MANILA, Philippines – For the second time in the eight-year history of ONE Championship, two Filipino mixed martial arts (MMA) athletes will square off with a coveted world title on the line.
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 on Friday, November 8 at the 20,000-capacity Mall of Asia Arena in Pasay City.
“I’m happy with this matchup. It only goes to show how MMA in the Philippines continues to grow,” Pacio said in Filipino during a recent pre-event media workout at the Elorde Sports Complex in Parañaque City.
“For me, it’s a big privilege to be a part of this historic face-off as two Filipinos meet each other for the title that I have right now – and it’s against a decorated veteran. I’m also happy to fight here in front of my countrymen again,” he continued.
While the 23-year-old phenom from Baguio City made it clear on numerous occasions that he is prepared to defend his crown against any of the top contenders in his talent-filled division, one combatant stood out among the rest.
“I am the type of fighter and champion who will face anyone they put in front of me. If it comes to kuya Rene, then so be it because I am the champion,” Pacio shared. “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.”
After setting an embarrassing record of 0-2 with one no contest in his first 3 assignments under the ONE Championship banner, Catalan managed to turn his MMA career around by winning 6 matches in a row.
In his most recent outing, the proud Iloilo City native pulled off an upset by scoring a first-round technical knockout win over former titleholder Yoshitaka Naito, whom Pacio needed 5 rounds to defeat in their September 2018 rematch.
Without a doubt, Catalan has made a strong case to be next in line for a title shot, and the champion absolutely agrees.
“I was impressed with what he did versus Naito. He stopped his takedowns and won via stoppage. We’ve seen how he’s improved, and he’s on a six-fight winning streak. He’s certainly a worthy challenger for my title,” Pacio stated.
Personal bad blood
Several pundits and diehard fans are skeptical over the narrative of two homegrown talents facing each other for a gold-plated strap, including Catalan himself at first. However, he changed his tune about challenging his fellow Filipino.
“Before I declined because I support my countrymen in MMA, but we’ve been receiving harsh words from their fans that Pacio will knock me out in less than 15 minutes, so I thought about it really hard,” Catalan admitted.
Nationalism has always been a priority for the Asian Games gold medalist, and that’s why he was adamant in saying no to a bout with Pacio. But that would have to take a backseat as his competitive spirit kicked in.
“With the things being said now from their fans, I’m beginning to get tired of it. I wouldn’t back down from any challenge. When their fans told me that Pacio would knock me out, it lit a fire in me. Enough is enough. I am here for the challenge,” Catalan declared.
Team Lakay has always been open to be booked against anyone that the organization would throw their way. The best example of the group’s willingness to dance with their countrymen was when Honorio Banario fought and defeated Eric Kelly via fourth-round technical knockout for the inaugural ONE Championship featherweight title in February 2013.
Geje Eustaquio also figured in a Filipino versus Filipino showdown in December 2013, notching a lopsided unanimous decision against Eugene Toquero, whom teammate Danny Kingad likewise toppled 3 years later via first-round submission.
According to Catalan, there is more to it than meets the eye. He went on record, revealing that the rivalry between him and Team Lakay dates back to their days on the Philippine 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 disclosed. “I just had enough with the bashers online. People always feel like Team Lakay will beat Catalan athletes, but let’s see on Friday.”
But Team Lakay head coach Mark Sangiao was quick to dismiss Catalan’s pronouncement and is treating the upcoming 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,” Sangiao claimed.
Looking back to their time as part of the Philippine wushu team, the soft-spoken trainer conceded that there was some good-natured ribbing between them, though he does not remember the fun 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 pointed out.
Age vs youth
Sizing up Pacio, Catalan knows that he is up for an arduous night against the Team Lakay representative, who clearly has the edge in youth and experience on the world title stage as well as an established squad around him.
“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,” Catalan acknowledged.
Pacio is known for his highlight-reel victories and thrilling, fast-paced contests. 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 that he has what it takes to get his hand raised in triumph.
“I always watch and study his old tapes, and I have no doubts that Pacio is really good. He’s a really good fighter. But I am confident that I can win. Momentum, experiences and skills – those are my weapons in getting that big win,” Catalan explained.
Knowing that this might be the last time that a window of opportunity like this opens, Catalan promises to leave no stone unturned.
“This could be my last shot in becoming a world champion, so expect that I’ll give my 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 vowed.
Armed with tremendous confidence, Catalan is already making a bold prediction even before the first bell of the scheduled five-round championship clash.
“I am really determined to win, that’s my advantage. Unanimous decision. That’s how I see this match is going,” he predicted. “I’ll give everything when we meet. I won’t be giving an inch.”
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,” Pacio assured
“But this is MMA. 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,” he added.
Sangiao reiterated Pacio’s respect for Catalan as a mixed martial artist, but all of those pleasantries would be put aside on fight night.
“We’ll treat this like any other fight. Whether you’re a Filipino or not, wherever we are, we’ll have to prepare for it. Joshua is treating this fight as if it's his last,” Sangiao confided.
Catalan stressed that a win 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 uttered.
At ONE: Masters Of Fate, Pacio will be joined by two of his Team Lakay comrades. In the co-headliner, Filipino icon Eduard Folayang is set to duke it out against Mongolia’s Amarsanaa Tsogookhuu. Moreover, Geje Eustaquio battles former title contender Toni Tauru in a rematch.
Catalan’s younger brother Robin is likewise slated to compete on the undercard as he locks horns with Olympic wrestler Gustavo Balart. – Rappler.com