Brenton: Thank you for listening to The Unknown Strength Podcast. I’m your host, Brenton and with me, as always, is my co-host, Mac. This is episode 12 with Rafael Lovato Jr. Now, our aim on this podcast is to always provide you, the audience, with insights and wisdom from the minds of elite performers in the martial arts and strength training worlds. So our guest today, Rafael Lovato Jr. embodies that very mission. He’s a true martial artist; he’s a Brazilian world champion and an incredible hot prospect in MMA right now, an undefeated champion over at Legacy Fighting, a Bellator contender in the middle weight division with a title shot on the horizon. It was absolutely fantastic to hear more about his journey and how he seeks constant growth as well as how he optimizes his life and output through effective routine, and as he says, routine is everything. And we also learned about how he nourishes his mind through self-talk and education, and as well as his perspective on truly embracing the experience of the journey. It’s going to be really exciting watching Rafael in 2018, but before we get on with this episode, we want to thank our official sponsors, don’t we, Mac?
Mac: We do indeed. The MMA Fight Store, they’re out sponsors, they’ve been great to us so far. They have got a fantastic range of combat sports equipment both online and in-store. The 3 stores they’ve got at the moment, Elizabeth Street, Melbourne CBD, there’s one in Deer Park and one in Malaga. Or you can visit their website, their online store which is www.MMAfightstore.com.au. But they are offering a 10% discount to anyone in-store who mentions The Unknown Strength Podcast, so get on down and mention us and get a 10% discount. And also MMA Fight Store offering for the BJJ crew listening – the new Tatami Nova MK4 Gis have just landed, so they’ll be available. But what’s more important about this is that the previous line is Nova Gis are on clearance at $99 each, which is an absolute steal. So get on down, mention The Unknown Strength Podcast, get a 10% discount and grab yourself one of those old Nova Gis for $99. So, once again thanks again for joining us on this fantastic interview with Rafael Lovato Jr. and please excuse the little bit of technical difficulties we had in the very beginning of the show, but rest assured they don’t last long and the quality picks up beautifully. So please enjoy!
Brenton: So a huge honor for us on The Unknown Strength Podcast as today we’re hosting a very, very exciting guest. If you’ve been paying attention to the jiujitsu world championships since 2007 you would probably assume that this guy has pitched a tent up there on the podium, just to collect a medal every year. And if you’re a MMA fan, you’d definitely have this guy hot on your radar as he’s wracked up 7 straight wins in the cage, only one fight going the distance, zero losses. He’s a defending legacy fighting champion, middleweight champion and current Bellator promotion fighter. Rafael Lovato Jr., thank you for joining us!
Rafael: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.
Mac: Mate, so tell us, what’s happening with you right now? Are you back in full tilt training or taking some time off after the decision win over Chris Honeycutt? What’s going on with you?
Rafael: Oh man, I was right back into training that following Monday. The fight was on Friday, I was back teaching and training on Monday. I really don’t stop – I’m always on the mats because I’m always teaching and I love to be on the mats with my guys, and I like to be in the gym a lot too, staying in shape, working with my strength and conditioning coach. So I’ve been moving and keeping myself active, but I haven’t been training intense, like you do when you have a fight. I had a nose surgery, I actually broke my nose a week before the fight, on Thanksgiving Day of all the days, and it wasn’t too bad. It didn’t affect me too much going into the fight, it was just tender, but I could still breathe ok, it was only slightly affected. And then fortunately, I never really got hit in the fight, so it didn’t get any worse. But I had surgery on it a week after my fight and got it fixed, but it’s healing fast. So I’ve still been working out. And then I got a mask to wear while I do jiujitsu just to be on the safe side. I guess that wouldn’t be on the safe side, the safe side would be not to train at all. But I can’t resist and so I got a mask. I think the mask is really, the best thing of it is just reminds everybody to be careful with my face.
Brenton: So was this for a broken nose or was this for like a corrective type surgery?
Rafael: Yeah, just a broken nose. The septum and everything was fine. I didn’t have to get cut open or anything, they just put me out and stuck like some stuff in my nose and they just basically set it back in. They broke it back into place, so that was about it. It was only like 30 minutes, it was really smooth and thankfully they put me out so I didn’t have to feel any pain.
Brenton: Yeah, beautiful.
Mac: Yeah, that sounds pretty intense mate. Tell us, we’re really keen to hear about your MMA career so far, we’ll get into some of your achievements in jiujitsu later. But tell us just, in the few years you’ve been competing in MMA, what are some of the – your highlights, the biggest lessons you’ve learned and what’s your direction for the future right now?
Rafael: Yeah, well you know, the whole decision to fight MMA, that was always a part of my plan. My training background, like I’ve been doing martials arts my whole life and whenever I started learning jiujitsu and studying under my father, everything was about self-defense and understanding how to defend yourself in all the ranges of combat and everything was about application for real life. And so, I didn’t start jiujitsu, I didn’t start martial arts with thoughts of winning tournaments or winning titles.
