After an agonizing few months without a belt around his waist, Yoshitaka “Nobita” Naito reigns supreme once again.
In May, he enthralled the fans at the Jakarta Convention Center in Indonesia, as well as millions tuning in around the globe, with his gutsy performance against Alex “Little Rock” Silva to regain the ONE Strawweight World Title in the main event of ONE: GRIT AND GLORY.
After five rounds of non-stop action, the Japanese wrecking ball earned a split decision victory to avenge the first and only loss of his career.
Four months removed from the defining contest of his career, the 34-year-old admits he was “very relieved” to have his hand raised.
In their first headlining tilt at ONE: WARRIORS OF THE WORLD in December 2017, Naito was the defending ONE Strawweight World Champion and found himself stymied by Silva’s striking prowess.
Though he was able to dominate the final round of the match-up, it was too little, too late.
The Brazilian was always a few steps ahead in the stand-up exchanges, and squashed the strawweight king’s opportunities to mount an effective offense. Ultimately, the Evolve MMA representative swept the scorecards, earning a unanimous decision victory to win the World Title.
“Nobita” left the Impact Arena in Bangkok, Thailand, without the belt, and his perfect record ruined. He admits it was “heart-wrenching,” and the sting of defeat lingered in the days and weeks after he traveled back to Matsudo, Japan.
“Coming to terms with having lost for the first time in my career was a strange, but painful experience,” he says.
“Losing is never far-fetched whenever I step into the cage, but experiencing it for the first time took some time to digest.”
His chance at redemption came in his next bout, as the World Title rematch was scheduled to take place five months later.
This opportunity forced “Nobita” to regroup quickly.
“Going into the bout, I knew that I could not afford to lose to the same opponent twice,” he continues.
“Also, I was fortunate enough to be offered the rematch so soon, and my biggest fear was to not be able to give everything I had in the bout.”
To make sure things would be different in the rematch, Naito acknowledged the critical miscalculation that led to his defeat.
“Since Silva is a jiu-jitsu black belt renowned for his grappling prowess, I tried to force him into a stand-up exchange, and it turned out to be a naïve decision,” he admits.
To avoid repeating the mistakes made in the loss to Silva, “Nobita” and his team at Paraestra Matsudo focused on mounting a multi-faceted attack involving a seamless integration of striking, takedowns, and ground control to keep his rival guessing, and limit his offense.
Moreover, they identified another error from the first contest – allowing “Little Rock” to dictate the pace of the bout, which meant “Nobita” was never able to put his best foot forward.
“Throughout the fight, I found myself having to react to whatever Silva threw at me, and being unable to utilize my tenacity to outwork him,” he explains.
The blueprint was set – “Nobita” had to be the aggressor, and he would concentrate on imposing his will instead of trying to counter his foe’s dangerous attacks.
Though his team was confident they would succeed, Naito was under a lot of pressure as the underdog, and thoughts of failure entered his mind.
However, instead of succumbing to negativity, his characteristically unflappable demeanor prevailed.
“Given the outcome of our first fight, a lot of people probably predicted that I would lose again,” he says.
“In the end, I stopped thinking and analyzing too much, and instead just focused on going all-out.”
He managed to turn his underdog status into a source of strength once he realized he had nothing to lose.
At ONE: GRIT AND GLORY, Naito showcased what had made him the best strawweight competitor on the planet.
The tenacious athlete set a high pace, as he put Silva on the back foot. This time, he used a relentless grappling attack to pursue opportunities for takedowns and submissions en route to victory.
After 25 minutes, he reclaimed the undisputed ONE Strawweight World Championship and reminded the world what a resilient and skilled martial artist he is.
“In taking back my championship,” he says, “I merely showed my usual tenacity to the fullest extent possible, and it worked.”
“Nobita” won that rematch, and on 22 September, he is faced with another. This time, the tables are turned, as he returns to the scene of his triumph to defend his World Title against Joshua “The Passion” Pacio – having handed the Filipino his first loss when they first met.
However, Naito will not rest on his laurels. He will draw on his experiences from the greatest tests of his career so far, and make sure he does everything in his power to leave ONE: CONQUEST OF HEROES with the belt around his waist.