HUNTINGTON BEACH, Calif. -- He might not like to be reminded of it, but that doesn't change the fact that Renato "Babalu" Sobral has entered his 16th year as a professional mixed martial artist.
A sport that paid him well and, to his chagrin, provided a whisper of fame, MMA has changed in so many ways since Sobral represented Rio de Janeiro in his pro debut against Sao Paulo in 1997 by winning an eight-man tournament via leg kicks, punches and stomps, and will-breaking, respectively. Yet through all the rubble, one component has remained a familiar element for Babalu and MMA: tournaments.
Few fighters are more steeped in the concept. Sobral won three of the five tournaments he entered, and came in second to Dan Henderson during a mammoth event in Japan in 2000.
On Thursday, the 37-year-old light heavyweight meets Russian Mikhail Zayats to begin his first multi-fight quest since 2003 (a classic one-nighter promoted by Paul Smith in Denver that featured, among others, Forrest Griffin and Chael Sonnen. Sobral went the distance with Trevor Prangley before guillotining Mauricio "Shogun" Rua and decisioning Jeremy Horn in the finals. The prize was $50,000 -- before taxes. Sobral hadn't considered that Uncle Sam might want his cut, and anyone walking the bowels of the Pepsi Center heard his frustration).
The prize for beating Zayats (19-6) and two others on Spike TV pays $100,000, plus a Bellator title shot. It won't need to be done on a single evening, yet the Brazilian sized up the challenge as the most difficult tournament format he's faced.
"On one night you can throw all yourself into it. After the fight it's a bucket of ice on the face, a bucket of ice on the hands and then you fight again," Sobral said. "But now, if you go home next day you're going to swell. And you have to be healthy for next time and get back into the gym to train. It's not possible to get beat up and rest. You have to train."
Into its eighth season, Bellator has almost been blessed when it comes to winners staying healthy enough to move to the next round a month later.
Asked about this, Bellator founder Bjorn Rebney knocked on wood.
"We've done, on average, four to five tournaments per season," Rebney said. "I think we've lost four or five guys total who have been declared the winner and been unable to proceed. So the numbers have been really, really good."
Bellator's good luck is rather remarkable considering the injuries that piled up around the Octagon in 2012.
While he was building out Bellator in his mind in 2006 and 2007, Rebney said he spoke with doctors and ringside physicians across the country, trainers and other players in the sport, to get "inside everyone's head" about how to avoid pushing fighters past their limit. Taking into account the typical arc of a television show, Rebney asked, "How many? How long? What could be done?"
"The consensus opinion was you could go one fight a month for three months," Rebney recalled. "You couldn't go longer. There were a lot of parameters. But it worked. The new tag line 'The Toughest Tournament in Sports' is well-founded. Hopefully those odds keep working for us."
Again, he knocked on wood.
Rebney created a scenario in which fighters, if they're good enough to make it to the final round, must maintain grueling training camps for a third of a year, if not longer.
"When you sign that Bellator contract you know that's what you're signing up for," said Michael Chandler, the promotion's lightweight champion. "There can't be any excuses. Three fights in one night sounds bad because you're taking more damage in one night. But when you're talking about training two months just for the first fight, then you have another fight and another fight, you're in camp for four or five months -- and that's a long time to be in training camp -- in the gym two times a day, six days a week, getting punched in the face and going through that many workouts and dieting that much and going through the ups and downs of emotions. It is a grueling thing, and it was something I knew I would excel at.
"It's definitely not asking too much, but it's adding a cool little spice to the mix."
During tournaments there's no such thing as a favorite, Sobral said, because "luck" has as much to do with advancing as hours spent toiling in the gym. He believes he's done well in these things because, as Renzo Gracie once told him, "when you choke somebody out, you don't get an injury in the hands."
Chandler and featherweight Pat Curran simply outclassed the competition en route to tournament crowns and Bellator belts. The mid-20-something fighters "exemplify what we're all about," Rebney said. "Using that tournament structure to go from unknown to top of the world."