Rafael: You know, it was always about just the love of martial arts and being able to defend myself and find your ultimate style of combat for who you are as an individual. And so, that JKD (Jeet Kune Do) lineage that I came from under my father, you know, was really a mixed martial arts mindset. And whenever I started to train jiujitsu, I fell in love with it and I was a competitor at heart. Before jiujitsu I was boxing amateur as a kid, like 9 to 12 years old and so then jiujitsu gave me an outlet for competition. Once I discovered that there was tournaments that I can do, I started competing and I did the very first Pan Ams and worlds in 1999 when I was 15, 16-years-old. And then I got to see, I got to go to Brazil and see the World Championships and see all these other teenagers that were into jiujitsu and see that ok, here’s a path for me to follow and go down all the belts, and eventually I wanted to become a blackbelt world champion. But in my mind though, it was like I was sort of bred to be an MMA fighter, even though I was never thinking about the UFC and being like a big time UFC champion. That stuff wasn’t around when I was a kid – but as I saw the MMA grow into a big sport, I knew I would do it one day. And so, you know, whenever I did it early on, it was just sort of a step by step basis like in the beginning it was like man, is this going to be fun, am I going to enjoy it? I don’t know, but I know that I have to do it at least once. And when I did it once, it was a great learning experience and everything went well and I said I can’t just do it once. I got to do it some more, I want to feel like my MMA game come together. And that’s when I really started to fall in love with it and I got to find for the legacy title and win that and defend it and then I was sort of at a crossroad where it was like you know, the legacy champ, I had the opportunity to move into a big show, is that what I want to do or do I want to just say that I’m happy with that and stop? And I talked it over with my family and my coaches and I just knew I still hadn’t really tapped into my potential hardly at all, and I knew that if I stopped then, I would still have that feeling of what if? What if I did go to a big show and got to fight at a high level? Who knows what I could do? And so, had a good opportunity with Bellator, decided to jump on it and I did 3 fights with Bellator this year. Two first-round finishes and then beat one of the toughest guys in the division, Chris Honeycut and won every round, won unanimous decision and so right now I feel like I’m just now – things are happening now. Things are really starting to happen now and next year you’re going to really see the best of me and I think it’s only a matter of time before I’m wearing that belt.
Brenton: Fantastic. It’s really interesting – so, it sounds like with your martial arts journey the approach and the mindset and philosophy that’s been embedded in you is to sort of have an evolving toolset or skillset as opposed to, you know, concluding as you said. You’ve always been looking for that ultimate way to win and grow as a martial artist and I think you’ve mentioned before, it’s like you’re seeking perfection and yet knowing you’ll never reach that point, it’s part of that journey.
Rafael: Yes, exactly, and this MMA journey that I’m on now, it’s really just an extension of my martial arts journey. A lot of people don’t know or they forget, they don’t realize that I was a martial artist before jiujitsu and I grew up that way so I don’t consider myself a jiujitsu fighter or an MMA fighter or any sort of fighter or any sort of sport guy either. Like I’m a martial artist and these are just ways for me to grow and challenge myself as a martial artist. It’s my outlet, it gives me different ways to move and express myself. And you know, I love the thrill of competition, I love to put it all on the line and I think that’s the best way to grow. And for me, the MMA portion of my martial arts journey has really sparked a lot of learning and it made me feel like a white belt again and really inspired me and motivated me and made me feel young again, the way I felt whenever I was hungry young black belt, chasing those world titles. That’s what I’ve been feeling these last few years doing MMA, it’s like a new beginning. And at the same time, it also felt like destiny, like everything was coming into place and this is what I’m meant to do with all my years of training and all my martial arts background is coming together now and I’m finally getting to show all my skills, not just my jiujitsu skills.
Brenton: Yeah, fantastic. I mean, one thing I think that really stands out to me with you is, I guess, from the conversations I’ve heard and the articles I’ve read, you really embrace that artistic nature of jiujitsu and you mentioned it’s your creative outlet. But at the same time, you’re also an incredible proponent of the scientific aspect of it, you know. You speak a lot about angles, precious space and all of that. At least for me, I think you really systemized and put a structure in place for learning jiujitsu and how that all integrates. And if you trawl on the jiujitsu forums for the last 10 years or so, I can least validate my opinion there that you have some of the very best instructionals I’ve seen on the market. For example, one thing I hear spoken about all the time in our gym is like the headquarters position, and my source of information for that was you. As a jiujitsu practitioner I think it’s just invaluable when it comes to understanding how techniques and positions integrate, having them in a system like that. So is this something you conceptualize when it comes to techniques or is it more your techniques over time have sort of started to cluster together, you’ve got the knee slide, the X-pass, side smash. They’re all effective techniques that work together, so it’s something you sort of strategically and conceptually think about?
