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Technique Talk: Rafael Lovato gives a progress report on BJJ in MMA

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Rafael Lovato, Jr.
Bellator MMA

Among other accomplishments in jiu-jitsu, Rafael Lovato, Jr. is the first non-Brazilian to win the Brazilian national championships, and in 2007, became the third American to win a world title at the black belt level. These kinds of accolades were once a guarantee of success in MMA, but he’s entered the sport at a time where top rank jiu-jitsu guarantees as little as it ever has, albeit in MMA’s relatively short history.

Some of this is easy to understand. Best practices have rapidly evolved, making reliance on any one skill set a test case in diminishing returns (Demian Maia notwithstanding). There’s also been less of an emphasis on the use of jiu-jitsu in MMA. The art can take time to learn while simultaneously difficult to implement against a skilled, resisting opponent. Even worse, the advent of professional BJJ competitions threatens the pipeline of top talent that would ordinarily matriculate over to MMA, bringing with them superior performance as well as consciousness raising about how jiu-jitsu can be implemented in a fight.

In this discussion, Lovato shares his theories on whether modern jiu-jitsu has as much combative application as it should, whether he feels the need to fly the flag for the sport, learning from the experiences of other elite black belts who’ve transitioned from BJJ to MMA and more.

Partial transcript below:

In today's jiu-jitsu, outside of MMA, do you believe there's a recognition that some kind of combative application has to be more pronounced?

I don't think it has to be. There's so many different levels of why someone practices jiu-jitsu. As a martial artist, my father, the mindset was being able to defend yourself in every range of combat and once we learn about jiu-jitsu we understood that was the most effective place to take the fight in a real life situation on the street.

I think your average jiu-jitsu practitioner, competitor or not, just someone that practices jiu-jitsu for recreational purposes, they're still going to have a great advantage in a real life street self-defense situation with their knowledge. But I do believe that it's important for jiu-jitsu academies to keep the self-defense the realistic aspects of jiu-jitsu alive and teach self-defense, talk about how the techniques and positions would apply in a situation where someone could be hitting you and stuff like that. Where people can just exactly how they should apply jiu-jitsu in that situation. And it only makes you better. It only makes you learn more.

For instance, if you put the gloves on and you have someone in your guard and it's like, "Okay, now they're trying to hit you." Use jiu-jitsu. It only makes you understand jiu-jitsu more and the art itself better. Which in return will only make you better.

In the competition scene back in the day, I think there's definitely an easier transitions to be made from the top competitors in jiu-jitsu, say 10 to 15 years ago, to nowadays. And that also is because MMA has evolved so much as well. Just because you know jiu-jitsu doesn't really give you really much of an advantage in a professional MMA fight anymore these days. But it also has to do with the rules and the evolution of the sport, where many people are great jiu-jitsu competitors but, for instance, they don't do takedowns very much, and their whole game revolves around holding the gi and using certain grips and things like that. Now, they're still going to be very well prepared for a realistic street situation, but at the highest levels of MMA, I definitely think there could be a tough learning curve when you take a world champion jiu-jitsu fighter and put him inside the cage nowadays.

There was a UFC middleweight fight between Antonio Carlos, Jr and Eric Spicely. In this fight they're using Reverse de La Riva, they're using 50/50 guard, and I can't tell if it's just those guys who can pull that off or if that's the next wave that's headed to MMA. How applicable do you think that is?

It can be done. It's insane what can be applied in MMA. You can't just take it all and say, "They would never work in a fight." I've seen a helicopter armbar in MMA. I believe it was in RFA. A Brazilian guy, I think he was from American Top Team, in a title fight he lifted a guy up, spun him around in the air, and put him duck under arm bar, helicopter armbar, something you'd never think you could do in MMA. It's going to come down to the timing and the precision and just how quickly you react. It's possible. It's possible.

Toquinho was using tons of 50/50 to setup his heel hooks. Ryan Hall is jumping guard and rolling into those positions. It could work. I also think it works to a certain point. It could be trained and defended against and you're going to need more. I don't want to say it's not possible, but you can't rely on something like that.

Would you ever consider using something like Reverse De La Riva? Realistically speaking, is that something that you see as a priority in your MMA game?

No. If I'm ever on my back, my No. 1 priority is to get up. Not to play any sort of different variation of guard. It's hard in MMA. You can be successful from there and dangerous from there, but I think No. 1 priority is to get up and get out of there so you don't take any unnecessary damage.

Maybe it could be that someone positions themselves to where you could use the Reverse de La Riva to lift or stand between them and find a way up or find a way to the back, but I'm not thinking, "Okay, now it's time to play such and such guard." I'm thinking, "I need to get up and get out of here."

My theory is that if you look at the technical sophistication of most jiu-jitsu that you see in MMA, it's blue or purple belt level. Do you think MMA is more naturally suited for these basics that you can just perfect?

Yes. Yes, and that's why I'm so happy that I had the style of jiu-jitsu and the lineage that I have because that's pretty much what's been preached to me my whole life, my jiu-jitsu career. It's been my focus. Like I said, once again, not to say that something like that isn't possible, and it's good to learn it, it's good to experiment, that's what jiu-jitsu is all about, but as far as what you can count on, what is going to be successful, nine times out of ten it's going to be the simple, the foundation, the basics perfected.

