Everybody loves a good throwback. Whether it’s the old NFL uniforms, the old Coors or Miller Lite labels or that Run D.M.C. song that pops up here and there, it’s a wonderful feeling of nostalgia. Oh, how we long for the good ol’ days.
Remember the karate and kickboxing fad of the eighties? Martial arts was a very different landscape. Wrestling was not commingled with martial arts, and there was no such thing as no-gi, except in the old pankration styles.
Turn the television to the Paramount Network on Saturday, April 28, and you’ll find a stacked card for Bellator 198, which takes place at the Allstate Arena in Rosemont, Ill. In a middleweight showdown, a very classic, traditional martial artist will show up without his gi, and nobody would ever guess him to be a polite, respectful warrior. Rafael Lovato Jr. is there for one reason and one reason only.
Lovato is currently an undefeated MMA fighter. He has been tearing through the competition, climbing to the highest levels of the Bellator ranks. He is 34 years old, but he’s just getting started. That’s an interesting concept for one of the most successful Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu competitors in history.
The third-degree black belt is no stranger to competition. He has been practicing martial arts for most of his life, starting with Jeet Kune Do as a child. Martial arts is not a hobby. It’s not a fun thing he does on weekends. Fighting is truly in his DNA. It’s not just the cool thing to do. This is why he looks like such a badass in the cage.
“I’m a martial artist,” Lovato told Combat Press. “This has been my whole life, and I feel like I bring something different to the cage, as far as my mentality, my philosophy and my lifestyle of training. I’m a little more throwback, and I always go for the finish. I have that samurai mindset, like you’re pulling your sword. You know, a samurai would never pull his sword and not go for the kill. I’m going for the kill. I’m going for it one way or the other. I’m always going forward. Whether on the feet or on the ground, I’m always looking for the finish.”
In professional MMA, Lovato is 7-0 with four submissions and two knockouts. In jiu-jitsu competition, he is 87-42 with 41 submission wins and only seven submission losses. Of course, these are just statistics to the layperson, but to Lovato’s next MMA opponent this should matter in a very big way.
At Bellator 198, middleweight John Salter steps back into the promotion’s cage for the sixth time to face Lovato. The former UFC veteran and NAIA All-American wrestler has yet to lose in Bellator. He has logged four submissions and one TKO finish. He’s a hard-wrestling grinder. For a true martial artist like Lovato — one who has competed at the highest levels of BJJ for over a decade — he welcomes this challenge with open arms.
“I’m so excited,” Lovato said. “I keep taking those steps up every time, and now I have another big challenge, you know? I like being the underdog. Salter has got a lot of experience. He’s a southpaw, and it’s my first time with that. I was scheduled to fight a southpaw earlier on in my MMA career, but the opponent pulled out because of injury.
“My biggest takeaway from Salter is that he’s primarily a ground fighter. He uses his wrestling to take everybody down and getting finish after finish. I like his style of fighting, because it’s clean and efficient. He’s been doing a great job of taking everybody out one by one. He hasn’t really been in any type of war yet, at least inside the Bellator cage. That’s why I feel I’m going to make him use some other skills, because I’m not just going to get taken down and get finished like all of his other opponents have inside Bellator.”
With world-class experience comes world-class training. This is one of the reasons Lovato has been so successful and remains so cool and confident against a very tough opponent. He begins his training by going down to Florida to work on his movement with Cameron Shayne at the Budokon University. From there, he travels to Toronto to train with his Muay Thai teacher, Mauricio “Veio” Amado of Evolução Thai, for a week before coming home to his academy, Lovato’s School of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and MMA in Oklahoma City, where he also works with his wrestling coach, Brian Picklo. That might seem like a lot of bouncing around, but the fun was yet to begin.
“I spent two weeks in Curitiba, Brazil,” Lovato explained. “I go there before every fight. There, I trained with the Evolução Thai team, but it’s Mauricio’s brother, Andre ‘Dida,’ who runs the academy down there. Down there in Brazil, there’s like 50 professional fighters on the team — tons of big guys, tons of southpaws, and a lot of hard training. It’s very, very intense.
“While I’m there, I’m praying, and when I leave there, I’m still praying, but I’m praying first that I don’t get hurt and then praying thanks that I didn’t get hurt. I made it home healthy and in great shape, and I couldn’t feel any better at this point in my camp.”
