If you’re remotely interested in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, chances are you’ll have stumbled across the name Rafael Lovato Jr. The first American to win the the absolute division at the Brazil Nationals. He has medalled eight times at the Worlds (including one gold) after being inspired by watching BJ Penn’s dominant performance in 2000. He’s one half of the first American father-son BJJ black belt duo, and is known for his smashing, pressure style Jiu Jitsu. Now, he’s making waves in the MMA world at Bellator.
Lovato’s Jiu Jitsu career and transition into MMA is well documented. He’s gone 5-0 in MMA, and surprisingly to some, two of those five have come via KO/TKO. He captured the Legacy middleweight belt by defeating Marcelo Nunes and retained that title by catching Cortez Coleman in an armbar, 14 minutes into a gruelling contest. And if you thought Rafael Lovato Jr was just a Jiu Jitsu guy with a puncher’s chance, you’re sorely mistaken. At his Bellator debut in March, Lovato finished Charles Hackmann in 13-seconds (TKO); perhaps due to training and sparring with the legendary Wanderlei Silva, or due to being prepared by his Father from an early age, well before MMA was the wildly popular sport it is today.
The Neversphere: You put on an extremely dominant performance at your promotional debut at Bellator 174, finishing Charles Hackmann in 13 seconds via strikes. I’m sure you’re stoked you got out so quickly, but a lot of us were looking forward to seeing you display some of your Jiu Jitsu! What have you been up to since that win?
Rafael: Well, I never expected to win like that. Obviously, my main strategy in every fight is to utilise my Jiu Jitsu, because I believe that’s where I’m going to have the biggest advantage, regardless of who my opponent is. But it was nice to feel all of my Muay Thai training and everything kick in, and I just operated on instinct and got the quick finish.
Since then, I had a [BJJ] super fight against the number one guy in Jiu Jitsu right now, Marcus Buchecha Almeida, just about six weeks after that [Hackmann] fight. It was an incredible experience, Buchecha is a big guy, like very big. Probably around 250 pounds but he moves like a cat. He’s breaking all the records right now, he’s definitely a special, special athlete and Jiu Jitsu artist. It was very cool to have the chance to face, and test myself against him. I lost the match on points, but I was happy with the way I represented myself out there and having a match against someone who I feel will be, arguably, the best of all time.
So, I had that fight and then I rested, slightly for the rest of that month, and pretty much got back into things in May, booked this fight. I’ve had an incredible camp, it just feels like I’m getting so much better with each camp. Right now, I’m the best I’ve ever been, I believe in all areas. So, I’m very excited to put on a good performance.
The Neversphere: You’ve been training in many styles of martial arts from a young age, but I’ve only found bits and pieces about the early years of your journey. One thing I found: Your father is lifelong martial artist and total badass, what kind of impact did he have on you as a young man and a martial artist?
Rafael: Oh man, he’s the root of it all, I guess you could say. I’m still learning from him, I’m still understanding who I am as a martial artist through the roots that my father planted in me, in every way…from my work ethic, discipline, to my perspective and philosophy on martial arts. He is an incredible martial artist, he’s still on the mats today; he’s nearly 60 years old and he’s actually going to compete at the National Worlds at the end of August. And as long as I get out of this fight without any injuries, I will be on the mats with him, competing by his side.
My Dad is a life-long martial artist. He started off boxing, early on as a kid, and then he went into traditional martial arts and was influenced by Bruce Lee. Bruce Lee was his hero. He followed that path, became a Jeet Kune Doe instructor. My Father spent a lot of time with many incredible martial artists, from all sorts of different disciplines. And I was basically right there by his side, I was following my Father’s footsteps and I was around these incredible martial artists since I was a child. That hunger to learn and be a complete martial artist lead us to Jiu Jitsu. He was the first person to bring Jiu Jitsu to Oklahoma, he became the first black belt in Oklahoma, then I got my black belt and we became the first American father-son black belts; we’ve made a lot of history together. I wouldn’t be where I am today without my Father and every day I am so thankful for this martial arts life that he gave to me. I love what I do, I can’t imagine any other life.
The Neversphere: I can’t believe he’s still competing at 60! That’s an incredible effort!
Rafael: Yeah, he’s in great shape and he never stops. That’s the example we try to set; keep learning, keep doing what you love, and every now and then you gotta go out there and challenge yourself.
The Neversphere: Having trained in various forms of martial arts, why, up until recently, have you been focused on the gentle art?
Rafael: Well, Jiu Jitsu is where I really found my passion for martial arts as a whole. It’s not like I didn’t enjoy the other martial arts I was training, but I was also a competitor. From 9 to 12 I was doing boxing. That was really the only thing I could compete in against kids my age, then my dad discovered Jiu Jitsu and I found this amazing art where you don’t have to hit each other, and I could be a young kid and beat adults. I got good fast, I had these long legs and I could triangle grown men.
