Reigning ONE Strawweight World Champion Joshua “The Passion” Pacio is hoping to complete some unfinished business when he takes on Japanese star Yosuke “The Ninja” Saruta for the third time at ONE: REVOLUTION on Friday, 24 September.
The Filipino prodigy has been waiting for this trilogy fight ever since winning the belt back from Saruta in 2019, and he’s aiming to stamp his dominance on the division before switching his focus to other goals.
Ahead of the highly anticipated World Title showdown, the Team Lakay star spoke to ONE Championship about his matchup with Saruta, their storied history, being the only current Mixed Martial Arts World Champion from the Philippines, and more.
ONE Championship: You’ve always been vocal about completing this trilogy with Yosuke Saruta. Why are you so eager to fight him again?
Joshua Pacio: I’ve always wanted this fight because I think this is where we’re headed anyway. One way or another, we have to finish this trilogy because he’s also the number one contender. We might as well make it happen because I know he’ll be in this position for a long time. He deserves it.
ONE: It was a very close fight in your first meeting when Saruta won by split decision, and then you knocked him out in the second with a knee to the head. What changed between the two matches?
JP: I felt like I didn’t give it my all in the first fight. And while I thought that I won, a decision is a decision. Luckily, I got an immediate rematch.
I don’t think anything changed. It was just three months after that loss. I think the game plan might have changed a little bit, but not so much. It was just for me to stand my ground and avoid being on my heels.
In the first round of our first fight, I threw a roundhouse kick, and he caught it. In the rematch, I kept on going back to that. In the first few rounds, I wasn’t getting my distance, mainly because Saruta is a high-caliber athlete. In the fourth, though, we found our timing, and we got it.
ONE: Some people have been saying that the knee was just a lucky shot. How do you respond to that?
JP: Maybe for them [that was lucky], but I have been doing martial arts half of my life. I’ve been training and working on all my tools for a whole lot of time. Maybe if I was only training for two months, and I knocked him out, then we can say I’m lucky. But that’s not the case.
That finish was part of our game plan. It’s something I’ve been doing – training and repeating for 15 years – so I don’t think luck played a part in that.
ONE: You’ve shared nine rounds with “The Ninja” already. How do you think this third fight will go?
JP: We know each other well. We faced each other twice, and for me, I’m more confident, I’m different now. Wherever this match goes, whether it be a wrestling match, a match contested on the ground, or on the feet, I’m confident.
I think one thing I can say that I truly have now is confidence. Especially if you look back on the first fight, I wasn’t that confident back then. I don’t think the same can be said now.
ONE: After you beat Saruta, he defeated a former nemesis of yours in Yoshitaka Naito. What can you say about that, and what did you learn from that match?
JP: I’ve been watching it. I actually replayed it just last night. It was an awesome match. I thought Naito’s style never changed. I think everyone in the strawweight division knows Naito’s style.
Saruta had a great game plan in that match. He was even getting takedowns early. It was a close match. Naito moved forward in the third round, and he was pressuring because he knew he was behind. But, at the end of the day, it was an exciting match, and Saruta deserved it.
I think Saruta is hard to pressure. Naito was pressuring him from the start, but he remained composed wherever the match went. One thing I got from that match is Saruta is hard to pressure, but it can be done if you stay with it.
ONE: Which part of Saruta’s game can give you problems?
JP: His explosiveness and athleticism could give me problems. He’s a gymnast, so he’s really athletic and flexible.
I think, at the end of the day, the reason why I struggled with him back then is confidence. I was able to recover it in the rematch, and I think I can go beyond what I did in the rematch.
ONE: How would you want to win this match?
JP: For me, I would just want to execute my game plan. A lot of people have been telling me that I should go for the knockout like the rematch. But if you keep on looking for that, that’s dangerous. There’s a chance that it’s you who gets knocked out.
For as long as I execute my game plan, whether it’s via decision, submission, or knockout, I’ll take it.
