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“Whoever is the champ, that’s my target,” Lovato Jr. said after his first-round submission win. “That’s who I’m going for.”
But Lovato Jr. (8-0 MMA, 4-0 BMMA) also saw another possibility: a rebooking with John Salter (15-3 MMA, 5-0 BMMA), his original opponent that night. The encounter was largely considered a No. 1 contender fight, but an eye issue caused Salter to be pulled from the bout and replaced by Bellator debutant Harris at the last minute.
Five months later, here we are, with Lovato Jr. and Salter set to meet in the Paramount-televised co-headliner of Bellator 205 on Sept. 21.
Sure, it isn’t a title shot. but Lovato Jr. isn’t complaining.
“There was definitely the hopes in me, just because that’s my dream: It’s to be the Bellator world champion,” Lovato Jr. told MMAjunkie. “So I’m hoping for that all the time. But I don’t want anything given to me. I’m not going to make a big deal out of it. I want to earn it. And that’s why I said right after, if they want to reschedule us, let’s do it.
“Like, I need to fight him. John has been deserving of a title shot longer than I have. As soon as they decided to do (Rory MacDonald vs. Gegard Mousasi), I told Bellator, put me with Salter. As soon as I knew they were going to do that, I told my manager to tell Bellator, ‘OK, now make the Salter fight, we’ve got to do this.’”
If anything, things have lined up quite nicely. After all, eight days after Lovato Jr. and Salter square off at CenturyLink Arena in Boise, Idaho, champions Mousasi (44-6-2 MMA, 2-0 BMMA) and McDonald (20-4 MMA, 2-0 BMMA) will meet at Bellator 206 to decide the fate of Mousasi’s middleweight belt.
“Now it’s perfect,” Lovato Jr. said. “There’s no question. I can earn my No. 1 contender spot. Mousasi and Rory are the week after, so the timing is perfect. I’ll fight, they’ll fight, and hopefully the winners, we can line that up right after.”
But we’ll get to that shortly, since Lovato Jr. must first get past Salter.
There isn’t much to debate when it comes Lovato Jr.’s main strength. Although he has had knockout wins in his unbeaten MMA career, and has been training muay Thai for a decade, he’s regarded as one of the most accomplished American jiu-jitsu practitioners ever. In the cage, that’s translated to five submission wins.
Salter, however, is a gifted grappler in his own right. Not only is he an accomplished wrestler, but he is also a jiu-jitsu black belt with eight submission wins on his record. Speaking to MMAjunkie before their first booking, Salter was confident in saying that said Lovato Jr. has “never fought another elite grappler like me.”
On his end, Lovato Jr. avoids too much speculation about where the fight is going to go. He does believe, though, that Salter will bring out “the best” in him and help facilitate his best performance yet.
“I’m not just going to submit him easily like a white belt,” Lovato Jr. said. “He’s very high-level and I’m sure he’s confident enough that he’s going to stay out of danger and try to do damage and submit me if I make a mistake. I basically have the same thought about him. It’s not going to be easy to submit him. But I feel like I can take him down, I’m going to do it. That’s what I do and I feel like that’s what he does, too.
“I definitely see us in the ground at some point. That might not be where the fight ends, but I’m sure we’ll have some sort of grappling exchange and it will be maybe the highest-level exchange that has ever happened inside of Bellator.”
Other than that, Lovato Jr. call tell you this: He always goes for the finish. And, while he’s not about to get reckless or put himself in a place that leads to a brawl, that’s still how he’s going about this one.
“I don’t suit up and lace up to win on points,” Lovato Jr. said. “I don’t train as hard as I train, I don’t dedicate as much as I dedicate to let it go to a decision. That’s just not what I do.”
Say everything goes perfectly for Lovato Jr. First, he gets the win. Then, he gets the title shot. Then who does he expect – or even want – to see standing across from him in the cage?
Well, first off, Lovato Jr. expects Bellator’s 206 title headliner to be an incredible, technical bout. He sees both Bellator champions and former UFC title contenders as “warriors, legends, incredible martial artists” and would be honored to fight either of them. But, if he had to put his money on someone, it would be on Mousasi.
“Since Mousasi spent the vast majority of his career as a middleweight, I think that would be the guy that I would look to as someone that I’d love to fight more,” Lovato Jr. said. “Just because he’s my size. I’ve watched him. More because he’s in my weight and he’s fought guys I’ve been following for a long time.
“… What an incredible dream, it would be, to fight him. If – obviously I’m not looking past Salter. But if I fight for the belt in my 10th fight, you know what I mean? Just 10 fights in, fighting one of the greatest middleweights that have ever existed, that would be amazing.”
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