For only the second time in the eight-year existence of ONE Championship, two Filipino mixed martial arts (MMA) athletes will fight for a coveted world title. Team Lakay’s Joshua Pacio will put his strawweight belt at stake against compatriot Rene Catalan in the main event of ONE: Masters Of Fate, set to take place at the Mall Of Asia Arena on Friday, November 8.
“I’m happy with this match-up. It only goes to show how MMA in the Philippines continues to grow. For me, it’s a big privilege to be a part of this historic face-off," Pacio says. "I’m also happy to fight here in front of my countrymen again.
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While the 23-year-old phenom has made it clear on numerous occasions that he is prepared to defend his crown against any of the top contenders in his division, one combatant stood out among the rest in his mind. “If it comes to Kuya Rene, then so be it because I am the champion,” Pacio shares. “I think we’re evenly matched. Kuya Rene’s Wushu background is his bread and butter, while he has also improved a lot in his wrestling and grappling,”
Catalan went winless in his first three assignments under the ONE Championship banner. But he managed to turn things around for his MMA career by winning six-straight matches in a row. In his most recent outing, he stopped former titleholder Yoshitaka Naito via first-round technical knockout last March.
Without a doubt, Catalan has proven himself to be next in line for a title shot. “I was impressed with what he did with Naito. He stopped his takedowns and won via stoppage," Pacio points out. "He’s certainly a worthy challenger for my title."
Several pundits and diehard fans are skeptical over the narrative of two homegrown talents facing each other—including Catalan himself at first. But then he had a change of heart. “I declined before because I support my countrymen in MMA, but we’ve been receiving words from their fans that Pacio will knock me out in less than 15 minutes, so I thought about it really hard,” Catalan admits. “I’m beginning to get tired of it. I won’t back down from any challenge. It lit a fire in me. Enough is enough. I am here for the challenge."
Catalan went on record, revealing that the rivalry between him and Team Lakay dates back to their days on the Philippine National Wushu Team.
“We’ve always been rivals since the early 2000s. We’ve heard everything from their supporters. I just want to prove something to them as they’ve always belittled us. Since then, it has always been that way,” he discloses. “I just had enough with the bashers online. People always feel like Team Lakay will beat Catalan athletes, but let’s see on Friday.”
Team Lakay head coach Sangiao was quick to dismiss Catalan’s pronouncement and is treating this title tiff as business as usual. “There’s no bad blood. Maybe he has something. But for us, there really isn’t any bad blood. We’re a good sport, there’s no rivalry. I think they’ll hug it out right after,” the stable head clams.
Looking back to their time as part of the Philippine National Wushu Team, the soft-spoken trainer conceded that there was some good-natured ribbing between them, though he does not remember it going over the edge.
“Back then, it would really be Baguio versus Iloilo because that’s the two strongest teams in Wushu. But that’s just it. There’s no rivalry. Sometimes, we’d just tease them that we’ll be seeing them in the finals,” the prominent all-Filipino MMA stable’s headmaster points out.
Sizing up Pacio, Catalan knows that he is up for a difficult night against the Team Lakay representative. “Joshua is really an outstanding fighter. He knows how to be a champion. He is young, and he has an excellent camp. There are a lot of people who can help him, and I know that I’m an underdog if we meet,” Catalan acknowledges.
Pacio is known for his highlight-reel victories and thrilling, fast-paced matches. His unpredictable approach and willingness to go all-out in search of a finish are likely to give Catalan a stern test, but with a careful analysis of his previous matches, the latter feels he will have the leverage.
“I always watch and study his old tapes and I have no doubts that Pacio is really good. But I am confident that I can win. Momentum, experiences and skills—those are my weapons in getting that big win,” Catalan explains.
Catalan knows that this could be his last shot in becoming a world champion, so he says he will give it his all. "I know I’ll be facing a great champion, but this is my time now. I’m ready to collect my seventh straight win and go home as the new champion,” he vows.
For Pacio, he is determined to cement his status as the best in the 56.7-kilogram weight class. That means Catalan is in his firing line, but he has no ill will toward him whatsoever. “I’ve been reading comments about how sad it is being a Pinoy-versus-Pinoy match, but this is just sports. In the end, you can expect respect between us. I respect Kuya Rene Catalan both as an athlete and a person. He represented the country countless times. He was already there when I hadn’t even learned how to punch,” the young man from Baguio assures. “But this is mixed martial arts. The match on Friday is for my title. Since my title is at stake, I have to prove that I deserve to hold this belt, so I’ll do everything to retain my world title and extend my reign as my division’s champion."
According to Catalan, a decisive victory over Pacio is much more important than fame, money, and the strawweight championship. But Sangiao warned that his valued pupil is just as hungry as he is.
“Good for him. Though we expect him to say that. If he wins, he wins it all. But everyone wants to win, including us. Let us see on Friday. May the best man win,” Sangiao stresses.
For more information on One: Masters of Fate, visit ONEFC.com.
Photographs by Tammy David