ONE Strawweight World Champion Yoshitaka “Nobita” Naito (13-1) may have just reclaimed the gold, but he is eager to return to the cage, and prove he is truly at the top of his game.
Fortunately, he will get the chance to do that quickly on Saturday, 22 September.
The Japanese sensation is to defend his belt when he renews his rivalry with Joshua “The Passion” Pacio (12-2) in a main event rematch at ONE: CONQUEST OF HEROES, which emanates from the Jakarta Convention Center in Indonesia.
Both warriors initially collided two years ago, with Naito submitting the Filipino wushu stylist to retain his belt.
Although he acknowledges the surging contender has experienced tremendous growth since their first meeting, the division’s reigning king still believes he has the edge in their forthcoming encounter.
“Since my opponent lost the last time around, he will bring his hunger and intensity. I understand the position he is in,” the 34-year-old titleholder says.
“Nevertheless, I still think that I have the advantage once the fight hits the ground, where I can impose my strength.”
Recently, “Nobita” was indeed in Pacio’s position.
In May, he clashed with then-champion Alex “Little Rock” Silva – the same man who handed him his sole career blemish and defeated him for the ONE Strawweight World Title five months earlier – to reclaim the belt at ONE: GRIT & GLORY in Jakarta, Indonesia.
The Japanese competitor controlled the action from the start. He set a tenacious pace, repeatedly wrestled the BJJ World Champion down to the canvas, and refused to cede any ground.
“Silva is not only a jiu-jitsu black belt, but he also has amazing striking, which he demonstrated in our first fight,” he says. “So instead of trying to avoid his strength, I was focused on imposing my strength on him.”
In a masterful execution of strategy, he displayed the relentless, grinding style he has become known for to earn a split decision victory and regain the gold.
“We are now 1-1 against each other,” acknowledges Naito, who felt “very relieved” upon having his hand raised.
“I am glad that I won, but his physical and mental condition on the day of the fight could have played a factor, too. So I would consider a rubber match, and if it ever materializes, it would be the real test for me.”
Before that were to happen, however, Naito needs to win another rematch – this time, against Pacio on 22 September.
Following his loss to the Matsudo, Japan resident at ONE: STATE OF WARRIORS in Yangon, Myanmar, in October 2016, the Filipino martial arts prodigy matured.
The 22-year-old Team Lakay standout has won four of his five bouts since falling to “Nobita,” and has used his revamped grappling prowess to rattle off three consecutive stoppage victories – including an innovative submission win over unbeaten Thai contender Pongsiri “The Smiling Assassin” Mitsatit in late July.
Naito speaks highly of his opponent’s rapid growth and limitless potential as a mixed martial artist.
“I won the last time around, but it has been two years since then, so there are not many certainties or givens in this fight,” he explains. “He is becoming more of a complete fighter after each fight. I can tell that he has been improving very quickly in every aspect of the game.”
Naito is understandably hesitant to elaborate on the specifics of his strategy in the upcoming rematch, but it is quite clear he possesses a keen sense of self-awareness as it pertains to his own skill set.
Regardless of his exact game plan heading into the tilt, or his reaction to the second-by-second ebb and flow of the contest, he knows that his dogged persistence to impose his strength – namely, his ground game – is his key to victory.
“My biggest weapon is tenacity, and it has been reinforced through suffering loss for the first time in my career.”
If Naito can display his tenacity once more at ONE: CONQUEST OF HEROES, then he could leave the Jakarta Convention Center with yet another victory over Pacio, and cement his position as the most dominant World Champion in ONE strawweight history.
Jakarta | 22 September | LIVE and FREE on the ONE Super App: http://bit.ly/ONESuperApp | TV: Check local listings for global broadcast