Bellator middleweight champion Rafael Lovato Jr. is in a battle for his fighting career in the form of a brain condition that could cause him to give up his title and retire.
It’s been a trying past 14 months for Lovato Jr. (10-0 MMA, 6-0 BMMA), but the struggles have led to some major revelations about his health. He’s been diagnosed with cavernoma, a condition involving “abnormally formed blood vessels,” typically in the brain or spinal cord, according to the Mayo Clinic.
For the entirety of Lovato’s MMA career, he said he fought in locations where the sanctioning body did not require brain scans. He was required by European regulatory body Safe MMA to get one ahead of challenging Gegard Mousasi for the 185-pound belt at Bellator 223 this past June, and that’s when the issues came up.
“I could sense something was going on,” Lovato said on the “JRE MMA Show” podcast with UFC commentator Joe Rogan. “The radiologist, with really no candor or an easy or soft way of saying it, was like, ‘Dude, have you seen your brain before? There’s some stuff in here you need to see.’ He pulls me into the room and shows me on the screen, pointing out what looked like little balls. It looked like something was wrong – not a normal scan. But I don’t know – like shades of discoloration. You could see that it wasn’t normal. He didn’t even know what it was at the time.
“I go back and he tells me that he did some research and he believes I have a disease called cavernoma. He hits me with that. I had no idea what cavernoma was. He said, ‘Look, I’m not signing this paper. You need to go see a specialist and get looked at. But as far as I know, you should not fight. You should not be fighting.’”
In the midst of it all, Lovato was booked to travel to Brazil for a portion of his Bellator 223 training camp. He went ahead with the trip, all the while not having clearance to compete yet and worrying about the severity of his condition. He said he was “an emotional wreck.”
To make matters worse, Lovato suffered a severe hamstring injury that he thought would prevent him from making it to the fight, anyway.
Lovato said he met with a number of doctors in Brazil. “It was the hardest week ever before multiple doctors were all saying no,” but Lovato tried to keep optimistic. As he learned more about cavernoma, he discovered it’s a hereditary condition that was not immediately life-threatening, nor does it require any type of emergency operation.
After getting a variety of opinions, Lovato said he encountered one of the most highly regarded neurologists in Brazil and received the medical approval he was looking for.
“He said, ‘There is no studies that say getting hit in your head is going to make your cavernoma worse or cause you to bleed and something is going to happen,’” Lovato said. “He said, ‘You could bleed, you could be oozing blood at any point in time, little by little. It could become an issue at some point in time. But there is no treatment. We’re not going to do surgery. There’s nothing that’s going to happen until you have symptoms, until you show signs. Because I can’t find any studies that say getting hit in the head is going to make it worse, and because you a normal, healthy, functioning person at this point, I think it’s fine for you to fight. You should continuing doing what you do until it becomes a problem. And if it does become a problem, we’ll go in there and take it out.’”
With the needed documentation, Lovato applied to Safe MMA for a license to fight at Bellator 223. He still was dealing with the hamstring injury, but worked around it as the fight date drew closer. Days later, Safe MMA contacted him and said it has put a panel together to discuss the brain scans and whether Lovato would be licensed to compete. Two weeks before the fight date, he was approved.
Following the weeks of torturous mental and physical stress, Lovato made it to Bellator 223 and performed well enough to dethrone Mousasi and claim the Bellator middleweight title. Since then, though, he’s rarely been heard from.
In the weeks after the fight, Lovato said he received a call from Safe MMA informing him that more research had been done on his scans and the conclusion was that a mistake was made allowing him to fight. He was informed he would not be approved for competition in the region again, and he was advised by an Irish doctor that he should stop fighting for good.
“He’s very adamant that I should not continue fighting,” Lovato said. “He says it was a mistake that I was able to fight in London and moving forward I will not be approved in Europe again. At this point, Europe is a no.”
Months have passed and Lovato still is looking for answers and hope. He said Bellator is aware of what’s going on and has helped him see more specialists. He said he’s received a variety of feedback, but there seems to be a split in medical opinion of what he can and cannot do.
Lovato said he signed a bout agreement to rematch Mousasi at Bellator 238 this past weekend in Inglewood, Calif., but ultimately the California State Athletic Commission pulled the plug.
The plan for Lovato’s team is to gather more medical expertise and present a case as to why he should be able to fight at an upcoming commission hearing. The outlook looks somewhat bleak at the moment, but Lovato said he’s not retiring for good unless he knows with full certainty he’s explored every avenue.
“I’m not officially retiring. I am indefinitely on the sidelines right now,” Lovato said. “I am actively seeing more doctors and working toward learning more about this. Obviously I want to keep fighting. I still have hope that if I can continue to still see more doctors and get more knowledge.
“This is such a rare and unique thing. No one knows too much. I’m getting some people saying, ‘No. No way.’ Then I’ve got these other specialists and people who have dealt with it that go, ‘Yeah, it’s OK.’ It’s indefinite.”
Lovato said Bellator is being patient with his situation, but he recently met with company officials and told them he was going to go public with his news. He gave the green light for the promotion to book a vacant title fight should it want him to relinquish, and Lovato suggested a matchup between Mousasi and John Salter for the spring.
After months of struggle, Lovato said he’s finally prepared to accept that a return to fighting may never happen for him. He said he has a jiu-jitsu match scheduled for Feb. 21, and he intends to stay active in the grappling world as he awaits a definitive answer on his fate.
“If it’s really unsafe and I’m not going to get approved, ever, I finally got to a place where I can accept that and I’m going to move forward on with my life,” Lovato said. “If they have to set up a fight to determine a new champion, (that’s OK). I’m going to do everything I can to hopefully get approved to come back. But it’s sort of an indefinite time.”