Podcast EP17: Rafael Lovato Jr. on Training and Competing in BJJ

Rafael Lovato Jr Celebrating

This is a great interview with BJJ competition legend Rafael Lovato Jr.  You can listen to, read, or download this interview in several different ways…

  1. Play the audio-only Youtube video at the bottom of this list, and/or
  2. Right click on this link and select ‘save as’ to download this mp3 file to your computer, and/or
  3. Subscribe to the Grapplearts Podcast in iTunes (RECOMMENDED, because this allows you to also listen to previous interviews and podcasts), and/or
  4. Read the transcript below.

Hi everybody. This is Stephan Kesting from grapplearts.com. Today I’ve  Rafael Lovato Jr., on the podcast.  I’ve trained with him in the past, and now I’m thrilled to be able to pick his brain about competition because this is a guy who’s done a lot of competition. Welcome to the show Rafael!

Rafael: Thanks for having me here.

Stephan: I saw you compete in Metamoris 1 and was just struck by your relentless and aggressive style.  It served you very well that night. That was a really nice, because I’d trained with you before but I’d never seen you bring the heat in that kind of way.

Rafael: Yeah. You know Metamoris, I love that event. You know, the rules, the professionalism, the stage, the way they build it up and everything. It has the feeling like it’s the UFC event for Jiu jitsu. And I was very appreciative and fortunate to be invited to compete at the first one and had a great match with Kayron Gracie.  I think it was one of the better performances in my career. I was playing my game, really opened up, attacking from the bottom and the top. I think I tried  4 or 5 submissions before I got the one that was able to…

Stephan: You Kimura’d him, didn’t you?

Rafael: Yeah, I got the Kimura. And basically, I was just playing my game and was in great shape. Kayron’s a very tough competitor and he was in a really good phase at that time. He’d just won the Pan Ams that year. And I just played my game. A lot of times in the regular sport Jiu jitsu matches, ten minutes isn’t quite enough time to pass someone’s guard or be able to really wear them out and then get the submission. So I really like the twenty minute matches in Metamoris. It gave me enough time to apply my pressure, my top game, work hard to wear him out, make his legs tired and be able to pass his guard so I can get to finish at the end.

Stephan: I’ve always wondered this about the Metamoris events on this big stage with no fence around it. Were you ever worried about falling off the damn thing?

Rafael: No. I really didn’t think about it. In fact, the last one, when I faced Galvao, I got really close to the edge. He had a single leg. But I wasn’t scared. I wasn’t worried. You really don’t think about it when you’re there. You’re just totally focused on the man in front of you, you know.

Stephan: So you like competing under those rules because of the added time…

Rafael: Yes, I do. Not just the time but the way there’s no points and no advantages. I think it makes it much more pure. You’re not fighting for a score or fighting to do just a little bit more than the other person in a certain amount of time. That, along with the nice bonuses they give for the submissions.  The guys are really working hard.

This last time, they had decisions, which I think maybe could slightly affect the match.  If the guy has been dominating for 15 minutes then for the last 5 minutes, maybe he might take it easy a little bit because he knows he’s going to get the decision. But I heard in an interview with Ralek that they’re going to get rid of decisions and go back to submission only. So, we’ll see. But yes, I really like those rules.

I think the closer you can make the match to how it is in training, then I think you’re going to see better Jiu jitsu. You’re not going to see people hold back or fight not to lose instead of to really win. And in the end, it makes a better show for the fans and it also makes our Jiu jitsu better. The competitors that are out there, we can learn more, we can understand more, and we’re not just training for a specific set of rules. We’re training to actually be complete Jiu jitsu fighters.

Stephan: But certainly you’ve done really well in conventional Jiu jitsu competition too, which is kind of understating how difficult it is. Let’s talk about your watermark year or your banner year when you – if I recall correctly – got gold at the European Opens, the Brazilian Nationals, the Pan Ams and the Mundials. Is that correct?

Rafael: Yes.

Stephan: What was that like? That must have been an insane year.

Rafael: Man, it was super insane. That was 2007. I completed my third year as a black belt that year, so it was kind of the perfect timing for me to really make my mark. I was like 23 going on 24 years old and it had always been my dream to become a World Champion but I had never imagined it happening that way, where I would win all the tournaments in the same year at the black belt level.

I don’t want to say it was an accident, but I didn’t go into that year saying that’s what I’m going to do. I was going to be at each competition.  And at each competition, I wanted to make myself better for the World Championships. Because at the end of the day, if I would’ve won all three and then lost at the Worlds, it wouldn’t matter. If I lost at the other three and then won the Worlds, I still would’ve been very happy, obviously. So the Worlds is the only one that really, really matters. I just came into that year very, very hungry.

I did my first year at the Worlds as a black belt in 2005 and I reached the quarterfinals and starting getting that experience. First year, it’s like, okay, I almost medaled, so it’s alright – we’ll get better.