Rafael: Yes. The way that I teach and try to communicate jiujitsu is just a reflection of how my mind works, you know, and how I’ve had to put it all together myself. Because I’ve never – my whole jiujitsu career, I’ve lived here in Oklahoma and I’ve been far from all the major jiujitsu hubs and I did it all with my father here on our own. Any time we learn something, we traveled, at least the closest was 3.5-hour drive. And or we flew somewhere, you know? Or we drove, my Dad didn’t like to fly, or we drove 20 hours, 20+ hours to California. And so, you know, everything that I learned stuck with me. Any time I travelled somewhere and I learned some stuff and I had someone that was there that can answer my questions, everyone takes that for granted. They have a black belt that teaches class and he asks if you have any questions and no one ever asked anything. And then the next day, or they think in their mind oh, I’ll ask him tomorrow. Or nah, you know, like he’s always going to be there. For me, and my father, anytime we got around somebody, there was $500-$1000 sacrifice already put in, you know what I mean? Or it was a day trip. There was an investment made to get to that point where we could have someone that could answer our questions and I would go there already with a notebook with all my questions already there. I would develop and write my questions over that 2 weeks or over that month, however much time passed since the last time I was around somebody that can answer my questions. And I would write all my questions down and once I got around that person boom, I’m like hey, I’ve got a bunch of questions for you. And so, everything that I ever learned stuck with me and basically it made things really hard because it was good in the fact that I really like absorbed the knowledge and I didn’t take any of it for granted, and I wanted to learn everything. I wanted to understand everything, but then I never had a game. I had all of these techniques from all these different sources and it was never put together into a system. And so my own personal gain jumped around so much, I didn’t know what it is I wanted to do. I would learn something and oh, that’s’ good. I haven’t seen that before, I want to try that, I want to play with that. And then I would learn something else and I’d want to play with that. And my game just jumped around so much! And it hurt me in competition because I didn’t know what I wanted to do and I never had a real system to follow.
Brenton: And you weren’t bringing your strongest tools to the table as well.
Rafael: Exactly. And so it wasn’t until I made the connection with Saulo and Xande Ribeiro that I really kind of found the missing aspects to my jiujitsu and then, you know, I really found myself and who I was as a jiujitsu artist and you know, all of the years of learning and teaching started to really get connected into what they taught me in developing a system and everything rounded out. And then I kind of had to develop my own game and my own way of doing things that were a lot of what they do mixed with everything else that I had learned and done in the past before, and just my mind. I’ve been teaching since I was 16 years-old, 15 years-old, helping my father here at the academy and so, you know, I really just finally put it all together into my systems and the way that I teach my guys and you know, I’ve had a lot of practice, teaching a lot of seminars, making videos, doing camps and teaching classes and all those things are all different ways, you teach differently for each one of those and I’ve been able to like, I feel my teaching game level up the same way you feel your own game. I can feel that I’m a – I can feel all the years of experience of teaching turning me into the teacher that I am today.
Brenton: Yeah, of course. So what do you actually do with students who would say they don’t really feel like they have a game or they feel like their game, for example like in your experience wasn’t really gelling together and producing results. For example, I know that when I’ve come off from injury and taken a year off, I come back and I’m suddenly playing a very different game and then wondering and feeling lost. Ok, so what was I actually doing before and having to review footage and, you know, some of my techniques don’t feel the same anymore, so what would you advise to a student who is, I guess, feeling lost with their game?
Rafael: That valley or whatever that you’re in is going to lead to the next peak, you know? Like, that’s life. You know, there’s the ups and the downs and you got to go through it, you’ve got to study, you’ve got to ask yourself the questions. You’ve got to critique your game and dive a little deeper and really think about what’s going on and who you are, how you want to move. You know, or go along with the restrictions that your body’s telling you. Maybe you’ve been so used with standing with your right leg forward, but your right knee has some trouble and now you got to go left knee forward. And now it’s time to dig deep and get in there, and develop your game on the other side. However it may be, you’ve got to stick it out and ask yourself the right questions and study and learn and that, and just be positive about it and understand that that’s going to make you better, it’s going to make you better. It’s just part of the process and you have to appreciate it the same way you appreciate when things are clicking and you’re like aw man, I feel so good. It can’t always be that way. If it’s always that way, you’re not getting tested, you’re not in a room that’s tough enough for you. And so it’s a good thing, it’s always a good thing. Even coming back from injury, I feel like I’ve had some of the biggest jumps in my game and just my overall perspective and appreciation, my overall happiness has been positively affected by injuries or minor setbacks. They’re all minor setbacks.
Brenton: Absolutely. Like you said, when you were learning jiujitsu, when you were in that state of being deprived from it, you really do start to appreciate the opportunities when they are presented and when you’re injured, you have this forced time off where you have to go aw man, there was that time when I thought maybe I can’t train or shouldn’t train. And then suddenly you’re not afforded that luxury anymore of choosing to train, you’re suddenly rendered unable to train, you’re on the side.
Brenton: So really fascinating, I really liked how you explained there’s like a valley in it, teaches us to ask questions of ourselves and it’s very much I guess a parallel and greater metaphor about life, the ups and downs and it actually being a bit of a journey. So I think that really leads to a good question I have to ask about, do you think that this kind of process and journey, it obviously transfers some benefit to other domains of our lives.
