Honorio “The Rock” Banario has the opportunity to send a powerful message to the rest of the lightweight division on Saturday, 8 September.
The 28-year-old from Benguet, Philippines, is scheduled to square off against Singaporean knockout artist Amir Khan at ONE: BEYOND THE HORIZON, which emanates from the Baoshan Arena in Shanghai, China.
If Banario were to defeat his 23-year-old rival, then he would take a big step closer to securing a shot at the ONE Lightweight World Championship.
It would not be the Filipino’s first brush with gold in the world’s biggest martial arts organization. Before he became one of the promotion’s best and most exciting lightweights, Banario was the king of the featherweight division.
To this day, it still stands as the most cherished win of his eight-year mixed martial arts career.
“Winning the ONE Featherweight World Championship was by far the best victory of my career,” he says.
“I can still remember the feeling of becoming a World Champion. It was a dream come true for me.
“I had worked so hard to reach that point, and when I finally got to it, it was a tremendous honor. It is the most memorable bout I have ever had in ONE Championship.”
Back then, “The Rock” was just a rising young talent. The wushu athlete won seven of his first eight bouts, and he was coming off his scintillating third-round TKO of Philippine competitor Andrew Benibe.
When Banario was paired up with Kelly for the inaugural title bout, he was pleasantly surprised. It was the first time two Filipinos competed for a major mixed martial arts World Title.
The Benguet native viewed this as an opportunity to accomplish his personal goal, all while helping to put Team Lakay on the map.
“It was a shock when they made the announcement,” Banario admits.
“I was happy and honored to be the first in line for the featherweight throne. There was definitely a lot of pressure though, and I could feel it.
“We were just starting out at Team Lakay – just beginning to shape our style. Our skills needed a lot of work, and we were just trying to build momentum in a new promotion.”
“The Rock” had the added advantage of being quite familiar with his opponent.
Banario had previously trained with Kelly, who is the elder brother of his Team Lakay stablemate Edward “The Ferocious” Kelly.
Also, he had watched “The Natural” tear through the local scene and ONE’s featherweight division. Kelly entered the contest with a spotless 9-0 record, with seven of those wins coming by way of submission.
In order for Banario to claim victory, he would have to stop Kelly from closing the distance, and avoid going to the mat with him.
“I had sparred with Eric prior to that match, so I got a good feel of what he was capable of,” Banario says.
“The strategy was to stay away from a grappling exchange with him, because he is very slick on the ground. We planned to keep moving, and strike from a distance. Using my speed and footwork, we planned to keep Eric on the outside.”
The game plan worked to perfection. With coach Mark Sangiao shouting instructions from his corner, Banario turned in the performance of a lifetime.
Behind his world-class wushu skills, he maintained a healthy distance, remained active, evaded Kelly’s big shots, and cleverly struck his opponent with crisp punches and kicks.
“The Natural” tried to hit takedowns in later rounds, but the Team Lakay stalwart successfully defended to keep his adversary upright for the majority of the contest.
It all came to a head in the fourth stanza. The two exchanged hard strikes, and a sharp left hook to Kelly’s right eye caused him to back away, covering his face.
Referee Yuji Shimada immediately stopped the bout at the 1:01 mark of round four, giving “The Rock” a TKO victory and the ONE Featherweight World Championship.
“[Winning the belt] was an unexplainable feeling – a mix of excitement and immense pressure,” Banario says. “We had really killed it in training. We went all out, and I trained as hard as I ever had in my life.”
Although Banario captured the belt, holding onto it proved to be a far more difficult task.
In his first title defense three and a half months later, he was knocked out by Japanese veteran Koji Oishi and lost the belt. An immediate rematch was scheduled for December 2013, but the result was the same.
“Back then, I did not realize the amount of responsibility I had as World Champion,” he admits.
“It was my first ever World Title, and I just did not understand at the time. I did not value it as much as I should have, and as a result, I failed to keep sharp and improve my skills.
“It is true what they say, that keeping the title is much harder than capturing it. Building up to a World Title, momentum is on your side, but once you have that belt around your waist, everyone is gunning for you, and every fight from there is the toughest of your career.”
Now, reborn as a lightweight, “The Rock” is gunning for the gold once more.
He will carry momentum into the toughest match of his career when he meets Khan at ONE: BEYOND THE HORIZON.
Should Banario win in Shanghai, he will find himself on a six-bout win streak, which will mean he will be banging on the door for a World Title shot.
If that opportunity opens up for him, he will be equipped with the lessons he learned from his time as the ONE Featherweight World Champion.