Grappler Interviews: Rafael Lovato Jr.


Last Sunday on the Verbal Submission show I co-host with MMA Mania's "Bellator" Brian Hemminger and MMA Valor's Gerry Rodriguez, we had Rafael Lovato Jr.

For those of you that are a little fuzzy on who he is, Lovato Jr. is one of the most accomplished American competitors in Brazilian jiu-jitsu – ever. 

He was the first American to win the Brazilian nationals at the black belt level in 2007 and has collected many other titles and honors over the years. He recently won fourth place in the 88 kg division in Nottingham, England at the Abu Dhabi Combat Club Submission Wrestling World Championship. At 28, Rafael has been a force in elite grappling circles for about a decade now and the Oklahoma City native has trained in multiple martial arts for his entire life. He is a true combat sports devotee and we were lucky enough to find a brief break in his busy schedule to talk. 

Rafael called into our show last Sunday and spent about half an hour with us covering his career, the ADCCs, the state of Brazilian jiu-jitsu and even his picks for the upcoming battle between Nick Diaz and BJ Penn.

Hit the jump and let's get started with a couple questions from Brian Hemminger as a warm-up.

Brian Hemminger: I know you recently have been doing some Muay Thai training with Master Andre Dida [trainer at Black House Gym]. Can you talk about that as that’s a little different from all the work that you’ve been doing in Brazilian jiu-jitsu?

Lovato Jr.:  Yes. I started training Muay Thai more this past year and a half ago with Mauricio Veio, the brother of Andre Dida. They have created Evolucao Thai, which is a Muay Thai system that’s specially designed for MMA. They are both Chute Box black belts and have trained with Anderson Silva, Wanderlei Silva, Shogun Rua and a lot of those guys. It’s an awesome system and I fell in love with it right away. I try to get them out here as much as possible. I grew up doing stand-up when I was a kid, so it’s still in my blood and I like to do it and I bring them out to get as much training as I can.

Hemminger: That’s awesome. Now to take this in a more Brazilian jiu-jitsu direction, your Team Lovato [students from his academies in Oklahoma] has won the overall team title at the UFC Fan Expo at the Grappler’s Quest in Houston this past weekend. Can you talk about about that nice accomplishment?

Lovato Jr.: Yeah, it was an amazing weekend. I just got back from Europe for ADCC [the Abu Dhabi Combat Club tournament covered here on SBNation) and went to straight to Houston. It’s this non-stop series of events for me and it just couldn’t have gone better. I’m super proud of all of them and we had a ton of medals and champions in the divisions  - to the point where we had twice the amount of points as the second place team. A lot of people had so much fun this week and I’m glad that I was able to win my match (against Bruno Bastos) on points. Justin Rader, my first black belt, won his superfight, I received my Hall of Fame award and it was just a great time. 

I wasn’t sure if we would win the team title, as Houston is a bit of a drive for us – it’s about eight hours away. A lot of my best guys were hurt or couldn’t make it out, so I wasn’t sure how it was going to go down, but fortunately we came away with the team title – which was the second time we’ve won a team title at a Grappler’s Quest. Everyone just came together, we all contributed to this and brought our second overall team title home. You know, we just have to put this up on the wall and keep looking for the next one.

Hemminger: You’ve been really busy this past month. Now that you’re back home, have you had a chance to relax yet?

Lovato Jr.: This is my first Sunday back at home in five weeks. I’m pretty happy to be home today and being pretty lazy. 

Ben Thapa: You’ve been all over the world for the last five weeks and more. Nottingham, Houston, Oregon and earlier, trips to Brazil and Abu Dhabi. What keeps you coming back to Oklahoma?

