"I wish I could have been faster," Sobral said after his third-round TKO loss to Jacob Noe at Bellator 96 this past week. "I wish I could have been stronger than I used to be. But my body cannot continue to do this anymore, and it's time for me to step out."
As he said them, you could hear the words getting caught in his throat. Even though he prepared himself for it, and even though he knew it had to happen eventually, he said, "It was hard."
"It's not because I was retiring," Sobral said. "It's hard because for me, fighting and stepping inside the cage, those are the greatest moments of my life. Walking in and having that feeling, you know? To know that it's not going to happen anymore, that hurts me really bad. It hurts me really bad to say it now. But I had to say goodbye. Saying goodbye is never a good thing."
He started thinking about it a couple years ago. After he turned 35, he said, he noticed that his body wasn't bouncing back from the rigors of training as easily as it once had. He wasn't as fast or as strong. Then there was what happened to him sometimes in sparring.
"One of the things that I noticed is the ability to take [a] punch," Sobral said. "You don't take punches the way you used to. Sometimes a little clip makes me dizzy. Before I used to [be able] to take more. People think it's from fighting, but fighting is just one thing. They don't realize that you get clipped in training way more than you get clipped in the fight sometimes. You get a lot of punches in the head in training. Since I was 11 years old, I've been punched in the head. Now sometimes a little punch makes me dizzy."
Stuff like that makes him worry a little about his future, Sobral said. He has two daughters. He has his own school in Cerritos, Calif. He has a lot of life left, and he wants to be fully present for all of it.
"I want to be able to see my students, my little kids that I train right now, be champions," said Sobral. "I don't want to have to move around in a wheelchair. I don't think that's going to happen, but I want to be able to do things with my life still."
Besides, it's not as if he doesn't have a full career of ups and downs to look back on. His highest moment, he said, is still winning a single-night tournament in the IFC back in September 2003. Two months before that night, his brother died. Then he showed up in Denver and beat Trevor Prangley, Mauricio "Shogun" Rua, and Jeremy Horn all in one night.
"I think I fought 45 minutes in that one night, and I won the tournament," he said. "That was the best moment. That was the highlight for me."
The low point? Probably any one of the times he trained for a fight that didn't happen, which Sobral said happened to him "many, many times" over the course of his career.
His last fight won't go down as his best, but even then, he said, he didn't quit. He might have been on shaky legs, due in part to an ankle injury he said he suffered earlier in the fight, "but this is MMA, not boxing. Sometimes you get hurt, get dizzy, and you come back. You see a lot of people come back and finish the fight, but that's the referee's call. It's not going to change. This was my time."
And now that it's his time, how will we remember him? What will they say years from now when they tell stories about "Babalu," one of the rare few who started when the sport was still hauling itself out of the primordial ooze, yet kept on winning well into the modern era? What would he have them say, if he had the choice?
"I would like people to remember that I was a fighter who put all my heart in my fights," he said. "Every one, even my last one. I always pushed through, always went forward. That's what I want people to remember. I helped this sport and did my share in this sport. I gave my blood in those octagons, those rings. They all have a little piece of my blood, my sweat inside."