Bellator London: Rafael Lovato Jr crowned new middleweight champion after beating Gegard Mousasi on points
The pair headline the card at the SSE Arena, Wembley, in a bout that was originally scheduled to take place back in January, before a back injury sidelined pound-for-pound great Mousasi.
Lovato Jr has been made to wait for his shot at world title gold, growing more motivated by the day and using the time to further refine his skills having turned down the chance of fighting someone else earlier this year.
For the 35-year-old, Mousasi has been the goal for a long time – an opportunity to achieve the unexpected in what he agrees will be the biggest challenge of his mixed martial arts career.
“We thought about other fights but it just didn’t make sense, Mousasi was the goal,” Lovato Jr told Standard Sport.
“I had already set my eyes and my focus on that, it just didn’t feel right to go after another fight. It means that I’ve just had more time to prepare. I did a couple of grappling matches to keep myself active and it all worked out perfectly.
“There was definitely a phase where things were up in the air, in terms of when it would happen and when we were going to rebook the fight. It was tough because I was in limbo and we didn’t have a date for the fight.
“I didn’t have that set goal but that feeling passed a long time ago and I’ve known since late March. I came out to the press conference in London. I’ve had almost three months now preparing for the fight and being the best version of me possible.”
Oklahoma native Lovato Jr is a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu specialist and is one of only two Americans to win a world championship as a black belt in that discipline – the other being BJ Penn, an MMA pioneer.
In Mousasi, he comes up against a true fighting all-rounder, having won world titles in Bellator, Cage Warriors and Strike Force at different weights, holding a black belt in judo with pedigree in both boxing and kick boxing.
'The Dream Catcher' also has 15 submission victories in a hugely-decorated career that has seen him score victories over former UFC champions Chris Weidman and Vitor Belfort, among others.
But with his own stellar skillset, Lovato, who has won all five of his Bellator fights and is undefeated as a pro, could have an advantage on the ground.
And while there can be no hiding what his game plan will be on the night, he is prepared to take the fight wherever it goes on Saturday.
“I don’t have choice do I? It’s a fight so my mind-set and my strategy is always to be better everywhere and just be comfortable and put everything together the best I possibly can. I’m very much prepared and I’m happy to show all of my skills off for this fight.
“I don’t have a lot of time fighting on my feet. I don’t have that many MMA fights to begin with so there’s not a lot for people to see. Every fight I’m substantially better than I was before because I am still early in my career. I’m evolving rapidly so it’s not that I think they are underestimating me.
"They haven’t seen too much of it but every opponent brings out the best in me. Mousasi is a big step up and you will see me rise to the occasion.”
Despite Lovato Jr being two years older than Mousasi, there is a stark contrast in their levels of experience. By the time he made his in MMA in 2014, the reigning champion had already fought 41 times having turned pro back in 2003.
All that means for Lovato Jr however is that there is less mileage on the clock - still hungry and still learning.
“I feel young all over again. This is how I felt when I was a young Jiu-Jitsu black belt chasing a dream, hungry and trying to climb up to the top, except now I have all of the maturity and experience of competing for a long time.
"I have experienced much more of life and have a clearer vision of who I am and what I’m doing this all for. The maturity is there but I still feel young in this sport and I get to evolve a lot for each fight.
“Every fight I’m someone new. I think that makes me hard to prepare for because there isn’t much to see. People still see me as a Jiu-Jitsu guy and because they haven’t seen me in every situation I think I have an advantage.”
Tickets for Bellator London: Mousasi vs. Lovato Jr. are now on sale and can be purchased online from axs.com/uk and Bellator.com