Bad Sports

By Jake Rossen Sep 4, 2007
Denying the carotid artery its sole mission in the human body -- to deliver blood to the slurping brain -- can be alternately celebrated or vilified. It's simply a matter of a few seconds.

On Aug. 25 perpetually bed-headed light heavyweight contender Renato "Babalu" Sobral found that out the hard way when his submission victory over David Heath (Pictures) was rewarded with a forced exile from the UFC and a 50 percent revocation of his winner's purse ($25,000). The catalyst was Sobral holding the choke for an extended period, even after the referee tried to ply his hands away from Heath's neck.

Mixed martial arts is essentially a very structured form of violence; there's a stirring dichotomy in the act of punishing another man with your hands as EMTs and state officials look on. It's that tenuous line that Sobral trampled on with his adrenaline-fueled bravado, inviting boos and the ire of UFC officials.

The act and its consequences have incited debates over how much responsible behavior we can expect from athletes in the hurt business. Most seem capable of using their aggression and skill within the accepted boundaries of a sanctioned event. (Is there any more telltale image of this sport's respectful nature than two men hugging in solidarity after a vicious fight, instantly suppressing their savage intentions?) Others, like Sobral, find themselves unable to separate sport from personal pride.

It's not a new phenomenon. Royce Gracie (Pictures) was so affronted by Jason DeLucia's insistence on a rematch -- the two had met in a dojo years prior to the first UFC -- that he tried to tear as many tendons as he could before the referee pulled them apart.

Sobral's actions are, of course, indefensible. His irritation at Heath, who allegedly cursed him out during the weigh-in, had ample opportunity to be resolved during the fight itself. But when the ring official calls a halt to the bout, the tension is expected to instantly deflate. One could argue that any malicious action taken after the stoppage is a criminal offense.

Felony or no, a financial penalty is a given: Sobral was compensated for his efforts as a pro athlete, not a vindictive personal enemy of Heath's. If he chooses to act as the latter, he should be deprived the former. But if it's now the UFC's policy to terminate agreements with athletes who conduct themselves in less-than-respectable ways, their roster could be seriously impacted.

Penn was guilty of the same vengeful punctuation mark, but there's been no indication that his relationship with the UFC has been affected. Perhaps not coincidentally, Penn was the recent subject of an intensive 12-week media campaign in the form of the Ultimate Fighter reality series; a title shot at the lightweight belt seems inevitable.

In Sobral, the organization had a struggling athlete with suspect prospects. Having lost twice to Chuck Liddell (Pictures) and once to unheralded Jason Lambert (Pictures), he was a pricey expenditure that had no radical impact on ticket sales and no immediate future as a title challenger.

If someone were to suggest Sobral was a scapegoat, I'm not sure how strongly I'd argue the point. To put it more succinctly: if it were Chuck Liddell (Pictures) who held a choke for a bit too long, I seriously doubt he'd be banished to the open market.

I feel bad for Sobral, not because I condone his juvenile behavior, but because his lack of marquee appeal could have cost him a lucrative tenure in the UFC. With the recent influx of talent, he may have been perceived as an expendable concession to public relations. This same company did not sever relations with commission-convicted steroid users Tim Sylvia (Pictures) and Stephan Bonnar (Pictures); it invited Phil Baroni (Pictures) back after he struck a referee; it rewarded the street fighting legends of Lee Murray (Pictures) and Sean Gannon with opportunities on premium telecasts.

When box office Kryptonite Matt Lindland (Pictures) wore a gambling-sponsored t-shirt to a weigh-in, however, he was immediately excised. Jesus said all sins are equal, but this is getting to be a bit much.

The gravity of punishment going on in the organization seems random at best, selective and biased at worst. Are choices being made out of a sense of responsibility, or at the whim of the accountant?

As a sport, you expect participants to adhere to the rules. But as a rational person, you can also expect an activity in which the primary goal is to render someone else helpless and physically subservient to occasionally play host to some unpleasantness.

In 10 Octagon appearances, Sobral has largely proven himself to be a man of valor and respect. I dislike the idea that a few seconds of errant behavior can completely negate that.

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