Raf's Recollection | We always seem to catch Rafael Lovato Jr. [28:06] at incredible junctures in his career.
Our first conversation with Lovato took place a little over a year ago (Episode 24; yeesh, time really flies), just shortly after he became the first non-Brazilian to win the Absolute division at the Brasileiro. Since then, we've had the good fortune of running into him several times around the jiu-jitsu circuit and were even granted the opportunity to cover one of his awesome seminars out in Vegas a couple of months ago.
Always polite, willing to give us a few moments of his time, and extremely supportive of our crazy dog and pony show we call a podcast, Lovato has been one of the biggest champions of our show (and a good friend to us both on-and-off air).
Which is why when we heard a rumor that our pal would be making his way into the world of Mixed Martial Arts, we knew we needed to hear directly from the source about this new major milestone in his fighting career.
On September 26th, we get the opportunity to see Rafael compete in the Legacy FC cage (alongside his supremely talented BJJ phenom, Justin Rader, who will also be fighting at the Hard Rock Casino in Tulsa, Oklahoma that night). For some, this is a chance to see how a storied BJJ competitor, known for his aggression and exciting finishes, fares in the world of MMA.
But for Rafael this fight isn't just the culmination of a six week training camp. It's the chance to test a lifetime's worth of work as a martial artist in an entirely different way.
Just because Rafael is best known for his incredible work as a BJJ competitor, doesn't mean he's ignored other fighting disciplines all these years. Unlike other BJJ practitioners who make the transition to MMA, the integration of other disciplines is something that was instilled into him at an early age (and has been maintained in-between BJJ sessions at his own gym for some time). Now Lovato has an avenue to show us another dimension or two of his MMA game.
And it's a challenge that is reinvigorating him.
On this week's podcast, Rafael speaks candidly about his training regimen, his expectations, and the difficulty of putting away the gi to concentrate on his stand up game. We hear more about the impressive array of talent coming to help him get ready for his fight and even get to hear Rafael's thoughts about the most recent Metamoris card.
Two weeks out from fight night, there are certainly more questions than there are certainties on how it will all go down (how will Lovato transition to the cage? what kind of game will he bring to the table on fight night? what if the fight never goes to the ground?). And yet, despite the uncertainty, there is one thing you can take to the bank:
Win or lose, we got his back.
With far and few athletes really carrying the banner of jiu-jitsu in the world of MMA, we root for a guy who has consistently given his all on the mats. Who has inspired others to play an aggressive game and make history every time they go out to compete. And, perhaps most importantly, we root for the guy who has a conviction to represent the jiu-jitsu community when he enters that cage.
For all those reasons (and so much more), we are eagerly anticipating this fight.
Check his appearance out on the podcast and hit us up on our social media to let us know what you think!
Oh yeah, in case you haven't been keeping up with us on the YouTube, check out our latest installment of our BJJ panel talk show, Around the Mat. On our latest episode we breakdown the match between Kit Dale and Garry Tonon (complete with exclusive footage from the event). Let us know what you think!
Raf's Recollection | Allow me to be entirely forthcoming: Metamoris II was the first time I’ve ever attended a grappling tournament.
Over the years, I’ve covered and attended dozens of UFC’s, Mixed Martial Arts competitions, and boxing matches, but last Sunday marked the first time I’ve ever attended a grappling-only tournament.
Yes, I, too, have no idea how I’ve never been to a single grappling-only tournament; No, I don’t get out much.
Now that’s not to say I’m completely oblivious to the competitive world of competitive jiu-jitsu. I’m familiar with the athletes, I regularly watch the matches, and have an above average recollection of the trends in the sport. But it’s also why I thought it best to bring along a strong jiu-jitsu technician (and all around good guy), John Evans, to properly contextualize the event for all of our dedicated grappling and Brazilian jiu-jitsu fans (you can read his excellent summary of the event right here).
Having said all that, I came to Metamoris with high expectations. This is, after all, an event that prides itself on being the alternative to the oft-criticized world of elite jiu-jitsu. The format, the rules, and the first-rate caliber athletes involved display a thoughtful and measured response to the “point” and “advantage” system that some argue ruin the essence of modern jiu-jitsu competition.
And with just that concept and design, the event gave us plenty to talk about this week: On our podcast here, we touch upon all of the individual matches (good and bad) and have a thoughtful discussion about type athleticism that was displayed on the Metamoris mats.
