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Rafael Lovato Jr. relinquishes Bellator title: ‘I dreamed of having a long reign as champion’

The middleweight champion has been forced to put his MMA career on indefinite hold after being diagnosed with a rare brain condition ahead of his last bout.

Callum Knowles | Bloody Elbow

Brazilian Jiu Jitsu star Rafael Lovato Jr. took MMA by storm. The former IBJJF world champion first stepped into the cage professionally back in 2014. In the next two years, he took his MMA record to a perfect 4-0—and found himself quickly signed by Bellator for his trouble.

Some may have wondered if the then 33-year-old would ever be more than a fascinating feature fighter in the promotion, along the lines of a Hisaki Kato or Jack Swagger. But Lovato instantly proved himself a legitimate top-shelf contender—running out a 5-0 record with the promotion on the way to his 2019 title shot. The 4th degree BJJ black belt would go on to face former DREAM and Strikeforce champion Gegard Mousasi for Mousasi’s Bellator middleweight title at Bellator 223, besting the Iranian-born Dutchman to win his first major MMA belt.

Unfortunately, the first signs that trouble might be on the horizon appeared in the lead up to his fight against Mousasi. With the bout taking place in London, Lovato Jr. was required to get a more thorough examination than previous fights required. That included a brain scan that led to a diagnosis of a rare condition known as Cavernoma, caused by a cluster of abnormal blood cells forming in the brain and spinal cord. After consulting with multiple physicians, Lovator Jr. was ultimately allowed to go ahead with his title bout. It’s a decision that has since been called into question. And Lovato Jr. now claims he is very unlikely to ever be approved to fight in Europe again, and that he has put his career “indefinitely on the sidelines” as a result.

All of which has led to the decision on Monday, February 10th, that Lovato Jr. would relinquish his Bellator middleweight title.

“My journey with my team and family to become the Bellator middleweight world champion was incredible and something I will cherish forever,” Lovato said of his decision to vacate his title (h/t MMA Fighting). “I dreamed of having a long reign as champion, but sometimes life has another plan.

“Bellator has been very supportive during this difficult process, a situation that has never really happened before in our sport. I know the division must move on while I am on the sidelines and I wish everyone great fights on their way to that belt. I will be working to come back if it is possible – and if not, life will continue to be amazing for me and I look forward to working with Bellator in another fashion.”

In the meantime, the Viacom MMA promotion may already have its next middleweight title fight waiting in the wings. Following the announcement of Lovato Jr.’s hiatus, Brian Butler – manager for current welterweight champion Douglas Lima – told MMA Junkie that Lima and his camp are pushing for a fight against Gegard Mousasi for the now vacant belt. And it’s a challenge that Mousasi sounds very willing to accept.

“Bellator, send me the next victim. I’m hungry.” Mousasi wrote in a recent post on Twitter, highlighting Lima and John Salter as possible opponents.

Since Mousasi and Lovato already seemed primed to rematch their title fight sometime in the near future, it seems likely that Mousasi will be a part of whatever Bellator’s next step for the 185 lb belt becomes. Whether or not that’s against Lima, however, remains to be seen.