I really fell in love with the art of Jiu Jitsu, and the competitive nature that I have lead to me putting everything into Jiu Jitsu from an early age. From 15, 16 years old I’d figured out that I wanted to be a black belt world champion. And then shortly thereafter I watched BJ Penn win the black belt World title that he got in 2000; I was there. I was like, I want to be the next American to do that. But I didn’t want to win that title and go to MMA. The reason why is that I wanted to try to go down as not only one of the best Americans, but as one of the all-time greats.
I wanted to win multiple times, get multiple titles, keep making more history. Even back in 2007, we were still very, very behind, and we still are today! I mean, just this year – ten years later – the next American won the worlds. I really felt like I needed to carry the flag, not just for America but for all Jiu Jitsu outside of Brazil, and show that we can do this. Not that it’s a Brazil versus us kind of thing, I felt like it was my position to continually show that I was one of the best and challenge that dominance that the Brazilian’s had, and still have, over the sport. I kept trying to win multiple times but unfortunately, I was never able to win the worlds again – I medalled eight years in a row, in four different weight classes – but it got to the point where I needed a different challenge. I felt like I made my mark, it wasn’t going to make me or break me if I kept winning more titles, or not. I solidified my name in the sport and it was time for me to be a white belt again. It was time for me to get out of my comfort zone and go into what I feel like what I was bred to do early on, and explore myself as a martial artist all over again.
I’m so thankful at this stage of my career to feel the way I feel now and to be in this new stage of my life. It’s putting so many things into perspective, now I’m putting it all together, my pre-Jiu Jitsu martial arts life, then my Jiu Jitsu martial arts life, and now bringing it all together to who I am today as a mixed martial artist. It’s been a beautiful experience for me.
The Neversphere: When making that transition to MMA and prepping ready for fights, do you place importance on watching and studying tapes on you opponents?
Rafael: Yeah, for sure. I did the same in Jiu Jitsu; I go in prepared.
The Neversphere: Having studied your next opponent, what do you make of Mike Rhodes? Looking down his record, he’s been in there with some good competitors…
Rafael: Man, he’s a great martial artist. I have a lot of respect for him. I mean, his camp, his teacher – Duke Roufus – I really appreciate their philosophy on martial arts, so I have a lot of respect for him. He’s a great fighter, he very well-rounded and he doesn’t make a lot of mistakes in there. You don’t see him getting into too much trouble in his fights; he’s very clean, has great stand-up, he has submission victories, he shown good wrestling…so for me, I think it’s my biggest challenge yet. That’s been a big motivation for me, that and he’s been in the UFC; he’s been in the big show. I’m ready for war, I’m ready to go 15 minutes if need be. And I believe that I will put on the best performance of my life come July 14th.
The Neversphere: He has great stand-up, as any Roufusport athlete should. But you’re no slouch when it comes to striking. I’ve heard that training with Wanderlei can be pretty full on…how did you find that experience?
Rafael: [laughs] Oh man…It’s been amazing. I actually met him, and trained with him, for the first time last year, I think it was before my title fight…?
The Neversphere: Before the Coleman fight?
Rafael: Yes! Actually…earlier in the year – Nunes. It was before that fight. I was sparring and training with Wanderlei down in Brazil. I mean, what can I say? He’s a legend and I grew up watching him when he was the scariest man alive; he’s Wanderlei. It was interesting…the first week I trained with him, he cut me. It was an accident but I got a cut sparring with Wanderlei. I have a scar, and I’m so thankful to have that scar and be able to say there’s a little piece of Wanderlei on my face, a memory from training with one of the greatest of all time.
For every fight I go down to Curitiba, Brazil and train at Evolução Thai under Andre Dida, and I’ve really seen that team blossom to what it is now. From the first time I was there, about two years ago, to now…they’re doing big things. It is an incredible team; about 30-40 professional mixed martial artists, four UFC fighters, a couple of Bellator fighters, and then tonnes of top up-and-coming talent, from all over Brazil.
They definitely have that old-school style, they stem from Chute Box, so there is that hard training environment…it’s pretty intense, it’s war every day. I love it! I feel like there’s no better place to get prepared than in an environment where I’m completely out of my comfort zone, and I’m fighting against beasts’ day in, day out and Wanderlei has been one of them. Just being around Wanderlei has been amazing; everyday he’s giving inspirational talks, he’s giving advice, he’s pushing the young guys. He makes us all be better.
Everything that has taken place and brought me to where I am today, it’s just been so amazing. I never imagined that I’d be training with Wanderlei in such a close environment. When I was watching him in Pride, I never imagined that. Just the whole experience in Curitiba….I’m so thankful. I spent three weeks there this time around and then Andre Dida’s brother, Mauricio, is here with me now. He’s also from Curitiba but he runs Evolução Thai in Toronto and he’s an incredible martial artist.
The Neversphere: We’re running out of time, so I’ve have one last question for you…At the Neversphere, we cover music and gaming, as well as MMA. What’s your walkout song for Bellator 181?
Rafael: I haven’t made the decision yet. I’m a huge hip hop fan, so I can tell you it’ll definitely be a hip hop song. There’s a Kendrick Lamar song that I really like, maybe that could be the one. But I’m not sure, ‘cause I haven’t walked out to a 2pac song yet and 2pac was my favourite rapper when I was a kid. So…
…we’ll see what happens