And then 2006, I missed the Worlds. I was really sick that month. I already had my ticket to Brazil and everything and I wasn’t able to go.

Stephan: That must’ve been disappointing.

Rafael: Yeah, I was super disappointed. I was heartbroken. I cried. I was…

Stephan: You think you were over-trained perhaps? Is that why you got sick?

Rafael: No, I actually, I got mono.  And there’s nothing you can do about that, you know, and I was out the whole month. And so that was really hard. So I missed the Worlds.

And so going into 2007, once the gi season picked back up again, I said I’m not missing any competition. I’m going to go to every competition. I’m going to get as much experience as I can, so I went to the Europeans for the first time in 2007. I was able to win there; I became the first American to win the Europeans as a black belt. And kept going up to the Pan Ams. Felt really good at the Pan Ams. Actually, at both the European and the Pan Ams, I also medaled in the Absolute as well.

Lovato Jr Guard Pass

Stephan: Oh, I didn’t know that.

Rafael: And so then I was the first American to win the Pan Ams as a black belt. And then Brazil…  You know, it’s hard to describe the feeling of competing in Brazil…  In some ways, winning in Brazil at the Braziliero meant just as much, maybe even a little more, than winning the Worlds.

The Worlds is the Worlds, so that’s, nothing’s bigger than that. But the Worlds were held in the US that year. That was the first year that they came to the US. So at the Braziliero, all the best guys were still pretty much in Brazil. It was an extremely tough competition. And I remember…

Stephan: Everybody who was anybody in Brazil was there.

Rafael: Right, and a lot of times, you didn’t know who those guys were. The Worlds had just moved to the US for later that year. So you wouldn’t really see or hear too much about the guys in Brazil except maybe at the Pan Ams or whenever you watched footage of the Worlds.

So, in Brazil that year, was special because I used to go to Brazil so much as a kid and compete and train and learn. And so I competed at the Brazilero at the lower belts and I never won.To win as a black belt there, in Brazil by myself, you know it was a very special accomplishment for me. And to become the first foreigner, non-Brazilian, to win the black belt division in Brazil was amazing and that just really gave me the confidence I needed. Each tournament kind of gave me a little more confidence because it got a little tougher each time. The Europeans, then a step up to the Pan Ams, then a step up to Brazil, then a step up to the Worlds.

And so going into the Worlds, I started thinking, “Man, I’m going to do it. I’m going to win. I’m going to win all of these and nothing was going to stop me.” And I became the first person to win all four of the major tournaments in the same year as a black belt.

Stephan: Very cool. Let’s jump back a little bit and talk about your background. You started learning martial arts from your Dad.  In fact I heard the other day that we actually share a background in the whole JKD and Filipino Martial Arts background.

Rafael: Yes.

Stephan: So was that your first martial art?

Rafael: I’m from JKD. When I was just a little kid, we lived in Cincinnati, Ohio, that’s where I was born.  My father was an assistant instructor at a JKD academy there in Cincinnati. And so I remember going to the academy all the time. I was with my Dad a lot and I used to play with my toys at the side of the mat, things like that.

The very first martial art I really did, besides for just playing around the house with my father, was Kempo. He wanted me to do something a little different and they offered Kempo there – he wanted me to have another instructor. He didn’t want to  be on the mat with me at the same time. He wanted to keep it a little more relaxed for me, so he put me in something different. So, the first thing I ever did was Kempo. I think I got like an orange belt in that or something.

And then, as I got a little bigger, a little older, all I can remember is hitting mitts with my Dad, doing tons and tons of boxing and Thai boxing, things like that.

And then when we moved from Cincinnati to Oklahoma, my father opened a JKD school and he became a recognized certified instructor in JKD under Richard Bustillo. And so then, from there my life was filled with a lot of JKD. Everything from Kali to Wing Chun, Penjak Silat and tons of boxing and Thai boxing. I even competed in stick fighting.

Stephan: So it was creating that athletic base.

Rafael: Yeah. And then I got really into boxing. That was one thing I could compete in, you know, at an amateur level like the Golden Gloves in my area.  That’s kind of the first thing I fell in love with. But then, when my Dad got introduced to Jiu jitsu, he started showing me Jiu jitsu, that just changed everything for me.

Stephan: What was it about it that reached out and grabbed you?

Rafael: Well, we were already grappling; we already knew that ground fighting was something. In JKD, there were already some ground fighting aspects before Jiu jitsu really came about. And so I remember doing things on the ground and liking it, but it was very non-technical. It was rough.

And so when we started learning Jiu jitsu, and I was sort of playing guard and learning the guard and triangles and things like that. I was kind of a big kid. I was pretty skinny but I was tall. And so when I started learning Jiu jitsu, I was like 13 years old, I had the ability to catch grown men in triangles and things like that. Guys couldn’t pass my guard and I could frustrate them. I was just a little teenager. And so that really drew me in. It was a feeling like this is something that is very natural-like and I could be very good at it. I started to see that. I could give adults a hard time, so who wouldn’t love that?