Rafael: Oh, 100%. I mean, you know, it’s incredible. I see it all the time, especially as a teacher when you’re trying to talk someone through, or explain to them what they’re going through in martial arts, then you get all these like sort of lights that go off in your head, like sometimes it’s advice that you need for yourself, you know what I mean? It’s amazing how much martial arts is a reflection of life and how much you can apply all the lessons, all the teachings, everything that you go through if you apply it in your life in a general sense or with relationships or with business and work, achieving financial success. I mean, everything is, it’s the same, you know? Like for me, everything I know about life I’ve learned through martial arts and I always, whenever I’m in a rough phase or you got personal things going on or you’re frustrated or you’re fighting a depression or whatever, I mean, I always kind of look for martial arts for the answers not just as the outlet to help me meditate and help me have that release. But also for the lessons. You know, it’s like ok, whether it’s to stay positive or correcting your self-talk, the way you have to stay consistent. I mean, everything about it. I think that if you, if it’s done right, if you have a good sensei that teaches you the values, not just the technique and makes you tough, but also the values, I think that by the time a good sensei takes a white belt student to black belt, there is not a thing in life that that black belt can’t go through and make it out on the positive end, you know? Because they’ve already been through it all.
Brenton: Exactly. And something that’s so vital to the growth and as a catalyst for growth in jiujitsu is failure. I found a lot of people in their first couple of weeks there’s such a significant determinant of their growth when it comes to something like jiujitsu. Because when you first start doing jiujitsu, you get absolutely smashed. You get humbled, it’s a difficult ride. You’re constantly on the bottom and you have to really swallow your pride and learn humility and keep growing and keep asking those questions of yourself.
Rafael: Yeah, 100%. Ego is always our worst enemy. Overcoming your ego and just not quitting. If you can do jiujitsu for 10+ years and get a blackbelt, I mean, you didn’t quit, you know? When all the, in 10 years so many different things can happen in your life, you go through so much inside of jiujitsu on the mats and off the mats. But you never quit, and so that’s why I’m saying, like to me, if you can hit black belt, you can do anything. And by that time, not only have you learned jiujitsu, but you have learned so much about yourself through the process of getting to that level. Like, for me, once a student like – they’re not going to get to purple belt without doing that self-examination and overcoming some sort of individual weakness. Whether they’re fighting to get out of their comfort zone or maybe there’s a part of them that breaks in certain moments or they kind of give up on themselves. Or they had to go through an injury. I think that really happens in the time between blue and purple belt. And then it dives even deeper obviously when you get to black. But there’s some sort of big breakthrough that happens between blue and purpose without a doubt.
Brenton: Yeah, absolutely agree. Something you touched on as well was the inner monologue. I mean, that’s truly something right that makes or breaks us when it comes to performance and in a competition environment. So is there anything you’ve picked up over the years, crucial lessons or wisdom that have had such a notable effect on your own mindset and performance, like something where maybe you picked up a book, one phrase has stood out and you’ve been able to take that, embed that in your life and really transform your outlook?
Rafael: Yeah, well, I mean I would say the book that has had the biggest impact on my life is Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill. That’s definitely my all-time favorite, and that’s sort of the one that I mean, no matter what self-help and sort of success book that you read is going to have principles from Think and Grow Rich. Think and Grow Rich is kind of like the bible of all of that. So there’s tons of good stuff in there and a lot of it, the first time I read it was right around the end of 2007, early 2008 and I had already become a world champion. And as I was reading it, I could realize some of the things I was doing right. But then I also realized a lot of the mistakes that I was making as well, and it just put it into perspective, some of the things that I was doing right without knowing about it, I was able to tap into those and make what I was doing even better, and then the things that I was doing wrong, I could kind of fix. But definitely the self-talk is everything. The way you view yourself. One phrase in that book that always stuck out to me is, you know, your biggest weakness is your own self-confidence. If you think you can, you can. If you think you can’t, you can’t. And so, but we all think we can or we all want to think we can, but do you really believe it. And it’s the way that you talk to yourself, the way that you keep moving forward despite the minor setback and just stay positive. You’re in control of that, you’re in control of your attitude which controls your effort, which controls your belief, which controls your performance. You know, like, those are things that you are in control of and so, you know, over the years, competing and applying certain techniques and then adjusting and doing them better and figuring out exactly what helped me perform to my best, that’s a process in itself. Like people talk about like getting better, to have better performance which is technically, mentally and physically. You improve your technique, you improve your physical state, your conditioning, your strength, your athletic performance, and then you improve your mental performance. But all of those 3 are going to be intertwined between your routine. What is your routine? For me, routine is everything. And the way that I have my routine dialed in, it was years in the making. You know, dialing in my routine. How do I eat, how do I sleep? What do I say to myself? What do I feed my mind? How I train, what am I saying to myself when the training’s over? How do I rest, how do I recover? How do I hit the gym, and move, and all that stuff? The mental game is a part of my routine. And it’s something that you do every day, what you feed your mind, what you say to yourself, the things that I write down and read over and over to myself. It’s all part of my routine, and so, when people are putting together, they’re thinking of a performance or a competition or a moment that they want to perform, it goes into your routine. What is your routine, leading up to that, and you’ve got to be constantly tweaking it, and making the routine better and better. And that’s where the mental stuff comes in, because you can’t just show up the day of and then start saying to yourself I’m going to win this. On the day of, you know what I mean? That’s got to be embedded into your routine and it’s got to be happening on a daily basis, so when you get there you’ve already seen it, you’ve already lived it and now it’s just, you know, like you just do it. But you’ve already, you already know what’s going to happen.
