Following on the heels of Bellator MMA’s successful Bellator 180/NYC event last month, July 14 will see the promotion return to Thackerville, Oklahoma, and the WinStar World Casino. That night, the venue will play host to Bellator’s first post-NYC show, Bellator 181: Girtz vs. Campos 3. On the undercard, skilled grappler Rafael Lovato Jr will welcome Mike Rhodes to the promotion in a three round contest that could very well set the trajectories for both of these promising fighters. The fight will also mark the second time jiu-jitsu ace Lovato Jr will enter the Bellator cage, following his thirteen second TKO victory of Charles Hackmann at Bellator 174 in March.
Cageside Press had the opportunity to speak with Rafael Lovato Jr. ahead of his Bellator 181 bout this weekend, where we spoke about his martial arts evolution, and whether his current success in the sport has him feeling the pressure to preform.
A life long martial arts practitioner, Rafael’s long road to MMA began at a young age inside the ring. “When I started jiu-jitsu as a kid I had already done a lot of boxing and Muay Thai, I was actually competing in boxing at the time from 9 to 12 years old” he told us. On what drew him to jiu-jitsu and away from boxing, he added “it was just a lot more fun for me, because boxing there is just so many punches and jiu-jitsu was this new thing, this new art that was so amazing; at that time it was just revolutionary.”
“I could do jiu-jitsu as a kid and beat adults” Lovato said. “I put everything into to jui-jitsu, I dedicated my life to it.”
When it came to MMA, it was always on the horizon. “I started to think okay, when do I make the switch?” he told us. “When do I challenge myself inside the cage? That was always the plan.” As he pointed out, however, “at the time the only other American world champion was BJ Penn, and he won and went straight to MMA. And you never saw him again. The only black belt matches he had were the four he had to win his black belt world title. There was this big hole in the jiu-jitsu world for non-Brazilians, and I felt like I wanted to fill that hole. I wanted to be the one to represent and be there in this Brazilian dominated sport. I wanted to make my mark not just as one of the best Americans but as one of the all time greats of my generation. And so I stayed in and I just wanted to keep winning title after title after title.”
Lovato had continued success in the BJJ world, though “unfortunately I never won the the worlds in the Gi. I never won it again but I medaled 8 years in a row and won may other things and had some really incredible career moments in jiu-jitsu.”
So what finally triggered the switch? “It just got to the point where I felt, I finally felt satisfied I finally felt like ‘okay I made my mark and its okay.’ I was a little consumed, I felt like I had to win a second gold you know in the Gi worlds. I was very consumed by that, but finally I hit a point where I sort of let it go, and I said ‘you know what its okay you made your mark and now its time to take that challenge and become a white belt all over again and explore who I am as a martial artist and get out of my comfort zone.'”
“It got to the point where jiu-jitsu was, it was too much the same thing and I needed to mix things up” he explained further.
That drive to win a second medal in the Gi, was there anything in particular behind that?
“I was winning many other big titles, I was doing well and getting big victories, but it just wasn’t happening at the worlds” Lovato said. “My whole thing that I was consumed of was becoming the first to win it twice, the first non-Brazilian to win it twice. That hadn’t been done.”
The switch has been a positive one, and Rafael Lovato Jr. is undefeated in his career to date. What’s his take on it? “Since making the move to MMA I have really been on this beautiful path of self discovery and putting all of my lifetime of martial arts training together” he outlined. “Finding myself, finding who I am as a martial artist and feeling what its like to be in the cage. The rush, the challenge that it is, it’s been a beautiful thing. I’m very thankful to be doing it now and I feel like I waited for the right time.”
Nor does he have any regrets about waiting, despite not starting his MMA career until he was in his thirties. “I have no regrets, I don’t wish that I would’ve switched to MMA sooner. I’m happy for everything I did in jiu-jitsu. I feel like the time I went into MMA I really found who I was and I think that’s important when being in the cage. I’m not fighting for money, I’m not fighting for fame, I’m fighting for all the right reasons. I already have a career,
I have my school, I have my jiu-jitsu association, I made my mark and I’m doing this because I love it.”
Is the focus solely on MMA now, or will he pull double duty and continue to compete in the BJJ world? On that, Lovato feels that “I still think I got one more in me. I think I’m gonna go one more time to Gi worlds before it is all said and done with. I’ve been going back and forth between the two this whole time.” It’s not easy mind you. “There are some elements that are more difficult, I cant do every tournament like I used to. I am spending less time in the Gi. I can’t do all the major competitions but superfights are perfect because it’s just one match, it’s almost the same MMA vibe, just one match, one person.”
Of course, continuing to compete in jiu-jitsu helps keep his skills sharpened on the MMA side as well, and there’s the fact that he’s also teaching the discipline. “That’s pretty much why I do it. I want to keep my jiu-jitsu sharp and I want to keep it developing. I don’t want it to stop. It’s impossible for it not keep getting better, because I’m always teaching, I’m always in the Gi, I’m helping my students get ready for the biggest competitions in the world.
Is there any urgency however, given the late start at MMA? He doesn’t feel it. “Man, this has been 100% natural” he told us. “I’m riding this ride, seeing what happens just like everyone else.”
“Maybe if I went sooner I would still have jiu-jitsu pulling at me and maybe I would regret some things that I didn’t get to experience or do” he suggested. “I’m happy that I waited and things are moving a little fast. I feel like I have a lot of potential, I’m with the right people, I have a great camp, great coaches. Each fight is getting tougher and I’m rising to the occasion, I’m getting better.”
“I think in another year I could be fighting for a Bellator title. Being in my 30s I already know who I am. I’m not fighting and at the same time trying to figure my life out.”
On the MMA side of the game, Lovato Jr. has been a finisher thus far in his career, undefeated and never having seen the judge’s scorecards. Does he feel pressure to keep that up?
“No pressure, as far as finishing goes, I believe that’s just my style” he answered. “In jiu-jitsu I’ve always been known as a finisher. I’m not a points player in jiu-jitsu. I give 100% from beginning to end to make my opponent tap and I’m translating that to my MMA game. I feel like I have a lot of tools and weapons to be able to continue to finish people
even as I fight higher caliber opponents.”
“On the ground I don’t think, not to be cocky or anything, but I believe on the ground that I can finish anybody. I’ve put in the work to get to that stage, to get to that point.”
Lovato doesn’t feel like going to the scorecards would necessarily be a bad thing, either. “I can have a lot of material to study and a lot of data to analyze as to why I didn’t finish my opponent, so that would be a great learning experience too and I’ll be thankful for that.”
At Bellator 181, Rafael Lovato Jr. faces his toughest test to date, in the form of UFC veteran Mike Rhodes. Just how is the submission expert tackling this challenge?
“The game plan is to be better everywhere, win every exchange, try to win every moment of the fight” Lovato explained. “I believe that’s the best game plan to have, not too specific, just going to believe in all of my skills and I would be stupid to not try to take him down, because I do believe I have the advantage on the ground. But that doesnt mean I’m going out there and I’m just going to hug him and put him down as soon as i can. I’m confident in all areas of the game.”
“I think Mike is a big challenge, he comes from a great camp” he added. “He’s fought some of the best, I respect him a lot, he’s very well rounded. I believe hes going to come fully prepared in every way and I’m ready for war. If it goes a full 15 minutes I’m ready for that,
but I’m going to do my best to make sure it doesn’t.”
Rafael Lovato Jr. faces Mike Rhodes at Bellator 181 Friday in Thackerville, Oklahoma at the WinStar World Casino.