The 21-year-old Benguet, Philippines, native witnessed first-hand how Team Lakay’s elder statesman Folayang rose above poverty, and endured a tumultuous period of uncertainty in his mixed martial arts career before becoming one of the brightest superstars and most beloved titleholders in ONE Championship.
“Before he got the belt, he went through a lot of ups and downs in his career. He was beaten and was knocked out twice, but I saw the fight still burning in him,” Pacio says. “Now, he still goes to the gym and tries to get better and better every day. He taught me a lot about life and its spiritual side, and he taught me positive attitudes that will bring me up in my career.”
Now, nearly five months removed from his first career loss, Pacio will carry all of his hero’s guidance and wisdom with him as he restarts his campaign to title contention.
At ONE: WARRIOR KINGDOM on Saturday Night, 11 March, he will square off against former ONE Strawweight World Champion Dejdamrong Sor Amnuaysirichoke at the Impact Arena. The bout takes place in his opponent’s former stomping grounds of Bangkok, Thailand, where Amnuaysirichoke made a name for himself on the national Muay Thai scene. The veteran Amnuaysirichoke has had over 300 professional Muay Thai fights, and ultimately became a three-time Lumpinee Champion.
Pacio is fully aware of his opponent’s striking prowess, but he can throw down, too. The Team Lakay product has an extensive background in wushu and Muay Thai, as well as a formidable ground game that he has put on display numerous times inside the cage. With that in mind, the young prodigy feels particularly confident.
“Of course I have the advantage in wrestling and grappling. I can strike with him, but I have a lot of respect for his striking game. He is a three-time Lumpinee champion, so I respect him a lot,” the Filipino states. “I will push myself, I will do well, and I will do everything to win this fight, because it is a very important fight. It does not matter if it is a decision, a submission, or a knockout.”
Pacio, who learned Thai Boxing from his uncle in 2007 and transitioned into wushu two years later, has experienced a meteoric rise in MMA. The athletic young man fans see today is a far cry from the overweight child he once was.
While beginning his education at the University of Cordilleras in 2013 as a Hospitality Management major, he also started competing on the school’s now-famed wushu team, and was training with Filipino fight legend Mark Sangiao at Team Lakay in anticipation of his MMA debut.
He made the plunge in December 2013, rattled off six consecutive wins in the next two and a half years, and finished all of his opponents with relative ease. Then, he was pleasantly surprised when he got the call to sign for ONE Championship. By that time, he was barely 20.
“I did not expect to be here at this level last year,” he admits. “When I started fighting in MMA, I thought I would fight on the big stage when I turned 25, or something like that. But through my hard work and hitting the gym every day, Coach Mark saw that I was pushing myself at a young age. So I also started to see myself as ready for fighting on the big stage in ONE Championship.”
Pacio’s string of success only continued. He scored a TKO win over Filipino wushu champion Rabin Catalan at ONE: GLOBAL RIVALS in April 2016, and followed that up by submitting Thai wrestling champion Kritsada Kongsrichai with a first round rear-naked choke at ONE: HEROES OF THE WORLD later that August.
That combination of his hot streak and impeccable skills earned the university student a shot at Yoshitaka “Nobita” Naito’s strawweight belt. It was something he almost couldn’t believe was happening.
The bout took place at ONE: STATE OF WARRIORS in October. Pacio initially held control, stuffing nearly all of the unbeaten champ’s takedowns and battering him on the feet. But a minute into the third round, he made a rookie mistake when defending a takedown. That cost him the bout, and brought the first and only blemish to his record.
“My game plan was to sprawl and not to go with him to the cage because that is his strength. I was stopping all the takedowns in the center of the cage. He took me down once and did nothing. But when he got me against the cage, he got me in the choke and that was it,” he says with an embarrassed chuckle. “I was thinking so much about my striking game that I forgot I also had grappling skills.”
Everyone in this sport makes mistakes, even Folayang. Now, he hopes to bounce back like his hero and defeat Amnuaysirichoke.
There is a lot at stake for both mixed martial artists. Like Pacio, Amnuaysirichoke’s only career loss came at the hands of Naito, whom he lost the belt to last May in front of his countrymen at ONE: KINGDOM OF CHAMPIONS in Bangkok. He certainly does not want to repeat the same mistake, especially in his home country.
Most importantly, the winner of this bout could easily become the number one contender and secure a much-desired rematch with the Japanese World Champion before the year concludes.
“Fans have been waiting for this fight to happen. They expect the winner of this fight to get a title rematch against Naito,” the Filipino says. “Everyone wants to be a champion, but I want it badly.”