‘Still have the fire for that’ – Rafael Lovato Jr. opens up about potential MMA fight and late-career motivations

American BJJ legend Rafael Lovato Jr. told Grappling Insider that he’s open to one more MMA fight.

Now just days away from his 40th birthday, legendary grappler and MMA fighter Rafael Lovato Jr. is still finding new sources of motivation to compete at the highest level and chase lifelong goals.

For him, that means continuing to grapple against some of the world’s top jiu-jitsu players and, if the opportunity presents itself, one more MMA fight.

With respect to grappling, Lovato is still very much among the elite. He put on a respectable fourth-place finish at the 2022 ADCC World Championships and is fresh off a stunning submission victory over Elder Cruz at Who’s Number One.

But why, given his long list of accomplishments that includes gi and no-gi IBJJF black belt world championships and wins over some of the best grapplers of all time, does Lovato keep coming back for more? With nothing left to prove, what’s driving him forward?

“Right now it’s very pure because I don’t have anything to prove,” he said in a recent interview with Grappling Insider. “I’ve already made my mark. I’ve made my history and I can say today that it really is just pure love of it all the way. And in many ways, I feel like I’m doing better because of that, because it is a little more pure. I don’t have the same pressure to make my name or to achieve a lifelong dream.”

An intense competitor to his core, the Oklahoman has seen the tops of the BJJ and MMA worlds over the course of his athletic career that spans nearly two decades. In 2007, he became the second-ever American to win an IBJJF world title – a launching pad for his lengthy black belt career that’s seen him firmly established among the elite of the elite.

Between 2014 and 2019, Lovato competed less frequently in grappling as he focused his efforts on MMA. After just 10 fights and 10 victories, he had captured the Bellator MMA middleweight title.

But just as quickly as he reached the pinnacle of his MMA career, it was taken away from him even quicker. A brain scan in 2019 revealed that Lovato has cerebral cavernoma – a brain condition that can lead to serious symptoms like memory loss, seizures, and blindness. 

And while he had never presented any symptoms despite having the condition his entire life, U.S. athletic commissions refused to license Lovato to fight and major promotions around the world followed suit.

Lovato had only ever known a life of competing, and just like that, it was no longer an option. That’s an option he refused to accept, and instead chose to return to grappling and BJJ competition full-time.

“When everything went down with Bellator, and me having to relinquish my belt and the brain condition and all that, I could have easily stopped it right there. I had already done so much in jiu-jitsu and grappling. I was an undefeated MMA world champion at that time and I could have just said, ‘Alright, I’m good, there’s my story, it’s done.’ But I still felt like I had so much more in my heart and in my gas tank.”

The American’s return to the elite grappling scene didn’t come without challenges. While he may have struggled against the world’s best in 2020, Lovato picked up a number of notable wins in 2021 and, in 2022, captured his second career IBJJF European title – 15 years after he won his first.

Looking back on that time, he said:

“Now I’m back in jiu-jitsu, I’m not even a top-10 guy. A lot of people don’t even know who I am because I had been away in MMA, and I had to re-find myself all over again, and there were a lot of hardships in that, but I went for it and I stayed on the path, and I really found my stride at the end of ‘21… I had a really good ‘22… I didn’t win but I was still proud of going out on my shield and going out for one more…”

At the end of 2022, the opportunity to achieve a lifelong dream presented itself, as Lovato was offered an MMA fight in Japan at Inoki Bom-Ba-Ye 2022. It’s his return to grappling, he says, that allowed him to accept the fight and finally compete in front of Japanese fans.

“If I would have just rode off into the sunset after the Bellator situation I wouldn’t have been able to capitalize on that dream because I wouldn’t have been ready,” he said.

On December 28, 2022, Lovato submitted Taiga Iwasaki with a trademark kimura, extending his career MMA record to 11-0.

Through it all – his return to the top of the grappling world and one more MMA fight years after he was stripped of his Bellator title – Lovato found motivation in the form of his twins Mila and Lorenzo, born in July 2022.

Wanting to serve as an example for his children, he says, quickly became Lovato’s “why” for continuing to compete at the highest level.

“Right now, it’s just super pure, and definitely this last year, becoming a father really motivated me in a different way. Wanting to… be the example. I want them to know that their father gave it all and never gave up. And I was still going for one more ADCC, I jumped into one more Worlds, and then I got the opportunity to fight MMA again after three and half years away, and doing it in Japan, which is also a dream of mine since I was a kid.”

Whether it’s in the Masters’ divisions or against talented up-and-comers like Elder Cruz, Lovato has no intention to stop competing, ever

And when it comes to MMA, he’s certainly not ready to rule out one more fight. According to him, the Inoki Bom-Ba-Ye promotion is planning another year-end show, and if the opportunity arises, fans might see Lovato fighting in Japan once again.

“I can’t fight in the US. That’s impossible. I’ll never be able to convince a commission. I tried. I spent almost two years working on that before I finally just gave up. Japan is basically where it’s gonna have to be. I tried ONEFC, they also weren’t interested. 

“The show that I fought in, Inoki Bom-Ba-Ye, they told me, they’re definitely planning on another one this year. I would certainly entertain another opportunity, or if Rizin happened to give me a shout, I would definitely entertain it and think about it, talk to my team about it. 

“I wouldn’t mind doing one more, just personally, I’m turning 40 in a couple of weeks and so I think doing one fight at 40 and just being able to see all the different decades that I went through and challenged myself, I would still have the fire for that.”

Ben Coate

Ben has been involved with grappling, whether through wrestling or Brazilian jiu-jitsu, essentially his entire life. After wrestling throughout his childhood, Ben found Brazilian jiu-jitsu as a young adult and quickly fell in love. He has been training for over ten years and currently holds the rank of brown belt, and remains involved in both the MMA and BJJ scene. Ben has been writing about combat sports since 2017. He has interviewed and profiled some of MMA's biggest stars, including multiple UFC champions.

Ben Coate has 1184 posts and counting. See all posts by Ben Coate