Renato “Babalu” Sobral has an empty patch of skin reserved for the name of the baby he and his wife Natasha are expecting in five months.
“I still have room for my boy,” he says excitedly, pointing to a vacant nine-inch piece of real estate on his left forearm.
Sobral, who challenges Bobby Southworth for his Strikeforce light heavyweight title on Friday in San Jose, Calif., already has the name of his daughter, Maria Fernanda, tattooed across this chest, while the rest of his arms –- from shoulder to wrist – are covered with a snaking tribal pattern and various other shapes.
The 33-year-old Brazilian believes the markings are a way of keeping his family closer to him. It’s a touching gesture for a man recognized for his brooding, icy stares inside the Octagon. But there are a lot of things about Sobral that many don’t know.
For one, Sobral is an entrepreneur. He immigrated to the U.S. a few years ago with the hopes of opening a gym of his own someday. Babalu, nicknamed for the brand of bubble gum he chomped on in his youth, realized that dream this October when he opened the Gracie Barra Cerritos in southern California.
Though not the most opportune time to open a business amidst a flighty economy, Sobral, a black belt under Carlos Gracie Jr., seems a more patient man than he was a year ago.
“I know the situation is getting bad, but what can I do? Close the doors? I have to keep going. I still believe in America,” he says through a thick Portuguese accent, “and besides, people still like to work out to get the stress away. I think that’s what everyone has to do –- keep going, keep going.”
Sobral has done just that with his fighting career, despite his high-profile release from the UFC in August 2007. Beating on opponent David Heath for the first round, Sobral switched to an anaconda choke in the second set, but when Heath tapped out to the hold, Sobral refused to let go, ignoring the instructions of the referee until his Heath’s body went limp in his hands.
"Babalu" has had time to reflect on his career recently.
The act was deliberate -- Sobral said he wanted to teach Heath some respect after the Oklahoma fighter had allegedly called him a “motherf-----” at the weigh-ins the day before.
It was also costly.
A week later, UFC President Dana White released the Brazilian from his contract and the Nevada State Athletic Commission fined Sobral half of his $50,000 for disregarding the referee.
A fighter can be passionate, but many thought it malicious and unbecoming of a sport still finding its legs.
It was a turbulent time for Babalu.
A month earlier, Sobral was arrested in Tampa, Fla., for allegedly spitting on a bouncer outside a club at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino.
“I feel very bad because I make some of my fans upset about me, but on the fight, you get so hyped [that sometimes] you do some wrong steps. I did the wrong step and I paid for it,” he says. “I am what I am. I don’t pretend to be anybody.”
Sobral’s confidence has not gone unnoticed.
Like a stag that strays from his pack, the Brazilian’s departure from the UFC could have spelled disaster, but his accomplished 30-7 career –- which includes a gripping IFC tournament victory in 2003 and 15 career wins by submission -– has kept him in demand.
In the last year, Sobral has signed non-exclusive deals with no less than five promotions, Strikeforce and Affliction Entertainment among the most notable.
“For me, I have my name, so I’m not scared to be unemployed,” he says. “I think still, you can have a life outside the UFC. You can do well. I do well. Maybe not a guy just beginning, but I do pretty well outside the UFC.”
Sobral seems content away from the bright lights of the Octagon, and though he’s fought only twice since leaving the promotion, he hears of and sympathizes with the struggles of his Brazilian compatriots still inside the UFC.
“Having as many fighters as the UFC [does], it’s very good fighters but they don’t have the chance to show off very much because they don’t have a fight for everyone,” he says. “Sometimes you fight twice a year, maybe once, maybe you don’t fight. Gabriel Gonzaga doesn’t fight for a long time. Many fighters think like that.”
There is one downside to fighting outside the world’s most formidable promotion though.
“It’s kind of hard to find the fighters to fight who are a challenge,” he says. “They [the UFC] holds pretty much everybody in my weight class, so I might be moving up or down.”
If his bout with Southworth is fruitful, Sobral has plans to move down to 195 pounds and face another UFC-exiled opponent in Matt Lindland at Affliction 2 “Day of Reckoning” on Jan. 24 in Anaheim, Calif.
And despite a dismal few months for the sport that have included the demises of two high-profile MMA promotions, Babalu is hopeful.
“I’m very confident in Affliction and Strikeforce. They do it step by step,” he says. “They give the fighters the business and they do well. They pull all the parts together and they’ve had some big shows.”
Sobral’s “big show” happens Friday in San Jose. It’s the Brazilian’s first headlining bout since he fought Chuck Liddell at UFC 62 in August 2006.
Sobral, a favorite in the bout, says he has respect for the champion Southworth, but that the fans must get what they came for.
“If he doesn’t come at me, he’s going to lose,” Sobral says of Southworth. “He has to come at me. I’m going to push this.”