Brenton: So basically what you’re saying is you are what you repeatedly do.
Rafael: Yeah. Yeah, for sure.
Brenton: I guess what you’re also touching on there with the routine is discipline. So, obviously that’s got to be a core element to having a routine, ensuring that you’ve got all these structures in place, all the different components that are conducive to success, making sure they’re ticking over and putting time in. So I guess, do you have any sort of tips or suggestions or any kind of strategies around how you actually achieve this?
Rafael: You always feel better once you do it.
Brenton: Often for me when it comes to hating the moment waiting up until it.
Rafael: Yeah, I mean. That’s the battle, that’s what we all have to go through. I was very fortunate to have the hardest working man I ever met as my father. And you know, he taught me early on about discipline and hard work and being, like it being ok to follow a different path but as long as you work hard for it, you can make everything happen. Like, whatever your dream is, whatever your goal is, doesn’t matter, doesn’t have to be like everybody else. Do you, but you’re going to have to work your ass off to get it. And you know, he showed me that. He didn’t just tell me that, but he showed me that through his work and so, all I ever did was just follow my father’s example and that work ethic and discipline just kind of came with the territory and I’m very thankful that I’ve had that example. But you know, of course we always have days when we just don’t want to do it. And that’s why it’s important to have the routine, because you just, there’s no question. You’re used to getting up at the same time every day, you follow the same pattern and it’s just habit. But you know, like you also got to be smart. I used to think that every day had to be, you know, kill myself, otherwise I wasn’t’ being successful. It wasn’t a successful day. And then over the years I’ve understood that getting up and going for a walk and breathing and moving and stretching and just sort of being in my thoughts and maybe focusing on the mental and just while I’m walking I’m visualizing and I’m saying those positive things to myself over and over and over again. And at the same time I’m getting a nice recovery walk and my body is going to feel better after than what it did if I just stayed in bed and didn’t move and didn’t do anything. That is productive, that is good. I don’t kill myself every day. I juggle so many different things, I have numerous businesses. My school, my products, my seminars and associations and all these things that I’m juggling, I can’t – I live the life of an athlete, but I’m being smart. I have to juggle all these things, I have to format my energy and the way that I can train at my best and also do all these other things at my best. But it all comes down to routine. And being a successful athlete doesn’t mean you’re kicking your ass for 6 hour a day. But you have that dialed-in routine by the time you wake up to the time you go to bed, you’re super productive and you’re getting everything done between the physical conditioning, the technical work, the recovery, the meals, the business, work that you have to do, the errands. It’s all plugged into my routine. Your schedule, you schedule is everything.
Brenton: Absolutely. So when you refer to killing yourself, is this an insight that was unveiled through perhaps you burning out and running yourself to the ground and realizing that it’s not necessarily translating into an improved performance?
Rafael: Yes. I’ve kind of gone through that in two different moments. I had a period when in my later 20’s that really led me to my conditioning coach that I have now, my strength and conditioning coach that I have now. Where I was tearing myself up way too much, I was having a lot of the neck issues, shoulder issues and just different things. The type of training that I was doing especially on the physical conditioning side of things was like way too intense. So then when I got on to the mat, my body was broken down and I was really risking injury. That led me to this coach and he took me down a different path, really taught me how to take things back to the basics with the strength and conditioning, and just moving, putting real food in my body, plugging in those recovery sessions and just understanding my body. He was life-changing. For me, he is one of my greatest teachers, just right up there along with my martial arts teachers, he’s had that sort of impact on my life as a teacher. He’s also one of my jiujitsu students. His name is Luke Tirey. His motto is ‘Green Strength’ and it’s just like natural, mobility, just movement. The movement of the primal man and being able to move. I don’t lift weights. Everything I do is very functional and people would be surprised how little I actually do. But it’s the perfect amount to give me the strength that I need, the conditioning that I need and still be able to train and recover and it’s perfect. He was life-changing for me, but then I had another moment where I learned that I was overdoing it, I was a victim of my own routine, of my own mindset of season. I thought every year I had to be a world champion and if I wasn’t, it wasn’t a success and I had to try again and ta-da-da-dah.
Brenton: Quite an impossible standard to hold yourself, really.
Rafael: Yes. And basically, it led to some sub-par performances. And ultimately, it led to me to over competing and overdoing it which led to an injury. And that’s when I tore my pec tendon. At the end of 2014, and that was a 8-9 month process of coming back to competition. I was out for like 6 months and it was a very rough time. But that didn’t have to do anything necessarily with training, that was mostly to do with me abusing my ability to compete and thinking that I had to do everything. And if I didn’t do everything and win everything, I had to try again, you know what I mean? If it wasn’t a success, I had to keep trying and I was a victim to my own mindset. And letting numbers and titles control me instead of the pure love of competing and the gratitude and being able to appreciate my body. I was just abusing it. And so coming back from that, I had a whole other perspective. I learned so much in that process and I’m still riding that wave to this day of my comeback that I made in 2015. These last two, two and a half years, I’ve been having some of the best performances of my life.
