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.”
Dejdamrong Sor Amnuaysirichoke had been the most dominant strawweight in ONE Championship. The Muay Thai legend crushed his opponents en route to becoming the inaugural ONE Strawweight World Champion, and the first Thai-born MMA World Champion. But he made a critical mistake in his last fight that cost him the belt and shattered his pride.
Last May, in front of his compatriots in Bangkok, Thailand, the Evolve MMA product defended his title against unbeaten Japanese wrecking ball Yoshitaka “Nobita” Naito at ONE: KINGDOM OF CHAMPIONS. Although he had a promising start, Naito eventually wore him down with flawless grappling, and spoiled his homecoming in the fourth round via rear-naked choke.
Not only did Amnuaysirichoke drop the title and receive his first career loss, but he felt he had let his countrymen down.
“I was disappointed that I lost in front of my home crowd. I had prepared for all aspects for that fight with Naito — both stand-up and on the ground. But I made a mistake on the ground, and he was able to capitalize,” the 38-year-old admits.
“I learned that there were aspects of my game that I had to work even harder on and improve. It made me determined to continue to become the best martial artist I can be.“
Nearly ten months later, Amnuaysirichoke will return to the scene of the crime and begin his road to redemption. On Saturday Night, 11 March, the Muay Thai legend will fight ex-title challenger Joshua Pacio at the Impact Arena in Bangkok during ONE: WARRIOR KINGDOM.
Like Amnuaysirichoke, Pacio is a devastating striker. The quick 21-year-old Filipino has crisp wushu and Muay Thai, and has been polishing his grappling skills under the careful eye of Team Lakay’s head coach Mark Sangiao.
The former champ knows Pacio is a formidable opponent, but he feels positive about snagging the win and starting his comeback on solid footing.
“I have a lot of respect for my opponent and I know it will be a tough fight. There will be some problem-solving that I will be doing during the fight, and I am confident that I will come away victorious,” Amnuaysirichoke states.
“For me, there isn’t any added pressure. I am always determined to perform at my very best in every fight. Each fight now is an important step towards challenging for the title, so this one isn’t any different.“
Amnuaysirichoke’s first important step on his martial arts journey happened when he was nine-years-old, when he watched Muay Thai with his father at the neighbor’s house. He instantly fell in love with the sport, so much so that he kicked a rice sack filled with sand at home and trained with his friends at a local sala.
In the decade to follow, he went from kicking sand-filled rice sacks in his small village home in Trang to knocking out opponents in Bangkok’s prestigious Lumpinee Stadium, eventually becoming a three-time Lumpinee champion.
Though Amnuaysirichoke was a talented and decorated Muay Thai champion, it is the philosophies of martial arts that have shaped his life and career.
“Martial arts is not about fighting or competition,” he says. “It builds a person’s character and teaches focus, discipline, respect, responsibility, and sportsmanship. It has helped me immensely.“
His sharp and aggressive style led the modern-day legend known as “Fierce Eyes” to major international fights in Malaysia and Japan. Eventually, it also led to his next career stop in Singapore, where he was practicing and teaching Muay Thai at Evolve MMA.
Soon after arriving at the Singaporean mega gym, he became enthralled with this developing sensation called mixed martial arts. “
“When I first came to Evolve MMA, I did not think about trying MMA. But after seeing the world champions here and learning about other martial arts such as BJJ, I became interested, and wanted to take up this new challenge,” he admits.
“It was difficult at first because there were lots of complex moves and techniques to learn on the ground. It was a challenge, but it was fun, and I got the hang of it after a while. Muay Thai clinches helped me learn the ground skills a bit.”
Thus far, Amnuaysirichoke has been very successful in this new challenge. He debuted in 2014 and won four straight bouts, two via knockout and the other two by submission. In his fifth fight, at ONE: WARRIOR’S QUEST in May 2015, he defeated former PBF Super Flyweight Champ Roy Doliguez to claim the inaugural ONE Strawweight World Championship. He also became the sport’s first Thai-born MMA World Champion.
“Of course I was very proud and happy to have conquered such a great challenge and reached a goal of mine,” he says. “I was extremely proud to be the first Thai MMA World Champion.“
The reign was short-lived, however. Following a successful title defense over Yago Bryan, he ran into Naito at ONE: KINGDOM OF CHAMPIONS and lost the belt.
Now, nearly ten months removed from that fateful night, Amnuaysirichoke is determined to redeem himself. But he is not the only person who wants a title rematch with the strawweight king called Nobita.
Like his Thai counterpart, Pacio’s only career loss comes at the hands of Naito. The Japanese strawweight kingpin successfully defended the prestigious championship against Pacio at ONE: STATE OF WARRIORS last October, and despite frustrating the champ in the first two stanzas, he succumbed to the same rear-naked choke submission that put out Amnuaysirichoke.
