How a jiu-jitsu world champ from OKC named Rafael Lovato Jr. became a rising star in MMA
Rafael Lovato Jr. always encourages the students at his martial arts school to challenge themselves. He wants them to leave their comfort zones. He pushes them to stretch their limits.
“It’s never too late to go after a new dream,” he often says.
Five years ago, he realized he needed to follow his own advice.
Now, the Oklahoma City man is a world champion.
“It’s still very surreal,” he said. “I dreamed this. I saw it happen. But it still feels unbelievable.”
Last Saturday, Lovato claimed the Bellator middleweight world title by majority decision, besting longtime mixed martial arts champ Gegard Mousasi in London. It was a bloody, punishing fight. It went the full five rounds after the fighters split the first four.
After Lovato was declared the champ, he fell to his knees in tears.
His victory sent shock waves around the mixed martial arts world. Dave Doyle, senior editor of the MMA Junkie, said: “I’m not going to pretend I saw Rafael Lovato’s victory over Gegard Mousasi coming. What a tremendous show of heart in the fifth round.”
For Lovato, it was just practicing what he preaches.
Born in Cincinnati, Lovato moved to Oklahoma City in the early 90s when he was in elementary school. His father taught Jeet Kune Do, a hybrid martial arts style founded by Bruce Lee, so Lovato learned a variety of martial arts as a kid. He even did boxing for a while.
Then as a teenager, he discovered Brazilian jiu-jitsu.
He became a star, winning world titles and making history while training out of Lovato’s School of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu on the northwest side of the city. When he won the Brazilian National Jiu-Jitsu Championship as a black belt in 2007, he was the first non-Brazilian to ever do so. Six years later, when he won the tournament’s open weight division, he became the first non-Brazilian to do that, too.
Around that time, Lovato started to feel like he had accomplished all that he could. He was near the end of his competitive career.
But he didn’t feel like he was done competing.
“I love having a challenge, having something to push me in training,” he said. “When I was coming to the end of my jiu-jitsu career, I was just sort of losing that fire. I had been competing against the best guys, the world’s best, for so long it was becoming too normal. My inspiration level wasn’t always at its max because I had gotten so used to it.
“It’s different when you’re at the top versus climbing up.”
The vibe changes.
“And I missed that vibe.”
Lovato had always intended to try mixed martial arts. As a lifelong martial artist, dabbling in the sport at a minimum felt like a must.
He had no idea where it would lead.
“Once I tried it, I could feel that uncomfortableness again, being out of my comfort zone, doing something new, learning a lot,” he said, espousing those virtues he now teaches at Lovato's School. “Having that fire again really pushed me.”
Could he be a world champion in a second sport?
He started fighting professionally in 2014 for Legacy Fighting Championship, a Texas-based promotion, and after a couple years and four dominant victories, he moved to Bellator. Lovato won his first bout in Bellator by technical knockout in 13 seconds, the fifth-fastest stoppage in series history.
He’s been on the fast track ever since.
Last Saturday’s title fight was only his 10th bout as a pro, but even though he faced a champ with more than 50 fights, Lovato took it to him. He dominated the first two rounds, taking down Mousasi and using his jiu-jitsu-based ground game to his advantage. Mousasi, who had won big fights in England and was a fan favorite in London, rallied in the third and fourth rounds, setting up the dramatic and deciding fifth round.
“Having to dig deep and come back, fight through adversity in my very first championship fight … ," Lovato said, "in a way, it makes it even more special than if I’d have just dominated.”
Though that would’ve saved him some pain. Lovato’s face particularly took a beating, including a large gash near his left eye.
“From a technical standpoint, yes, I wish I would’ve done some things better and maybe not taken as much damage,” he said. “From my heart and what I was able to do, that was really special for me.
“I know what I’m made of and I just didn’t quit.”
He intends to keep it going, too. Lovato expects another bout sometime later this year, the first of what he hopes will be many title defenses.
But for the next couple weeks, he’s in rest-and-recovery mode. He celebrated his 36th birthday earlier this week, and along with his girlfriend, he is spending some extra time in Europe.
“I’m sitting by a hotel pool in Spain right now,” he said via telephone Friday, “so I can’t complain.”
"It's like the best birthday ever."
When he returns to Oklahoma City, he’ll be back at Lovato's. Many of his students have competitions and tournaments coming up, and while he'll be helping them technically, he hopes what he's doing in mixed martial arts will be an emotional boost.
He challenged himself, getting out of his comfort zone and dreaming a new dream.
He did what he tells his students to do all the time.
“I’m trying to be an example for them,” he said. “I do my best to inspire them through my work.
“Yes, the dream is accomplished, but the work is far from over.”
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 405-475-4125 or email@example.com. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK or follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok.