Rafael Lovato Jr. could be one of the most successful Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu practitioners to ever transition into MMA. Just five years since making his professional debut, the multiple-time BJJ world champion has already managed to bag the middleweight title in Bellator.
Lovato’s further rise to MMA superstardom, unfortunately, is likely to take a pause. As the 36-year-old fighter revealed on his recent appearance JRE MMA Show, he’d been diagnosed with Cavernoma, a rare brain disease. About one out of 200 people are affected in the United States,
Cavernoma happens when a cluster of abnormal blood cells form in the brain and spinal cord. The severity and duration of its symptoms vary depending on where it is located. Experts have yet to pinpoint the exact cause of the disease, but less than 50% of cases are said to be genetic in nature.
According to Lovato, the doctors found out about his condition when he was required to undergo a brain scan ahead of his Bellator 223 title fight against Gegard Mousasi in London last June.
“I could sense something was going on,” Lovato told Joe Rogan (transcript by MMA Junkie). “The radiologist, with really no candor or an easy or soft way of saying it, was like, ‘Dude, have you seen your brain before? There’s some stuff in here you need to see.’ He pulls me into the room and shows me on the screen, pointing out what looked like little balls.
“It looked like something was wrong – not a normal scan. But I don’t know – like shades of discoloration. You could see that it wasn’t normal. He didn’t even know what it was at the time.
“I go back and he tells me that he did some research and he believes I have a disease called Cavernoma. He hits me with that. I had no idea what Cavernoma was. He said, ‘Look, I’m not signing this paper (to give you clearance). You need to go see a specialist and get looked at. But as far as I know, you should not fight. You should not be fighting.’”
Lovato went on to seek for a second opinion, which he did in Brazil in the middle of his training camp. He eventually got the green light to compete from one of the country’s highly respected neurologists.
“He said, ‘There are no studies that say getting hit in your head is going to make your cavernoma worse, or cause you to bleed and something is going to happen,’” Lovato explained. “He said, ‘You could bleed, you could be oozing blood at any point in time, little by little. It could become an issue at some point in time. But there is no treatment. We’re not going to do surgery.
“‘There’s nothing that’s going to happen until you have symptoms, until you show signs,” he continued. “Because I can’t find any studies that say getting hit in the head is going to make it worse, and because you’re a normal, healthy, functioning person at this point, I think it’s fine for you to fight. You should continuing doing what you do until it becomes a problem. And if it does become a problem, we’ll go in there and take it out.’”
Given this diagnosis, Lovato says he is putting his fighting future on hold.
“I’m not officially retiring. I am indefinitely on the sidelines right now,” he said. “I am actively seeing more doctors and working toward learning more about this. Obviously I want to keep fighting. I still have hope that if I can continue to still see more doctors and get more knowledge.
“This is such a rare and unique thing. No one knows too much. I’m getting some people saying, ‘No. No way.’ Then I’ve got these other specialists and people who have dealt with it that go, ‘Yeah, it’s OK.’ It’s indefinite.”
For the time being, Lovato will put his focus on grappling competitions. And if worst comes to worst and he is deemed incapable of continuing his fighting career, he is willing to accept that fate.
“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,” he said. “If they have to set up a fight to determine a new champion, (that’s OK). I’m going to do everything I can to hopefully get approved to come back. But it’s sort of an indefinite time.”
Lovato holds an undefeated record at 10-0 (with eights wins by stoppage).