Strikeforce Light Heavyweight Champion Bobby Southworth knows a thing or two about playing the villain.
This Friday night at the HP Pavilion in San Jose, California, the 38-year-old product of American Kickboxing Academy will once again fill that role as he defends his light heavyweight strap against the uber-talented fan favorite Renato "Babalu" Sobral live in the main event of Strikeforce "Destruction" airing live at 10pm ET on HDNet.
Southworth first rose to popularity as one of the founding fathers on season one of the UFC's hit reality show The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) -- and almost prevented history as we know it from taking place after battling fellow contestant Stephan Bonnar to a close split-decision in episode seven.
Bonnar would go on to compete in the finals where he and Forrest Griffin, well, you know the rest.
During his stint on TUF 1, Southworth gave the fans someone they could jeer for with an array of weekly shenanigans that included pranks, weight-cutting issues and the infamous "Fatherless Bastard" outburst toward Chris Leben.
Following the show, Southworth would make his final UFC appearance against Sam Hoger in the Ultimate Fighter Finale in April of 2005. Though he came up short in the decision, Southworth didn't waste any time feeling sorry for himself and would reappear just two months later at Strikeforce "Revenge".
After a faulty cage handed him a No Contest against James "The Sandman" Irvin at that event, Southworth plowed forward, going 3-1 in his next four Strikeforce bouts including his victory over Vernon "Tiger" White to claim the vacant light heavyweight title.
Bobby Southworth might have left, but he was never really gone.
During his almost 10-year career, he's seen enough and been through enough to know what it takes to pull off an upset against a talented veteran like Sobral. It will be interesting to see if he can make this a competitive fight or if Babalu is going to "run through him" like he claims he will.
Despite some of the negative images of his past, Southworth is actually one of the nicest guys I've had the opportunity to talk with. His passion about the sport of mixed martial arts is undeniable and he knows the opportunity in front of him this Friday night is perhaps the biggest of his career.
We recently caught up with the champ to find out his thoughts on the Babalu fight, his recurring injury plus a whole lot more.
James Iannotti (MMAmania.com): How did your camp go for this fight training over at American Kickboxing Academy in San Jose?
Bobby Southworth: Good, you know, it was a really good camp. A lot of good training partners, so I'm ready to go.
James Iannotti (MMAmania.com): Who are some of the guys you've been working with?
Bobby Southworth: We have a wide variety of styles and stuff. I got a little work in with Trevor Prangley. A little work with Cain Velasquez, Christian Wellisch, Kyle Kingsbury, Jon Jones, Nate James, you know, we got a big stable of fighters there and a lot of different looks that you can get anytime you're in our gym, so we got a lot of good guys in there.
James Iannotti (MMAmania.com): When you're preparing for a guy like Babalu, who's a stud on the ground, do you train a ton of jiu-jitsu or do you work on your takedown defense and striking?
Bobby Southworth: Well, I'm a little bit of a jiu-jitsu guy myself. I'm always training jiu-jitsu. I'm always on the mat either teaching or training when I'm not in the gym with the fight team. I trained a little bit more on the ground than usual, but we concentrate a lot on all the aspects of the fight in our gym. We're always working on striking, wrestling, jiu jitsu and submissions, so I feel like I'm prepared.
James Iannotti (MMAmania.com): The fight was originally scheduled to go down in September at the Playboy Mansion, but you were both pulled out with injuries. Can you tell us a little bit about your injury?
Bobby Southworth: Yeah, I have this recurring problem with my ACL, and I have some other problems in there. I didn't really have time to get surgery and go in and get it corrected, so I just worked on rehabbing the leg and strengthening the muscle for stabilization, strength and explosion. And you know, we've had very good results, and I'm happy.
James Iannotti (MMAmania.com): What's the ACL problem? Is there a tear?
Bobby Southworth: My ACL is thinning out as I get older so if I tweak it a certain way a little bit of it frays off. So, it's not that it's torn, it's just that little bits of it keeping pinging away kind of like a piano wire or like a rope.
James Iannotti (MMAmania.com): What have you heard about his injury?
Bobby Southworth: I just heard he had a minor meniscus tear. He got it repaired and was back training like seven days later, so it must not have been too bad.
James Iannotti (MMAmania.com): In the past you've had success using a lot of takedowns and control. Do you think a similar strategy can work against a guy like Babalu?