ONE: Your Team Lakay teammate Lito Adiwang said that Saruta has improved, but that you’ve improved a lot more. In what ways have you improved?
JP: I think we’ve all improved in the gym. We concentrated on drills, techniques, and repetitions. Drilling is the game plan. I think it’s just having more confidence in applying the things that I have learned. Now, I will not hesitate to let my hands and feet go in this match.
ONE: After having five ONE World Champions in 2018, you’re the only remaining titleholder from the Philippines. Is there any added pressure from that?
JP: Honestly, there’s no pressure. If you keep on thinking about it, then of course, you’d be pressured. But I’m more focused on getting the win and retaining this belt. I’m confident that I can apply everything I did in training. So if you’re 100 percent confident, there’s no reason to be pressured.
ONE: Speaking of which, people are calling you the leader of Team Lakay’s next generation. How are you handling it?
JP: Truth be told – when you enter the gym – I’m still the one being taught. The reason why I’m the champion is because I train with the best. I train with people bigger than me, stronger than me, and faster than me – that’s why I’m a World Champion now.
If you can only see, there are a lot of stronger athletes in the gym than me. More technical athletes – that’s why I’m confident that there will be more champions in the future.
ONE: Lito Adiwang is also on the ONE: REVOLUTION card. Have you been training together?
JP: We’ve been training together, but our opponents have different styles. We have different partners and explosive ones like Jomar Pa-ac, Jhanlo Sangiao, and Stephen Loman. But sometimes, Lito and I also spar together.
ONE: So who’s the hardest person to spar with on the team?
JP: For me, it’s kuya Kevin [Belingon], Stephen [Loman], and Carlo Buminaang. Those guys are bantamweights and featherweights, and they’ve been pushing me to the limit.
ONE: History doesn’t favor Team Lakay when it comes to trilogies. What makes this different, and how motivated are you to break the cycle?
JP: I never thought of that before you said it. I haven’t been focused on that. All my focus is on how I’ll defend my belt and defend my position. Because everyone’s been leveling up so, being a champion, the goal is to be a step ahead of everyone. Even if it’s just one percent every day, I have to level up. It’s something I have to show on the 24th.
ONE: We’ve mentioned Lito in this interview – how do you think his match with Hexigetu will go?
JP: If we’re going to talk about the tools and tools alone, Lito is much more complete. He’s a great striker, and he can grapple and wrestle as well. I wouldn’t want to jinx him, but he’s ready for anything.
I see Lito as a future World Champion, so I’m confident that he can get the win against Hexigetu via submission or knockout.
ONE: The strawweight division has been defined by two countries so far – the Philippines and Japan. This match is another chapter of that rivalry. What are your thoughts on this rivalry?
JP: I think this is a beautiful rivalry. We’re all motivated to level up in all areas because the Japanese athletes are so good. We know we have to improve, and I know we’ll see it more in the young guns on Team Lakay, who are getting more complete by the minute.
I believe this is a competitive rivalry – nothing personal. They’ve pushed us to improve; we see our weaknesses when we fight against them. For example, in my first fight against Naito, I saw my weaknesses and started working on them. At the end of the day, that’s the point of martial arts.
ONE: Not to look past Saruta, but there are new faces in the division, such as Bokang Masunyane, Hiroba Minowa, and Jarred Brooks. How do you size them up, and who’s the most impressive?
JP: I think it’s Bokang. We all know he’s a very explosive wrestler. We saw that in his fight against Ryuto Sawada, he controlled everything. In his last bout, Rene [Catalan] is a well-known striker, and [Bokang] scored the knockout. He keeps on improving each match.
Minowa is no pushover as well. He was competitive against Alex Silva on the ground.
As an athlete, Jarred Brooks is very athletic. He’s fast, and he has a great submission game But he talks a lot. So, we’ll see.
ONE: So if you rank them, do you think Jarred Brooks is the weakest of the three?
JP: I think yes.