Rafael Lovato Jr.
Rafael, thanks for taking the time to do this interview. Could you give us a brief bio of yourself?
My pleasure. Sure, I am 25 years old. I have been training BJJ for 12 years and currently I live and teach in my hometown of Oklahoma City.
What role did your dad have in overseeing your training?
My father had everything to do with me getting into martial arts. He had a passion for martial arts since he was a child. He is a former JKD [Jeet Kune Do] instructor under Richard Bustillo and he had a lot of boxing training as well. He began teaching and training me when I was 4 years old. He learned about BJJ at a JKD instructor’s conference and he began to study it and teach me as he learned it.
You were originally under Carlos Machado, can you explain how you got hooked up with the Ribeiro brothers?
It is a funny story. I competed against Saulo in the finals of the Arnolds in 2003. I was only 19 at the time and still a brown belt. I guess Saulo saw something in me he liked and he invited me to train at his academy while I was in Brazil that year. He opened my eyes to another kind of Jiu-Jitsu that I wasn’t getting at the time. We hit it off really well and the rest is history.
How has your game evolved since you received your black belt?
It has evolved incredibly since I got my black belt. Much of my evolution is due to the training I have been able to receive with Saulo and Xande. Everything changes when you start to compete as a black belt against the best in the world, you either rise to the occasion or you don’t. I always did well during my time in the lower belts, but I wasn’t a star or huge prospect. This made it difficult in the beginning at black belt, but as time went on I got stronger. Now, I have won nearly every tournament as a black belt, tournaments I didn’t win in the lower belts.
You’ve also spent some time training with Marc Laimon at his Cobra Kai gym, can you tell us how that relationship came about and how your game developed training there?
I had competed against Laimon’s guys a lot as I was coming up, so we had a mutual respect for each other. In 2004, he invited me out to Vegas to help him prepare for his match with Ryron and I accepted. We were roommates for 3 months and we trained every day, both trying to push and help the other. He helped me a lot with my no-gi game and I got to train with many other good guys while I was there. Since then, I have visited his academy many times and he has even been out to Oklahoma.
Can you tell us a little bit about your school and the jiu-jitsu scene in Oklahoma?
My father has had a martial arts school in Oklahoma for over a decade. In the beginning, we taught JKD, including boxing, Thai boxing, and Kali. Then as he learned BJJ, we started adding that into our curriculum. Now, he and I both are black belts and we have many students from white to brown, some of which are very talented competitors. There isn’t much of a BJJ scene here in Oklahoma. Wrestling is big out here and there is a lot of small MMA shows, so most people aren’t really concerned with learning jiu-jitsu, they just want to jump into the cage and fight right away.
When and how do you recommend your students get acclimated to the competition scene?
It pretty much just comes down to competing as much as you can and learning from each competition. There are three main parts to prepare: technically, mentally, and physically. I try to make sure they are always getting better at each one. I think competition is a great way to get better, because there is no way to hide your weaknesses, eventually they get exposed and it is up to you to fix them and get to the next level. A lot of it takes time and experience, but I firmly believe that if you work hard enough, anyone can become a champion.
As an instructor, do you promote people who compete versus people who don’t compete differently? (I.e. A guy who competes a lot at blue belt and wins everything will get his purple faster than someone who only trains at the gym)
Competing is the best way to get good fast and get to the next level, for the reasons that I just mentioned earlier. If you are just training for fun, you may not really look in the mirror and work hard to fix your weaknesses the same as someone who just lost at a big competition. But, if you are a good student, you train regularly, and you do your homework, you will get better, there is no way around it. I love to see the guys who don’t really compete give the young competitors a tough time, it just shows the beauty of jiu-jitsu – anyone can do it.
What positions did you struggle with as you were coming up through the ranks? And how did you overcome them?
Since I started training when I was young, I had to go through many years of getting beat up. This helped me develop my guard and my ability to find a way out of tough positions. As I got bigger and better, I was able to develop a good all-around game. However, when I started training with Saulo & Xande as a brown belt, I learned that I didn’t really know much about how to use my weight and put pressure on someone from the top. They would smash through my guard with ease and once they passed there was no getting out. I had no clue how to stop it since I didn’t even know how to do it. This is a huge piece of the game in the black belt divisions, because many times it just comes down to an advantage. Fortunately, I have them as training partners and coaches and I was able to learn, not only how to stop it, but how to apply pressure as well.
Injuries seem to be inevitable in jiu-jitsu, what is your best piece of advice for staying healthy and injury-free?
Just to take care of your body. Lots of stretching/yoga and a good diet. Always get a good warm up. Have good training partners that you can trust. One other major thing is to not over do it. When you are mentally not into the training, maybe having a bad day or something clouding your mind that is usually the time when you get hurt. Watch out for the signs in your head that are telling you to stop.
Do you have any plans for MMA in the future?
Yes, I definitely want to do MMA.
The score is tied 0-0 at the Mundials with a minute left, what position do you want to be in and why?
Well, that is a tough question. A lot depends on the opponent and what has happened up until that point. I would have to say that I would like to have them in my open guard, the position I have used most in my career.
What else can we expect from you in the future?
Pretty much the same as usual. You can expect to see me at all the major competitions, giving it everything I got.
Any last comments?
Yes, I would just like to take this opportunity to thank my family, my fiance, and all my students for their support. Also, my sponsors Lucky Gi, OTM, Tapout, and Nutrient Technology. Anyone interested in training with me in Oklahoma City or getting in touch with me for seminars can go to www.okbjj.com.
Favorite Takedown: Uchimata
Favorite Submission: Any choke I can get
How many days a week do you train? 6
Favorite music to train to: Rap/Hip Hop – mostly Lil Wayne
Ratio of Drilling to Sparring you recommend: Around 35% drilling, 65% sparring. Could change depending on the person.
Favorite thing to do outside of grappling: Chill at home and watch movies or play video games.
Favorite jiu-jitsu guys to watch: Xande, Roger, Cobrinha, Jacare, Marcelo, Galvao, Demian, Kron, Braulio, I could go on forever.
Biggest mistake that new grapplers make: When they try to learn advanced positions without developing the fundamentals.