Additionally, you can’t risk that much in MMA. If you have a good position, you can't go for a risky attack. It's much better to maintain position and stick to your basics and fundamentals so you can do damage and still setup the submission. That's definitely what I preach. It doesn't mean you should stop at blue or purple belt. You have to keep working on mastering and perfecting your basics. There's definitely still a high level difference between purple belt's basics and a black belt's basics.

As far as going off and doing the fancy moves, so to speak, or the quote unquote "YouTube highlight Instagram" type techniques that just look cool, you can't spend all your time doing that.

What do you think is missing in the modern application of jiu-jitsu in MMA?

It's hard to say. There's only so many guys that are high level black belt competitors transitioning into MMA, and for the most part most of them are doing really well. Nowadays the one thing that can hurt those guys is not being able to get the takedown, needing more wrestling, and maybe fighting for top position more, a little bit of that scramble and that grind. Because jiu-jitsu can be so relaxed and you can be so comfortable just pulling guard and sitting back. There's a little bit of physicality in that as well, in the wrestling.

Also, it helps if you have good standup. If you're not one dimensional. If you're evolving and developing good stand-up and making yourself a threat on the feet. That helps make the takedown easier. It can help negate situations where someone gets hurt and you can transition into hurt transmission. You can take someone like Donald Cerrone, I don't think he's ever received a black belt. Maybe he’s never received any real belt in jiu-jitsu, I'm not sure, but the guy has had tons of submissions in his career, but it's usually setup with some sort of striking sequence first where he hurts the guy a little bit or damages the guy and then goes in and transitions to a takedown or a top position and then submission.

I think a big aspect of that is just not being one dimensional, but more that you can threaten somebody in multiple areas the more you can capitalize on something that they're so concerned about, but then you make them forget. You make them worry about something else, just setup the ground game, and it gets easier to takedown and get that finish.

If you knew somebody who was 14 years old and they wanted to be a fighter at a time when they could make an adult choice about that, would you tell them to take up pure jiu-jitsu? If they did they would probably enhance their overall game, but is that kind of thing necessary for high-level achievement?

I think so. Even if you want to be a fighter, you should have the mindset of a martial arts, of learning as much as you can about a single art. Of course, I'm always going to take jiu-jitsu for that art you can do for the rest of your life, no matter what. You just don't train to fight, you train because you love, because you wanna never stop learning, because it's who you are and it gives you the feeling you're going to do it forever. And jiu-jitsu has that beauty. It's something I'll do for the rest of my life and you can share with so many people.

I would still encourage that person to do jiu-jitsu, even if they're starting just to fight. But, even my jiu-jitsu guys, my jiu-jitsu competitors, I'm a strong enforcer of cross-training. Do judo. Do wrestling. You can't be one dimensional, even in jiu-jitsu, so to speak. Even though jiu-jitsu is jiu-jitsu, you can't always go out there and pull guard. You have to be able to play on top and bottom. You have to have multiple ways to score. You have to be a threat in both areas of the game, the top game and off the back, so you're complete. If I had a 14-year-old, I would stress them to do jiu-jitsu as their base, as their foundation, but cross-train inasmuch wrestling as possible for their jiu-jitsu. And that will also make it easy for them to transfer their skills into their cage, not being reliant on the gi, and being able to get those takedowns.

We've seen a lot of high-level black belts cross over into MMA. On the high end, somebody like Jacare who's had incredible success in both sports, and then Roger Gracie, who had a up and down MMA career. How has the success or the failures of various high-level jiu-jitsu competitors impacted the way you think about developing your own game?

I really don't compare myself too much to them. I really don't consider myself a jiu-jitsu guy necessarily. Let me explain that.

Obviously, when I fight everyone knows me as jiu-jitsu competitor. That's what I've devoted a majority of my life to, but I was a martial artist before I ever knew about jiu-jitsu. I grew up as a martial artist. My father is a martial artist and that's how I see myself, as a martial artist, someone that sees evolution in many different areas of the game, not just in jiu-jitsu. Whenever I started jiu-jitsu, I didn't start jiu-jitsu and I think, about, "When are the tournaments?" And competing in tournaments. I didn't even know there was jiu-jitsu tournaments. There were no jiu-jitsu tournaments in my areas. It was something that was still only in Brazil. Nothing like the scene that it is nowadays, where someone can say, "Oh, I want to compete in something, I'm going to jiu-jitsu tournaments." And they start doing jiu-jitsu and start competing in tournaments right away

I feel like I have a much different background than 99 percent of every jiu-jitsu fighter that has never gone into MMA. I don't think their story is like mine at all. I really don't compare myself to them too much. I was doing martial arts well before I ever started jiu-jitsu and even while I've been competing in jiu-jitsu, I've still trained in striking arts. Obviously, I like to learn from everyone. I like to see what they're doing that has helped make them successful, or has hurt them and learn. But I don't get caught up in trying to compare too much myself to them.

