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Rafael Lovato Jr. was not lacking in credentials when he entered his Bellator 223 main event with Gegard Mousasi on Saturday in London. He was a jiu-jitsu-world champion, unbeaten in MMA with a great finish rate and scored wins over Ultimate Fighting Championship veterans in nearly half of his victories. Nevertheless, Lovato was a sizable underdog, which speaks to the opponent with whom he was faced. Mousasi is one of the sport’s best fighters. Underrated for much of his career because of his reserved personality, Mousasi has a hall of fame-caliber resume, with championships in many organizations and wins over a who’s who of the sport. Lovato was a quality opponent, but there was no doubt as to the identity of the much more credentialed fighter.
Lovato, of course, pulled off the decision win. He’s now the champion, so the questions now center on how much this tells us about Lovato. Is he one of the 10 best middleweights in the world? Is he one of the five best? Or is he neither of those? The answer isn’t all that clear because to this point, he hasn’t fought anyone else the caliber of Mousasi. A win over Mousasi, when combined with the success he has enjoyed thus far in his MMA career, suggests that Lovato might be one of the very best, but it’s hard to judge.
This wouldn’t be a problem in the UFC because a win over a fighter like Mousasi there would set up Lovato for more top-notch opponents. He would then have the chance to either sink or swim against consistent upper-echelon competition. He could prove to be like T.J. Dillashaw and Frankie Edgar, who won titles as massive underdogs but went on to show they were elite competitors. Alternatively, his career could go more the way of Matt Serra, who scored MMA’s most memorable upset but won only one additional fight afterwards.
Bellator MMA has over time invested more in each of its divisions, but it still cannot match the depth of the UFC. As is with the case with other UFC rivals, this lack of depth makes it tricky to evaluate what to make of major upsets. Some will conclude the lesser-known fighter has proven to be a top-of-the-line competitor. Others will conclude the more established fighter has proven to be no longer as great as he or she once was. This was the case late last year when Vadim Nemkov scored a split decision win over Phil Davis. “Mr. Wonderful” has fought many of the world’s best light heavyweights and his only losses to that point had come against Rashad Evans, Ryan Bader and Anthony Johnson. That’s select company for Nemkov to join, but it’s also wasn’t the most dynamic of fights. It thus remains an open question as to whether Nemkov is an emerging force, Davis isn’t the fighter he once was or if it was just a bad night for Davis and a good night for Nemkov that produced a close decision.
One Championship has similarly faced this conundrum a couple of times recently. It happened first with Bibiano Fernandes. Long respected as one of the best bantamweights in the world, the Dream and One champion was unbeaten for nearly eight years before losing a split decision to Kevin Belingon. It was easier to doubt Fernandes than Davis, given Fernandes was 38 years old in a lighter weight division, but his track record was such that he received an immediate rematch. Given the controversy in Fernandes’ disqualification win over Belingon in the rematch, the questions about both men remain unanswered. The common thread between the Lovato, Belingon and Nemkov upsets is that they came via close mixed decisions. That was not the case in Eddie Alvarez’s One Championship debut. Timofey Nastyukhin’s TKO victory seemed to earn more believers because of its emphatic nature, but it’s another situation where fans were left wondering whether it said more about Alvarez or Nastyukhin.
Lovato has a trump card when it comes to prestige relative to these comparables: his unbeaten record. He has not lost to mid-level opposition at any time, which makes it easier for fans to dismiss fighters coming off of their biggest win. That was a key factor that led to Ben Askren being considered one of the best welterweights in the world outside the UFC without an individual win that looked as strong on paper as Lovato’s victory over Mousasi. If Lovato keeps winning, there are going to be debates about his big-picture standing for years to come.
Any sport is ultimately driven by figuring out who is the best. It’s thus frustrating in individual sports when these questions remain unsettled. When proven great fighters switch organizations, we at least have a general sense of their stature in the sport. Fighters like Lovato are stuck in an unfortunate place: One loss could set him back greatly, but any individual win can only carry him so far. It adds intrigue to the Bellator middleweight division but leaves the overall middleweight landscape just a little bit harder to figure out.
Todd Martin has written about mixed martial arts since 2002 for a variety of outlets, including CBSSports.com, SI.com, ESPN.com, the Los Angeles Times, MMApayout.com, Fight Magazine and Fighting Spirit Magazine. He has appeared on a number of radio stations, including ESPN affiliates in New York and Washington, D.C., and HDNet’s “Inside MMA” television show. In addition to his work at Sherdog.com, he does a weekly podcast with Wade Keller at PWTorch.com and blogs regularly at LaTimes.com. Todd received his BA from Vassar College in 2003 and JD from UCLA School of Law in 2007 and is a licensed attorney. He has covered UFC, Pride, Bellator, Affliction, IFL, WFA, Strikeforce, WEC and K-1 live events. He believes deeply in the power of MMA to heal the world and bring happiness to all of its people.