Rafael Lovato Jr. is happy once again, and that feeling comes years after his world fell apart.
The MMA veteran had just won the Bellator middleweight championship from Gegard Mousasi in 2019 when he was diagnosed with cavernoma, a potentially dangerous condition where abnormal blood vessels cluster in the brain or spinal cord. Athletic commissions would not clear him to fight.
Facing what he called an “indefinite retirement,” Lovato, who at the time was 10-0, focused on developing his team as the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Fast forward three years, and Lovato, 39, finally had the chance to re-enter a ring and compete one more time.
Now married and a father of baby twins, Lovato is no longer under the Bellator banner, but the fight, a win this past December over Taiga Iwasaki at INOKI BOM-BA-YE × Ganryujima in Ryogoku, still feels like a dream come true.
“It was just my dream and my faith that maybe something would happen, so I started getting myself ready just in case,” Lovato said in an interview with MMA Fighting. “Everything came together really fast, just in a beautiful way. It felt like destiny. Man, even after all these years away, I still feel like I am a better fighter today than what when I won the world title.”
“I’m not gonna lie, the day of the fight, I was really nervous,” he continued. “It kind of felt like my first fight all over again, just because it had been so long since I’ve felt that adrenaline and that fear and everything. But the fight was perfect, it was clean, and I was able to hit one of my favorite techniques.”
There was anxiety about getting punched in the head, Lovato admitted, but no fear.
“I did a lot of studies, a lot of scans and tests for my brain condition, and one of the tests that I did was a genetic test, he said. “And it turns out, I was born with this condition. I have a genetic disorder.
“I’ve had it my whole life, and I’ve been getting hit in my head my whole life. I still don’t experience any symptoms, any problems, any issues whatsoever due to my brain condition. It’s just there, but I don’t feel anything.
“That was one of the most difficult parts about being told I couldn’t fight anymore, because I literally have no issues. Of course, it could change, but it also might not ever change my whole life. There’s a lot of people that have this condition, and they never feel anything.”
Lovato started as a jiu-jitsu talent who transitioned to MMA. He was a champion at Legacy FC and Bellator before he was told he’d never compete again. And yet, three years later, he is a free agent and still in the fight.
“I had kind of like the perfect story,” he said. “I rose and became a champion, and then I was forced to retire, but I was undefeated. And then coming back, it’s like, ‘Oh, now if I lose, my story doesn’t look so good anymore now’. Just some of those things that maybe when you think too much can start to creep in. But at the end of the day, I had a great camp, I had the people with me that I love and amazing coaches that have been with me on the whole journey. They gave me the confidence and the strength. I knew I was ready.”
The undefeated fighter spent years seeing cavernoma experts to gather data on whether it was safe to resume his MMA career. According to Lovato, doctors said “the risk was less than 2 percent.” But U.S. athletic commissions weren’t convinced.
It’s been hard for Lovato to accept the idea that something out of his control could define his legacy.
“I never really accepted having to stop fighting, and especially losing my belt,” he said. “I mean, I didn’t lose it, but I was the champ and then I never got to defend it. It was almost like it didn’t even happen. Some people didn’t even realize that I won like. In their mind, they thought Mousasi was the champ and stayed the champ and hadn’t lost, because he won the belt right back.”
“Now that I know [doctors say I’m safe to compete], it’s almost even safer, because then I could stay on top of it and check up on it and make sure I’m OK,” he said. “They were all in favor of me continuing to fight. I spent a year and a half talking to the athletic commission, giving them all this information, and at the end of it, they said no. They did a vote, and they voted no.
“That was really hard for me, because then I had to accept that I wasn’t gonna be able to get my belt back, and I could no longer fight in the U.S. or even Europe, because Europe denied me as well.”
MMA Fighting has confirmed that Lovato is currently medically suspended in the U.S. With that, the former Bellator titleholder saw Asia as his last hope to compete in MMA.
“Fighting in Japan has been a dream of mine since I was a kid,” Lovato said. “That was one of the reasons why I was excited to fight for Bellator. I had an offer from the UFC as well, but I went to Bellator because I wanted to make sure I could fight in Japan at some point point, and they work with RIZIN, so it was gonna be something they were gonna help me do.”
Lovato said he was in talks with ONE Championship, but the promotion also passed on signing him. Getting the deal done with INOKI BOM-BA-YE was far easier – promoters simply asked if he was OK to get in a ring.
“I got to put the little gloves back on again, and I got to have my wife and my twin babies there to be a part of it, and I got to hold my babies in the ring after the fight,” he said of the experience. “As hard as it all was, I’m still very, very grateful.
“I accept it all now. As hard as it was to accept before, now I finally feel content. I’m I can rest. I was very uneasy the whole time, but now I feel good.”
As for what’s next, Lovato said he’s just “breathing a little bit and trying to just be present with my family, my babies.” That said, he would absolutely consider the small gloves back on for another night.
“If RIZIN came with an offer, I would definitely consider it,” he said. “I’m not against fighting by any means. I don’t feel like I have to fight anymore, but if the opportunity was there and if it was a good opportunity, I would definitely consider it, [and] a lot of that is because of how good I did feel.
“I know I’m still better than what I was. My wrestling, my grappling, even my striking. I’ve still been training, I have fighters, and I work with them, I train them. Even though it hasn’t been my focus, I know I’ve improved, and I still have a lot of skills that I haven’t shown in MMA. That part is still exciting to me.
“If I had an opportunity, I would need to think about it, I would talk about it with my wife, my team. Sooner or later — much sooner than later — I’m going to stop. I need to stop. I’m gonna be 40 this year. But I still feel good. If I feel good, I’m training good, and I’m in shape and I’m pushing my team every day, it’s hard to not at least consider it.”
Lovato invites the Japanese promotion to give him something to think about.
“Hey, RIZIN, you can still give me a call, send me a message, you know? Feel free, let’s talk,” he said. “I’m here. I’m definitely here.”