Rafael Lovato Jr.
Exclusive Interview with black belt, legend, and most decorated American grappler, Rafael Lovato Jr.
The Jiu Jitsu: You practiced jeet kune do, boxing, and many other martial arts growing up, what was it about jiu jitsu that made you so passionate?
Mr. Lovato: When I started martial arts I was really focused on boxing from when I was 9 to about 12 years old. Boxing kind of started to get old because I was so young when I had started, so it became kind of repetitive. I was ready for change and my father had recently started jiu jitsu and introduced me to it. I was just 12 years old and it was easy to see that jiu jitsu was so broad. I was a pretty big kid when I was 13, I weighed about 130-140 pounds I’d say, and by the time I had turned 14, I could compete with the grown men because I was 160 pounds and already posed a threat to them. After I saw that I was a teenager beating the grown men and submitting them with leverage and technique, I really just loved the science of it. The particular technique I used to use a lot when I was younger was my triangle because I was tall and lanky, my triangle was really good and I caught a lot of people with it.
The Jiu Jitsu: What was it like when you first began competing as the youngest American blackbelt?
Mr. Lovato: The first few years were rough fighting with competitive black belts like Fernando Pontes Margarida or Marcio “Pe de Pano” Cruz because there was not as much access to top-level black belts or information on techniques. There was no YouTube or online academies and all of the top-level black belts trained in Brazil. You really had to dedicate a lot of time to going to the gym, training, and studying. When you finally saw the top-level black belts for the first time, it was in competition, so it was more intimidating to fight against them. It was hard to adjust and get confident enough to know you can win. Saulo and Xande Ribeiro, my coaches, helped me so much because what I really wanted was to be able to know I could win. In 2004-2005 when I trained with Saulo and Xande a lot, it built my confidence to be able to train with top-level black belts. Then 2006-2007 ended up being very successful years for me and I ended up winning the worlds at black belt in 2007 for the first time.
The Jiu Jitsu: How often do you train jiu jitsu and do you include strength/conditioning?
Mr. Lovato: I train jiu jitsu everyday except Sundays, and I teach a lot now. When I was younger I never took a day off, and just used to train 7 days a week, but now that I’m older and more experienced, I have a routine that I follow. I work with an excellent strength and conditioning coach, Luke Tirey, at Green Strength, 4-5 times a week. Doing conditioning and strength really helps me with my recovery. A lot of guys get really sore and need to rest or take a day off, but with Luke, he helps me work out the sore muscles so that I can can recover faster and stay on the mat more. So I train 6 days a week of jiu jitsu and 4-5 times a week with my strength and conditioning coach.
The Jiu Jitsu: Does your training change when preparing for a competition?
Mr. Lovato: I feel like for the most part I’ve always been training for a competition. Since I was 15 years old, I’ve always been looking towards the next tournament or worlds, and its very rare to not be training for a competition. The difference is how much I critique myself, I bring and play my A game, watch matches, figure out strategies and find areas in my game that need improvement when training for tournaments. When I’m not training for tournaments, it’s actually my favorite time to train because its purely fun and you have more room to experiment and try different games.
The Jiu jitsu: Do you have a specific competition mentality or philosophy when it comes to competing?
Mr. Lovato: I have so much experience now and feel confident that my game is very well rounded so when I go into a tournament my mindset is to be better than the person in every position. So if they want to play takedowns and shoot, I’ll shoot too, if they pull guard, I’ll pass guard. I like to apply my pressure, dominate the match technically, get to a more dominant position, and then submit my opponent. I like to know I’m comfortable from everywhere and keep an open game to play different people in different ways.
The Jiu Jitsu: You’re infamous for being a submission hunter with a mean kimura and triangle; do you worry about points when competing or training?
Mr. Lovato: Yes I do, but it depends on the event, for example, Metamoris there are no points. In IBJJF tournaments I’m not thinking that I need to go get the first advantage point, or score immediately, but I’m more focused on trying to get the submission and just letting the points come. There are places where I need points, or matches where I feel the need to score the first point because at the highest black belt levels, some guys pull guard or a move where they can hold for a while so it depends. I’m a little bit of a slow starter but with rhythm I start to get ahead on points. On one hand I want to show everyone my jiu jitsu, try new things, and submit, but on the other hand, you don’t want to lose the first match and not show anything. The tougher the opponent, the more strategy I put on scoring. Points and different rules are also why I like competing in different tournaments like ADCC, or Metamoris. For tournaments, I train for points and with a clock and time, but when there is no tournament, a big thing I do at my gym is train with out a clock. When you train with some people so often with a constrained time, the matches tend to be the same or similar. Take the clock away and more things open up with out the constraint. You can go until someone gets submitted. That’s how we used to train when I rolled with Saulo and Xande, they were huge on it and we had rolls up to 45 minutes that didn’t even have a submission, and we just stopped.