Lovato Jr.: This is home. I’ve lived here since I was eight. My father has had academies here since I was a little kid growing inside the academy and training. We went from a Jeet Kun Do school to a jiu-jitsu school. You know, I fell in love in jiu-jitsu and even though my father and I were always the most advanced people inside the academy, we always had a lot of personal investment in the people around us. I started teaching at a very young age and when I got a little older, I thought there might be a time where I’d move somewhere where there would be more jiu-jitsu and competitions. However, when I got to 18 or 19, I liked the life here, it was simple and my father and I just stayed here while traveling around. It’s nice to have a quiet place to come home and I’ve stayed in contact with people here all my life. 

It didn’t always look like the ideal thing to do, but now that I'm almost thirty years old and I’ve promoted my second black belt, I felt like I made the right decision in building a team and handling the pressure on me as a competitor and to be the best black belt I can be on a high level and my students as well. I got to experience a ton of things in my life so far and as far as being a teacher, I feel like I’m at a high level because I’ve been doing it for so long and I feel like I can get to even higher levels. 

Thapa: Now going back a bit, you’ve mentioned several times the immense value of your family to you. How did you and father get involved with jiu-jitsu and pick it up?

Lovato Jr.: My father was a Jeet Kun Do instructor. Every year in California there was an instructor’s conference, with people like Dan Insosanto and Richard Bustillo. They had these week-long training courses with different instructors for different martial arts. They had a Kali guy and a Muay Thai guy, and their art would be open to others. The Gracies were putting on the UFCs at this time and one year they brought in the Gracies to show us the experience of Brazilian jiu-jitsu. The next year we went back again and the Machado brothers were teaching. We started making more frequent trips to California for a week here or there to train with the Gracies and the Machados. 

Then one of the Machados, Carlos Machado, moved to Dallas, Texas because he had a deal with Chuck Norris. Dallas was about three hours away and we would go there often. My father, he doesn’t like to fly, so he would send me out to California to train and that got me traveling all over the place since I was really young. I would train to compete, learn as much as I could, watch video, take notes, take in as much as possible and then come back home to give it all to my father and teach it to our students. This was a time when it was rare to find a jiu-jitsu school in the country or a black belt, especially in Oklahoma, there wasn’t any YouTube where you could look videos up and so it was harder for us to get a hang of it. So we would go learn, come home to drill non-stop and whenever we did train, we really cherished the knowledge and I would compete as much as possible since I was 15 years old. I competed at a high level even though I never had a regular black belt instructor. My father and I trained together and my father even got his black belt a year before I did [2003 and 2004, respectively].

Thapa: Was this about the time the Machados were on Walker, Texas Ranger?

Lovato Jr.: Yes, that’s why Carlos was in Texas and they had a good deal with Chuck Norris and Norris brought Carlos out for the tv show.

Thapa: How did you decide something like "Yes, I am going to train extremely hard and become a world-class competitor?"

Lovato Jr.: My father had always had me in martial arts since I was young and his hard work gave me discipline. The competitions began when I was really young as I used to compete in Kali as something to do and as I picked up Muay Thai and boxing, competitions were something to do. As I got older, I got into amateur boxing for two or three years. Since I was 13, I’ve been in jiu-jitsu and that brought me over to Brazil for competitions. I love the country and I’ve been there many times for competitions as I got older and older.

Thapa: When you started your training relationship with Saulo Ribeiro and Xande Ribeiro, did you have an idea that it’d last this long?

Lovato Jr.: It was destiny in a way. I was competing so much that it just happened. I was competing on the championship level and I was training really hard to get to that level. I was at the 2000 Brazilian Nationals when I was 17 and Saulo won and I watched him do it. That was my goal and I wanted to be the first American to do it. I didn’t have any championship level black belts to work with at that time and I didn’t have anyone to tell me to fix this and that – all the things you need to do at that level. I ended up fighting Saulo in 2005 as a brown belt. I was fighting black belts when I was a brown belt. I was putting a lot of money into it. I was always a huge fan of Saulo and ended up in the finals with him. I saw him in Brazil later that year and he invited me to train at his academy, he took me out and and I fell in love with the environment and the training. With Xande and the other top guys there, it was a really good place and vibe for me. We kept in touch, he came out to Oklahoma to do a seminar, I went back and the next thing you know, I’m competing at the big tournaments with the Ribeiros. He’s like a brother, I love him and he’s helped me get to that elite level as we’ve both had great successes in the years since.

