It's been awhile for Renato "Babalu" Sobral. 18 months, to be exact. 18 months since he last stepped foot in a cage, felt the rumble of the crowd, and stared eye-to-eye with a man whose sole purpose was to put him in a hospital bed.
Once the competitive fire begins to fade in mixed martial arts, it's an almost impossible thing to fake. For "Babalu," that fire had been fading for longer than he'd like to admit. So after a lifetime consumed by fighting, one brutal knockout loss to Dan Henderson was enough for him to realize, going through the motions was a dangerous endeavor.
The solution was a prickly one, but they always are. Sobral just waited it out, grinded in the gym day by day, slowly evolved as a fighter, and earlier this year traveled home to coach wrestling on Wanderlei Silva's TUF Brazil team. Eventually, the time spent apart from competition rekindled his love affair with the sport.
"I think having the break will help me prolong my career," Sobral admitted in advance of his comeback bout against Japanese light heavyweight Tatsuya Mizuno. "I have a new motivation which maybe was missing before when I was fighting all the time.
"I feel more refreshed than nervous. More hungry because sometimes when you fight over and over it becomes boring, but because I haven't fought for a long time it gives me extra motivation and that's why I have to control myself so I don't get too excited."
Now, with his competitive fire alive and smoldering, Sobral hopes to stay as active as possible.
The 36-year-old signed an exclusive two-fight contract with upstart Asian promotion ONE FC in late-2011, which kicks off this Saturday with a pay-per-view clash against Mizuno at the main event of ONE FC: Destiny of the Warriors. Afterward, Sobral is looking to maximize the few remaining years of earning potential he has left, regardless of divisional lines.
"I hope ONE FC can give me enough fights to keep me exclusive," he explained. "I can fight at middleweight but I need to know before. It's a simple diet, I just have to eat less but people don't understand that you can't just cut to 185 just for next month.
"I'll fight at middleweight or at heavyweight. I'm open to fight at any weight, it's all about how much they want to pay me."
Not surprisingly, Sobral has also been mulling over another, more intrepid way to stay busy. The Brazilian fought in six different single-day tournaments throughout his lengthy career, but none since 2003. As it stands, the old-school format has become a victim of the sport's evolution, and is rarely seen in today's climate of medical suspensions and state-run regulation.
A ferocious competitor, "Babalu" understands that era is long gone, but he can't help but crave the primal sense of accomplishment that comes from defeating multiple opponents in the same night. So, Sobral used the opportunity to lob a pitch to his new bosses.
"ONE FC should make a tournament," he mused. "Because they have commissions in the U.S., and you have to be cleared before your fight, so every time you fight, if you have a broken bone and they check you, then they are not going to let you fight. In the tournaments in Japan, you fight with a broken bone or you fight with a cut. That's why they don't make tournaments in the U.S. anymore, because of the commissions.
"It is difficult, but it is wonderful. Fighting the same night multiple times is a dream come true. To me, the more often, the better."
Obviously, that's just a pipe dream for now. Mizuno, however, is a reality. The decorated judoka has finished all 11 of his wins, and has earned a fierce reputation for himself in the eastern MMA scene.
But the past 18 months of Sobral's life have led up to this moment, and the former UFC title contender couldn't dream of letting it all go to waste.
"He is a great fighter," Sobral acknowledged. "He has fought the toughest guys. He's a southpaw, tall, long reach, and I know we are going to put on a good show on Saturday."