Stephan: Well, then take us through an abbreviated version of your Jiu jitsu journey: who you trained with and how you got to the point of running your own school in Oklahoma.

Rafael: Well, we’ve always had the academy in Oklahoma City and we kind of just slowly transitioned from a JKD school into more of a Jiu jitsu school with a lot of stand up. And so now, we’re kind of like the first mixed martial arts school in our area of the country.

Stephan: Which is appropriate. You can make an argument that Bruce Lee was the first mixed martial artist.

Rafael: Yes. JKD was mixed martial arts. It really was. So I’ve always kind of had that mindset of taking the best that you can from everything. But in the beginning it was very difficult because to learn Jiu jitsu, you either had to be in California, Florida or New York, back in the early 90’s. So it was really rough, but we traveled a lot. My Dad would travel. He would go all the way to California, spend a week or two there training with a lot of different people.

In the beginning, he was going to the Gracie Academy. He actually trained at Rickson’s School quite a bit. I actually remember visiting. I have a picture of Rickson and I must have been like 12 years old or something and that was back when Rickson was fighting in Japan. So he was going there.

And then, you know, every year, they had the JKD Instructors Conference. And then one of the following years, they brought in the Machado brothers to teach at the JKD Conference and my Dad really fell in love with the Machado brothers, their personalities and the way they taught and everything. So then, he was going to the Machado Academy to train. That’s back when all five brothers were at the same place. And the Machados had a great American team. They were like had a lot of Americans that were competing and doing well.

And so then, we were kind of more with the Machados and my father got a call one day from Carlos Machado and he said that he was moving to Dallas, Texas. Chuck Norris was a student of Carlos and he was filming in Dallas for the Walker, Texas Ranger show.  He wanted Carlos to be close with him so Carlos became the first Brazilian black belt that was in our area of the country. And so Dallas, Texas became the closest place for us and that was great. 3-hour drive versus going all the way to Los Angeles was way better.

So then from there, my Dad started driving down to Dallas He kept a routine. Every Thursday, he would drive down, do a private lesson, train in the group class, and then drive back and then teach at night at the academy. And he did that for about four years straight every week.

And I used to go down and stay with Carlos. Actually, he’d let me stay with him in his house. And when I was getting into high school, like 14, 15, I would go down and stay with him a lot. And then I started traveling for competitions. The first Pan Ams I did was in 1999. I was 15 years old.

And so then, as I got a little older and traveling was becoming harder and harder for my father with the academy and everything, he started sending me around more. So I was going to Texas a lot more and then I was going to California. I would still go to California to train.

Stephan: So you were the Jiu jitsu spy sent out to get information and bring it back…

Rafael: Yes. We kind of took turns doing that. If it was him or I, he would go and we’d always have our notebooks. We’d have questions that if it wasn’t my question, maybe it was his question.

Stephan: As an instructor, you get a lot of questions. I get a lot of questions either through my website or through Facebook and where people often ask, ‘Stephan, I live in Podunk, Idaho and miles and miles and miles away from any instructors. What do I do?’ And basically, they have it even easier than you did.

Rafael: Yes.

Stephan: Because you can open up your phone, watch an app or you can read a book…

Rafael: All these instructional sites.

Stephan: Yeah. Tons of DVDs.

Rafael: Yeah.

Stephan: And you can travel. And the key thing really is just training it.  Just finding some bodies and actually doing it. Then once in a while, I think it’s important to go and check in and get your ass kicked by some better people…

Rafael: Definitely.

Stephan: …at a better academy so you can recalibrate yourself.  As long as you do that, as long as you actually train the material and then calibrate your material by competing or training in a big name Jiu jitsu academy somewhere else, you can make a ton of progress. And you’re a testament to that.

Rafael Lovato Jr No Gi Guard Pass

Rafael: Yes, exactly. I’m a 100% believer. It doesn’t matter your situation, your circumstance. If you really want it, you can do it. In a lot of ways, I think it’s a benefit because nowadays, a lot of people are starting to get spoiled. We have so many great competitors all over the place, great instructors. The access is unlimited. And…

Stephan: I remember it was a giant deal when you got a chance to train with some guy who had a blue belt…

Rafael: Yes, me too. “Oh my God, there’s a blue belt.” I remember when blue belts were like – whoa – you know. But in a lot of ways, I think it was beneficial because we would really study; we knew we weren’t going to have it the next day or the next week, whatever it was. And so everything that we learned or were able to experience was just huge for us and we didn’t take anything for granted. We wrote it down. We were like, “wow, this is the one thing.

A lot of times I would go all the way to California and I’d learn stuff. Maybe it’d be one thing that really like stood out to me that helped change my game and I would sacrifice so much to learn that one thing. There was no YouTube. There wasn’t any of the other stuff. But in a lot of ways, I think that helped me become good.

Stephan: We’re like the grumpy old judges, ‘People now, the young folk now, they have no idea what it was like...’