Thapa: It’s interesting that you note that you were fighting black belts as a brown belt. In the 2011 Abu Dhabi World Pro no-gi finals, you fought Rodolfo Vieira, someone who was known as the "Black Belt Hunter" for fighting black belts as a brown belt and winning. And you won with some nifty usage of the guillotine. What was it like to win that competition?

Lovato Jr.: It was one of the best moments for me. Xande won the same day too . Rodolfo is a tough competitor and maybe the best guy in the game right now aside from guys like Xande and Roger Grace. I don’t think many people expected me to win that match. I was very confident, but I was down early on takedown points and I was able to come back with the guillotine attempts and sweeps to win the match. It’s definitely one of my proudest moments for the year.

Thapa: Now you fought at 92 kg in that competition and at 88 kg in the ADCC, while Rodolfo went to 99 kg. Is 88 to 92 where you’d like to be, or would a move to 99 kg make sense for you?

Lovato Jr.: I’ve never done the 99 kg division at ADCC. I’ve always done the 88 kg because Xande is in the 99 kg. If I was a little bigger, I could go up, but 99 kg is 217 lbs and that’s a little big for me. I’d rather go down in weight to 88 lbs, where I’m the same size as everyone else after cutting the weight. 

Thapa: How would you describe your ADCC experience with the run to the semi-finals where you unfortunately lost to Palhares by footlock? What was that like for you?

Lovato Jr.: It’s emotional. The ADCC is such a huge tournament and ever since I was a little kid starting out in jiu-jitsu, I saw this really high level tournament out in Abu Dhabi, with the Sheikh, and all of the money and the prizes, it was like "Wow, man, someday…." 
When I first got invited to the ADCCs, it was such an awesome feeling as it was one of the things I dreamed about. Now this year’s tournament was my third time there and I was going for gold, but unfortunately it didn’t happen. Making it through the first day, with some tough matches was a good feeling. I made it to the semifinals on the second day where I lost by leglock [to Rousimar Palhares] and because I was injured, I really wasn’t able to compete at 100% for third place [against Pablo Popovitch].

Thapa: You created a lot of goodwill by coming out for that third place match for Popovitch while visibly limping. Was it a serious injury and what was your thought process in coming out for the match with the injury?

Lovato Jr.: Basically, it wasn’t so bad that I couldn’t play. When you can’t continue, they put someone else in to compete. Your performance is crucial to the event and they want to put on good matches. I don’t like the idea of being replaced so even if I wasn’t at 100%, I knew I could play some guard and go out there to do my best. Fortunately, Popovitch didn’t go after my leg or go crazy on my foot to make it worse. I did my best to be on the podium, but I couldn’t play the game as I can normally. Hopefully next time, I’ll do better.

Thapa: Do you have any thoughts on Palhares, as he had some controversy with the David Avellan kneebar and other times too?

Lovato Jr.: Um…  you know… the best man won that day. His strength and power all goes into a dangerous package. He does seem a little weird in competitions. Things happen with him, you know, with the Nate Marquardt fight when he talked to the referee, the fight in Brazil [against Dan Miller] and so on. I don’t know the thought process of that guy. He takes a lotta legs too. 

The whole thing with his weight was kind of unfair that on Friday for our first weigh-in, we had to make weight that first time or be disqualified. That’s what they told us all along and he didn’t make it right away. I take weight very seriously and trained hard to make that weight and made it through the whole weekend with no problems. I asked the question of what happens if he doesn’t make weight. Braulio Estima even said that Palhares was replaced by a Polish guy for Saturday, but it turned out that he did make weight afterwards. With myself, Galvao and the other competitors making weight, it didn’t seem fair. 

