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ONE Strawweight World Champion Yoshitaka Naito is Ready to Reign
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ONE Strawweight World Champion Yoshitaka Naito is Ready to Reign

Oct 5, 2016

Yoshitaka “Nobita” Naito (11­0) may have claimed the ONE Strawweight World Championship in his successful promotional debut just four and a half months ago, but a champion’s work is never done. In fact, his road to defending the gold and establishing a legacy is just about to begin.

The undefeated Japanese champion will make his first title defense on Friday Night, 7 October, when he faces Joshua Pacio in the global main event at ONE: STATE OF WARRIORS, live from the Thuwunna Indoor Stadium in Yangon, Myanmar.

Not only is this a title bout, but it’s also a suspenseful battle featuring a pair of athletes who have never tasted defeat.

“It’s a fight against two undefeated fighters and, for the first time, one of us will lose, so that is an exciting part of this match,” Naito says. “It will be a good matchup. There will be a lot of action and one of us will win.”

Pacio, who represents Team Lakay of the Philippines, is a dangerous striker with a Muay Thai and wushu pedigree. That fierce stand­up proficiency, along with his improved grappling and jiujitsu game, has led him to a spotless 8­0 record, with five of those victories coming by way of submission and the other three by TKO.

“Joshua Pacio is a young, undefeated fighter, and he’s good at both striking and grappling,” Naito says of his opponent. “He’s physically strong, and he’s young and unstoppable. Also, he’s absorbing from every experience, so his skill set is growing rapidly.”

A rapidly growing skill set is something that is quite familiar to the Chiba, Japan, resident. After all, his tool belt of techniques developed at a fast and furious pace despite him getting a late start in martial arts.

Naito, a soccer player who also participated in track and field, didn’t have the desire to practice martial arts until 10 years ago. Being 22 years old at the time, it may have appeared as if he was playing catch­up to a degree, considering most professional fighters concentrate on a martial arts discipline during their childhood or teenage years. Nevertheless, he was motivated.

He was an avid follower of the Japanese MMA scene, which was becoming more and more popular in the country thanks to promotions like PRIDE and HERO’S. In addition to being influenced by his brother, the self­professed comic book nerd was also inspired by watching a certain legend.

“My martial arts hero has always been Kazushi Sakuraba. It fascinated me each time watching him win by submission against big foreign fighters, and I was a huge fan,” he explains. “What I love about martial arts is that you need not just physical strength, but also to use your head to fight, and there are a lot of different fighters with different styles. You have to be good in multiple aspects, which makes it interesting.”

Naito trained diligently at Paraestra, and his passion for the sport surged to another level. Six years into his training, the Chiba native decided to follow in the footsteps of his longtime MMA hero and set out to forge his own legacy.

He made his professional debut in Japanese promtion Shooto in August 2012, and submitted Tsubasa Fujikawa via guillotine choke in the second round. “When I first won my fight,” he recalls, “the exhilaration just turned me on and pulled me into MMA.”

From there, he rattled off six more consecutive victories and earned a title shot against the promotion’s flyweight champion Shinya Murofushi in 2014. Though Naito never previously entered the championship rounds, he did for that bout and with three seconds remaining in the contest, tapped out the title holder with a rear­naked choke and took home the Shooto Flyweight Championship belt.

The man called “Nobita” successfully defended the strap twice, but then decided to leave the company, and the only organization he had ever competed in, for ONE Championship in April 2016.

However, his debut in ONE Championship wouldn’t be easy. Truth be told, it couldn’t have been tougher, both physically and mentally. He was granted a title opportunity against then­undefeated ONE Strawweight World Champion and two­division Lumpinee Champion, Dejdamrong Sor Amnuaysirichoke at ONE: KINGDOM OF CHAMPIONS this past May. Even more challenging was the fact the event was held in the champ’s home country of Thailand.

For Naito, a man who always fought in Japan, this would be a completely foreign experience. “It was my opponent’s home ground, so the atmosphere was totally in his favor,” he says. “I saw a few fans cheering for me, but most of the crowd was rooting for Dejdamrong. I wasn’t the champion, I was the challenger, so I faced him with a ‘nothing­to­lose’ spirit.”

Though Amnuaysirichoke dominated the opening stanza with ferocious leg kicks and an immaculate sprawl, the Japanese wrecking ball finally secured a takedown in the second round and smothered his opponent with various submission attempts and ground strikes. Naito kept up with that relentless attack in the third round, but the Thai hero kept throwing strikes when he could, and did something that nearly turned the tide.

“I got hit by an elbow and broke my nose. That was pretty dangerous,” he recalls. “I didn’t realize that my nose was broken during my fight and there was not much bleeding, so I didn’t suffer much breathing difficulty from it. I was lucky.”

Going into the fourth round with a broken nose was a scary proposition. In the opening minute, Amnuaysirichoke stuffed a takedown and flung a fierce kick at Naito’s head. But the Japanese veteran avoided it, and soon he relentlessly wrestled the Thai hero to the ground and sunk in a rear­naked choke to win the belt.

Naito, for all his anxiety and fighting with a broken nose in enemy territory, couldn’t have been prouder to pull out the victory. “I was extremely happy. I was relieved,” he says. “I really thought I was going to get beaten up and I was really scared, so I was finally released. I felt freedom.”
Though the foreign hometown crowd was stunned and relatively silenced, Naito’s home country was filled with joy. “In Japan, a lot of people watched my fight on TV, so I got messages congratulating me through social media,” he explains.
“Also, at the gym, my gym mates held a party for me and celebrated my victory. They also watched me on TV and I received comments that I did really well, which I’m very proud of. So I guess I’m more famous than before.”

That fame may advance to another level soon enough If he continues to win and dominate his opponents, but with the high­caliber of competition at ONE Championship, it certainly won’t be easy.

“[Pacio] has both good striking and grappling, and he has finished his opponents in early rounds, so I will try my best to avoid that,” Naito says. “He hasn’t experienced long fights, so that might be his weakness.”

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