Rafael Lovato, Jr etched his name into grappling folklore when he became the first American to win the Brazilian National Jiu Jitsu (BNJJ) championship as a black belt in 2007. That same year, Lovato would become only the third American to win the World Championship at black belt in sport Jiu Jitsu, and would again set records in 2013 by becoming the first American to win the BNJJ championship in the Absolute, or open weight division. He has also claimed European, Pan-American, World Masters, and World NoGi titles in an incredibly accomplished grappling career that sets him well apart from many less-distinguished Brazilian Jiu Jitsu black belts on the MMA scene.
In September 2014, Lovato brought that incredible grappling acumen to mixed martial arts. Having started training in an MMA-oriented Muay Thai style alongside Mauricio Veio in 2010, Lovato appears to have held designs on a run at MMA for some time. The results, to date, have been duly outstanding.
Legacy FC added Lovato to their prospect-heavy roster, and immediately pitted the BJJ ace against 4-1 Canaan Grigsby for his pro debut. Grigsby, a 6’3 middleweight, was riding a three fight TKO streak at the time Lovato came calling. Respectful of his opponents’ striking, Lovato quickly closed the distance on Grigsby and worked a takedown from a clinch against the fence. On the ground, perhaps unsurprisingly, Grigsby had no answer. Avoiding a potential crucifix early was Grigsby’s finest work. From that point on, Canaan battled in vain to frustrate Lovato’s active and suffocating top game, which effortlessly morphed into a triangle choke attempt from half guard, before Rafael progressed the hold to a hybrid full mount-side control situation. Seemingly reluctant to commit to a traditional and technical full side control finish, Lovato visibly cranked the hold tighter and tighter, forcing the tap after a period of uncomfortable pressure.
It was the sort of performance Brazilian Jiu Jitsu greats have hoped for from their MMA debuts in the past, but have not always been able to deliver. Lovato, however, looked superbly well-prepared
Another 6’3, 4-1 prospect awaited Lovato in his second outing. Kevin ‘Trail Blazer’ Holland, these days an impressive 9-2 prospect with 9 finishes to his record, threatened a potential upset – on paper. A well-versed Muay Thai striker, Holland represented no easy out in October 2015. Still, the fight did not last long on the feet, and in truth, did not last long, period. Lovato, exhibiting enviable takedown ability for a mat technician of his rank and résumé, looked every bit the nightmare opponent his debut made him out to be. Holland twisted and turned off his back, hoping perhaps to unseat the BJJ master, but his efforts proved futile. While Grigsby endured just over four minutes of action, Lovato put Holland away in 84 seconds – this time by rear naked choke.
Rafael Lovato was taking to MMA like a duck to water, living up to every one of his hard-earned grappling credentials. The truth was, the Carlos Machado-trained ace had scarcely struggled against two very credible opponents. Next up, however, he would face a fellow undefeated up-and-comer in Marcelo Nunes for the Legacy FC Middleweight title. Nunes, a Rob Drysdale-trained fighter, held serious BJJ accolades of his own. Having worked up from world champion at blue belt right up to holding his own in the black belt ranks, Nunes also began a foray into the annals of Muay Thai, amassing an impressive 7-0 record. Nunes, who admitted to respecting Lovato at the time, felt the Oklahoma native lacked the aggression inherent in Drysdale’s own Jiu Jitsu stylistics.
Still, there was little doubt who’s grappling would be favoured should the bout hit the floor as Lovato’s first two outings had, but here there was more respect in the air. Lovato started out looking to work his ever-evolving stand up, though Nunes appeared to have the advantage in that field early on. Catching a kick and dumping Lovato on his backside, Nunes was smarter than to commit to the temptation of top position. Unfortunately for Nunes, Lovato made no such concessions when he completed a double leg takedown with two minutes of the first stanza remaining. Lovato tried to work a rear naked choke, but Nunes proved he was no slouch, seeing out the rest of the round.
The second round did not start promisingly for Nunes, a driving right hand-takedown combination putting Nunes where he didn’t want to be – but Nunes would quickly turn the tables, opting to stand from top position and resume the fight on the feet. It could have been a demoralising moment for Lovato, as could a slip from a head kick just moments later. Instead, the mis-step proved a crucial moment for the multiple-time BJJ world champion, as Nunes hovered over looking to drop bombs from his feet. Lovato laced his legs around Nunes, and though never really getting full control of his opponent, Lovato equally refused to let him go. Rising to a clinch against the fence, Lovato stuck to Nunes like glue, dragging him to the mat, and eventually establishing mount. Here, Lovato rode several hip-escape attempts from a wily and well-trained Nunes, but he would not be denied. Lovato opted for strikes rather than submissions, landing damaging shots that forced the referee to wave off the contest. It was Lovato’s first TKO victory, and his longest fight to that point – what’s more, it was his first title win in mixed martial arts.
Heading the queue of challengers, Cortez Coleman sported a 13-6 record, a ton of experience across TUF, Bellator, and Strikeforce, as well as a three-fight win streak. Would it be enough?
Sporting far greater takedown defence than the likes of Grigsby and Holland, Coleman had the wherewithal to utilise vicious elbows and a plethora of anti-grappling techniques to not only deny Lovato, but wear him down in the process. Where there had been an air of inevitability about Lovato’s ability to conquer his foes via takedowns and top control in previous fights, Coleman was able to have more of a say in regards to level changes. Coleman fought hard for positions, mixed things up with dirty boxing and superior footwork, and even scored a knock down with a body shot-right hook combination. As the rounds wore on, Lovato found himself in unfamiliar territory in the third stanza, and if stamina was a question, Lovato passed with flying colours.
Dragging the fight to the mat, Lovato came 55 seconds short of a 15-minute outing when Coleman tapped to an armbar mid-transition – and though he’d been forced to endure more adversity than he’d known up to that point, Lovato remained perfect in terms of record and finishes. He was 4-0, and the best Legacy FC had to offer.
That was November 2016. In early 2017, Lovato signed a contract with Bellator, and quickly debuted against 4-4 Charles Hackmann in March. The fight did not last. A glancing head kick rocked Hackmann, and Lovato showed devastating poise with two pinpoint accurate knees to follow up – a few punches against the fence later, and this one was over. A total of thirteen seconds had elapsed.
While the Hackmann fight hardly seemed like a spiritual successor to Lovato’s run in Legacy, future fights retain a palpable air of anticipation as he commits to the banner of one of the United States’ major MMA players. Bellator no doubt have themselves one of the most outstanding prospects in the game, and at 33, Lovato looks to have time on his side as he continues to improve.
The MMA Vanguard urges fans to keep an eye out for this world class BJJ player.