On Sunday, at 10:00, I weigh in under the limit and I hear that Palhares is over again. At first, I was thinking that he might not compete as he was over, but it turned out that Avellan’s leg was messed up, so they brought him back in. Toquinho had to cut some weight to make the weight again. So it was 20 or 30 minutes after my match was supposed to start that we went on. It was kind of weird from the get go and with all the controversies surrounding him, especially the slapping people on the back. It was a different vibe from him than there is from other grappling competitors. It was a different energy.

Thapa: Did you feel like there was a certain pushing or violation of the unwritten rules of grappling? As in "most competitors try to be careful with leglocks or profoundly injure you" and things like that?

Lovato Jr.: You know, I did get hurt, but I’m not trying to overhaul the rules. ADCCs are the ADCCs. Last time in 2009, I got hurt too and that was against Braulio [the eventual 88 kg and Absolute champion]. There’s a lot of money on the line and elite comptition, people get hurt there. That’s just the trend. There is a lot of leglocks in that sort of competition and people put them in and put them in hard for the finish. That doesn’t bother me. I’m prepared for that. There does need to be complete enforcement of the rules though.

Thapa: Moving away from the ADCCs, you’ve been all over the world for various competitions and seminars, as well as having your own academies. Do you have any views on whether Brazilian jiu-jitsu has gotten to a saturation point or whether it has some more to go? Also, whether people can make a true living as professional competitor?

Lovato Jr.: In terms of making a living, I don’t think so no. There’s not too much money in terms of sponsorship deals. There’s so much travel, competition fees and so on. Everyone has to have some sort of academy, a bunch of seminars, they have to put out DVDs and other products. All of those things have to be done to make money. Or go into MMA. I don’t think it’s there now. We have to get enough media exposure to where we can get truly high level sponsors and tournament support– that’s how we’d make money. Basically the only thing we can do to get more money – or any money at all - is to get seminars, get people to buy your DVDs/products, build marketing materials for your school and so on. No matter what, you have to use something to get something else here. Even the best sponsors right now aren’t that lucrative. In mixed martial arts, there is a way for Brazilian jiu-jitsu to get more exposure. However, we’re not on the mainstream/cable channels like MMA is moving towards. It’s going to take a while for that to happen, if it does happen.

Thapa: I have two more questions for you. First, are there any shout-outs or people to thank that you’d like to mention?

Lovato Jr.: Yes. For all my fans and fellow jiu-jitsu people out there who follow what I do, thank you for your support. For my sponsors – I have some really good sponsors –, Martial Arts Recovery - you can find their supplements online at martialartsrecovery.com1914 BJJ Kimonos. Other than that I’d like to tell everyone that you can follow me online at, on my Facebook page and on Twitter. Keep an eye out for the great things I’m working on and I feel like my jiu-jitsu is at a truly high level and I want to share that knowledge. I’m always open for seminars and so on. I’ll put out DVDs and books in the future. That’s just about it.

Thapa: One last question. Who do you have between Nick Diaz and BJ Penn at UFC 137 this weekend?

Lovato Jr.: Umm… I don’t know... 

Thapa: Come on, we gotta have you pick one or the other.

Lovato Jr.: I haven’t thought about it too much, but I’ll try. It’s going to be three rounds. I think in three rounds, BJ is really tough to defeat. Nick Diaz is a great fighter with a great all-around game and is pretty much impossible to finish. I think he’s going to give BJ a hard time and maybe try to gas BJ out. But since it’s a three round fight, it’s really hard to take two rounds from BJ. I’ll take BJ.

Thapa: If it were five rounds, would you consider Nick Diaz?

Lovato Jr.: Yeah. If it were five rounds, it’d be much harder to choose between the two.

Thapa: Thank you, Professor, for sharing your Sunday with us.

Lovato Jr.: No problem. Thank you guys and I appreciate it.

For those interested in hearing the original Verbal Submission interview, it can be found here or at There is some Bellator 55 talk at the beginning and at the very end, Brian, Gerry and I supply our picks for Diaz/Penn.
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