Rafael Lovato Jr. makes his Bellator debut March 3rd when he takes on Wayman Carter at Bellator 174. Lovato had a standout 2016 going undefeated in MMA and grappling including winning and defending the Legacy FC middleweight title while his future still holds a superfight in the ADCC West Coast trials and a slot in the ADCC Worlds.
KM: Previously you went from training camps for grappling events into training camps for fighting, this time it is backwards. How prepared do you feel for your Bellator debut and what was different in this training camp?
RL: I didn’t do anything different. I brought in the same people and I went to Brazil. This time I actually stayed a little longer in Curitiba, close to three weeks. I had an amazing training camp altogether and the time in Brazil was perfect. Really really hard training there. Lots of intense sparring. Wanderlei was around a lot, I actually trained with him quite a bit as well as a lot of the top guys. My last fight there was a great growing experience because I didn’t get the takedown quickly and I had to exchange a lot more, get more comfortable in the standup aspects. I focused a lot on my hands this time around. I feel my legs are already pretty good, I have good kicks so when I was with Dida we focused a lot on my hands. That is about it, everything else was same-old-dame-old. Just get in really great shape and try to get as good as I possibly can be.
KM: You said “great growing experience because I didn’t get the takedown quickly”. You talked before about training all aspects including striking before but what was that growing experience like at this point in your career? What is it like to change your strategy now?
RL: We talked before there is a lot of naturalness when it comes to striking in my blood. I boxed for a few years as a kid. Obviously I was away from it for a long time, especially at the serious level. Now I definitely feel it is starting to get more and more natural to exchange better, to understand better, to move better. Obviously fighting is one thing and sparring another. I already felt really good sparring, that I was doing well on the feet but the last fight was the first fight I felt “now you got to show what you can do”. I think that was the first one to be like “now I got it out of the way and feel a little more confident in what to expect of myself”. I was really happy and comfortable with myself. I didn’t go for crazy takedowns, I stayed calm and patient until I got him down and everything worked out. Now having gone through that I feel the next time it comes for me to exchange I’m going to be so much better.
KM: What are your thoughts on Wayman Carter? He has more experience at MMA than you. What do you know about him?
RL: He didn’t have much video footage on YouTube or anything like that. Looking at his record the majority of his victories have been by submission and the majority of his defeats have been by submission as well. I can imagine he is comfortable on the ground having been in that range in a lot of his fights. I also know he had some boxing fights and kickboxing fights. He is very tall, actually taller than me and has one of the longest reaches in MMA. I imagine he is going to try to use his reach to keep me away and keep the fight on the feet. Basically my game plan is the same as usual, try to be better everywhere. Use my striking to set up the clinch and obviously I want to get it to the ground at some point and get the submission. We’ll see what happens. He might look to engage in a clinching range with me, maybe try to put me on my back since he does have the submission victories. Maybe he will try to surprise me, we’ll see.
KM: He fought in Titan FC before and RFA, fought in Bellator once before. This is your biggest challenge to date in MMA.
RL: For me every fight, every event is the accumulation of a lifetime of work. Every moment is the most important moment, every day is the most important day because everything you have ever done got you to this point. I definitely treat every challenge like this with the utmost respect and give my best to be as professional as possible. We’ll see how the fight goes. Maybe I’ll finish the fight quick, maybe it will be a full three rounds. It doesn’t matter, I’m ready for everything.
KM: Your last two fights were title fights, five five-minute rounds. This is back to three rounds. Was that any difference in training?
RL: It was nice to know on certain days I didn’t need to push quite as long as for those five-round fights. There definitely were some sparring days where I tried to get double the amount I would fight, ten rounds. That is more chance to break down the body. On certain days I felt my body was maybe a little tired and needed the break it was nice to know this is only a three-round fight, I don’t need to do as many rounds. However I do need to make sure I start fast and don’t cruise because I don’t want to lose a round in a three-round fight…that puts a lot of pressure. I would say definitely it wasn’t as long but was as intense.
KM: A couple LFA shows ago the announcer asked the winner what he thought of fighting you for that title but I thought you would be under exclusive contract with Bellator. What is your contract situation with LFA now?
RL: I’m not on contract with them, I completed that. I’m 100% with Bellator, have a four-fight deal.
KM: How do you feel about being with Bellator?
RL: I really enjoyed my time with Legacy. I have so much respect for them and to see where they are at now as LFA it is awesome. I probably would have stayed with them a little longer and got more experience but being where I am it was time to take that next step, Bellator just felt like the perfect next move for several reasons. Number one they have events here in my area of the country, I get to make my debut two hours (drive) from my academy on the border of OK and TX. Actually Justin Wren who is a very-well known MMA fighter and an incredible person with an amazing story is a student of my now, is on the same card. There are several things about it that feels right, both of us going through camp together. Just talking over with my coaches and manager Bellator just felt like the next step, a place I can really make my mark. So far so good, I feel good. I’m looking forward to experiencing the emotion for the first time and hopefully becoming one of the faces of the event.
KM: So you prefer Bellator at this stage in your career to the UFC?
RL: Yes. Four fights was a little light to get into the UFC. I thought about it but if I go there I want to go full-charge 100% prepared. I didn’t feel I was at that point yet but did feel I was ready for the next challenge. It isn’t like Bellator isn’t a big step up, it is…but a little more room for me to find my place and get the experience I need. Now that I’m in there I’m looking at it the same as I did Legacy. I want to work my way up and hopefully become the champion one day.
KM: Obviously you are looking at the challenge in front of you but you do still have two big grappling events coming up. You recently were named FloGrappling Masters Black Belt of the Year award for 2016. How has the balance changed for you between grappling and MMA?
RL: 2016 was an incredible year. I managed to go completely undefeated in MMA, no-gi competition, and gi competition. I had several superfights and a lot of big events, obviously the Legacy title and defending that. I was really really happy I was able to be at a high level in everything I love. I feel MMA has made me better at jiu-jitsu, made me a better martial artist, made me understand more about myself as an athlete and as a competitor. Even though my focus may be broader as far as what I have to train and what I am preparing for I feel the urge to keep challenging myself, staying sharp and staying at the highest level in jiu-jitsu as well. Not so much with tournaments but mainly for superfights and great opportunities such as the Buchecha (Marcus Almeida) superfight I’m going to have. Right now I still feel it is totally doable for me to balance between the two. Between the two it keeps me active, keeps the adrenaline pumping, and it sharpens. I don’t want to get too far away form that because that is what got me to where I am today. Maybe next year I’ll make a title run in Bellator or something like that and tone things down on the other end. We’ll see. As far as grappling goes I’m grappling every day for MMA so no-gi events will be fairly easy to handle. Jiu-jitsu superfights with the gi would take a little more time and dedication to prepare for in the case of someone who was very current and elite, I would need more time to put the gi on and really get sharp. Otherwise I’m not really thinking so much about it, I’m just having fun and taking it one step at a time, take advantage of all the great opportunities. I feel young right now. My body is good, my mind is good, lets do as much as we can.
KM: Anything else to get across to the fans?
RL: I would like to thank the jiu-jitsu world and all my fans who have been so supportive to me, so excited to watch me in the cage. I know some of them are like “I want to see you in this tournament or that tournament” but deep down everyone has given me so much love and support. That really means a lot to me. I’m going to continue to do as much as I can. I’m still doing seminars and teaching online, I’m not disconnecting from the jiu-jitsu world one bit. I’ll be there coaching my guys at all the major tournaments and am still around watching and studying and always training jiu-jitsu every day. To feel the love and support from all my fans in the jiu-jitsu world as I chase my dreams in MMA has been very incredible.