Brenton: I agree!
Rafael: And I’m, you know, 34 and a half. I’m getting older, but I still feel like I’m getting way better and really just now hitting my prime. And that was a combination of the way that I train and also the mindset. Getting that last bit of mindset switch, where I wasn’t a slave to the tournaments anymore, I haven’t done the worlds since. I haven’t the Worlds. I don’t compete for titles anymore, I compete for the pure love of it and the challenge and I don’t feel like I have anything left to prove. I’ve made my mark and now I just want to do what I’m most motivated for.
Brenton: Yeah, that’s really interesting and it’s something that’s been relatively echoed through some of our other guests where they’ve said that when you become so fixated on a result and a goal, a world championship, even when you do achieve it, everything about your life has been on that trajectory and honing in on that result that it feels like there can often be an empty feeling at the end of that when you’ve achieved it. And everything’s been so heavily invested into it.
Rafael: Yeah. 100%. For everyone out there, especially in the jiujitsu world, I was there. As a kid, all I thought about: black belt, world champion, black belt, world champion. And then you get it and you’re like ok, well, I guess I want to win it again. Or whatever. At some point it’s going to have to become deeper than that, so the sooner that you can find yourself and understand how you want to be remembered, what you want to say, what you stand for, your values, your family, where you’re from. That’s what you have to be in search of more than anything else, not just the title, but what you represent, what you stand for.
Brenton: Absolutely. That’s outstanding. I mean, as you sort of touched on it, jiujitsu really does become a way of life, and martial arts in general. You’re a true martial artist from the sound of it, and really embodying those principles and values and it’s got to be a greater quest than simply just showing up to beat people on the mat.
Rafael: 100%. In the end, you know, like those people will fail eventually. They’re either going to grow or you’re going to fail. So it’s got to be something deeper than that, 100%.
Brenton: So as you take your unbeaten streak into bigger organizations against tougher opposition, do you feel like age is a factor for you? You mentioned you’re 34 and a half, do you think perhaps it’s more about the mileage you’ve put your body through and how much stress? You mentioned, I believe you only had one serious surgery. I don’t know about other injuries beyond that, but it appears you’ve successfully mitigated a lot of serious trauma and carried a lot less injuries. You’ve been quite a prevalent force in most competitions for the last 10-12 years.
Rafael: Yeah man, I feel great. I definitely don’t see myself – I can’t, like I said, I can’t do that whole big season. I’ve had years where I did more tournaments than it was months. You know what I mean? Like 12+ events, 12-15 events in a year, racking up 50-60 matches in a year. And I can’t do that anymore. I got to be smart. But super fights are great. MMA fights, believe it or not, in so many ways an MMA fight is easier than a jiujitsu tournament. Because most of the tournaments I do, I’m there for hours and I’m fighting maybe on two days, and waking up the next day, having to get back up again. In a lot of ways I feel like there’s more of a threat of injury in jiujitsu tournament than even in MMA fight. Obviously in an MMA fight you’re going to get hit, there’s going to be impact. But hopefully your bones and your joints make it out ok. In jiujitsu, man, you go up and down, up and down. Match by match, cold hot, cold hot. You’re going to tear something.
Brenton: I mean, the total time under tension is pretty high there. If you’re winning every match, you can be spending two hours on the mats for the day.
Rafael: Yeah, no, easily. I had 7 matches at the Master’s Worlds and after that I was hurting more than after one of my MMA fights. It’s all hard, but you just got to be smart. I feel, like I said, I feel like my routine is so dialed in the way I treat my body, the way I recover, the things that I’m doing now are definitely promoting longevity and the style of jiujitsu I have, I feel I can compete at the high level for a long time because it’s not based on flexibility or being able to be fast or super strong or whatever. It’s a very systematic, slow, methodical approach that you can do forever and so I feel like my jiujitsu allows me to be competitive with the young guys still to this day and for more years to come. And the MMA, I actually feel like age is a lot less of a factor because jiujitsu is a young sport. The kids can compete over the span of two days, all day long. They don’t get tired, they don’t feel the soreness the same way. It’s different. I feel like in MMA you see how many great fighters there are that are hitting 40 or even 40+. And so far so good, I haven’t been in that crazy war of an MMA fight that really puts the miles on you, and so as long as I keep fighting well and not taking too much damage, I believe I can, my plan now is to stay active in the cage until I’m around 38 or so. A good 3-4 more years. And try to make some history and do some big things in there. And at the same time, I’m going to always have the gi on. I’m always going to be testing myself in super fights with some of the kids out there coming up. And then when I get too old for any of that, I’ll just be fighting in the Master’s divisions until I can’t walk anymore.
