Team Lakay may have experienced some adversity in 2021, but ONE Strawweight World Champion Joshua “The Passion” Pacio continued to be the brightest star in the famed Filipino stable.
The Baguio City-based mixed martial artist only competed once this year, but he made the most of that appearance, knocking out longtime foe Yosuke “The Ninja” Saruta in the first round of their World Title trilogy fight in September.
With that rivalry officially in the rearview mirror, Pacio is now facing a group of fresh contenders who are eager to get their crack at the 25-year-old divisional kingpin.
Top-ranked Bokang “Little Giant” Masunyane is undefeated and coming off a stunning 37-second knockout victory, #3-ranked Jarred “The Monkey God” Brooks recently finished Pacio’s Team Lakay stablemate and previously ranked Lito “Thunder Kid” Adiwang, and #4-ranked Hiroba Minowa holds decision wins over Adiwang and #5-ranked Alex “Little Rock” Silva.
From the looks of it, Pacio could have a busy 2022. In this exclusive interview, the Filipino dynamo relives his victory over Saruta, shares his thoughts on the next wave of hungry contenders, talks about overcoming COVID-19, and looks ahead to 2022.
ONE Championship: You only fought once this year, but you knocked out your old rival, Yosuke Saruta, in the first round to defend your ONE Strawweight World Title and close out your series with him. How important was that for you?
Joshua Pacio: It was very important for me. As a World Champion, that’s my job – to defend the belt and leave no questions. Aside from that, I’d have to admit that there was a bit of pressure on my end because a lot of people were thinking that I may suffer ring rust, so I’m happy to prove them wrong as well.
Another thing that I’m happy about from that was, though I wasn’t able to show how much I’ve improved, it was still a convincing and satisfying win for me.
ONE: What improvements were you hoping to showcase in that fight?
JP: In that fight, you can see that I was just defending the takedowns and then attempting to get back up when I got taken down. What I wanted to show was my well-roundedness – that I can also go for takedowns and submissions against a very tough opponent like Saruta.
ONE: Should we expect to see that in your next bouts?
JP: Yes, of course. We’ve been working on it since the [COVID-19] pandemic [began]. We’ve been working on the confidence in the execution, especially against good grapplers.
I can’t always say, ‘Oh, I’m facing a good grappler, I have to work on my defense.’ Defense, defense, is it all that it is for me? I also want to show that I can go for takedowns, I can control the fight with my grappling, and I can throw out submission attempts. I think those are the next few things that I will show in my next few fights.
ONE: In November, your teammate Lito Adiwang lost to Jarred Brooks. Can you break down what happened in that fight?
JP: That’s MMA for you. Whoever blinks first loses. For me, Lito was actually tiring Jarred Brooks out. That’s also what he told me. Jarred had a guillotine attempt and he exerted all his force there, and that’s where he began to tire out. Yes, I felt like he controlled Lito in the entire first round. In the second round, I felt like he was starting to gas out.
There was also an instance where Lito threw a leg kick and Jarred asked for a timeout because of a low blow? Lito thought it wasn’t a low blow, and then he took the entire five minutes to rest. Then there it was, back in the same position. Lito made one error and Brooks made him pay for it. Brooks definitely wanted to finish Lito as soon as he got the choke, as he knew that Lito would turn the tide in the third round.
ONE: Brooks has been calling out the top contenders in the strawweight division all year, and he recently beat Lito and took him out of the top-five rankings. That said, do you think Brooks is your biggest threat now?
JP: Him calling us out is just his style to get the big fights in the rankings. Personally, I respect Jarred Brooks as an athlete. He’s a very experienced athlete, and he’s a really confident fighter.
What makes Jarred Brooks good is his experience. He’s been fighting at the top level in mixed martial arts for the longest time. I can say he’s one of the threats in this division, but as I’ve been saying, I’ve been improving by 1 percent each day. And while he’s saying that he hasn’t faced someone in his level, I know for a fact that he also hasn’t faced someone like me.
ONE: There’s a list of fresh contenders who want their shot at you, including Brooks, Bokang Masunyane, and Hiroba Minowa. Who do you think is the most dangerous of the three?
JP: All of them are dangerous. Since I’m on the top of the food chain, I know all those guys you mentioned are working hard to beat me. But I’ve also kept an eye on them. We’ve been reviewing their styles, we’ve been watching them, and all I can say is we’re ready for whoever is next.
ONE: But as the reigning ONE Strawweight World Champion, who do you think deserves the next title shot?
JP: You guys know me, I don’t really nitpick opponents. I don’t like saying who I want to face next. And as I’ve said earlier, I’ve been reviewing all the fights of the top-five [contenders] and analyzing their strengths and weaknesses just to be ready. Whoever it is, I’ll be ready.
ONE: Aside from your win over Saruta, what’s your favorite memory of the year?
JP: Surviving COVID-19. I caught the virus and I survived, so I’m grateful. And then, of course, the resumption of the training, and I’m happy to see my teammates get their big breaks here in ONE Championship.
ONE: Speaking of which, what can we expect from Team Lakay next year?
JP: Everything is a blessing for us, both wins and losses, because we get to assess what we lack and what we can work on. We’ve been working and improving on our weaknesses, and that’s something that we will show next year – a team filled with more well-rounded MMA athletes.
ONE: Lastly, what is Joshua Pacio’s wish for 2022?
JP: For my career, it’s still the same – continue improving and make sure I continue to defend the World Titles. I hope to defend it in front of the fans here in the Philippines.