Curran's upset victory over high-priced Roger Huerta, whom everyone earmarked for a fight with Eddie Alvarez, prompted Rebney to "put all my trust into the fact this tournament would give rise to the best fighters. They're the ones that are going to get through."
Hawn ready for his close-up
For the next 48 hours, Rick Hawn might best be known as Ronda Rousey’s Olympic judo teammate. But if the 36-year-old Massachusetts fighter upends Chandler in the first headliner of the Bellator on Spike TV era, the power-punching lightweight won't feel that he's been overlooked any longer.
Since shedding 15 pounds after dropping a split decision in 2011 to welterweight Jay Hieron, Hawn (14-1) has looked like the real deal.
"My technique and size weren't ready yet, but now I'm coming together as a striker -- as a well-rounded fighter," Hawn said. "With technique comes speed; with speed comes power."
While earning the shot against Chandler, Hawn took two of his three tournament bouts by knockout, capped by a highlight-reel straight right on Lloyd Woodard.
"Hawn has looked unbelievable in his last few fights for us," Rebney said. "So few guys are able to go '85 to '70, or '70 to '55, or even '55 to '45 and bring the power with them because they lose so much when they make the cut. But this guy, as an Olympian and world-class athlete, did it. He brought all that power with him."
After years of competing at the highest level in judo, the ability to drop bombs came easily.
"I've heard people say that not everyone has power or can create it," Hawn said. "Some people are just gifted with it and apparently ... I don't know. I don't know if I really buy that or it's something you learn in the gym.
"Judo is all about explosive power in the hips and being able to toss someone who doesn't want to get thrown. All that power generates in the hips, so maybe it's because of my lifetime in the other thing."
All his work has led him to Chandler.
"He can take a punch," Hawn decreed. "It's a tough fight. He's a grinder. I believe I am as well. You just have to get that perfect shot. That's all you need, right? It could be the end of the fight for him. Everyone he's fought he's destroyed or made a great fight out of it. Tall task at hand, but I'm ready to go."
News and notes
• In the wake of Strikeforce's demise, several fighters will hit the open market. Heavyweight Josh Barnett is a free agent with a following, but Rebney said Bellator doesn't plan to make any offers at the moment. "There aren't guys off that roster that I go, 'Oh, we've got to get him and make the move.'” He left the door open to scouring through whatever the UFC passed on, but demurred on the inclination of the tournament format as a divining rod for talent. "In this format, there's no big Kimbo Slice-esque superfight," Rebney quipped. "If you're not good enough to compete you're going to get blown out in the first or second round." Barnett is a classy enough heavyweight to have won any of the previous Bellator tournaments, that's for sure. Still: "Josh is a great character and he's had some great fights," Rebney said, "but he's not really on our radar."
• A couple of hours before Bellator held open workouts at Tito Ortiz's gym in Huntington Beach, the UFC held a conference call to promote next weekend's Fox card featuring Demetrious Johnson defending the flyweight belt against John Dodson. Also on the card is one Quinton "Rampage" Jackson, who continues to scream bloody murder about the mistreatment he apparently feels he's been subjugated to under a tyrannical Zuffa regime. Basically, he's making it sound like he wants to leave, and, as an example of why, pointed to an inability to flaunt his sponsorship with Reebok. Zuffa, he said, would not allow him to wear it into the cage. Zuffa collects a sponsor tax, which they are well within their rights to do and have done for years. Bellator has not yet. Rebney said fighters are free to wear what they want and the promotion will not impose its own tax. He also said that when Jackson is free, he'd be a fighter that might be worth making a play for.
• Jeff Curran, pioneering lighter-weight fighter that he is, is intently focused on his cousin Pat's title defense against Patricio "Pitbull" Freire. But he hasn't lost the urge to fight and promises to return this year at 125 pounds. "Big Frog" set as his goal a contract to fight in the UFC as a flyweight.
• Thursday's card at the Bren Center on the campus of UC Irvine is scaled for around 4,000 seats. Bellator expects it to be full. "I think that's where we'll be," Rebney said.