Bobby Southworth: You know, we'll find out in the fight. I'm not gonna give away my strategy or anything like that, but like I said we're prepared for all the aspects of anywhere the fight might go. If I can control Babalu on the ground that'll be great. If not, then I'm prepared to keep the fight on the feet and strike with him. You can do all the preparation you want for fights, but once the cage door closes and the fight starts, a lot of game plans go out the window because fighters adapt, in their training and they adapt minute to minute in the cage as well. My goal is to, you know, I'm in great shape. I hired a strength and conditioning coach. So, I'm in shape. I'm ready to go five hard rounds, so wherever the fight goes I'll be ready.
James Iannotti (MMAmania.com): What are some of the advantages you think you have over Babalu in this fight?
Bobby Southworth: I think most of the advantages go to Babalu. He's the more experienced fighter. He's faced better competition. He trains in a gym with twenty black belts in jiu jitsu. You know, I think my striking is a little more precise and a little more accurate than his. I do have those six plus championship fights under my belt. Going deeper into the fight I think that favors me a little bit more. Like I said, I don't like to make predictions or run my mouth about the fight or my opponent. I just like to go in there and let the chips fall where they may.
James Iannotti (MMAmania.com): You mentioned a little bit of his credentials. Even as the champ, you're more than likely going to be the under dog in this fight. How do you feel about that role?
Bobby Southworth: I don't really think about those things. I think about being prepared and going in and performing. All the hoopla and getting interviews and taking pictures and what the betting line is ... those are the things that don't really concern me. You know, on any given night anybody can beat anybody. I don't worry about what a fight looks like on paper. I worry about how the fight is going when I'm actually in there throwing leather.
James Iannotti (MMAmania.com): Being that this fight is right in your backyard, it's for your world title, it's the main event of a HDNet televised Strikeforce event, it has to be the biggest fight of your career. What is going through your head so close to fight night?
Bobby Southworth: I mean, you pretty much run the whole gantlet of emotions, nervousness, being excited, you know. But I just try to listen to music, watch movies, you know, quiet my mind because the worst part of the fight is the week leading up to the fight. You have a lot of down time, you're training a little less, your schedule's a little less hectic. That's the time I think your mind works against you, so I just try to stay busy doing other things and keep my brain distracted and just wait for fight time.
James Iannotti (MMAmania.com): I'd imagine having a whole arena full of people and basically and entire city behind you is going to give you a little extra adrenaline on fight night.
Bobby Southworth: I hope it does. I definitely want to perform well for my hometown fans and all the people who are coming over from Santa Cruz to watch the fight. Santa Cruz is actually my hometown. I just live and fight out of San Jose. I want to perform well for them. I'm sure the crowd will be giving me a lot of energy. Hopefully I'll be able to channel some of that into getting a victory.
James Iannotti (MMAmania.com): This will be your sixth fight with Strikeforce. What's your current contract status with them? Do you have more fights or is it a situation where you have to continue to defend your title?
Bobby Southworth: Well my contract was originally a four fight deal, and like you said I'm six fights in. I never actually saw that contract on paper, so I'm not sure. Obviously beating Babalu give a fighter some options in his career, but I'm not thinking about what happens after the fight. I'm thinking about the fight. It's important for me to retain my title. As long as I have this belt I'm alive in the MMA game, and I have some bargaining power. So that's my main goal, is get in there, get this victory, and then worry about everything else after the fight.
James Iannotti (MMAmania.com): I've heard rumors of potential network television deals with both NBC and CBS for Strikeforce. Have you heard anything about that? And what are you thoughts about potentially fighting on live network television one day?
Bobby Southworth: I have not heard anything about that. I mean getting mainstream, primetime, major network exposure is huge for any fighter. And that would be an awesome opportunity for me, you know, and any other fighter fighting in Strikeforce. I'm happy fighting for Strikeforce. I think it's a great organization. With 16 shows in or however many shows they have in without canceling a date or consistently getting attendance in the double digits, consistently in the tens of thousands, I think that's a great thing. I think they're a major player in the game with a good business model that will be around for a while to come. Hopefully my relationship with them continues to be a positive one. I have no complaints at this point. The more exposure, the more television time that I can get while I'm with Strikeforce, I think that just benefits me as a whole, so that would be great.
