Their trilogy match will take place at ONE: REVOLUTION this Friday, 24 September, and both men are highly motivated to clinch the series decider and leave Singapore with the gold.
Reigning strawweight king Pacio and #1 contender Saruta have already shared nine rounds together in the Circle, so they know each other well. That familiarity will make it more difficult than ever to secure the win, so only a career-defining performance will be enough.
With fight night just days away, here are the keys to victory in what promises to be another fascinating contest.
#1 Saruta’s Front-Foot Strategy
“The Ninja” took the fight to Pacio when he won their first World Title clash back in January 2019, and he needs to employ similar tactics in their rubber match.
The 34-year-old shut down much of the Filipino’s offense by stepping forward to apply pressure. Pacio was more hesitant and threw fewer strikes when he was forced onto the back foot, opening up more space for Saruta to dictate the proceedings.
As a result, the Japanese star had more chances to land his thudding punches and less to worry about when shooting in for takedowns.
By leading rather than following, Saruta gained the edge in marginal situations — connecting first, countering well, and getting on top.
Ahead of the trilogy, “The Ninja” promised to “show [Pacio] hell” and “drag him to the bottom of the sea.” If he works in behind his heavy right hand and low kicks – which create space to move forward – he has a great chance of doing that.
#2 Pacio’s Control Of The Circle
Like his opponent, Pacio must find ways to control the Circle, and this will be a crucial battle within the wider scope of the five-round contest.
The Team Lakay man reversed his fortunes in April 2019 when he defeated Saruta with a stunning knockout in their second bout, and most of his success came from standing his ground or moving forward.
Pacio threw and landed more, which gave him extra confidence and snowballed into the spectacular fourth-round stoppage.
While it was still a competitive fight until the finish, “The Passion” was less limited in his ability to execute his striking game. That put much of the pressure on Saruta, who became less efficient with his own strikes and takedowns.
But while “The Ninja” can move forward until he grabs hold of Pacio, the reigning titleholder must be careful to blend his aggression with angles so he can stay out of his opponent’s clutches.
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#3 Saruta’s Heavy Top Game
If Saruta can get close enough to get his hands on the Baguio City man, there’s a good chance he can use his wrestling to get on top.
He utilizes strong single- and double-leg takedowns and combines technical finesse with the sheer power of his muscular frame to barrel opponents to the canvas.
Once on top, the stocky Japanese man is hard to move, but he must find the right balance between keeping the tricky Filipino pinned, scoring with strikes, and advancing position.
“The Ninja’s” ground-and-pound is concussive – as we saw in his win over Daichi Kitakata – yet to throw with more power, he needs to create more space. With that in mind, he could be better served by using shorter strikes and trying to maintain control to pass if he wants to make good on his promise to submit “The Passion” with a rear-naked choke.
Either way, grounding Pacio is the best way to nullify his dangerous options, while Saruta would have multiple attacking options to choose from.
#4 Pacio’s High-Kick Money Shot
Control of the fighting area will be useful for Pacio, but its biggest payoff could be putting him in the right positions to score with his bout-ending kicks.
He searched for it relentlessly against Saruta in both previous fights and eventually found the perfect timing for his KO victory.
Other efforts came close, but the finish came when he anticipated Saruta’s rush and uncorked a right kick, which landed with the knee as the Saitama native charged in.
Saruta can defend some of these shots, but “The Passion” will like his chances to sneak at least one through over the course of 25 minutes – and that always spells danger.
Still, he needs to use his high kicks sparingly enough to avoid being predictable, as Saruta took him down off those attempts in their first bout.
If the 25-year-old wushu stylist scores with his low kicks and intersperses them by going up high, that could leave “The Ninja” guessing, and potentially, open for an attack.