The rematch between Dan Henderson and Renato “Babalu” Sobral will take place Saturday night in St. Louis, but many fans have no memory or have never even seen the original fight between the two light heavyweights that took place in Japan over a decade ago.
The first fight between Henderson and Sobral was the final of the “King of Kings” tournament that took place in the Rings promotion between the close of 1999 and the beginning of the year 2000. Both Henderson and Sobral made it through the opening rounds, only to make it to an additional grueling night that took place on Feb. 26, 2000.
On that night, Henderson defeated UFC and Pride veterans Gilbert Yvel and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira before going on to win a majority decision over Sobral in the final.
Ten years later, Henderson still remembers that night because physically it’s something he’ll never be able to forget.
“That was probably the toughest night of fighting I’ve ever had. That’s about what I remember,” Henderson recalled when speaking to MMAWeekly Radio.
Looking back on it, by today’s standards, Henderson was actually a UFC veteran with a few fights under his belt, but back then the sport hadn’t evolved nearly as much, so he was falling back on something that has been engrained in him since his youth.
“I was primarily just a wrestler back then,” Henderson said. “I learned to stay out of some submissions, so I had a fairly good hold on that, and was working on my striking, but I had a long ways to go.”
In the fight itself, Henderson and Babalu engaged primarily in a grappling battle back and forth, with both men snatching a few takedowns on the other. Babalu came into the fight wearing wrestling shoes, while Henderson just had his feet taped, but both were looking to take the other to the mat throughout the two-round affair.
Even back then, Henderson packed a punch as he employed a dirty boxing style during one exchange, clocking Babalu with uppercuts and overhand punches in virtually the only big striking battle during the fight. Babalu mixed things up, however, when he was able to take Henderson to the mat several times during the fight, putting the former Olympic hopeful on his back for a change.
The closest submission came by way of Henderson, who after fighting off a takedown from Sobral, snatched a guillotine choke and fell back into guard. Sobral rolled to relieve the pressure, and Henderson took advantage by getting the top position, but ultimately didn’t submit the Brazilian.
In a tough and close fight, Henderson got the nod from the judges, but Sobral looks back on that night with a different view. Not because he didn’t agree with the decision, but because at such a young point in his career he learned so much in one fight.
“Even though I lost the fight, personally I felt like I won the fight,” Babalu said when talking about the fight with MMAWeekly Radio. “The judges say I lost, but to be so young and to be over there and to fight in front of the fans, it was an amazing experience. The Japanese fans, they are very cool.”
To go through so much at such a young point in both of their careers, the “King of Kings” tournament brought out the best in both Henderson and Sobral, and they look back with fond memories of that night. Henderson also says that back then he was just looking for tough fights and considering who he had to beat to get to Sobral, he absolutely had his hands full.
“I was wanting to get some good match-ups back then, but that was a tournament and that was the third, fourth, and fifth rounds of the tournament; it wasn’t the first, second, and third. The better guys kind of already came through,” Henderson explained.
Babalu has similar memories after his night. Though he lost to Henderson, he had already defeated names like Kiyoshi Tamura earlier in the tournament, and it definitely prepared him for a long and successful run in MMA after that.
“Three fights in one night. I was young back then,” Sobral said. “A lot of great names (in that tournament).
A decade later Sobral will look to even the score with Henderson when the two meet at Strikeforce: Henderson vs. Babalu 2 on Dec. 4 in St. Louis.