in all contact sports, there are stated rules and then there are unstated ones. If you break the first it’s the officials who punish you, but if you break the second your opponent will be the one who lets you know about it.
Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not saying any of this is to be encouraged. We can’t have fighters ignoring tap outs, requiring the referee to dive in and stop chokes or armbars like some primitive zookeeper. Sobral violated one of the primary understandings that fighters enter into the cage with, but his was more a breach of etiquette than a crime against humanity.
If he really wanted to teach Heath a lesson he could have declined to apply the choke at all and instead continued to pound on his already bloody face. He could have kept the fight going much longer than necessary just to make a show of his dominance.
Muhammad Ali did it – more than once – when opponents continued to call him Cassius Clay. His battering and taunting of Ernie Terrell for fifteen rounds is now a part of boxing lore, but that kind of repeated head trauma is far more dangerous than an Anaconda choke.
My point here is that pro fighting is a violent, dangerous business to begin with, and it can easily become more so if you give your opponent extra reasons to want to hurt you.
Sobral’s transgression was ignoring the tap out from his opponent, but it came after his opponent’s transgression outside the Octagon. Both men were wrong in what they did, and both have suffered consequences.
Maybe it’s time to let it go at that, and hope every other MMA fighter has learned from this example – both sides of the lesson.