Rafael: Yeah, it’s true. And it just made me study so much more. Sure, there were tons of hardships with not having a instructor in my state.  Nobody that I could come back to, day in, day out, and have a mentor, someone to guide me and help me mold my game. I had to figure a lot out on my own.

But at the end, I felt like I had a better understanding because I had to do so much of it on my own. I had to study so much, and at the same time, we were also teaching because we would come back and then we would teach our students what we had learned. And so we really had to dissect and break everything down. It made me a better teacher, it made me a better Jiu jitsu practitioner, I understood a lot more and it just gave me a better Jiu jitsu mind.

And nowadays, people don’t put that same sort of energy into it. They kind of go to class, go through the motions, they don’t ask questions because know it’s going to be there the next day. You know what I mean? And in a lot of ways, I think that can be a hindrance.  Maybe they didn’t have quite so much of that, they could get even better than they are now because they’d have to put more into it.

Basically, we just did a lot of studying. Any time we could get our hand on some video – VHS tapes at that time – we would sit back, watch and take notes of what we were watching. We were always drilling.  Any time we’d learn something, we’d come back and just do it over and over again and a lot of people don’t drill like that. It’s just really putting everything you have into it instead of just going through the motions.

Stephan: Well, speaking of mentors and learning, you eventually made the transition from Carlos Machado to Saulo Ribeiro. Can you talk about that?

Rafael: Yes. So it was 2003. I was a 19-year old brown belt and I ended up facing Saulo in the finals of the Arnold Pro No Gi Championships in Columbus, Ohio. And that was my first big pro no gi competition and I knew Saulo was going to be there. He had done it in the years prior and I was so pumped for the possible opportunity to face him. It was like destiny. It really was.

We were on opposite sides of the bracket. Obviously, he was going to make it to the finals, but I was able to fight my way to the finals too. And there I was, matched up with him and it was a good match. He ended up catching me, submitted me from mount at about 9 minutes in, like almost before the end of the time. And I think he saw something in me.

I was in Brazil later that year. And I saw him and he actually came by and picked me up from my hotel, took me to his academy to train. And for me, at that time in the blue and purple divisions, I was still doing well despite not having any high-level people to train with. But once I got to brown belt, I faced a lot of hardships.

In 2002, I had a lot of losses and it was hard for me to accept because I had been doing so well. But it came to a point where I needed mentorship and high level training with other world champion black belt competitors, people that had done or were trying to do what I was trying to do. Not having that was becoming a hard thing. It was affecting me a lot. And so then my confidence started messing with me and everything.

And so brown belt was definitely my toughest belt. It really was. But that’s when I started to train with Saulo and we started developing a relationship. He came to Oklahoma. And then in 2004, I actually spent an extended period of time in Brazil. I had a good feeling that I would be getting my black belt soon and I wanted to be the best black belt I could be. So I sacrificed a lot. Saved up a lot of money and I said, “Man, I’m going to Brazil for a few months. I want to train as much as I can, compete as much as I can, because when I get my black belt, I want to be good. I don’t want to be just a regular black belt.”

And so I went to Brazil and I ended up training with Xande everyday.

Stephan: Just to clarify, Xande is Saulo’s brother…

Rafael: Yes. Saulo was still in the US. He was making the transition. So he was doing some things in the US but he came later in the summer for the Worlds. And I just became part of the team, part of the family. I remember going to Toledo, Ohio all the time. That’s where they were kind of stationed at. In the US, they had a lot of affiliate academies in the Midwest. And Toledo, Ohio was not like your number one vacation destination.

We would just go out there and it was just hard training everyday, just incredible hard training, and I went through a lot to experience that. At that time, I was a brand new black belt. I’m wearing the same color belt as them but I’m getting completely throttled everyday. Training with Saulo and Xande back and forth…

Stephan: You were either going to die or you were going to get better…

Rafael: Yeah, exactly. That’s exactly what happened. I survived.  Fortunately the discipline that my father put in me, and the hard work, allowed me to be able to survive that hard training. And I started, “Man, these guys believe in me and we’re going to the competitions together, we’re flying all over together, we’re training together, why can’t I do it.” And so I started getting some good wins and from there, everything just started falling into place.

Lovato S Mount

Stephan: Okay.I’m assuming from the way you’re framing it, that that period built the mental toughness that then served you well later on in your competition career.

Rafael: Yes, for sure. AndI think it came down to my father. My father is an extremely disciplined man, very hardworking, and I would just follow him; that’s really what got put me into martial arts. It’s like every other son wanting to make his Dad proud. And so I think it started with my father – I was training hours and hours. When I was 11 years old, I was training all day. And so that hard work, the never quitting, the discipline and understanding that if I put the work in, I can achieve anything. That started with my father. And then that carried over to Saulo.

And the thing that Saulo and Xande really gave me was confidence and guidance because until then, I didn’t have any other world champion black belt telling me, “Alright, this is what you have to think and feel and do to go out there and become a world champion black belt.” It’s different. You have to become a different person.

