One of the few non-Brazilians to win a jiu-jitsu world championship as a black belt, Rafael Lovato shocked the MMA world in his Bellator debut when he knocked out his opponent out in a mere 13 seconds. Back to the cage four months later, he aims to impress once again.
The decorated grappler will meet Mike Rhodes in the preliminary portion of Friday’s Bellator 181 in Thackerville, and sees the UFC veteran as his toughest opponent so far in MMA as he enters his sixth MMA bout.
"He has a lot of experience, comes from a really great camp,” Lovato told MMA Fighting. "He's very well-rounded, great stand-up, he’s won fights by knockout and submission, so I have a lot of respect for him.
"He’s on a roll right now, four wins since his loss in the UFC, so he’s obviously focused and trying to come back 100 percent and make his mark. He’s in a big show now with Bellator. I believe I have a lot of experience on my own way. This is going to be a very skillful fight and hopefully the fight of the night."
Although Lovato starched his last opponent with a high kick in seconds, he doesn’t expect his opponents to see him with different eyes.
"Regardless of who (my opponents) are, I believe that I'm gone have the advantage on the ground, unless some of the current best jiu-jitsu guys happen to go into MMA,” he said. "I just don't think there’s anybody that’s gonna have my experience on the ground.
"I wanna have a great clean performance. I want to keep the fight where I'm best at all time. (If) I have the opportunity to put him on the floor, I plan on capitalizing all my years in jiu-jitsu and hopefully get the finish. But I'm ready for whatever the fight can bring.”
Lovato knows that his pure grappling skills will always superior than his opponents, and loves the challenge of balancing his training to compete in a different sport after devoting decades of his life to one martial art only.
"There’s so many areas you have to continue to get better at with jiu-jitsu, wrestling, muay thai, and you have strength and conditioning, you have your sparring days, there's a lot to manage and balance,” Lovato said. "I put a lot of focus on the muay thai because it's the newest piece of the puzzle for me, but I don't shy away from continually training my jiu-jitsu and bring in new positions and new ways to attack and blend my MMA game with my jiu-jitsu game.
"There's definitely some areas of the game right now on the ground that I feel I've improved over this camp, so my jiu-jitsu is still getting better. I still put the gi on and train in the gi. I wanna keep my jiu-jitsu better, but at the same time, I hope my biggest growth is in the areas I'm not world class at."
"Now it’s not just a submission threat, but it's also the ground and pound threat,” he continued. "I can add a whole other treats to my jiu-jitsu game. There's this other level that helps you advance fast because when you're getting hit you make mistakes and open space for submissions or for a better positioning.”
Lovato showed his evolution in the stand-up area in his last fight, and wouldn’t change the recipe ahead of his second Bellator bout.
Before flying to Oklahoma for Bellator 181, Lovato spent some time at the Evolucao Thai gym in Brazil, with coaches Andre Dida and Mauricio Veio and MMA fighters Wanderlei Silva, Francisco Trinaldo and Rafael Carvalho, to work on his muay thai skills.
"I put myself right in the fire,” he said. "For every fight, I go to Curitiba, Brazil. I've been there six times now, and always do big portion of my training there, training with some of the best stand-up fighters in MMA. Pretty much everybody there has what I don't, the opposite of me. I'm a ground specialist and they are muay thai specialists.
"As you know, they are specialized in ‘porrada' ('beating', in Portuguese), a whole other style [laughs]. Very, very intense, coming from the Chute Boxe lineage, but it’s such a science. And their approach to the technique and how they see the game just falls right in how I see jiu-jitsu. I feel I'm learning and evolving very fast.”
With a 5-0 MMA record that includes winning and defending the Legacy FC middleweight championship in 2016, the 34-year-old black belt knows he has no time to waste in the sport.
He started it as a challenge, and now just wants to collect belts.
"Just like anything else that I've ever done, I'm here to challenge myself against the best, and I want to show that I am the best,” Lovato said. "Originally, it started of me fighting MMA to experience and just know what it's like and know that I did it. Since then, I've loved it more and more. It's not that I love fighting somebody, beating someone up, but the learning and experience of putting everything together and seeing who I am as a martial artist.
"It's so gratifying, and I have no intention to stop anytime soon. Once I got that Legacy title, it's like 'now let's go to the next level.' Now, that I'm in Bellator I have the same goal. I want to become the champion. I full believe that I have all the potential to do so."