But I’d like to take a moment to talk specifically about my own experience and the concept of “spectacle.”
To begin, you could tell there were a few looming ghosts from inaugural event. After the event started over an hour late last year, everything seemed rushed at the pace of a runaway freight train. I’m a stickler to keeping things prompt, but I can also understand the difficulty of keeping things on time for a PPV, when you have matches that can go anywhere from one to twenty minutes (especially when five of the six matches go the distance). However, from a production standpoint, if the audience feels like you’re rushing, chances are it’s because you’re rushing. There is a certain effortlessness the event has yet to find that can easily make the production value of the event come off as more assured.
Second, in what was perhaps the biggest conversation piece after the event: Match-ups are key. When they work (Galvao v. Lovato Jr., Dern v. Nicolini), they produce fascinating displays of jiu-jitsu between two equally matched opponents that, even if they don’t end in a finish, do more to advance the art. But when you get match ups that are a hard sell to begin with, you sometimes get what you pay for. My sincere congrats for Brendan Schaub for volunteering to be a participant in the event. Seriously. It’s a level of competition that is truly difficult and I don’t think anyone would fault him for wanting to be involved. Would I have like to see him engage more with Cyborg? Of course. Would I have like to have seen Cyborg calculate a new game plan when there was an opponent who was “running away?” Sure. But the fault isn’t so black and white. Did Schaub have an obligation to “fall into Cyborg’s guard?” Should a seasoned jiu-jitsu guy like Cyborg—who doesn’t typically have the problem of an opponent who is constantly backpedaling—be forced to dictate the pace and abandon his own game plan just because he “knows better?” Again, a tricky conundrum. It seemed both performers were implementing a game plan to “win,” which sadly came at the expense of anything remotely worth watching. So let’s take it a step further: With the very prevalent disparity between the participants, what was the expectation in this match? I’ve run this scenario a hundred times in my brain and have still yet to produce an answer, except to say that maybe next year we give Cyborg an opponent that’s at least on his level. I think there are few people who would question Cyborg’s placement on a Metamoris card, why not give him the type of opponent he deserves? Who knows, could produce something that’s fascinating for all the right reasons.
And I’m sure I can spend a lot of time discussing how the event would have been better served with more than a week after the Worlds (we can play this set of “what if” scenarios for days). But I take Metamoris President Ralek Gracie and team at their word when they say they plan to work around other jiu-jitsu competitions in the future.
Blemishes aside, Metamoris has more in its win column than it does in its needs improvement file.
The stage. The programs. The invitations. The promos. All things this tournament gets right. But it’s more than just all the small things, for me the thing that makes Metamoris so uniquely special is “the feel.”
The majority of the audience (when they’re not heckling Schaub) is quiet and respects the athletes. The mood is tense and ooh’s and aww’s come with every sweep and take down attempt almost instinctively, with the tempered politeness a reflection of an educated audience who understands how difficult many of these moves are to pull off. In some ways, despite the band, the big lights, and the large cheering crowd, the competition gives off a kind of “exclusive” vibe. At one point, the intimacy of the venue and quietness made it feel like we were given the opportunity to watch a match between two high level practitioners at a local academy that would otherwise be closed off to the lower belts and spectators. The kind of thing that in years past would have just been the subject of lore and storytelling. Pulling off that kind of thing isn’t easy and is certainly worthy of recognition.
So depending on what it is you consider ideal, I think when it comes to format, even the most impassioned jiu-jitsu fan would have to admit that the concept of a perfect system seems somewhat out of reach.
There will always be Brendan Schaub’s. Time limit draws. Audiences who may not “get it” or resist these kinds of events from time to time.
But that doesn’t mean we stop trying. Aside from all of the superb attention to detail and ethos the Gracie family loans this event, the strongest thing Metamoris may have going for it right now is zeitgeist. It is the right tournament at the right time.
Frankly, as a jiu-jitsu fan, we don’t have many large-scale options. There’s no other event that makes this sport come off like a spectacle. The athletes are treated like rock stars, the selection of venue is just right, and a majority of the players and participants are spot-on. For the time being, why not make this the exclusive home for competitive jiu-jitsu? Care less about giving us match-ups with marquee UFC fighters and care more about filling that spectacle void that so many of us jiu-jitsu fans crave and need.