Mac: That’s fantastic mate. We understand we need to be respectful of your time commitments this evening,. We’ve only got a couple of questions left for you, mate. Firstly, we feel like it’s a fairly safe assumption that you’re next in line for the Bellator Middleweight Championship. Would that be somewhat correct?
Rafael: Somewhat. I mean, it’s hard to say where I fall on that line. I think there are a couple of other guys that are ahead of me. John Salter has put together like 5-6 straight wins. I have 3. So he’s up there, he’s been in the organization longer and he still hasn’t had his shot yet. And then with Mousasi making the move, you know, Mousasi’s only had one fight in Bellator but he’s Musasi.
Mac: Yeah, he’s a killer.
Rafael: Yeah, so, I think I’m right there. And honestly I wouldn’t mind one or two more fights, just to keep getting better. But I would like to be fighting for that belt, if not at the end of 2018 or right away early 2019. That’s my goal, that’s my mission right now and I fully believe that I will be fighting for that belt one day and that it’s going to be mine. And that’s my next major thing that I want and besides for that, 2019, ADCC I’m going to go back one more time and that’s another thing that I really, really want. But otherwise, we’ll see what happens. I’m just going to keep working my way up that Bellator division and keep doing what I’m doing.
Brenton: Excellent. So recently you did the 2017 ADCC which was a lot of ups and downs that tournament. You went to the semi-finals beating Eliot Kelly I think 7-0 and Mahamed Aly I think 3-0. Look like you had the choke a few times or at least you were going to crack his jaw with enough pressure. But you actually lost to Felipe Pena who won the absolute and the weight division. Now, from my view, I mean, I watched that a couple of times, I don’t know how you feel about this but I was quite shocked at the result. I mean, I think you spent the vast majority of the time on top, applying pressure, working smash entries and the like and in generally far more aggressive and looking like a lot of your MMA has carried over with that aggression you’re bringing. So honestly, I’m quite surprised you didn’t take that decision and at least your post-fight body language, it’s a pretty stark distinction. At least I saw one fighter there looking like you’ve lost and one who was celebrating and then the other’s hand got raised.
Rafael: Well, quick correction. You said Pena won the division. He actually lost the final to Yuri, but he did win the Absolute. And I definitely feel like I won that match, you know. But I didn’t score. I didn’t score, I felt like I was closer to scoring than he was, but I thought there was a moment where he pulled guard too and he didn’t get a negative, but I mean it is what it is. These things happen at ADCC all the time, it’s happened to me before there. Pena is an incredible competitor, incredible jiujitsu. I’m a fan of his, and he got his arm raised, that’s how it goes. I would’ve loved to be in that final, I truly believed that that was my year. I felt so good and I felt like I was competing, showing some of my best stuff and so I thought that this is my best. This is my year, I’m going to do it. But in the end, it didn’t work out and then I lost the third place match by decision too that at the time, it is what it is. It’s not clear what they’re looking for, for a decision. Are they looking for the overtime only? Are they looking at the whole match? And if they’re looking at the whole match, I think there’s a problem with that because in the first 5 minutes they’re promoting you to go for broke because there’s no points. And so you’re going to make mistakes if you’re not worried about points and then you don’t want that to haunt you on a decision, you know? And that’s what I feel like might have happened in that match with Jackson Souza, because I definitely controlled the overtime. But in the first half of regulation he would’ve maybe scored if there would’ve been points, but there was no points and so I was like kind of taking risks and just doing whatever. It is what it is, at the end of it, it was good. Pena won the Absolute, and I had a 0-0 match with him. And most people thought I won. So it was like even though I didn’t win, when I finally got over that little bit of sadness, it was like let me look at the positive. The positive is I’m still fighting the best guys in the world to even matches and so even though I haven’t been focused on jiujitsu and I’ve been fighting and Penna’s one of the best of the new generation, I’m still there. And so, for me, and Xande Ribeiro inspired me so much. His performance was beautiful. And Xande’s two years older than me! And so I think at the end of it we both felt super positive and super happy and were like you know what? We’ve got more left inside, let’s come back 2 years and do it again. When we thought that might’ve been our last one, we decided that we’re going to come back and do it again. So, now it’s going to be in the US, in LA, right in his backyard, and so maybe the positive, that self-talk and just never stopping and keep pushing is telling me that maybe that’s our destiny, to do it in the US. That’s what we’re going to do.
Brenton: Hell yeah, at the end of the day as well, you know, you get to showcase beautiful jiujitsu and demonstrate your skillset. What’s even funny is I think even Xande bought back the arm guard for closed Guard and suddenly it’s strange to see things come full circle like that.
Rafael: Yeah, 100%.
Brenton: So what do you think were the key takeaways from this ADCC in highlighting where jiujitsu is at in this state of evolution? You know, you saw guys like Gordon Ryan come in with a really complete leg lock game and devastate anyone in their division, so what do you take away from this and has it inspired you to look at new angles in your jiujitsu journey?