Stephan: What’s different about it? Can you give us some examples of the switch that needs to be made?

Rafael: The person that you are on a normal, everyday basis – when you’re with your friends, with your family – you can’t be that person when you’re on the mat or in the cage or whatever.  In that sort of combat where it’s man versus man or woman versus woman, you have to be… It’s hard to explain. When I describe it to my students, I tell them that you have to be kind of like a superhero. Whatever regular, normal human thoughts you have, or doubts that come into your mind everyday, that has to be completely shut off when you’re out there. And I didn’t understand that at first.

I grew up in Oklahoma, so for me it was nice Southern hospitality, humble, quiet… And so going out to these competitions, sometimes I was a little unsure of myself. And what Saulo and Xande, with Saulo especially, taught me was how to make that mental switch, what to think and feel, and have this extra level to turn myself up to. I had to train myself and really develop that.

Stephan: How do you train that? Do you do visualization?

Rafael: Yeah. Lots of visualization.

Stephan: Because this is something a lot of my readers asked me to ask you when they heard I was doing this interview with you. On the Grapplearts Facebook page, for example, people wanted to know about the mental aspects of competition and how you mentally prepare for that.

Rafael: Yeah. When Saulo was telling me these things and I was starting to learn these things, I don’t think Saulo spent time doing much visualization and things like that because he already had that. He already knew that. He was already very confident in himself. He already had been successful a lot at the lower belts. He didn’t have to go through… I mean I’m not saying he hadn’t had hardships, but he had Royler Gracie, one of the greatest competitors of all time, mentoring him. And so when I started to understand that for me to hit the next level, I was going to have to be mentally stronger. That was going to be the number one thing that was going to help me hit the next level.

I had to train. I had to really work on finding that zone to become successful as a black belt. Especially because at that time in Brazil at the World Championships, there would be a handful of non-Brazilians that would medal in the whole competition. Not just as a black belt, in the whole competition, blue, purple, brown, any belt, there would be three or four and you always knew who those guys were. And so the confidence level was different for Americans, or non-Brazilians in general, because it just hadn’t been done yet. It hadn’t been done where there are several Americans medaling and winning and doing well. The only one who had had any success really was BJ. Of course, he won gold and there’s other…

Stephan: BJ Penn?

Rafael: Yes, BJ Penn. There were other Americans who medalled here and there. Garth Taylor, Alberto Crane, you know some of these guys, but it was just so rare that competing in Brazil, it was a different vibe. It was a different vibe than what it is now. Now with the Worlds in the US and you’re more familiar with the competitors. Back then…

Stephan: You had no idea who you’re up against…

Rafael: …it was great and it was more mythical. Everyone was mysterious. You heard of all the best guys but the only way you can really see them is if you went to Brazil and saw them live in action. And then you’ll be fighting, and then here I was fighting those guys after I’ve been kind of like…

Stephan: Idolizing them…

Rafael: …trained mentally to look up to them so much. And so I had to go through a lot to overcome those barriers and say, “Man, it’s just another man and I deserve this as well. I’ve put in the work. I can beat anybody.” And so it came down to having the reinforcement from Saulo and Xande and then developing my mind to where I would exclude any doubts.  I had a lot of battles with that. Sometimes I’d be very good and other times, maybe I’d be facing a guy who had a big name and I’d say “If I lose to this guy, it’s okay.” You know what I mean?

Stephan: So what’s the toughest opponent that you fought in competition?  Do you care to throw a name out there? But you’re going to insult everybody else that you’ve fought…

Rafael: That’s really hard to say because I’ve faced nearly everybody and I haven’t beat everybody. But I’ve been fortunate to beat a lot of world champions and top competitors. But like I was saying with the mental aspects, I think the number one challenge, the number one person that I have to overcome, is always going to be myself, To have the confidence and exclude all negative thoughts out of my mind with the visualization and the auto-suggestion.There’s something I say to myself…

Stephan: What do you say to yourself?

Rafael: It’s like a paragraph. It’s very long.

Stephan: Okay.

Rafael: I have it and I read it over and over in competition. It’s in my phone. It’s something that I wrote that is very emotional for myself. It’s pretty much just something that makes me think back to all the work I’ve put in for all the years and who I am and what I’ve been able to overcome. And it gives me that drive, that fire and that confidence to go out there and not let anything stop me, not let anything hinder me from having my best performance. And if I can put on my best performance and I still lose, I can accept that way more than holding back and being nervous and scared and going out there and barely showing my game and then losing because of that.

You know, a lot of people said there was the Rafael before Saulo and the Rafael after Saulo. And the thing that changed the most was my mental state.

Stephan: Okay. We’ve talked about your mental state. Let’s talk a little bit about the technique. So I’m going to start with your guard passing game. It’s going to be hard to do on an audio interview but we’re going to try.

