Yoshitaka “Nobita” Naito is the definition of a late bloomer.
The Matsudo, Japan resident had always been an incredibly timid individual. He was a quiet soul, and a comic book nerd who did not even begin his martial arts journey until he reached adulthood.
Through hard work, unyielding passion, and a relentless pursuit to become the best, the longtime martial arts fan achieved his dream of becoming a champion, just like his hero, the legendary Kazushi Sakuraba.
It has been quite the transformation for Naito, both physically and emotionally. And he credits martial arts for his staggering metamorphosis.
“I think life should be lived to the fullest,” the 33-year-old ONE Strawweight World Champion says. “I love martial arts. Life has become better through martial arts.”
For Naito, it certainly has.
He may be the reigning ONE Strawweight World Champion, but long before Naito put on the gloves, he was a lonely soul wandering around without any direction in life.
In fact, he was similar to the “Doraemon” character “Nobita,” from which he draws his moniker. Like the character, he was not a model student, he did not pay much attention to his teachers, and he did not perform well on tests.
Also, Naito was not popular by any means. He only had a few friends, and was often referred to as an “Otaku,” or nerd, because of his love for comic books and all things manga.
The Japanese strawweight was just indifferent towards schoolwork, and made the decision to leave high school.
“I dropped out because it was not interesting. I still regret doing that,” he admits. “At the time, I felt liberated. But later, things got difficult.
“I quit because I wanted to escape. At the time, I did not think deeply about it. I just wanted to run away from what I was up against. It was a huge obstacle in front of me, and to this day I regret running away from the obstacle in front of me.”
For the next couple of years, Naito wandered. He did not have any solid career prospects and was directionless in life. However, he was passionate about the booming martial arts scene in Japan.
Other than manga, he had discovered something else that interested him.
A Rocky New Path
In the mid-2000s, the Japanese martial arts scene was exploding with several promotions and talent galore. Natio becmae glued to the television set, and watched his favorite competitors, including Sakuraba.
“My martial arts hero has always been Kazushi Sakuraba,” he begins. “It fascinated me each time watching him win by submission against big foreign athletes. I was a huge fan.”
Then, in 2006, at the age of 22, he and his brother decided to try their hands at martial arts. Naito looked in the phone book, found the nearest gym, and joined promptly.
After his first few sessions, Naito could easily tell that he had found his destiny, and the much-needed direction he sought in his life. He became dedicated to his craft, and desperately wanted to prove himself inside the cage.
In August 2012, six years after stepping inside the gym for his first class, the Paraestra Matsudo product finally got the opportunity he had been craving.
Naito made his professional debut in the highly-respected Shooto organization, and won via guillotine choke in the second round.
Right then and there, Naito knew there was no turning back.
“The exhilaration just ignited me and pulled me into the sport,” he says.
“What I love about martial arts is that it is not only about the physical strength, but you also have to use your head to compete, and there are a lot of different martial artists with different styles. You have to be good in multiple aspects, which makes it interesting.”
Naito tormented the promotion’s flyweight division, eventually dethroning then-kingpin Shinya Murofushi in September 2014 to become the Shooto Flyweight Champion.
While he experienced success, he had a difficult time convincing his parents about how prestigious and profitable his chosen career path can be. Today, “Nobita” has their support, to a degree.
“My family was not that interested in what I was doing. They still do not have much interest in what I do. They do cheer for me, of course,” he admits.
“I told them there were some really fantastic teachers and that some really made a lot of money doing them and things like that. I am not sure if they understood or not.”
Becoming A World Champion
Naito joined ONE Championship at the top of 2016 and made his promotional debut in the most daunting of circumstances.
He immediately challenged then-undefeated ONE Strawweight World Champion Dejdamrong Sor Amnuaysirichoke for the belt at ONE: KINGDOM OF CHAMPIONS, in the titleholder’s hometown of Bangkok, Thailand. For the first time ever, “Nobita” was competing away from his native Japan.
The Thai hero punished him in the opening round by stuffing his takedowns and attacking him with fierce kicks. But the ever-so-persistent Naito continued his pursuit of the takedown, and started to ground Amnuaysirichoke in the later rounds, eventually stunning the local crowd by submitting him via rear-naked choke in the fourth stanza to capture the belt.
When Naito returned to Matsudo, there was a celebration in his honor. That meant an awful lot to him, especially considering how he often felt lonely during his childhood.
“In Japan, a lot of people watched my bout on the TV, so I got messages congratulating me through social media,” he recollects.
“Also, at the gym, my gym mates held a party for me and celebrated my victory. They also watched me on TV and I received comments that I did really well, which I am very proud about.”
The match played out quite similarly, as the Japanese titleholder overcame Pacio’s striking to tap him out via rear-naked choke in the third round.
Living Life To The Fullest
More than a year removed from his last bout, Naito (12-0) will return to Bangkok to defend the ONE Strawweight World Championship, this time against top contender and BJJ world champion Alex “Little Rock” Silva (6-1) in the main event of ONE: WARRIORS OF THE WORLD, this coming Saturday, 9 December.
Thus far, the Japanese competitor has looked flawless inside of the cage, and defeating a worthy challenger such as Silva will only add to his greatness. He is motivated not only to put on a thrilling show for the fans this weekend, but to continue representing ONE on a global level.
“I am proud of myself and the organization I belong to, because I can be involved in title bouts in different countries and compete in front of different people,” he says.
“My favorite thing is seeing myself on the “Champions Wall” along with legends. The show is getting bigger and bigger each time, and it is getting more exciting.”
With that in mind, Naito is fulfilling his personal mantra by living his life to the absolute fullest, and he credits that to martial arts.
After all, martial arts gave him a career and a world title. Beyond that, it has provided him with other benefits, and he immediately lists off enhanced physical strength, a healthier lifestyle, and meeting new people at the gym.
It is evident that martial arts has added some necessary warmth to his cold, dark world.
“Martial arts is now the focus of my life,” he says.
“If combat sports had not be part of life, even now I think my life would not be as good as it is.”