For Rafael Lovato Jr., his upcoming title shot at the Bellator middleweight championship was one part successful visualization meeting one part arising opportunity.
One of jiu-jitsu’s most highly decorated players has only been a full-time MMA fighter for about two years, but he’s already managed to work his way into championship contention, as the 9-0 Lovato will challenge Gegard Mousasi at Bellator 214 in Inglewood, Calif., on Jan. 26.
“It was definitely my goal and my vision to be fighting for the belt around this time,” Lovato said on Monday’s edition of The MMA Hour with Luke Thomas. “Everything has just worked out perfectly, it’s been quite a ride. I’m super thankful to be in this position right now.”
Lovato knew he had put himself in position to get a title shot with his third-round submission win over John Salter at Bellator 205 in September. But it’s always a question of timing, as Mousasi had defended his belt against Rory MacDonald at Bellator 209 just two months ago and may or may not have been available to defend his title any time soon.
But Mousasi indicated he wanted to defend his title again, and Bellator wanted a loaded show on an evening in which the company go head-to-head with UFC 233 in Anaheim, so everything came into place for Lovato.
“You never really know how that’s going to go, so a lot of it kind of rested on what Mousasi wanted to do,” Lovato said. “So if he had said ‘nah, I don’t want to fight that guy, I’ll wait for [Lyoto] Machida,’ I think Bellator probably would have granted his wish.”
But he wants to be a really active champion right now, which is amazing, and the fact that the UFC happened to be on the same day, i think they really wanted to stack the card up and get two title fights on there, and so it all just worked out like destiny, you know? Mousasi wanted to fight, I earned my spot, and you know Bellator wants to make the card stacked, so here we are.”
If Lovato feels destined to be an MMA champion, one only has to look at his jiu-jitsu background to understand why. He’s had a gold, silver, and six bronze medals at the World Jiu-Jitsu Championships, and is a three-time World No-Gi Championships gold medalist.
Lovato feels that puts him in a rare spot in the MMA world: He’s 35, which is late to be getting your career up and running, but he’s got a mix of high-level experience minus the sort of damage that a mixed martial artist has usually accumulated by his age, with six of his nine pro fights finishing inside two rounds.
“I don’t have tons of grueling, grinding fights that put the miles on my body, so that’s a good thing,” Lovato said. “I am older, but still young in MMA, in the MMA game. So I don’t quite know that damage or that mileage. I think the fact I’m older is also a plus too because I came into this sport very aware of who I was and what my goals were, what I’m trying to accomplish, with a good head on my shoulders. I’m not out there just tying to make a big name or whatever, or kind of feather my ego or anything like that. I’ve already made my mark in the martial arts, and I’m very happy with that so for me that was a very enjoyable challenge and and an enjoyable journey.”
Lovato sees himself as something of a dying breed. Sport jiu-jitsu is progressing by leaps and bounds in recent years. Fighters can make names and money for themselves on superfight cards and build their brands over social media, and giving many the opportunity to become stars without having to get their faces punched.
“The amount of opportunities there are in jiu-jitsu,” Lovato said. “And the people who are coming up now, already see jiu-jitsu as this big sport and maybe they don’t look at MMA as something that’s like “ahh, I want to go to that level,” but nowadays there are so many opportunities for big money, big professional events to where they can almost have the same level of stardom just doing jiu-jitsu as opposed to switching over to MMA. So I would not say there is going to be less and less of that going on, but, there’s a bigger pool to choose from. So, the guys that do switch over are going to have a great shot of being successful.”
And Lovato’s name is near the top of that list. With Mousasi well known as one of the most well-rounded elite fighters in the game, the challenger isn’t going to pretend like his best chance of winning isn’t on the ground. But nor is he afraid to take the bout wherever it goes.
“I think everyone can see this fight basically for what it is,” Lovato said. “Him having the striking advantage and me having the advantage on the ground. It’s definitely not going to be easy to get him there. You know, for me, the game plan is to take him down and let him use his jiu-jitsu. So I just want to stay with him and test a little bit and take it to where I’m at my strength.”