Like I said before, I was really struck by your aggressive and relentless guard passing, approach to guard passing in competition. And I know you’ve got some products out on guard passing, so obviously, you’ve taught this aspect of your game a lot.

What are some takeaway points? What are your top three tips for how to pass the guard of a high-level guy?

Rafael: Wow! Well, to help you understand how that developed for me.  Not only did Saulo and Xande help complete me mentally, but also technically. It was really awesome because the one position, the one area in my game that I developed the most, felt the most comfortable with because I started as a kid, was my guard.  Because that’s the first thing you could do as a kid.

Stephan: Fighting bigger adults?

Rafael: Yeah, exactly. And so I was a guard guy. And a lot of the guys I was training with had very good guards, so I always kept up with learning and understanding about the guard. And then Saulo and Xande are one or two of the best players that have ever, ever been in the game. And it helped me so much in both ways, because when I started to train with them, I got to feel and experience how they were just killing my guard.  Just completely shutting down my guard. And I was very proud of my guard.

And so I was analyzing and studying how they were killing my guard.  And also asking the questions of course.  And I’m learning from them, and I’m starting to apply their techniques and principles to my passing game. And it really ended up completing my Jiu jitsu and gave me a very well rounded Jiu jitsu where I feel comfortable on bottom and top.

Their style of passing was very different from what I’d experienced before. The pressure and the smashing and the forcing half guard and mounting, things like that.  At that time I would pass to side control… bullfighting a lot.. I had a good cross knee pass. My passing wasn’t horrible but I wouldn’t go and win competitions with my passing only. I’d win with my guard.

And so I said, “Man, I need to bring this into my game.” And so I started putting it together and that’s when I really developed the most. The biggest jump in my game since being a black belt is definitely my top game. And so when I started putting out these passing products and teaching my passing game, it’s what I’ve developed personally from what I’ve learned over the years from Saulo and Xande.

Stephan: Is that the pressure guard passing?

Rafael: Yes. My pressure passing system, I wanted to get that out there because I think so many people neglect developing their top game the same way they develop their guard, because the guard is very pretty. It’s kind of the essence of Jiu jitsu.

Stephan: Sure.

Rafael: Being on bottom and being able to submit people or use leverage to sweep them and things like that is very pretty. Passing’s not as pretty. The guard’s also always having new developments all the time, so it’s easy to kind of get sucked into that and want to do that all…

Stephan: Down the guard rabbit hole…

Rafael: Yeah, and do that all the time.  Not spending the same time and energy on your passing. And so I wanted to get that out there so people wouldn’t wait as long as I did, and they would understand some different concepts that maybe they don’t normally learn when it comes to passing, that being the smashing, the pressure, how you make people feel all, every single ounce of your weight plus some.

Stephan: How do you do that?

Rafael: It depends on the position. It’s hard to explain with words but one thing I try to do is stay on my toes. I try to stay forward and you can see that a lot in my match with Kayron in Metamoris. Half the time, I was almost just kind of laying on him, kind of the blanket effect, to wear out his legs, making the person use their hands to push you off instead of having grips and wearing them out and forcing your way going through the guard instead of trying to go around it, and so trying to beat the legs.

Instead, you go through and get to the hips, controlling the hips, understanding that passing the guard isn’t about beating the legs. It’s more about controlling the hips. And going through the legs means a lot of times you’re going to go to the half guard. Whereas that used to feel kind of bad to me, now I like to go into the half guard first and I see it much differently. I see it now I’m half way to mount instead of being in the half guard.

Stephan: Which is funny because that’s how it used to be back in the day.  Ages ago, being in the half guard was one step short of having your guard passed. Then this whole…

Rafael: Yeah, then all the guard games came out. And everyone has a guard game for every position.

Stephan: And the half guard became a dominant position…

Rafael: Yes.

Stephan: Now we’re almost seeing the flip side. It’s going back to the way it was.  With the half guard as an “Oh Crap” kind of position, at least when you’re facing somebody who can neutralize that position…

Rafael: Yeah. Exactly. Yeah, there’s definitely two kinds of half guard. There’s a good half guard for the guy in the bottom and there’s a very bad one where you know you’re going to get mounted. And that was the last of piece was I didn’t have: a great mount. I wasn’t comfortable with the mount. I had some good submissions from side control, the kimura, the brabo choke, some of the things I like to do, but I like never mounted anybody and I never finished anyone from mount.

It wasn’t until I started training with Saulo and Xande that I understood then how powerful the mount position was and how passing directly to mount was just utterly demoralizing for the person on bottom, how powerful that was, and the advantage of keeping your weight on them. It’s different than passing around the legs. A lot of times your weight comes off when you go to side control. But if you go to mount, your weight is on the whole time and the guy on the bottom is getting smothered. And I was experiencing that first hand. So I was like, “Man, I want to do this to somebody else. I’m tired of getting it done to me.

