Of all the medals won by Americans at the Black Belt level of the Brazilian Jiu Jitsu World Championships, nearly half have been won by one man: Rafael Lovato Junior. About a week ago I was lucky enough to catch up with Lovato himself to talk about his game, his thoughts on the sport, and particularly his history in the martial arts - and how he found his way to Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.
Punch, Kick, Block - Beginnings in Traditional Martial Arts
Rafael’s father (Rafael Senior) had been a lifetime martial artist since before the time of his son’s birth. Rafael Jr was born into a number of martial arts disciplines, including a heavy influence of Jeet Kun Do (the “MMA”-oriented style created by the late great Bruce Lee), with Rafael’s father being heavily influenced by Bruce’s student Dan Inosanto.
Rafael Lovato’s father had actually started out with western boxing and gradually found himself studying and exploring more of the “traditional” martial arts. He became a JKD instructor in Cincinnati, Ohio. Despite his experience and expertise, Rafael’s father did not want to be his son’s first instructor.
He had young Rafael start his Martial Arts journey in Kenpo karate. Then after that, his father would teach him Muay Thai and boxing. He also did Kali, Escrima, Wing Chun at a very young age.
At the age of eight, Rafael and his family moved to Oklahoma City, OK. His father started sharing his martial arts teachings in a small class out of the physical therapy office where he worked - and when Rafael was about ten years old, Rafael Senior opened his own JKD School. Here, Rafael Senior was able to teach the variety of techniques and disciplines he was following, and was finally able to make a living doing what he loved most.
At this point, Rafael Jr still knew little of grappling skills outside of the limited number of techniques applied in the more traditional martial arts. He was, at this point, aiming to become a competitive boxer, with his sights on the golden gloves. That all changed quickly when he was introduced to ground-fighting.
One Gracie Jiu Jitsu Seminar and a Change in Course Forever
His father met the Gracies at a seminar and learned about Brazilian Ju-jitsu before the word “Gracie” was synonymous with the Ultimate Fighting Championship. He fell in love with the techniques and strategy, and brought it back home to his son.
Rafael was hooked immediately - and the enthusiasm for this new art consumed both father and son. His father drove to Rickson Gracie's academy in California from Oklahoma City - just to keep his technique sharp. If you don’t have a map in front of you, that’s a 22-hour drive - forcing Rafael Senior to sleep at truck stops and have his students run classed while he went to learn from the master.
Not too long after, is father got in touch with the Machado brothers, who were moving to Texas to teach none other than “Walker, Texas Ranger” Chuck Norris. This cut Rafael Senior’s drive down to three or four hours, which allowed him to train more often, becoming Carlos Machado’s first American blue belt.
As the years went by and father and son shared technique, it would be Rafael who would take up the torch in the search for knowledge, driving to compete, take seminars, and bring the information back to continue a labor of love started with his father in his earliest years. The two received their black belts in 2003 (Senior) & 2004 (Junior) and were the first father son American BJJ black belts. Rafael then became one of America’s only BJJ black belt world champions, and the rest - as they say - is history...
Rafael Lovate Jr is has won more medals in the World Championships than any American in BJJ history. He is currently showing some of his BEST Jiu Jitsu Guard passes online at MicroBJJ.com/Rafael
Daniel Faggella is a writer for Jiu Jitsu Magazine, Jiu Jitsu Style (UK), and ScienceofSkill.com