Honorio Banario has a date with destiny on May 31. He would not have been many people's tip to become the first Filipino to win a ONE FC title, but while his compatriots have fallen by the wayside, the 23 year old has found the fighting form of his life at exactly the right time.
Banario won the title at the expense of fellow Filipino Eric Kelly in Kuala Lumpur earlier his year and his reward for that performance is a spot in the main event of ONE FC: "Rise to Power" and all the prestige which comes with headlining a card at the 20,000 capacity SM Mall of Asia Arena in Manila.
The last time ONE FC was in town, Banario was only on the undercard, but in the space of under a year he has gone from being the first fight of the night to securing main event status. He is now effectively the main man in Filipino MMA, overtaking team mates Kevin Belingon, Eduard Folayang and Rey Docygen as well as Kelly, who he beat to become champion, but this brings with it the burden of expectation and the challenge of facing more experienced opponents.
At ONE FC: "Rise to Power," Banario (8-1) will be taking on Koji Oishi (23-9-10) and the contrast between the two fighters in terms of both age and experience could hardly be more pronounced. The reigning ONE FC featherweight champion was only 12 years old when the Japanese veteran made his UFC debut and Banario believes this will be a challenge unlike any he has ever faced in his career to date.
"I have seen some of his video fights and I think that he's a complete fighter, so I doubled my training in order to fight him in any angle either on the ground or in a stand-up fight and I'll do my very best so that I will defeat him. I think he will be the toughest fighter that I have ever fought because he was in MMA for a long time before I started my MMA career and he has a lot more fight experiences than I have, so it’s gonna be a hard fight for me but I’m the champion, so whoever fighter that ONE FC wants me to fight, I will fight them and I'll do everything in order to beat them."
This attitude is typical of Team Lakay fighters who are renowned for training fiercely and never turning down a fight no matter how insurmountable the odds. Banario will have the entire arena on his side on May 31 but he will be going up against an opponent who is approaching his 50th career fight and has been in with the likes of Carlos Condit, Nick Diaz, Nate Diaz, Chris Lytle and Satoru Kitaoka and is undefeated as a featherweight.
A Banario win would send the fans home happy and immediately establish him as Filipino MMA's foremost star but a loss would be a devastating setback. It is set to be a seminal moment in a career which began six years ago when he first walked through the doors at Team Lakay in Baguio.
"First, before I joined Team Lakay, I was already playing with Wushu National Team in Manila. That was in 2007 and after the International Junior Wushu competition that same year I decided to go home in Benguet in order to continue my studies. After I graduated college, that was the time I visited the gym of coach Mark Sangiao and he asked me if I want to fight in MMA and I said yes, so that was the beginning of my MMA career."
Banario demonstrated his potential by wrestling the URCC lightweight belt away from the undefeated Angelito Manguary in only his fourth fight, but despite already having two titles to his name and eight wins from nine fights, he feels he has plenty of potential to improve.
"Yes, I am still young and I have a long way to go and I believe I still have a lot more to learn for my MMA career. In every fight that I fought, I learned from it and we improve and develop in my training camp. I started fighting in MMA way back in 2010 but I started training martial arts when I was 17 years old, that was in 2005. I started training and fighting MMA because it is my passion and martial arts helped me finish my studies because of the sport scholarship they offered in our school."
Like so many of the Team Lakay fighters as well as Sangiao, the founder, Banario was preparing for a career catching criminals until he realized he had the talent to succeed as a professional mixed martial artist.
"If I am not an MMA fighter at this point in time my job would probably be a police officer because that is my other dream. I could have pursued my police officer career after I graduated with a B.S. in Criminology and I am also a licensed Criminologist."
A little known fact about the fighter nicknamed 'The Rock' is that he comes from a fighting family. He has two brothers who are both unbeaten bantamweights. Dario is a 3-0 while Harold is 2-0 making the collective family record an impressive 13-1.
The three siblings all train together and Banario hopes both brothers will follow in his footsteps by winning titles with major organizations.
"Yes, I have my two younger brothers, Dario and Harold, who joined in Team Lakay and they are already fighting in MMA events. We all train together in the gym. I believe they will also become champions someday."
Kelly was 9-0 going into the featherweight title fight earlier this year and that win remains the biggest of Banario's career, but Oishi is on another level in terms of the number of fights he has had and the standard of opposition he has faced.
The Japanese fighter has been beaten only once in his 12 most recent fights and has not been stopped since 2007. However, despite being former lightweight King of Pancrase, he has never fought more than three rounds and Banario is renowned for his stamina which could be the Filipino's key to victory at ONE FC: "Rise to Power."
"The Rock" may have far fewer fights than his opponent but one thing he will not be short of is motivation, both to keep his belt and to send the 20,000 or so Filipino fans home happy. His ascension to the pinnacle of Asian MMA might have happened more rapidly than anyone expected, but Banario has no intention of giving up his ONE FC title just yet, especially not in Manila.
"Being the ONE FC Featherweight Champion means a lot to me because it takes a lot of years in training in order to become a champion and I had a lot of sacrifices that I made before I came this far. It gave me, my family, my team and my country pride and honor and it feels great to be fighting in the main event in my home land in front of our Filipino fans."