I'm wondering what the overall level of jiu-jitsu is, from your perspective, in the elite side of MMA?

There's guys who have great jiu-jitsu awareness and can give great jiu-jitsu guys problems, for sure. Especially a great wrestler than can scramble, that can get up and things like that. I don't believe there's a lot of people that have that full package of control, the pressure, the heaviness, and the precision, where they get one good position you're not going to escape and it's going to lead to a finish.

Many times the guys who have good ground games, it revolves around ground and pound or we have some of the more pure jiu-jitsu guys that are looking mainly just for submissions and they forgot to do damage. Then you have the other sort of part of the ground fighters of MMA that are there and their skills and their focus are mainly just to not get caught and to stay out of danger and be able to keep the fight on their feet or get back up to their feet, not get submitted, and win the fight on the feet. There's different elements to the ground game in MMA.

There are definitely some guys definitely some guys who have shown some really great [skills] that really didn't come from jiu-jitsu. Several wrestlers that have evolved and have great submission skills, someone like Chris Weidman, Luke Rockhold, those guys, they have great submission skills. Chris Weidman did very in the ADCC years before he became who he is in the UFC. Obviously you have to respect everybody in MMA. You can't just assume it's going to be easy to catch anybody, but I don't think for the most part there's that extreme high-level, there's a few, but as far as the people that once it's on the ground you're like, "Ah, this is over," there's not that many.

Should there be more? It's sort of a weird question to ask, but should there be?

For me, I'm always going to think that would be the way to go because why not win the easiest way possible, the cleanest way possible? No matter how great of a striker you are, there's always a puncher's chance, you know? With those little gloves, you get hit with one? How many times have we seen it? Someone is supposed to have huge standup advantage, they get hit just right and they're the one on the floor.

If you are better than the other person on the ground, even somewhat better, it's very unlikely they're going to submit you. If you have the advantage on the ground, I would always encourage people to take advantage of that. Why not develop your game so that you have that advantage and have that ability?

There's a lot of pro jiu-jitsu out now. It's good for jiu-jitsu that people have the opportunity to make money strictly from that, but does that have an appreciable effect on MMA where elite grapplers have a lot more incentive to not matriculate over like they did before?

Yeah, it could definitely affect the amount of guys that would switch over. Someone like Buchecha, who's pretty much the man of jiu-jitsu right now, he's five times double gold, incredible history at the world championship as a black belt, by all visual purposes his game would translate beautiful into MMA because he's very dangerous, he's very explosive, he has great takedowns. But he came right out and said, "Hey, I'm getting a lot of simple fights, there's a lot of professional opportunities in jiu-jitsu. Now there's so many academies world wide your ability to do seminars, if you have a great name in jiu-jitsu, your ability to do seminars and travel the world and make money is so high. Why risk it in the cage?"

It's a great thing. If you're going to do MMA, it shouldn't be about the money, anyways. No matter how great the money is, if you decide to get in that cage you need to have a greater inspiration than just money.

I think it gives more opportunities for the high-level jiu-jitsu guys to make money and stay in the sport, which on the jiu-jitsu side of things, everyone wants to see those people continue in jiu-jitsu. It's great for the sport of jiu-jitsu and it makes the other guys, it makes them have to make their decision a little harder. They have to really think about it and who they are and what they want out of themselves as martial artist before stepping into that cage. And they can know that, "Hey, I'm in here because I really want to be in here, not just for a paycheck."

Can these pro events meaningfully improve jiu-jitsu? Do you think that can actually meaningfully improve the entire sports level of competitive success?

100%. I've always been a big believer in, like I said before, cross-training and not just cross-training but competing in different formats. I've competed in judo competitions. I've done sambo. Inside jiu-jitsu, I've competed in pretty much every different rule set that there's ever been, from no time limit to submission only with referee decisions, submissions only with draws, ADCC rules, IBJJF, advantages, no advantages, all these things, all these different formats, they've helped me evolve.

I think once your game or your style becomes too reliant on one format or one set of rules, then you're not going to evolve. It's going to hinder your evolution and your ability to learn as see new things. I think as long no one is doing just one format, than yes it's a positive thing. Now, they might find a format where they feel like their more successful and just want to stick with that format and say, "Well, I don't do submission only" or "I only do submission only" or something like that and they're being affected by that.

I think it's important to do it all. You should fight with points. You need to know what it's like to be down on points and know how to score points and get to good positions and things like that. You should also know how to compete when there are no points and there's submission only, when there's a time limit or no time limit. That's how I like to train, that's how I came up training, and it helped me so much. Once again, I feel like has helped my transition to MMA more successful is that I was never really reliant on the gi or no gi or any one specific format. I developed my game in order to be successful in all formats.

Do you ever feel the need to flash the jiu-jitsu for either the audience's sake or even as an imitation sake against your opponent?

No. I don't feel any pressure to win with jiu-jitsu specifically or anything like that. I don't overthink winning a certain way or any one certain techniques. I'm prepared for everything. I can't get stuck on thinking any one thing too much. I need to be ready for how it could play out any number of ways, so I'm ready to showcase all my skills, and I'll take the victory any way it can come to me.