And, in return, as fans of the sport, we should keep the following grim realities in check before we use our collective wit to troll the internet: we don’t live in an age where Nike sponsorships happen to the elite-level jiu-jitsu practitioner, we don’t have coverage on national prime time television, and the sport that closest resembles this one is currently fighting for its rightful place in the Olympics. At the end of the day, I think we need to ask ourselves: do we want to see something like this on a regular basis? And, if so, is there anything else out there like it? At least here, for better or worse, we have a collection of folks putting this event together who care.
The very figurehead of said organization caring so much he does something like this:
I’m not sure I share the look of grave concern expressed by Ralek here (I think the show was far from a disappointment and has more positives than his face lets on), but it is nice to know that going forward we’ve got someone who wants to give us the best kind of experience possible. But I also feel good in knowing that as long as he and his team are committed to giving us a first-rate event, they merit a strong consideration for an experimental format that puts jiu-jitsu on display for those people who love it.
And that’s why I, for one, was happy to call Metamoris II my first live grappling experience. And hope it’s the first of many to come.
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Raf's Recollection | In martial arts, when a Black Belt is kind enough to give you their time, you take it. With every demonstration, every suggestion, every sparring session, they provide the kind of insight that can literally change a person’s life.
Which is why we were beyond fortunate to have Rafael Lovato Jr. stop by the podcast to give us more than an hour’s worth of his time. Not only did the decorated American black belt talk about his own Jiu-Jitsu journey, but he also candidly discussed the struggles he’s faced over the years to achieve his dreams and "make history."
For those unfamiliar, Lovato is arguably the most successful Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu competitor in America. Should you need a reference, just watch this:
Honestly, we could have devoted an entire other podcast just to name the laundry list of accomplishments the man has achieved, but somehow Kev and I managed to cage our inner-bjj nerd tendencies to ask him about his competitive drive, how Chuck Norris changed his life (seriously, he did), and the circumstances that prompted him to make this terrifying face.
Already a gi and no gi World Champion, Lovato made history last month when he became the first non-Brazilian to win the Absolute division at the Brasileiro.
Take a moment to let that sink in.
Becoming the first American to win the open weight division in one of the most competitive Jiu-Jitsu tournaments in existence. To put that in perspective, if the average BJJ enthusiast or practitioner (such as you or myself) won said competition, it’s very likely a majority of us would spend most of our days walking around like this.
The win in Brazil was an especially nice feather in Lovato’s cap, as it marked the realization of a dream that started nearly 15 years prior. In the podcast, Lovato talked about attending the competitions as a kid, idolizing these giants of Jiu-Jitsu, and daring to think, “I can do that.”
There’s so much about Rafael’s journey that you don’t see on the mats. It is especially true that behind every great accomplishment is a story that is every bit as exceptional—and to get to hear the man (who, himself, grew up without the guidance of a Black Belt during his formative years) describe it is nothing short of a treat.
If you’re even remotely interested in the art of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and don’t find something that connects to your own journey in this interview, I’m gonna suggest that you have someone check your pulse. In all my years of conducting interviews, I don’t ever think I’ve been able to gain better insight into an athlete’s mindset and drive, let alone a Black Belt’s.
There’s this part toward the end of this interview where Professor Lovato responds to one of our fan questions and drops that kind of knowledge that speaks to the heart of anyone whose ever stepped foot on the mat and thought, “I can be better.”
A day after this interview, I went to train and had a spectacularly awful day of Jiu-Jitsu. To be specific: I gassed out, I didn’t feel I performed up to my best, and I quit on myself (while I can accept wins and losses, I don’t accept quitting on myself). When I walked out of my training sessions, I couldn’t help but keep the last part of this interview with me.
Sure, hearing the words of an accomplished Black Belt first-hand didn’t hurt, but it was the tone and conviction of a man whose own experience and hardships in Jiu-Jitsu made it near impossible to allow a sense of negativity linger on my own performances. In fact, Lovato’s words and/or example might even make you leave a training session thinking, “Not I can be better, I will.”
Suppose that’s why it’s important to know that when a Black Belt gives you their time, you take it. Otherwise, you might just miss out on making your own history.
EDIT: For those wondering what Lovato's Brazilian Absolute matches looked like, simply head on over to the following linkto watch Lovato break down his own matches!