Rafael was born in Cincinnati, Ohio in June of 1983 and he has lived in Oklahoma City since he was 8 years old. Following the influence of his father, Rafael began studying martial arts when he first started walking. In August of 2004, shortly after turning 21, Rafael became the youngest American to receive a black belt in BJJ at that time. Since then he has become a well-known name in not only Jiu Jitsu but in MMA as well. Winning multiple titles in Jiu Jitsu was almost second nature to him but now he has switched his focus to becoming the Bellator World Champion. Rafeal took time to talk with us at War Tribe and detailed what it was like growing up in Martial Arts, traveling to Brazil to compete and what his plans are for MMA competition.
What age did you begin training Martial Arts?
Honestly I don’t remember. I have been practicing Martial Arts since I could walk. The first Martial Art I ever tested in was Kempo, I was around 4 years old at that time.
What is the first Martial Art you were involved in?
It’s hard to pin point exactly. I was born in Cincinnati, Ohio and at that time my father was the assistant instructor at the Khali Academy. They were an affiliate under Dan Inosanto in JKD (Jeet Kune Do). My father has been working with me ever since I could move. The things I remember the most is when he would hold the Mitts for when while doing Boxing and Muay Thai.
Being the child of a Martial Arts Instructor, did you ever feel like the instructor was harder on you than other students?
Yes for sure. It was hard but I believe he was pushing me in a good way. Most of the time I spent with my dad growing up was on the mats because he taught and trained so much. We didn’t do the typical father-son things; we had our fun on the mat even though the training was very serious. I always felt like there was pressure on me to pursue excellence since my father was an instructor. I grew up very fast and was always around adults; He and I have more fun now than back then. I started teaching adults at 15 years old and on most days I would spend my entire afternoon at the Academy. He never pushed me to be a world champion, but once I decided that he pushed me even harder in that direction.
Did you ever feel like you were burning out or wanted to take a break from training?
I did feel like this sometimes. Whenever I was 18 I got into a pretty bad car wreck that put me on the sidelines for several months. I had a couple of times where I took some time off but I have always been passionate about Martial Arts.
2007 was a huge year in Jiu Jitsu for you; do you believe that having someone like your father influenced you to do so well?
Everything I have ever done I can look back and thank my dad; he gave me the work ethic and showed me the path to be great. That particular years success had a lot to do with my time spent training with Saulo and Xande Ribeiro. I didn’t start training with them originally and actually competed against Saulo in 2003. I was a 19-year-old Brown belt at the time and Saulo was already a legend. We were placed on opposites sides of the bracket and I feel like it was destiny that we were to meet in the finals, which we did. Later that year I was back in Brazil when I saw him coaching one of his students at a tournament. We talked for a bit and he asked me about how training was going; at that time I wasn’t completely satisfied with where I was currently training. I got the feeling that because I was an American I was an outsider, which is totally opposite of how I felt with Saulo. There was no way I wasn’t going to take him up on this opportunity so I called him on Monday. Saulo and Xande both showed up at my hotel and picked me up to go train at their gym. Saulo was very passionate with both his students and teaching methods; it was like a family and I was hooked right away. We stayed in touch and in 2004 I told my father that we really needed to get Saulo out for a seminar. I told Saulo that I wanted to be a world champion and he gave me advice on how to achieve that goal. I was looking to go to Brazil that year and compete in order to do as many tournaments as I could. He helped to set the trip up and I ended up staying for 4 months with Xande. We were training 3 times a day, everyday and I did a whole season of tournaments down there. I earned my Black belt in 2004 but it took a couple of years at that level to gain the confidence to compete with the other Black Belts. I found myself through Saulo’s guidance, teaching, hard training and all the confidence they gave me. In 2005 I lost in the quarterfinals; in July of 2006 I was sick and could not compete. This lit a fire under me because I felt like had I been healthy, I would have closed the bracket out with Xande. I did American Nationals in 2006; in 2007 I did Pan Ams and Europenas winning all tournaments. I had competed twice as a Brown belt in Brazilian Nationals never coming close to placing. I went back to Brazil as a Black Belt and won this tournament, looking back this is one of the best moments of my career. I knew after winning all of those tournaments that I would also win worlds. I never imagined that I would win all 4 major tournaments in one year but I did, I also became the first person to ever do that.
You seemed to have spent a lot of time from 2004-2007 in Brazil competing, what was the tournament scene like in the states at that time?
For the most part if you wanted to compete you had to go to Brazil, the Worlds were still being held there at the time and didn’t come here until 2007. There was no reason for the best guys to travel outside of Brazil, the only major tournament in the U.S. was the Pan Ams and there were always a lot of big names missing from this competition. The caliber of training partners in Brazil plus the fact that there was a competition almost every weekend naturally made more sense to stay and train there. After 2007 things started to change, more people were setting up their camps in the U.S. and soon all the best guys were moving.
In the early days of traveling to Brazil, did you ever have any practitioners not want to train with you? Perhaps not wanting to show you their “technique”?
Oh yeah. It was even worse being from the States and coming to Brazil. Unfortunately that was just part of it, but that is why I gravitated toward Saulo from day one he was open with me. I fought the guy so if anyone ever had a reason to not want to train me it should have been him. In 2005 Saulo setup his first home base in Ohio, he asked me to come out and train with he and his brother. I didn’t know what to expect; would I have to get my own hotel, would I just be around but not get too much time with the guys. When I arrived they had me live with them in their apartment and do all the private training with them. He never held anything back from me or asked me where does my loyalty lie. Saulo was really hard on me but I am thankful for this because it made me who I am today. He was the first to bring me in on the world-class champion level of training. Instead of looking at me as opposition, he looked at me as an asset, as a partner and as a brother. I am forever grateful for this experience because it made me the person/martial artist I am today.