Filipino phenom Joshua Pacio has the perfect opportunity to recapture the ONE strawweight championship as he is set to duke it out against the man who took it from him. The 23-year-old Baguio native will challenge Japan’s Yosuke Saruta for the gold in the co-main event of ONE: Roots Of Honor. This will be held at the 20,000-capacity Mall Of Asia Arena in Pasay this Friday, April 12.
It will be a rematch of their grueling clash at ONE: Eternal Glory in Jakarta, Indonesia last January. Then the Japanese warrior edged out the Team Lakay standout via split decision to win the belt. But now, with his compatriots supporting him inside the state-of-the-art showground, Pacio looks to even the score and reclaim the division’s top prize.
“I’m excited and even more motivated because the rematch will happen here in the Philippines,” he says. “I’m happy for the opportunity, and I will do everything to get the belt back to the Philippines.”
When the two rivals first met three months ago, Pacio was making his first defense of his world title. However, things did not go the way he had hoped. Saruta applied forward pressure, worked intently for takedowns, and did just enough to rip the belt away from the Team Lakay representative by way of razor-thin decision.
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It was a heartbreaking loss for the man nicknamed “The Passion,” but he has maintained a positive attitude since his setback to Saruta. “That fight showed me a lot of things that I needed to work on in my game,” he says. “It was a great experience for me as it showed me the things that I need to work on heading into the rematch.”
In their second meeting, the roles will be reversed. Pacio enters the contest as the challenger who will look to cut Saruta’s reign short. To do that, he intends to be more decisive with his attack and deploy some techniques he was unable to utilize in their first encounter. Having already gone five full rounds with the Japanese warrior, Pacio feels even more confident about having his hand raised in triumph.
“I hope to showcase the things that I wasn’t able to show last January. I need to be more aggressive, especially being the challenger,” he explains. “I’m hungry to prove myself again and bounce back.” Knowing that his opponent is athletic and strong, Pacio thinks it won’t be an easy task. But he believes that he and his team have a perfect game plan for the fight.
Taking one for the team
There will be a special variable that could motivate or pressure Pacio in his quest to retrieve the intricately-crafted belt on Friday. He has the chance to redeem Team Lakay as the renowned mixed martial arts (MMA) stable has lost all four world titles that they won in ONE Championship last year.
Following Pacio’s defeat at the hands of Saruta, Geje Eustaquio took a controversial unanimous decision defeat to Adriano Moraes in their rubber match to surrender the ONE flyweight title a week later. A victory on ONE Championship’s world title stage remained elusive for Team Lakay last March when Eduard Folayang and Kevin Belingon failed to defend their belts at ONE: A New Era in Tokyo.
Folayang succumbed to a first-round submission setback to Shinya Aoki in their highly-anticipated rematch, while Belingon suffered a disqualification loss to Bibiano Fernandes due to an illegal elbow to the back of his opponent’s head.
Despite the recent struggle of Team Lakay in world title fights under the ONE Championship banner, head coach Mark Sangiao is confident that Pacio will be able to arrest the group’s losing spell.
“For this rematch, we have to put an extra mile in Joshua’s training. The real work is always done in training. Joshua never ceases to impress me. In training, he gives his 110 percent. He is willing to learn. That’s why you can see the significant improvement in his skills,” the trainer shares.
Although many pundits are favoring Saruta to once again emerge victorious against Pacio, Sangiao chooses to look at the bright side of his valued pupil's underdog status. The Team Lakay headmaster remains optimistic that he and his fighters will be celebrating with an MMA world championship belt on Friday.
“Team Lakay went through many ups and downs, but we're still here. Bad times helped us to grow and improve, while our wins kept us humble. We might have lost our title fights, but we're still in high spirits. Joshua will get that belt back. Nothing is impossible," Sangiao declares.
For Pacio, it is a heavy burden to carry but understands his four-ounce MMA gloves will bear the weight of his teammates’ hopes when he steps into the ONE Championship cage.
“I must admit there’s a bit of an added pressure on my part to perform at my best. But at the same time, the hunger and the will to win far outweigh that,” he stresses. “I’m in the best shape of my life, and with the crowd behind me, expect the best Joshua Pacio.”
Photographs courtesy of One Championship