Rafael Lovato Jr.’s mixed martial arts career could be in jeopardy due to a hereditary brain condition.
Prior to facing Gegard Mousasi at Bellator 223 this past June, Lovato was required to undergo a brain scan for the first time in his professional career. It was then that he was diagnosed with cavernoma, which is known as a “cluster of abnormal blood vessels, usually found in the brain and spinal cord.”
In an interview on Joe Rogan’s JRE MMA podcast, Lovato recalls sensing something was amiss when it took a while for him to be summoned from the examination room.
“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,” Lovato said. “It looked like something was wrong – it didn’t look like 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.”
When Lovato made a return visit, he wasn’t given clearance to fight.
“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 meantime, Lovato flew to Brazil to continue his training camp, which included hard sparring. While there, he sought other medical opinions. While many doctors refused to grant him clearance, he encountered one renowned neurologist who offered a different take.
“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 that approval, Lovato was able to get the necessary clearance to fight at Bellator 223 in London on June 22. In the card’s main event, he upset Gegard Mousasi via majority decision to capture the middleweight crown. The Brazilian jiu-jitsu ace has flown under the radar since that bout, and now it’s easy to see why. Not long after the event, Safe MMA, the regulatory body for Europe, called Lovato to inform him that he should not have been cleared to fight at Bellator 223 and he would not be approved to compete in Europe again.
Lovato also revealed that he agreed to give Mousasi a rematch at Bellator 238 on Jan. 25, but the California State Athletic Commission ultimately declined to approve the bout. For now, he is hoping that he can present a clear case that allows him to continue fighting.
“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.”
If Lovato’s efforts eventually prove fruitless, he is willing to vacate the belt he won in June. It’s really just about finding the right information regarding the condition so he can proceed in the best way possible for his future well-being.
“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. If they have to set up a fight to determine a new champion, [I’m fine with that],” he said. “I’m going to do everything I can to hopefully get approved to come back. But it’s sort of an indefinite time.”