Rafael Lovato Jr.’s star was still on the rise at Bellator 181 in Thackerville, Oklahoma. The undefeated (5-0) Middleweight was not even featured on the main card on July 14, 2017 — the headline bout that evening was a trilogy match between Derek Campos (18-6) and Brandon Girtz (14-6) that turned into a two-round bloodbath.
Perhaps Lovato sensed he had something to prove that evening fighting in his home state of Oklahoma. He was born in Ohio but his family had moved to Oklahoma City when he was only eight years old, and the world renowned BJJ gold medalist had built his life and career there well before his transition to mixed martial arts.
“Biggie” Mike Rhodes was looking to make a name for himself as well in his Bellator MMA debut. Sporting a career record of 10-4, the fighter had name a name for himself on the regional circuit and had headlined a Resurrection Fighting Alliance show on AXS TV, beating Alan Jouban for the Welterweight title in the process. He went 0-3 in a UFC stint shortly thereafter and was released from the promotion, but had won four straight coming in.
When two determined wills collide inside the cage, one will rise and one will fall no matter how “big” your heart is. Rhodes had his chances early. He had Lovato backpedaling and even teased a flying knee, but the jiu-jitsu ace went for a single leg takedown and was able to recover when Rhodes was momentarily on top. After a couple of scrambles Lovato took the back and dragged Rhodes to the ground at 1:39. Lovato sunk in a rear naked choke seconds later, and though Rhodes fought valiantly, he was forced to submit at 1:59.
With his second first round finish in Bellator and a perfect 6-0 record, Rafael Lovato Jr. had just moved from preliminary cards to featured televised bouts in a “Biggie” way.
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