Rafael Lovato’s Worlds chances: “It’s do or die”

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Rafael Lovato, Jr. is no stranger to competition. The black belt from Oklahoma is the second-only American to ever win a Worlds Gi Jiu-Jitsu title, after MMA superstar BJ Penn. But this American, who loves to play this game of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, is far from completing his quest for success. He wants to be the only American to ever win the World championship in the gi twice, and he thinks 2012 is his year to do it. “My expectations are to win the 2012 Worlds,” Rafael says, “For me, this is everything. I want to be a two-time Gi world champion, and this is the year it can happen. I’ve been training very, very hard. I believe this is going to be my year. I want to be the first American to win it twice.”

Rafael’s Jiu-Jitsu strategy

Every Jiu-Jitsu player has their own strategy and training regimen they follow on their path to success. Some guys drill the same techniques over and over again for hours at a time, others like to clear their minds of any thoughts of their potential opponents and just focus on their own game, while others take an educational approach to competition and soak up as much knowledge and information as they can about the players and the art. Rafael falls into the latter category. He is a true student of the game, and strives to learn and understand as much as possible about himself, his game, and his opponents and their games. “I always compete, I always challenge myself and keep myself up to date,” he says. “It always makes me better.” As for the Worlds, his strategic approach is no different. “I keep myself updated on my possible opponents,” he says. “I want to train smart. I will train certain positions I know guys play. I want to be prepared. I don’t look past anyone. I stay really up to date on tournament results, footage, youtube videos…I try to make sure I’m familiar with everybody and that I’m ready for everything. I don’t want to be surprised by someone coming in that I didn’t know about or find out they’re tougher than I expected. I even look at brown belts so I know who I’m going to compete against the following year. I’ve been here in Oklahoma without a black belt instructor…for years I’ve been by myself… I know I would not be at this level if I didn’t work and train very, very hard. Every day I want to give my all so I know there’s no one out there working harder than me. When I go to a tournament I know I deserve it more than anyone else.”

Preparation for the Worlds

The Worlds is different from any other tournament because you don’t find your toughest matches in the finals. Every bout is difficult, from the first match to the last, and every competitor is world class. “I know they’re all going to be tough matches,” Rafael says, “and there are always upsets at the Worlds. You can never count anyone out. Anyone who’s a former world champion is going to be the stiffest competition, but there are so many guys coming in at their best. You have really hard matches right off the bat in your bracket, not just the finals.” So, what is Rafael doing to prepare himself? He’s conditioning six times a week and he’s constantly on the mats, drilling, sparring, studying techniques, watching videos, and recording his own training and studying it. “I give it everything I have,” he says. “When I’m at a competition, I don’t have to question if I’m ready or if I gave enough. I always give my all. It’s do or die. It’s the best day of my life or the worst every time. It’s all about learning and improving. You can’t win all the time, especially with as much as I put myself out there. I compete at every tournament. This is going to be my 13th Worlds. I’ve only missed one since I was 15.”

Rafael’s training partners

With Rafael’s reputation growing over the years, his days of training alone in Oklahoma are over. He’s built his own stable of Jiu-Jitsu black belts in Justin Rader, Travis Serna, Robert Harper, and James Puopolo, and also has many great athletes coming to visit him at his school to roll with him. He is also a part of Saulo and Xande Ribeiro’s team, and not only do they come visit him in Oklahoma, but he is also welcome and encouraged to train with them in Southern California at their schools as well. Rafael has more support than ever before. “Johannes Wieth is in town training from Germany,” Rafael says, “He’s a heavyweight brown belt and has been here for over a month. He’s a blue and purple belt world champion, and last year he took silver in brown. He’s a great training partner. I also have another great middleweight brown belt with me from Ireland right now named Darragh O’Conaill. Then I have my own black belts to roll with: Justin Rader, Travis Serna, and Robert Harper. Matt Jubera, who’s a very good black belt, and a two-time Pan brown belt champion spent time with me training. This weekend James Puopolo is coming in to train.” His black belt student and good friend Justin Rader made waves at the 2011 No-Gi Worlds with his unforgettable match against Cobrinha, and Rafael expects no less from him at the 2012 Gi Worlds. “Justin embodies the work ethic we have at our school,” Rafael says; “you can see it in how he fights. He doesn’t quit. He gives his whole heart. He always comes forward and has a very unique game. It’s not often you see such a dominant top player in his weight class. He’s in your face… you know what you’re going to get from him. Everyone knows he’s going to come forward and he’s not going to stop. People have trouble with that.”

Warm-up competitions leading up to the Worlds

Rafael is bringing about 20 guys from his team in total to the Worlds, which includes his students in Oregon. “I expect my team to bring home more medals than ever before. Anything can happen, but I believe in my guys and I know they’re going to do very well. I’m very proud of them, and I know they’re ready. We are the only team to have medaled in the top three at every IBJJF open event in Texas, which includes the 2010, 2011, and 2012 Houston Open, and the 2011 and 2012 Dallas Open.” Rafael’s personal warmup session for the Worlds was his big win against Lucas Leite at the World Jiu-Jitsu Expo. He was originally slated to compete against Kayron Gracie, but Kayron pulled out because of an injury. Lucas stepped in to take his place. “Lucas is very experienced and very good,” Rafael says. “We’re both Gi and No-Gi black belt Worlds champions. I’m a little bigger than him, but we’ve competed in the same divisions before. It was a match up that was in the making for a while. I knew we would run into each other eventually. I have a lot of respect for him. He did a good job trying to neutralize my guard game. Eventually I got the grips I was hoping to get and swept him with an omoplata at the end. We had some good scrambles after that. It was a good match.”

Other news

Rafael just finished his first instructional on the guard pass. “It’s coming out this summer and you’ll be able to buy it as a DVD or on a digital site where you can download it. It will be the first of many. I’m very happy with how filming went, and I’m excited for people to learn more about my teaching and about me. During this whole Worlds training camp I’ve also been filming a documentary about my team and me. People will get to see my life here in Oklahoma and how I train.”

Rafael’s mission

“I’m on a mission to make history at the Worlds this year,” he says. “I appreciate all the love and support I get from my fans. It means a lot to me.” If you want to follow Rafael on his quest to make Jiu-Jitsu history, you can find him at: Lovatojr.com or on Twitter @lovatojrbjj.

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