Rafael: Oh, of course. I get inspired all the time. Like I said, I’m a student of the game, I love to watch, I mean – if I’m not at the competition in person, I’m definitely catching up on what went down, watching video and… you know, obviously I’m looking at things differently now because my main focus is MMA and I’m a lot more into like wrestling and muay thai, boxing and standup these days. But I still study jiujitsu and I try to develop things that I can apply in the cage, developing new – that’s helped me understand my jiujitsu even more is how can I do what I like to do, you know, in a fight? How do I transition all of my jiujitsu into MMA? And it’s made my jiujitsu better, even though I’m not doing it for a certain tournament or rules format, you know, I’m doing it for a fight. In the end, going back, like you just said, you can see aspects of my jiujitsu that I’ve been affected by my MMA experience. And it’s been in a positive way, and so you know, yeah, 100% There’s a lot of things that Gordon does that I think is really good. I’m actually a big fan of his passing and I think that’s what with surprised most people with, was his top game.
Brenton: That hip switch pass he does is beautiful, I love it. He rides the hook, puts his weight on it and that’s something I see like with your smash passing, that’s really effective to me.
Rafael: Shotgun pass. That’s from my pressure passing 2.0 that I had a few years back. Yeah, so I’m constantly inspired. You name it, I probably know more about their game than what they do sometimes. I can look back, Xande calls me like an analyst. I’m a huge jiujitsu nerd. I can reminisce on Xande’s career and know who he fought, how he won, what year, which tournament, I can do it better than he can and I have a really good memory and I’m always watching. So, yeah, I thought this years ADCC was really the best ever. So I learned a lot.
Brenton: Excellent. One thing as well sort of in closing I picked up from your MMA. Often when I’m seeing guys flying the flag of Brazilian jiujitsu and they enter the fray of MMA, you often see this sort of slow transition from that pure jiujitsu-ist and occasionally they pick up a few good strikes. I guess in your case what’s really surprised me is you’ve had some pretty cool knockouts and you’re throwing some really, what looks like very effective high kicks and punching combinations. I feel like you’re not lagging behind as much as the other jiujitsu guys that have entered MMA and looking to simply apply jiujitsu. As you said, you’re encompassing and embodying a more holistic marital arts approach.
Rafael: Yeah, I mean, I’m doing my best. I’m thankful I have some of the most amazing teachers in all aspects, from my jiujitsu teachers to my muay thai teacher. My muay thai teachers are Mauricio Veio and Andre Dida of Evolution Thai. They are a first generation black belts under Rafael Cordero from the Chute Boxe lineage. And they have such an amazing system, just like the Ribeiro brothers. Ribeiro Jiu-Jitsu is an amazing system and I feel like I’m just a product of my teachers and just trying to represent them to the best, and I feel like the combination of Ribeiro Jiu-Jitsu and Evolution Thai is just such a dangerous, lethal combination and I’m so proud to represent it and I believe in it so much. I believe in my abilities, I believe that my jiujitsu is made to be tested in any format. It’s perfect for anything. For Gi, for no gi, time limit, no time limit, points, no points. Or MMA, as real as it comes. And the muay thai that I’m learning is muay thai designed for MMA. It’s not traditional muay thai that you learn and then you kind of have adjust. It’s not like that at all. It’s 100% designed for MMA and you know, I can do so much because I have a great body type and with the threat that I get people on the ground, it allows me to open up on the feet and I don’t have to really worry about being taken down. And you know, they have to respect my ground and at some point they’re going to understand that they have to respect my standup and then it makes me a really difficult matchup for a lot of people, so I feel like two things usually happen to a specialist. Take a jiujitsu specialist. They either forget about jiujitsu and just train all standup and then they go in there, and start doing way too much more standup than what they need to. Or it’s the other way and they just only want to put the person down and they don’t ever develop enough standup to make it easier to put the person down. And so, you know, all I’m trying to do is be a complete martial artist, a complete threat. The second that you’re concerned about my standup, I’m going to take you down. The second you’re too concerned about me taking you down, I’m going to punch you or kick you in the face. And the more that you can give multiple threats, the more that you can find an easier path to victory. And so I’m so thankful for my teachers and being able to learn from who I feel are some of the best martial artists in the world, and I’m just putting it all together, man. I’m having fun.
Brenton: Excellent. 2018 is shaping up to be quite an incredible year for you. So in closing, Rafael, thank you so much for coming on this podcast. Really appreciate the insight. You’re a true martial artist. Is there anything else you wanted to impart to our audience before we go?
Rafael: Yeah, just thank you guys for the opportunity to be on the show. To all of the fans out there, thank you for listening and please, check me out on my social media. You know, everything’s pretty easy to find. Lovato – L-O-V-A-T-O. JRBJJ. You can put that in Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook.com/lovatojrBJJ. You can find all my pages. I like to connect to my fans and I appreciate all the love and support. 2018 is going to be a big year and I’m just thankful to have everyone behind me and let’s go on the ride together. Other than that, just a shout out to my sponsors real quick. War Tribe Gear and Onnit. They have some great products, check those guys out, and thank you guys for the show one more time.
Brenton: Fantastic. Amazing, Rafael, thank you so much.
Mac: Absolute pleasure, mate. Thanks for coming on!
Rafael: Thank you! Ok, take care!