Getting comfortable with my mount added a whole new element to my passing game because then, it wasn’t about always going to side control. I would feel comfortable with going to mount and then being able to finish from there.

And those are the things I’m trying to teach now to the Jiu jitsu world and the feedback has been amazing. I get so many messages from people who are members of my online coaching program or people that have bought my DVDs before, saying how my techniques have really helped them take their game to the next level, whether it’s in the academy or competition and things like that. That really means a lot to me.

Now I’m putting a lot more things out there. I’ll definitely be filming a guard series later on this year. And right now, I have a passing system for gi and no gi, and actually, I just released a submissions series 2, kind of the follow up.  What do we do after we pass, how do we attack. And all of them are doing very well. People can see information about my submissions series at sealthedealbjj.com, and if they go to scienceofthegame.com, they can see information about my passing products and other things that I’m doing.

Stephan: And I know you’ve also got an iPhone app on the omo plata, but you say it’s being redone. It’s going to be coming out again real soon?

Rafael: Yeah, we made a couple of changes. It came off the market for a little bit. I’m going to put it back up there just to kind of start building up for a complete guard series. I’m going to later on this year.

Stephan: Okay. Yeah, I really enjoyed that little app. That’s the only one I’ve seen so far.

Rafael: Yeah. That’s one of the first things I did. Kind of get myself out there a little more and help me get comfortable with teaching in front of the camera and everything. The omo plata is one of my favorite techniques from the guard and a lot of people have liked that.

Stephan: A man with taste, ladies and gentlemen. A man with taste! Alright.

We’re coming to the end of the interview here. I’ve got to ask you about the whole strength and conditioning aspect and cardio aspect. How much do you do in the lead up to a competition?

Rafael: I do a lot.


Stephan: What specifically do you do? Can you like give us an example of a workout with specific exercises and specific reps?  Not so that people go out and do it verbatim, but it’s always interesting to see what a top-level guy is doing.

Rafael: Well, for me, ever since I was young, the hard work my father put me through, I’ve always been into doing strength and conditioning in some form or way or other. Back when I was younger, I didn’t really know… I didn’t have the mind to be able to create a program for myself and so a lot of it I was kind of just taking from other people, what they did or what I felt was good for me. And so every now and then, I would get experience with a high level trainer and I would start to use that…

Stephan (laughing): Just bicep curls and bench presses…

Rafael: Yeah, that is NOT what you want to do for Jiu jitsu! But so I’ve been developing that area of my training as well over the years. I’m very fortunate to have met my trainer, Lucius C. Tirey, and he’s not too far away from me in Oklahoma. He has a world-class facility. He’s an incredible trainer. He’s worked with a lot of professional athletes before. He has really helped me take that to the next level.

For me, I think conditioning is especially important because I don’t have high level black belts to train with everyday. 97% of my training is done with my students there in Oklahoma City. So obviously, they’re not going to push me to that level where I’m going to be really tired.

I have them all rotate on me and things like that, but the way I’m going to really feel what I could feel in competition is going to be in the gym. And so I take it very seriously and I push myself really hard in the gym. Basically, he helped me become smarter with how I work in the gym.

And so what we do is two days a week focused on strength and two days a week focused on conditioning. The day in the middle, Wednesday, is a recovery day. And that was a huge thing for me.  I thought no one could work harder than me, I need to do something everyday…

Stephan: Nobody can break my body better down than me….

Rafael: Yeah. At that time when I took a day off, I would feel guilty. I used to have this guilty feeling if I wasn’t training or if I wasn’t super sore, tired, like I didn’t do enough today. And so I used to overdo it a lot. And that would cause me to get  injuries and little things nagging me in my body. So not only did my training become better but it became much smarter.

So Wednesday is a recovery day. I try to be very smart on Wednesdays because if I keep it up through Wednesday, by the time I hit Saturday, I’m a mess. So basically, Monday and Thursday are strength, Tuesday and Friday are conditioning. I take it easy a little bit Friday night because Saturday is my hardest day of training at my academy. We usually do somewhere in the neighborhood of four hours of very hard drilling and competition training.

And typical workouts are going to be a blend of a lot of different things. I might do some circuit training. The strength days, obviously I’m going to focus more on the strength.

Stephan: So what lifts are you doing? Are you doing whole body stuff?

Rafael: So probably the lifts I do the most are deadliest and squats. Deadlifts are probably the best lift that we could do as Jiu jitsu fighters. I do a lot of pull-ups, a lot of grip training, a lot of variations on pull-ups, everything from rings to rope pull-ups to gi pull-ups to fat-bar pull-ups to chin-ups, the whole spectrum, a lot of grip training. But deadlifts, pull-ups, the prowler. The prowler is like…

Stephan: I have no idea what a prowler is.

Rafael: It’s a piece of equipment that you think is for football players where you’re kind of pushing something.  And it has high handles and low handles. You can stack weights on the prowler. And that’s probably the one thing that really just makes you feel absolutely dead, like a Jiu jitsu competition could make you feel. It really gets that lactic acid and everything built up in your body. Fries your legs. Completely destroys your legs. But the prowler is kind of like your worst best friend.