James Iannotti (MMAmania.com): As the champion, you're representing the entire Strikeforce 205-pound division. How do you feel you match up against some of the other light heavyweight champs out there like your former cast mate Forrest Griffin for instance?
Bobby Southworth: Well, you know, when I was on the show with Forrest I matched up very well with him. He's improved as a fighter. He's had a lot of big time experience and a lot of big time fights. I think I'm competitive with anybody in the 205-pound division. It's just a matter of coming in having done your due diligence. If you have the right game plan, if you train properly and make sure you're in shape, you know, anybody can beat anybody on any given night.
James Iannotti (MMAmania.com): Are you still friends with any of the guys from the show?
Bobby Southworth: You know, we're all real busy, but every so often there's MySpaces or phone calls or we run into each other at an event and have a beer or something. But it's not like, you know, a lot of us live in different parts of the country. It's not like we're all coming over to each other's houses for Sunday dinner or anything like that.
James Iannotti (MMAmania.com): What are your thoughts on Chris Leben testing positive for steroids?
Bobby Southworth: I don't know what to say about that. I think it's unfortunate for Chris. I think he's made huge strides as a fighter and as a person. When we did the reunion he seemed like he was in a real positive place in his life. I just think it's unfortunate that that happened. You know, I've seen ... it's hard to say, you know, there's a lot of these new emerging supplement companies. Sometimes you read articles or hear rumors that sometimes supplement companies are putting stuff in there to give people a boost. Kind of like trying to get them hooked and then go back and give them regular type supplements. I don't know what Chris' situation is. I haven't heard any formal statements or anything that he made. Steroids in any sport are unfortunate, but I think history has shown that anytime there is opportunity for financial gain, people are going to do anything they can to get an edge to obtain that. I mean, it's just human nature.
It's unfortunate, but it's what is. And I don't think it's going to change anytime in the near future.
James Iannotti (MMAmania.com): Ok, you've been the champion now for almost two years. You're 38 years old. What does the future hold for you? What are your goals in this sport?
Bobby Southworth: Day to day, week to week those goals, you know, those perceptions are always being assessed. I'm just a few weeks shy of being 39. I'm just trying to take it one fight at a time. I still feel like I'm improving as a fighter. I'm learning new techniques. I'm making strides in my strength and conditioning. It's hard to say. I mean, obviously there's only one Randy Couture. You know, I'm older than Chuck Liddell. I want to stay in this game as long as I can. I'll have to assess it on a fight to fight basis after this fight and see how my body feels. See how my performance was. Obviously if I win this fight it's a huge thing for me. Obviously if I lose the fight it's a huge thing as well. I mean, we'll just have to see what happens. I want to stay in this game as long as I can and fight the best competition that I can. I leave that up to my management and the matchmakers at Strikeforce. I'll show up, and I'll be ready to go for as long as I'm in the game.
James Iannotti (MMAmania.com): What else do you have going on in your life? Do you have any business ventures or anything else you'd like to talk about?
Bobby Southworth: Yeah, I recently opened a gym with two partners. I opened another American Kickboxing Academy. It's American Kickboxing Academy Sunnyvale with my partners Javier Mendez and Alex Khanbanian. I'm running the jiu-jitsu and MMA. Alex is running the boxing, kickboxing and kids MMA program. He's a former two time ISKA world champion. We've been open for about six months. We've got about a 180 students. We're doing well considering the state of the economy and we're happy. I haven't been in there for a few weeks because I really wanted to concentrate on preparing for the fight. But as soon as the fight is over it'll be right back in, it'll be right back to business as usual teaching jiu-jitsu and MMA and hopefully helping the business to grow.
James Iannotti (MMAmania.com): Is there anything you want to say to your fans or anybody you would like to thank in closing?
Bobby Southworth: I'd just like to thank some of my sponsors. I'd like to thank Cage Fighter MMA Authentic. I'd like to thank Sherdog.com, score clinic, my friend Jason at Elite ... I can't remember the name, but he's my strength and conditioning coach. I call it Elite Performance. And I'd like to thank Shocker Nutrition for giving me all the supplements they've given me and that's pretty much about it.
James Iannotti (MMAmania.com): Cool man. We appreciate you taking the time to talk with us, it was great talking with you and we wish you good luck on Friday night.
Bobby Southworth: Thanks for having me. It was a pleasure.