Strikeforce: Henderson vs. Babalu Preview & Predictions

Ariel Shnerer / December 5, 2010 - 12:00am

Ten years have passed since the first battle between Dan Henderson and Renato “Babalu” Sobral.

This Saturday night, “Babalu” seeks redemption and another run with gold as as he will earn a Strikeforce light heavyweight title shot with a victory over Henderson.

Strikeforce: Henderson vs. Babalu, which emanates from St. Louis, Mo. and airs live on Showtime, will also feature a war between seasoned middleweights Matt Lindland and Robbie Lawler.

In addition, Paul Daley, a controversial UFC veteran with dynamite in his gloves, will finally make his Strikeforce debut against fellow banger Scott Smith, who competes at welterweight for the first time in his career.

Here’s a breakdown of what’s in store:

-Dan Henderson (25-8) vs. Renato “Babalu” Sobral (36-8)

The two men facing off on Saturday night are vastly evolved versions of their counterparts from 2000, which is when the pioneers first crossed paths. Henderson edged Sobral via split decision in a competitive bout in February of that year, and both combatants would go on to enjoy successful MMA journeys.

Henderson, a 40-year-old California native, was tearing through the ranks before dispatching Sobral. Already a two-time UFC veteran and a former Olympic wrestler, Henderson had vanquished Carlos Newton and Allan Goes before pursuing the RINGS crown.

In a single night, Henderson defeated Sobral, Gilbert Yvel and the legendary Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira with three hard-fought decisions to win the RINGS: King of Kings tournament.

Henderson was immediately signed by the Pride Fighting Championships where he lost his debut to Wanderlei Silva by decision.

Henderson would rebound, however, and throughout his stint in Pride, he established himself as one of the best pound-for-pound fighters in the game. He stopped well-travelled veterans such as Renzo Gracie and Murilo Bustamante. He claimed decisions over the likes of Vitor Belfort and Murilo Rua. He toppled household Japanese names like Kazuhiro Nakamura, Akihiro Gono and Ryo Chonan. And finally, He avenged his loss to Silva with a spectacular third-round knockout in 2007.

By the time Pride was purchased by Zuffa LLC., Henderson was the promotion’s last reigning 185-pound and 205-pound champion and his contract was transferred over to the UFC.

Henderson dropped back-to-back fights against UFC middleweight champion Anderson Silva and light heavyweight titleholder Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, though he fought valiantly in both championship efforts.

The Greco-Roman wrestling specialist subsequently bounced back with decision wins over Rousimar Palhares and Rich Franklin.  His three-fight winning streak culminated with a destructive second-round knockout of Michael Bisping at UFC 100.

Despite his winning ways, Henderson and the UFC entered a contractual dispute, which lead to the former two-division champion signing with the California-based Strikeforce organization.

Many observers predicted that Henderson would steamroll through Jake Shields in his promotional debut, but the former NCAA Division I wrestler ran out of gas after an aggressive opening stanza. Shields capitalized with his smothering top game and controlled Henderson en route to a unanimous decision.

Sobral, 35, has had to overcome his own share of adversity since a 10-fight winning streak ended several years ago.

While Henderson pursued a career in the “Land of the Rising Sun” following his win, Sobral signed with the UFC.

After setbacks against Chuck Liddell and Kevin Randleman, Sobral left the promotion to enter the IFC: Global Domination tournament in 2003. Much like Henderson did in 2000, “Babalu” defeated three world-class opponents — Trevor Prangley, Mauricio “Shogun” Rua and Jeremy Horn — in a single night to capture the IFC light heavyweight title.

Sobral’s newfound winning streak lead to his well-deserved return to the UFC. After submitting Travis Wiuff, Chael Sonnen and Mike Van Arsdale, “Babalu” challenged Liddell to a rematch. This time, light heavyweight gold was on the line.

Once again, Sobral succumbed to a knockout at the hands of “The Iceman.” He went on to lose to Jason Lambert in a major upset before a controversial victory over David Heath in which he refused to release an anaconda choke after the referee stopped the fight. As a result of his unsportsmanlike conduct, Sobral was released from the promotion.

Sobral then signed with Strikeforce where he stopped Bobby Southworth in his debut to claim the promotion’s light heavyweight title. While he stayed active with wins over Mike Whitehead and Rameau Thierry Sokoudjou under the Affliction banner, Sobral dropped the belt in his first title defense against Golden Glory pupil Gegard Mousasi.

Coming off a decision win over durable American Robbie Lawler in a catch-weight bout this past June, Sobral can finally settle the score with Henderson for a loss he suffered a decade ago.