Salter and Lovato are vying for a shot at the Bellator middleweight title, which is currently held by Rafael Carvalho, who is in an interesting place. Carvalho’s contract expires after his next fight. On May 25, at Bellator 200, the champ faces former top-five UFC middleweight Gegard Mousasi, who won his Bellator debut last fall in a very lackluster manner. Prior to that disappointing outing, Mousasi would have looked like a really tough challenger to the hard-hitting Carvalho, who has not lost since his pro debut. Carvalho holds 11 knockouts in 15 fights. He has held the strap for over two and a half years now. Mousasi, meanwhile, has won his last six fights.
“I got to say, I’m leaning towards Carvalho,” Lovato said. “His stand-up is really, really, really good. And, I don’t know, Mousasi didn’t really impress too much in his last fight, and I don’t know where his head’s at as far as being in Bellator — if he feels it’s a step down or he’s not really into it or what. They are two really good martial artists. Mousasi’s a very complete fighter, and he’s got to use his other skills like his grappling and wrestling, because if it stays on the feet, Carvalho is going to be able to finish him. I am definitely going to be watching it and paying close attention to what happens.”
Lovato’s path is simple. It’s a straight line to the belt. However, Salter will be his toughest test yet. Lovato’s last fight, against Chris Honeycutt, was his first to go the distance. A trained finisher like Lovato doesn’t take kindly to going to the scorecards, but the Honeycutt fight did provide him with more ammo as he climbs into the upper ranks.
“In the beginning, no, I wasn’t happy [about the outcome],” Lovato admitted. “I wasn’t happy that I didn’t get a finish and that there were moments that were not exciting. I ended up getting stalled out a little bit and held against the cage. I didn’t like the way that felt. I don’t want to be a part of anything that’s not exciting.
“There were definitely aspects that I was happy with, and when the dust settled, I really put it into perspective, feeling really happy that I got that experience and got cage time. I felt my cardio go the whole way. I felt how someone might try to approach me in a different manner, as far as pinning me up against the cage. I had never had that happen in a fight yet, so it let me know what I needed to work on. Overall, I was very happy to show more skills. I have more than one way to win a fight.”
Now, Salter is the only thing standing between the grappling ace and a Bellator title shot.
“This is going to be a more exciting fight than my last fight, and, definitely, it could turn into a war,” said the BJJ legend. “Everyone is not going to want to miss it. I’m hoping to give the fans what they want.
“We’ll just see how it goes. I’m not sure what his strategy is or how he wants to use his wrestling. I think Honeycutt, on paper, is the better wrestler, but Salter has better jiu-jitsu. Whereas Honeycutt didn’t want to stay on the ground very long, Salter, with the better jiu-jitsu, might be more comfortable staying down for a jiu-jitsu fight. We’ll see how it goes. I’m ready for any way it could play out.”
Much to his chagrin, Lovato has largely flown under the radar of the mainstream MMA fan. Some of this may be due to the fact that they don’t follow jiu-jitsu very closely, or it may be just the fact that he hasn’t fought on a marquee card yet.
The Bellator 198 not only takes place outside of the region where Lovato has competed in his first seven MMA fights, but it also features a huge card with a real throwback. Frank Mir faces Fedor Emelianenko in the heavyweight tournament. There’s a featherweight showdown between Emmanuel Sanchez and Sam Sicilia, too. Furthermore, BJJ black belt Dillon Danis will make his MMA debut.
“Pretty much all of my fights have been in either Oklahoma, Texas or right on the border,” Lovato said. “I’ve driven to all my fights [and] had all my students there, and, this time around, traveling isn’t really going to affect me, because I’ve been traveling to compete in jiu-jitsu my whole life. That’s not really going to make a difference to me. The part that I’m excited for is to be on a main, more hyped-up card that’s going to have more media coverage, and everyone will be watching.
“The cards in Oklahoma don’t have that many big-name fighters on them. To be on the card with Fedor — and the whole main card is just a really great card — I’m excited for all the eyes to be watching. Salter and I are two guys — this is a number-one contender fight — who can put on an impressive performance and make a statement. I’m super excited for it.”
Lovato may be a throwback in the sense that he is a traditional martial artist. He is a shining example of the honor, respect and loyalty that comes from the martial arts, but the samurai will draw his sword when the cage door closes.