Rafael Lovato Jr. has come a long way in a short amount of time in mixed martial arts. One of the most accomplished American practitioners of Brazilian jiu-jitsu and a black belt under Carlos Machado, Lovato began his professional MMA career in 2014. In just a little more than three years, he has compiled a 6-0 record and captured a title in the now-defunct Legacy Fighting Championship promotion.
After vanquishing his first two Bellator MMA foes in a combined 2:12, the Oklahoma native will square off against Chris Honeycutt in the Bellator 189 co-main event on Friday night. The card takes place at Winstar World Casino and Resort in Thackerville, Okla., and airs on Spike at 9 p.m. ET/8 p.m. CT.
“It means a lot. It’s early in my MMA career, I guess you could say. For me, this has been my whole life. This is my life’s work,” Lovato told Sherdog.com. “It feels really good to get that recognition now and have Bellator believing in my potential and giving me the opportunity to be in that co-main even spot. Especially here in my backyard against such a great opponent. It’s destiny letting me know that I’m on the right path and everything is happening the way it’s supposed to be.”
Honeycutt, 29, owns a strong wrestling base and is 7-1 with one no contest under the Bellator banner. After suffering the first loss of his pro career to Paul Bradley at Bellator 148, the Dethrone Base Camp product has bounced back to post four consecutive triumphs, including a finish of ex-UFC talent Kevin Casey in his most recent outing.
Despite his own considerable grappling credentials, Lovato doesn’t expect Honeycutt to shy away from taking things to the canvas. It’s more about how Honeycutt elects to go about attempting to dictate the location of the fight.
“He might use his wrestling to keep it on the feet. Maybe he wants to sneak in a takedown late in a round to get some points. Maybe he’s confident and wants to just put me down and try to ground-and-pound me, just do what he’s always done,” Lovato said. “Every fight he goes for the takedown. I think it might be a little difficult for him to change his strategy the way he’s fought every fight and keep himself from doing what he’s been doing since he was 4 years old. I do expect there to be some sort of grappling exchange at some point in the fight.
“I’m ready for however it’s going to play out,” he continued. “I have a nice reach advantage. I’m very tall for this division. I plan on utilizing that in this fight. I think at some point we’re definitely going to clinch up and there could be some really nice scrambles and some nice transitions in the grappling.”
Lovato has yet to go the distance in six professional bouts. As he gains experience, the ability to smoothly shift from one phase to another in MMA is constantly improving.
“For me it’s just being more comfortable and making the transition between striking to wrestling to jiu-jitsu with ground-and-pound. Just connecting everything,” he said. “That’s where I feel like I’ve had the most evolution. Obviously I’ve focused a lot on my muay Thai over the last couple years. I feel like I’ve improved greatly with my standup game, but overall I’m just way more comfortable, way more confident inside the cage and really know what my game is, what my style is, how I like to move, how I like to attack.”
Should he defeat Honeycutt, Lovato believes he will establish himself as one of the top contenders in Bellator’s middleweight division. Reigning 185-pound champion Rafael Carvalho will defend his crown against Alessio Sakara in the Bellator 190 headliner on Dec. 9. Lovato doesn’t expect an immediate title shot with a win, but such an opportunity could be within reach by late 2018.
“Chris has already kind of established himself as one of the best in the division. I think a nice victory over him definitely puts me in the top four or five of the division,” Lovato said. “One more quality opponent and I would love to fight for the title by the end of next year. That’s my goal. There’s other guys that have been doing really well too. Put me against one more guy like that and then let me fight for the belt at the end of the year.”
While Lovato is relatively young in MMA, he has been competing in combat sports for most of his life thanks to his jiu-jitsu background. Although he is 34 years old, he isn’t necessarily in a rush to take the next big step in his career.
“I don’t want to say urgency. I’m doing what I feel like I’m supposed to be doing at the right time. I don’t let my age affect my decision for trying for a title shot. I just feel like I’m ready,” he said. “In another year I’m gonna be that much better and that much more ready. I just want to fulfill my potential and do what I know I can do. If it comes, then great. If I have to win two more, I’ll win two more. I know it’s only a matter of time until I’m fighting for that belt.”