Yoshitaka “Nobita” Naito (13-1) has cemented his place as one of the best mixed martial artists in ONE Championship.
The 34-year-old Matusdo, Japan resident is the reigning two-time ONE Strawweight World Champion, and he has captivated audiences with his underdog attitude and relentless tenacity inside the cage.
This coming Saturday, 22 September, he will display those traits once again when he defends the belt against Joshua “The Passion” Pacio (12-2) in a main-event rematch at ONE: CONQUEST OF HEROES in Jakarta, Indonesia.
Although Naito is a World Champion now, he represents the uphill struggle of a perennial underdog.
An Outcast In School
The champion’s “Nobita” moniker may have come about due to his striking resemblance to Nobita Nobi, the main character of the popular Japanese anime, Doraemon.
However, his sheepish, unassuming demeanor also evokes an uncanny comparison to the gawky underachiever. In addition to that, it is seemingly a humorous, self-effacing nod to his own unpromising past.
Like his namesake, Naito was lacking in academic achievement and popularity. Throughout his childhood, he struggled to fit in with his peers.
“I was never good at talking and communicating with others, so I often found myself alone and with few friends at school,” he confesses.
At school, he was apathetic towards studying and equally disinterested in extracurricular activities. Eventually, Naito dropped out of high school altogether.
“When I dropped out of high school, I felt liberated, but I was short-sighted and regret my decision,” he continues.
“I felt helpless and could not do anything about it, but being a high school dropout really doomed my prospects in life.”
Finding Purpose In Martial Arts
In the mid-2000s, the popularity of mixed martial arts had reached a fever pitch, with Japanese promotions achieving success globally.
Naito was among the millions of fans enthralled by one such Japanese organization, and on a whim, he and his brother decided to start training at the nearest mixed martial arts gym.
He only intended to dabble in the sport, but he was quickly hooked and pursued his training with increasing fervor.
What’s more, his time in the gym deepened his interest in mixed martial arts and provided something he did not have for so long – camaraderie.
“Being surrounded by gym buddies, who were working hard to prepare for amateur and professional bouts, made me want to reach for the same heights,” he explains.
“Also, I was drawn to the atmosphere of support for members striving to win their next fight.”
Training and competing in amateur bouts proved to be far easier said than done for Naito, who did not come from an athletic background, let alone have any prior experience in combat sports.
He struggled at the amateur level, and he suffered a string of losses.
“In the beginning, I lost many fights and wondered why I even bothered trying my hand at mixed martial arts,” he explains.
“At one point, I stopped going to the gym because I was so discouraged from my losing streak, but in the end, the camaraderie at the gym led me back, and I decided to stick it out.”
That proved to be a great decision. Naito’s perseverance paid off, as he claimed gold in the 2011 All Japan Amateur Shooto Tournament.
Gaining Strength As An Underdog
The success continued once Naito turned pro in August 2012. He strung together an impressive 10-bout win streak, capturing the Shooto Flyweight Title in the process. Then, in May 2016, he won the ONE Strawweight World Championship in his promotional debut.
Behind the breathtaking reversal of fortunes for the former underachiever was a road paved with trials and tribulations.
As someone with little exposure to sports growing up, the Matsudo native found that the pure athleticism and flair for combat eluded him.
“I am not blessed with athletic abilities,” he says. “As you can see from my fights, my movement and technique lack finesse.”
Rather than being discouraged by his lack of physical gifts, he compensated by bringing a hard-nosed style and tenacious mindset into the cage.
He also adopted an underdog mentality. He fully embraced the “Nobita” persona to conquer the mental challenge of being a professional mixed martial artist.
Naito explains that assuming the role lifts pressure off his shoulders, allows him to be in his natural element, and has strengthened his resolve to conquer challenges and become the best martial artist he can be.
“I do not have natural talent,” he continues. “But I have the choice of giving up or trying to figure out how I can win despite my lack of natural talent.”
Dealing With Fame And Popularity
Success in both the Japanese and global mixed martial arts scenes has brought Naito more recognition than he had never dreamed of as an alienated youth.
“I honestly thought I would never find myself in an environment where I am surrounded by people who speak English or some other language I do not understand, let alone being recognized by them,” he says, reflecting on his unexpected fame.
As someone who has struggled with social anxiety and communication with others all throughout his life, “Nobita” admits that interacting with fans and media was a daunting task at first.
“I initially struggled to speak to the media without blushing,” he says. “But I am slowly getting used to it.”
Naito’s spontaneous decision to try mixed martial arts has allowed him to make new friends and even fans around the world. It also helped the shy introvert become more relaxed in his own skin.
“When people recognize me, they usually approach me, and I do not have to initiate the conversation. This has helped me to get comfortable in talking to strangers,” he explains.
“If I had not become a fighter, I would still be tight-lipped and nervous in front of people.”