For the first time in his ONE Championship career, Yoshitaka “Nobita” Naito will step into the cage for a non-title match, but the Japanese grappler hopes an impressive victory will change that in subsequent bouts.
The former ONE Strawweight World Champion meets surging Filipino Rene “The Challenger” Catalan at ONE: REIGN OF VALOR on Friday, 8 March, and a strong win inside Yangon’s Thuwunna Indoor Stadium would reinsert him back into the World Title picture.
“It’s an honor to restart my career again against a tough opponent in Myanmar,” the Matsudo, Japan resident states.
“I’m not sure if I can get a title shot immediately, but if I can defeat a rising Filipino, I think I can prove that I’m still a contender.”
In recent times, the strawweight division has experienced a lot of change at the top.
There has not been a successful World Title defense in the weight class since October 2016, but that has created a competitive atmosphere with several compelling storylines.
Alex “Little Rock” Silva and Joshua “The Passion” Pacio both held the gold for brief periods, and now Naito’s compatriot, Yosuke “Tobizaru” Saruta, is the man in charge — though he has an immediate rematch booked with his Team Lakay rival in Manila, Philippines on Friday, 12 April.
“Nobita” was impressed by his countryman’s World Title-winning performance at ONE: ETERNAL GLORY in January, but he was not shocked. He was, however, surprised when Saruta named him as the opponent he would like to face next.
“It’s an honor that he called out my name,” the Paraestra Matsudo representative says.
“I guessed that Saruta would win. I knew how good he was from Shooto. It was an exciting back and forth game, and I was totally fascinated by it. Saruta was strong and high level in every aspect.”
Before the 35-year-old can think about a future showdown with his compatriot, he must get past his rival from Catalan Fighting System at the Thuwunna Indoor Stadium.
Catalan, a Wushu World Champion, is on a remarkable five-bout win streak that stretches back to 2016, and his recent victories over Peng Xue Wen and Stefer Rahardian have solidified his position among the upper echelon of the weight class.
The 40-year-old’s career resurgence has given him the division’s longest win streak in The Home Of Martial Arts, and this kind of confidence will work to his advantage as he tries to force his way into a World Title opportunity.
“I know very well how good the Filipino athletes are,” Naito reveals.
“Rene’s striking is the most powerful compared to the past opponents I have faced. He will definitely come aggressive, so I will try to resist it.”
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Naito recognizes Catalan’s momentum, but he became a former three-time ONE Strawweight World Champion with his spectacular grappling acumen and that could be the deciding factor in his route back to glory.
Although “The Challenger” has displayed the recent additions to his wrestling and submission repertoire in previous victories, the Matsudo, Japan native believes he is still a step ahead.
“If I can secure the top position in my ground game, then I will have the advantage,” he says, before offering his prediction on how he will emerge victorious in Myanmar. “I will choke him out from the back.”