The Jiu Jitsu: How do you deal with a loss?
Mr. Lovato: That’s a tough one. It depends on how you lost the tournament, how much it meant to you, and how you felt. I was never a world champion at lower belts, always making the podium, but still dealt with my fair share of losses. What you have to understand is that it’s normal to lose and tap, but to know how to take the loss is what makes you who you are. Take time to reflect, fill in the holes, and say you’re going to be better for the next one! People tend to take losses as failure but the only real failure is quitting. If you lose a tournament and never compete again, you failed. If you never get to black belt and quit, you failed. If you compete at black belt and lose then quit, you failed. The loss is temporary and will make you better and show you your mistakes. Always learn and look to the next competition; if you lose Pans, prepare for Worlds. Losses made me hungrier as I competed. Just know that everything happens for a reason and there is always a special moment if you never stop. Last year, after 14 years competing as a black belt in the open weight division, I had never won a major tournament. Then I won the Brazilian Nationals, one of the most prestigious tournaments. I tried 14 years and got it.
The Jiu Jitsu: Is it difficult being an instructor and a competitor?
Mr. Lovato: Not really, I’ve been teaching since I was really young with my dad, I actually took over the business in 2010. Running the business is hard and focusing on it takes time away from the “eat, sleep, train” routine, but for me its motivation to make my team and gym the best they can be. It is the most rewarding thing to share moments with students and watch the growth of them, but you have to find balance and get rest. Losing rest happens so easily, you have so much on your mind that it’s hard to kind of shut those things off in the back of your mind, but you have to remember you have your whole life. I love teaching though, and I believe it makes you better. I’ve had my best moments with my black belt students, winning tournaments and sharing the podium. I have no regrets and love what I do.
The Jiu Jitsu: If you could give the bjj beginner one tip, what would it be?
Mr. Lovato: That’s a tough one; I would say build your foundation. I’m a firm believer in the basics, with the Internet it’s so easy to want to jump ahead and learn everything. Try to minimize what you learn, get a strong foundation, and build off of that. Treat it like a university; take notes, read technique, analyze and study your game. You wouldn’t go to class and not take notes or be prepared. You can make weekly or monthly goals and let yourself take the training to that level. Don’t just go to class and want to just roll or try a new YouTube move you learned, find your journey and your process. After 6 months to a year we start to look around and compare ourselves to other people in the gym, like that blue belt knows that move so I should, or that blue belts guard is better than mine. People start to place to much importance on belts and think “oh he is a better blue belt than me,” but everyone is on their own journey to black belt and its about being the best black belt you can be. Everything you go through is just helping you to become the best black belt; it’s your process.
The Jiu Jitsu: Lastly, how do you feel about the Worlds this year for you and team Lovato BJJ since they are this upcoming weekend?
Mr. Lovato: This is my 9th Worlds as a black belt and I feel amazing. I’m so hungry for the medal and we had a great camp back at the academy at home in Oklahoma City, OK. My students Zach Adamson, Ben Baxter, and James Puopolo, black belts from my Oregon associations, came down and helped out a lot. Oregon is where we have 3 of our strongest associations. James and Zach will be competing in the tournament at black belt level. We also had my black belt, Justin Raider, help us out a lot with the light guys and he unfortunately will not be competing because he just recently won his mma fight. I’m really just thankful to be injury free and have another opportunity to go and show my jiu jitsu and be there with my students. We have a couple of our blues, and some killer purples competing at worlds, including Jared Lynn Dopp, Purple belt who got second at worlds last year so he should be a threat for sure at super heavy. Also Vinny Saenz and some more guys. I’m looking forward to doing what I do and getting on the mat.
The Jiu Jitsu: We’d like to thank you for the opportunity, It’s been great talking with you, is there anything else you’d like to say or mention?
Mr Lovato: I’d like to thank my sponsors, On The Mat, Lucky Gi,Five Grappling, and Mike Calimbas photography. Also I’d like to thank my fitness coach, Luke Tirey at Green strength, and if you’d like to contact my gym go to okbjj.com, all my associations can be found on Lovatojjassociation.com, check out my blog, Lovatobjjvideos.com for videos, and more or join the mailing list for exclusive techniques. Follow me on facebook @Rafael Lovato Jr. , instagram @Lovatojrbjj, and twitter @Lovatojrbjj Thanks for the opportunity.
Interviewed and edited by- Aaron Benzrihem @TheJiuJitsu