A BJJ black belt and Brazilian national wrestling champion, Sobral is a well-rounded submission specialist with particularly dangerous chokes. Under trainer Justin Fortune, who was formerly Manny Pacquiao’s conditioning coach, Sobral has developed improved hand speed, power and footwork.

Meanwhile, Henderson will possess a decisive advantage in wrestling, having competed in the Olympics, in addition to explosive power in his fists and punishing dirty boxing in close quarters. Throughout his career, the Team Quest co-founder has been submitted only three times — by both Nogueira brothers and the UFC middleweight juggernaut Silva.

Constantly rolling with the likes of Fedor Emelianenko conqueror Fabricio Werdum, “Babalu” clearly has the submission prowess to pull something off. However, history has proven that “Babalu” is susceptible to the power of aggressive boxers like Henderson.

With that being said, Henderson should make it 2-0 by picking his shots wisely and reintroducing the Brazilian’s jaw to his lethal looping right hand.

Verdict: Henderson via KO, Round 1

-Matt Lindland (22-7) vs. Robbie Lawler (17-6)

Two longtime veterans of the sport will collide as Henderson’s Team Quest co-founder Lindland battles the heavy-handed H.I.T. Squad sensation Lawler.

Lindland, 40, was once regarded as the top middleweight in the game. However, several uninspiring bouts in the UFC, albeit victories, led to the Oregon native being released from his contract. His premature dismissal prevented a prospective title bout with “The Spider” from coming to fruition.

Despite no longer fighting under the UFC’s bright lights, the former Olympic wrestling silver medalist amassed an impressive string of victories over reputable fighters like Carlos Newton and Horn in the defunct International Fight League.

During this period, he also agreed to move up in weight for bouts with “Rampage” and Emelianenko. Although a size mismatch was apparent in both outings, the two fights were competitive, yet controversial. Against Jackson, many pundits scored the bout in favor of Lindland, while Emelianenko illegally used the ring ropes to secure a takedown that ultimately won him the fight. The rule infraction occured during a fight that happened to take place in Russia.

In a January 2009 Affliction bout, Lindland suffered the most brutalizing defeat of his career as he was starched by Vitor Belfort in the first round.

He went on to drop his Strikeforce debut to current middleweight champion Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza by submission, only to rebound with a stoppage of Kevin Casey on a Strikeforce Challengers card this past May.

Lawler, 28, had recorded wins over Chris Lytle, Joey Villasenor and Frank Trigg in the UFC, Pride and Icon Sport, respectively, before signing with the defunct Elite Xtreme Combat group. In his first bout for the organization, Lawler knocked out “Ninja” Rua in the third round to become its middleweight champion.

Lawler’s biggest weakness — poor submission defense — has led to him tapping out in bouts versus Shields, Jason Miller and the late Evan Tanner. However, his heavy hands have always been his primary weapon, evidenced by recent knockouts of Scott Smith and Melvin Manhoef. His unheralded wrestling base will also be an essential foundation against Lindland.

Coming off a close decision loss to Sobral, Matt Hughes’ training partner will be gunning for a crippling knockout against the proud Republican.

But Lindland’s wrestling pedigree, proven durability and wealth of experience could be too much for Lawler to conquer. Lawler will look to connect early with his destructive fists, but he might spend the better part of three rounds trying to survive Lindland’s grinding offense. If the latter case is true, this one could get ugly.

Verdict: Lindland via Unanimous Decision

-Scott Smith (17-7) vs. Paul Daley (25-9-2)

Knockout artists are set to clash in an exciting welterweight meeting.

Smith, 31, has never been one to disappoint fans. The free-swinging brawler’s ability to sustain exorbitant amounts of punishment have ensured his survival in an evolving sport.

Smith has made a career highlight reel of stunning come-from-behind knockout wins. He overcame a beating from Pete Sell to knock him out in the second round of their 2006 fight. He was battered by Benji Radach and Cung Le for three rounds before knocking them both out with less than two minutes to go. Smith epitomizes a never-say-die fighter, putting it all on the line for the fans every time he competes.

Based out of the Capital City Fighting Alliance, Smith has always relied on a reckless style to ensure triumph. His technique, defensive awareness and ground game are not his strongest suits, but he has always managed to hold his own against more technically proficient combatants.

Smith has finally dropped to the more fitting welterweight division where he aims to become a title contender. After a few notable wins in a division with a relative lack of depth, he could earn a rematch with champion Nick Diaz, who stopped him last June.

Daley, 27, is a product of Team Rough House in the U.K. where he trains alongside fellow welterweight Dan Hardy. The exciting British slugger has suffered numerous submission losses over the course of his career, but he has 18 knockout wins, which makes him a threat to any opponent on any given night.

After stints in a variety of different promotions, Daley inked a contract with the UFC. He stepped in on short notice to take on tough Danish fighter Martin Kampmann at UFC 103.