And then we do a lot of sled drags, you know, a lot of pulling the sled around. And then a lot of kettle bell swings. Kettle bells are great for the grips. And so he’ll put up a lot of circuits within those exercises and of course other stuff.

And then he’ll push me hard with the cardio, with the prowler. A lot of sprinting. We do a lot of hill sprints. Because Jiu jitsu is very hard and then kind of slow, so I think the best form of cardio that you can do specifically would be with sprints.

And I take a lot of that and apply it to the training, as well, on the mat where I’m doing really hard bursts of rounds. We do  90-second bursts a lot where it’s like a battle to get the score, a battle to pass or a battle to sweep. It’s different situational trainings. Takedown training is a great way to tire yourself out on the mat. And drilling for, trying to hit a certain number of reps within a certain number of time. That can push you on the mat as well.

So I kind of just do a little bit of everything. But he keeps it very simple. And the key is I don’t leave the gym so dead that I can’t train at night. I feel better getting my conditioning workout in the day. I feel better when I’m on the mat later. I feel like my body is stronger and more like warmed up.

Stephan: Of course you’ve also built that up over 20 years of training.  So that your body’s able to handle all that.

Rafael: Right.

Stephan: Before somebody goes out there and tries to do this… Before someone says “I’m going to jump up from my desk job, quit being a computer programmer and I’m going to start training three times a day the way Rafael does…

Rafael: Yeah. You’ve got to be smart. You’ve got to know your body. And that’s the other thing is getting to understand my body. Knowing when I need to stop. I used to never stop. And then I wasn’t training well. I’d be too broken down. I didn’t want to leave the workout or the gym until I knew I was going to be sore or I was going to be really tired. That’s not about that. It’s about making yourself better on the mat. And then within that, I do a lot of recovery work, a lot of foam rolling, like at the lacrosse ball and all my knots and take the time to stretch a lot and do a lot of joint mobility. And that was the other piece that he really brought into my training was the recovery aspects, which was extremely important that a lot of people neglect.

Stephan: The very last thing I want to talk about is some really cool news that you have about Abu Dhabi.  Why don’t you share it with the listeners here? What’s going on with you?

Lovato Omoplata

Rafael: Just this week, the ADCC invitations are getting sent out. Now that the Worlds are over and Metamoris is done, all eyes are on ADCC. It’s an ADCC year, so that’s going to be the big thing to complete the year. I was very happy to receive my invitation again. This will be my fourth time at ADCC.

At the last ADCC in 2011, I had my first and second black belts with me. James Popolo is my second black belt. He won at trials to go to the ADCC. And Justin Rader, my first black belt, received his invitation and he competed at ADCC for the second time. And so, the last ADCC, there was three of us, 2 of my students and myself.

And then this time around, I had another student who actually won the ADCC trials as a blue belt. His name is Jerod Dot. He’s going to be one for people to keep their eyes on. He’s an incredible athlete very smart and now a purple belt.  He’s coming up, he took second at the Worlds this year. He was a blue belt world champion gi and no gi last year. And he’s going to be very, very tough on the comer over the next couple of years.

So I have three students, and myself, making four of us from Team Lovato and we have compiled the biggest American team to ever compete at one ADCC. We have a person in all but one of the weight classes for the male divisions and we’re making history again. So I’m very proud of that because I’ve been teaching since I was so young, I am getting to compete alongside a lot of my black belts.

Stephan: The next generation…

Rafael: And a lot of my guys who are doing really well. It brings another element of satisfaction for me in my career, especially getting to compete alongside my black belts, which is a big thing. Justin Rader and myself, we both won the no gi world championships on the same day in 2010, as an American teacher and student black belt combo winning world titles. The history-making aspect, and being able to pave the way for the next generation, and compete alongside my students and things, it’s a special thing for me. I look forward to competing with my black belts as much as possible in the future, but obviously, my time in the adult division, the highest level, is getting shorter. I just turned 30. I still have a good few more years left.

Stephan: You’re still young.

Rafael: Yeah, I still have a few more years left in me, but it’s so awesome to compete alongside my black belts.  The chance that we could both win on the same day or do something amazing like that really excites me and it makes me proud as my work as a teacher and instructor. I’m just really happy and excited for the ADCC now.

Stephan: Well, I look forward to following your career and the career of your students in competition and everything else you’re up to.

So we’re going to have to draw this to a close because you’ve got a seminar to teach and I’ve got a seminar to participate in. And so we’re going to get you off to that.

Thank you so much for the interview.

Rafael: Thank you. I’d like to say in closing, for all my fans and everybody out there, of course I appreciate all the support. And please follow me on Facebook, lovatojrfans.com, and check out my site, lovatojr.com, to hear everything I have going on, all my products and everything else. I look forward to seeing you guys soon. Thank you.

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