When Yoshitaka “Nobita” Naito has felt down and out on his martial arts journey, he has always found a way to rediscover his warrior spirit and come back stronger.
Though the Japanese star had a late start as an athlete in the years after he dropped out of high school, and lacked confidence when he started out, the power of the martial arts community has molded him into an elite competitor.
Now, the former ONE Strawweight World Champion will aim to draw on everything that helped him reach the top when he faces Alex “Little Rock” Silva for the third time at ONE: ENTER THE DRAGON as he begins his quest to reclaim the belt.
“Nobita” was an introverted loner as a youth, and he admits that he struggled to make friends in high school, and did not care much for schoolwork.
He felt disengaged and alienated, and without the guiding hand of a strong role model to keep him on the right path, Naito dropped out of education. At first, he felt liberated, but without qualifications or any prospects for a prosperous career, he came to regret his decision.
Salvation came when he stumbled upon mixed martial arts on TV during the heyday of Pride Fighting Championship, and the bouts of Kazushi Sakuraba — the homegrown superstar from a pro-wrestling background who thrilled and inspired fans around the world with his flair and warrior spirit.
As a man who was not blessed with natural athleticism, Naito was inspired by the way Sakuraba challenged – and defeated – many opponents who held a big size and strength advantage over him.
“Sakuraba became my idol. I have never met him, but to this day I still admire him,” he says.
“Pride kindled my interest in mixed martial arts, and Sakuraba played a particularly instrumental role.”
The fact that Naito got a late start in martial arts at the age of 22 did not concern him because he had no intention of competing at first.
However, he became immersed in his training at the Paraestra Matsudo gym. He had finally found somewhere he belonged, and a collection of kindred spirits.
In fact, he was so motivated by his new teammates, he wanted to emulate them.
“When I trained with the amateur and professional athletes, I felt a strange sense of unity with them,” he explains.
“I wanted to strive for the same height and stand on the same level as these guys.”
Sure enough, “Nobita” began to compete in amateur matches, but he admits he was not successful early on.
As a youth, these kinds of setbacks might have permanently discouraged the developing martial artist, but thanks to the support of his training partners and coaches, he persevered and continued to improve his skills.
“In the beginning, I lost many amateur bouts. At one point, I questioned whether or not I should even compete, and stopped going to the gym for a while,” the 35-year-old admits.
“However, whenever the fighters in the gym had fights coming up, there was an air of unity and support – everyone was wishing the best for them. I was drawn to that.
“I am not sure if I managed to muster motivation on my own, but I suppose I was blessed with great training partners.”
Now armed with the courage and determination to keep going when he faced adversity, the Matsudo resident continued to improve his skills and began life as a professional with a perfect run of 12 consecutive wins that took him to the World Title.
Though he lost the belt to Silva, he won it back in his next bout thanks to a fantastic performance that showcased the very best of his technical ability.
Now, despite his physical limitations, the Japanese athlete is confident he will be able to rely on his heart and skill to defeat the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu powerhouse again and get back on the road to gold.
“I am not blessed with athletic ability. You can see from my fights that my movement and technique lack finesse,” he concedes.
“Giving up and losing faith in myself is certainly an option, but now I can think of how I can fight successfully in spite of my shortcomings.”