Daley stunned the world with an offensive storm, charging Kampmann with a blizzard of strikes and stopping him in the first round. He proceeded to knock out BJJ specialist Dustin Hazelett in his next bout, which earned him a fight with Josh Koscheck to determine the No. 1 contender for Georges St-Pierre’s welterweight title.

The power puncher nicknamed “Semtex,” in reference to the plastic explosive, actually put up a spirited performance against Koscheck, showcasing vastly improved wrestling skills and survival instincts.  However, Koscheck’s wrestling background was too much for the Brit to overcome and he thoughtlessly swung a punch after the bell, which inevitably led to his release from the promotion.

Coming off wins over Daniel Acacio and Jorge Masvidal on smaller shows, Daley will resurface in Strikeforce, where he knocked out Duane Ludwig on the co-promoted June 2007 card headlined by Frank Shamrock and Phil Baroni.

Despite emerging victorious in his last pair of bouts, Daley has not performed particularly well. If he hopes to compete at the level of the champion Diaz, he needs to continue developing his wrestling and submission skills.

As for his strengths, the Muay Thai destroyer possesses vicious striking. If Smith plants his feet and chooses to trade wild punches, he will likely be asleep before he can think twice.

Smith should rely on his underrated wrestling to avoid a stand-up slugfest. Throughout history, however, he has rarely pursued an intelligent gameplan, which could be a fatal mistake against Daley come Saturday night.

Verdict: Daley via KO, Round 3

-Mike Kyle (18-7-1) vs. Antonio Silva (14-2)

The natural 205-pounder Kyle will take an immensely difficult heavyweight fight on short notice for the second time in his Strikeforce career.

The UFC and WEC veteran had a rocky start to his MMA campaign. He impressively knocked out Wes Sims and James Irvin, but suffered a similar fate against Paul Buentello and the late Justin Eilers.

After a submission loss to Wayne Cole on a March 2008 Strikeforce card, Kyle revived his sinking career and went on an impressive run, including a TKO stoppage of current light heavyweight torchbearer Rafael “Feijao” Cavalcante.

Kyle should be commended for taking yet another fight on short notice, especially since he is already positioned as a top contender for Cavalcante’s title, probably next in line after the winner of the Henderson-Sobral main event title eliminator.

Last August, Kyle agreed to face Werdum in a heavyweight bout with little time to prepare. He rocked the BJJ ace early on, but eventually succumbed to a guillotine choke.

The American Kickboxing Academy prodigy has not lost in his last six bouts and he can shock the world with a win over an established heavyweight force like Silva.

Nicknamed “Bigfoot” for his enormous frame, the 31-year-old Silva is a bona fide top 10 heavyweight.

Fresh off an impressive unanimous decision victory over former UFC heavyweight champion Andrei Arlovski, the BJJ and Judo black belt was readying to take on Valentijn Overeem, the older and lesser brother of the current Strikeforce champion Alistair Overeem. However, an elbow injury forced Overeem off the card and Kyle instantly seized the opportunity to fight Silva.

The Brazilian is a well-rounded heavyweight with no glaring weaknesses, which could spell trouble for the current King of the Cage light heavyweight champion.

Moreover, Silva is just too massive of a heavyweight. While Kyle should never be counted out, especially with training partners that include Cain Velasquez and Jon Fitch, he will probably learn the hard way why he should stick to the 205-pound division.

Verdict: Silva via TKO, Round 3

-Ovince St. Preux (8-4) vs. Benji Radach (21-5)

In another tilt added on short notice, replacing what would have been Herschel Walker’s return to the cage, St. Preux will fight for the second time in three weeks in a light heavyweight encounter with the returning knockout artist Radach.

St. Preux, a Haitian-American, is coming off the two biggest wins of his career — a knockout of UFC veteran Jason Day and a unanimous decision nod over heavy-handed Antwain Britt in his Strikeforce debut.

The Knoxville MMA product showcased decent wrestling in his win over Britt, but he still has much work to do if he hopes to become a threat in Strikeforce.

Radach has been sidelined nursing injuries since a third-round knockout loss to Smith in April 2009. A dangerous striker, the 30-year-old IFL veteran has trounced “Ninja” Rua, as well as UFC veterans Gerald Harris and Brian Foster.

Radach was initially slated to face Lucas Lopes at middleweight and it remains to be seen how the size differential could factor into this 205-pound bout.

The caliber of opposition Radach has beaten in the past is indicative of his dangerous tools. While St. Preux is a quality prospect with a bright future, Radach’s hunger to get back into the cage will be visible as he targets the chin in hopes of an emphatic knockout in St. Louis.

Verdict: Radach via KO, Round 1