Both competitors are looking for a rematch with Naito, so this upcoming fight carries title implications and will move the victor one step closer to their primary objective. For Amnuaysirichoke, he believes a win over Pacio is the next logical step of his martial arts journey.
“In the short term, I am focused on my fight in Bangkok. I am looking forward to returning, and cannot wait to win for Thailand,” the national hero states. “In the long term, I want to win back the ONE title, and defend it multiple times.”
Now, ten months removed from winning the belt, it is time for her to defend the gold. The unbeaten Lee will make her first title defense on Saturday Night, 11 March, when she meets undefeated Taiwanese challenger Jenny Huang at the Impact Arena in Bangkok, Thailand.
It will serve as the headlining bout of ONE: WARRIOR KINGDOM, and Lee aims to have a dominant performance.
In this interview, Lee talks about her upcoming opponent, as well as her passion for the martial arts, female empowerment in MMA, and handling the pressures of being a young champion.
After defeating Mei Yamaguchi at ONE: ASCENT TO POWER last May, you took a break from competition. But still, you remained active by training at Evolve MMA in Singapore. In what areas have you improved?
Angela Lee: I have been improving everywhere. It has really been a good period of upgrading my skills and gaining that confidence in the areas of striking, grappling, and the transitions in-between. So I am extremely excited to get back in that cage. I cannot wait.
Now that you have the title, you are not the hunter anymore — you are the hunted, and everyone is gunning for you. Does that add any pressure or stress?
Not so much pressure or stress, but like you said, I have a target on my back now that I have the belt, and everyone is gunning specifically for me. I think knowing that is going to keep me even more focused, and motivate me to train that much harder.
I’m going to be so much better and well-prepared, that when I do step into that cage to defend my title, I am going to show everyone I am on another level completely.
Your challengers have paid attention and watched your fights, and have no doubt gotten better acquainted with your skills. With that in mind, how important is it for you to evolve?
I think the most important thing for a fighter and a champion is to keep growing and evolving, and you have to be honest with yourself. You have to continue growing as a martial artist because the moment you stop, that is going to be your downfall.
I am still young, and I am so eager to learn and improve in all areas. I plan on being the champ for a while.
Martial arts has been central to your life. After all, you come from a family of martial artists. How has martial arts enriched your life from a values standpoint?
It has definitely made me the person I am today, no doubt about that. Being raised in a martial arts family — both my parents are martial art instructors — has definitely taught me fundamental values like discipline and respect, but also things like being honest with myself.
As a person and as a martial artist, whenever you are honest with yourself and critique yourself on what you did right or wrong, it helps you to grow that much quicker.
Let us talk about your upcoming title fight with Jenny Huang at ONE: WARRIOR KINGDOM. As the main event, the bout is advancing women’s MMA in Asia, and is a huge statement. How important is it in moving the sport forward as a whole?
This is going to be the second time ONE Championship is going to have a female fight headline a card, and it is truly an honor for me. Every time I step into that cage, I feel I am fighting for so much more. I am fighting not just for myself, but for my family, my fans, and for women across the world.
This fight is important because it is just another huge step in the direction women’s MMA is going here in Asia. It is great because it shows women here on this side of the world that they can do what they love, they can chase their dreams, and they can have a legitimately successful career in MMA if they want to.
Huang, like you, is undefeated, and was extremely impressive with her gogoplata submission win over April Osenio last December in Manila. Where does Angela Lee have the edge in this fight?
Jenny (Huang) has earned her way to title contention. You look at her record and she is undefeated, 5-0, and is coming off an impressive submission victory, so I think she has a lot of confidence coming into this fight. But I just see myself as a much better fighter in every single area of the game, and I am not saying that to be cocky, but I am very confident in my skills and what I bring to the table.
Every single one of my fights, I go in there extremely focused, and I am looking to finish the fight as soon as possible, so nothing is going to change with that mindset. I am going into this fight looking to make a statement — the same type of statement I made in my professional debut in ONE. I want to show the world who I am as a champion.
You are 20 years old and carry so much responsibility as a top draw in ONE. You constantly do press events, commit to every media appearance, and are always bombarded by fans at events, yet you handle everything so maturely and with grace. How do you manage that?
Thank you, I really appreciate that. I am just doing the best I can. I make the most of every day. I try to have a really positive and optimistic outlook on life, and I have a lot of gratitude for where I am at.
Also, my family is extremely close to me, and I confide in my mom and dad. They give me tips here and there on how I should answer questions on interviews or how I should say a couple of things better, so they really help me a lot with the PR side of things.
Surprisingly, I was not as good when I first started with ONE. But it takes a lot of practice, and I think I am getting the hang of it.