Rafael Lovato Jr. comes from the first American family of Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belts. I caught up with Lovato Jr. to talk about the importance of competition and his experiences with the gentle art.
Jits: What was your first encounter with jiu-jitsu and what were your initial thoughts?
Lovato: Being involved with JKD (jeet-kune-do), I was exposed to some basic grappling/ground fighting before the UFC was even around. It was very rough and not very technical, like side headlock stuff, and we practiced on carpet since we did not have mats. My dad was introduced to jiu-jitsu at a JKD instructor’s conference in the early 90’s. He told me about the Gracies and how technical their ground fighting was. He began teaching me what he learned and that’s pretty much how it started. My father would travel and teach me when he got back home, and then when I got older I started doing the same.
You were the first American to win the Brazilian National Championships (2007). Tell me a bit about the prestige of this accolade.
Lovato: Yes, that was one of my proudest moments. I had some very tough matches against Antonio Braga Neto & Roberto “Cyborg” Abreu to win the tournament. The Brasileiro is part of the “Triple Crown” of jiu-jitsu along with the Pan-Ams and Worlds. It is a very prestigious title. It was before the Worlds were held in the United States and many top competitors moved there. It was a dream of mine to win that tournament, along with the Europeans, Pan-Ams and Mundials. To do it all in the same year was amazing!
Jits: Who has been your most challenging opponent?
Lovato: I have gone against nearly all of the greats of the past seven years or so. It is hard to say who was the most challenging, but I definitely think Roger Gracie is the best I have faced. One mistake and it is over with him.
Jits: Discuss the importance of competing and how crucial it is for development.
Lovato: I think competition is the best way to get better for a few reasons. First, when you train for a competition you always train harder, and you analyze your game more. If you do this all year long your gains can be tremendous. When you train in the academy with your normal training partners, the sparring sessions you have can start to become stagnant and your weaknesses won’t be exposed. After a competition you can analyze your performance and know exactly what you need to be working on in the academy. It helps challenge yourself and see what you’re really made of. You learn a lot about yourself through competition.
Jits: Talk about the transition to the Ribeiro’s camp and in what ways did they help elevate your game?
Lovato: Before I started training with Saulo & Xande, I had to stand at the opposite end of the mat facing Saulo. It was in the finals of the 2003 Arnold's Pro No-Gi tournament. I was a 19 year old brown belt going up against a legend that I had watched and looked up to since I was a kid. I had a good match with him and I think he saw something in me that caught his eye. He gave me the rashguard he wore afterwards and we talked a bit. I saw him later that year in Brazil and he invited me to his academy to train. He picked me up from my hotel and everything. I was hooked, and I knew I belonged on his team. Saulo and Xande were the best mentors and training partners I could have. After that, Saulo came to OKC and the next year I spent four months training with Xande in Brazil. We won many titles together.
Jits: How can a trip to Brazil aid someone in his or her jiu-jitsu career regardless of rank?
Lovato: I highly recommend everyone go to Brazil at least once during their BJJ journey. It is great for many different reasons. It will help you understand the roots and culture of Brazil and really soak up the essence of jiu-jitsu. The game is a little different there, so you can learn a lot from training and competing. It is a great feeling to compete in the Tijuca Tenis Clube, the same place where it all started. I have a lot of great memories there.
Jits: How do you compare jiu-jitsu culture in Brazil to that of the US?
Lovato: In Brazil, jiu-jitsu is more of a way of life…not that it isn’t like that in the US, but in Brazil it has more history and many young kids see it as an opportunity to make it into a career. The percentage of people who compete is higher therefore the training is usually harder.
Words by Jorge Barbosa
Photos courtesy of Rafael Lovato Jr.