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Bellator middleweight champ Rafael Lovato grappling with brain condition, on ‘indefinite retirement’

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MMA: Bellator 198-Harris vs Lovato Dave Mandel-USA TODAY Sports

Bellator middleweight champion Rafael Lovato may be forced to retire after discovering a brain condition that’s placed him in a gray area with regulators.

Lovato, 36, on Wednesday told JRE MMA he’s been diagnosed with cavernoma, a possibly hereditary condition where abnormal blood vessels cluster in the brain or spinal cord, and he may not be cleared to fight again.

”I want to be healthy, whether I get to fight or not,” he said. “In the meantime, I don’t want to hold up the division.

”Bellator is being very kind with time. I understand there are guys that deserve to fight for the title. If they have to set up a fight to determine a new champion, I understand. I’m going to be doing everything to come back, but it’s sort of an indefinite retirement.”

In a prepared statement, a Bellator official said the promotion is working with the champ to “assess potential next steps.”

“We commend him for his courage in speaking openly during a trying time in his career, as well as his patience in dealing with a very difficult personal and professional matter,” read the statement. “At this time, Lovato Jr. remains the Bellator middleweight champion, and no decision has been made regarding the title or the future of the 185-pound division, until more details about this situation can be gathered.”

The champ said he discovered the abnormality before his title shot against now-former titleholder Gegard Mousasi. Booked to face Mousasi in California at Bellator 214, he underwent a brain scan that’s required by the state’s commission to compete. The scan showed “multiple, popcorn-size” cavernoma around the edge of his brain, one of which he estimated was between a golf ball and baseball in size.

Lovato Jr. said the large cavernoma has shown a history of bleeding, and if it continues to grow in size, it could put more pressure on his brain and possibly lead to a hemorrhage.

After reviewing the initial scan, several doctors subsequently declined to clear him for the title fight, which was rescheduled for Bellator 223 in London when an injury delayed Mousasi’s return.

”One said jiu-jitsu could be dangerous; me getting my blood cut off with a choke could be dangerous,” said Lovato Jr., who was in the middle of his training camp in Brazil when he heard the news.

A dissenting opinion from a Brazilian neurologist gave him the green light to compete, and he was subsequently approved by a panel of doctors with Safe MMA, a third-party organization that screens MMA fighters from the U.K. and Ireland. He went on to win the Bellator middleweight title in London, overcoming a badly torn hamstring he’d suffered in the midst of his health crisis.

But as it turned out, Lovato Jr. was not out of the woods. He said the panel continued to review his scans after the fight, and as he prepared for a rematch with Mousasi at Bellator 238, a doctor not present on the original panel called him this past November with bad news.

”He said it’s a mistake I was approved and able to fight in London, and moving forward, I would not be approved again,” Lovato said.

That opinion was shared by Michael Mazzulli, who serves as the de-facto athletic commissioner in Bellator events held overseas, and by California State Athletic Commission Executive Director Andy Foster, whom Lovato said ruled out a license after Bellator inquired about the situation in advance of Bellator 238. Foster declined comment on Lovato Jr.’s case, citing medical privacy laws.

Because Lovato Jr. didn’t formally apply for a license in California, he remains in limbo. Mazzulli stands by the call of the panel that licensed the champ for London, but said his medical staff subsequently reviewed Lovato Jr.’s medical documentation and decided “it was in his best interest for his health at this time to get a medical clearance.”

”If he wants to get clearance again, I’ll review it,” Mazzulli told MMA Fighting.

Amid his efforts to get cleared, Lovato Jr. said he got another positive second opinion from a UCLA doctor that has worked with boxers and NFL players with cavernoma. The doctor, he said, put the chances of a hemorrhage at less than one percent.

Lovato Jr. hopes the CSAC will change its mind when they meet next month to discuss his case. He wants the commission to hear from the UCLA doctor.

”If it’s really unsafe and I’m not going to get approved, ever, I finally got to a place where I can accept that and I’m going to move forward on with my life, teaching and doing what I do at home,” he said. “I’m trying to keep the hope alive, that if it’s six months, one year, even two years, then maybe I can at least get one more.”

In the meantime, the submission specialist has taken a competitive jiu-jitsu booking on Feb. 21 against Roberto “Cyborg” Abreu, a grappler he’s previously defeated.

Lovato Jr. also wants to educate fighters about the benefits of brain health and getting regular checkups. In nine fights, he’d never before had his brain scanned – he said the majority of commissions don’t require them – and had no idea anything was wrong.