ONE Strawweight World Champion Yoshitaka Naito has battled his way to the top of ONE Championship, captured the belt, then lost it, only to reclaim it once again.
It is a story of perseverance and determination that serves as a shining example to anyone looking for inspiration in their career, inside or outside the cage.
Naito’s nickname of “Nobita” comes from his resemblance to Nobita Nobi from the Japanese manga series, Doraemon, and his demeanour is strikingly similar, too.
Naito struggled to fit in during his schooldays and found himself on the fringes of the friend groups at his school.
“I was never good at talking and communicating with others, so I often found myself alone and with few friends at school,” he says.
Such was his unhappiness at school, Naito eventually dropped out of high school, desperate to find something better for his life. The decision brought fresh challenges for the young Japanese.
“When I dropped out of high school, I felt liberated, but I was short-sighted and regret my decision,” he explains.
“I felt helpless and could not do anything about it, but being a high school dropout really doomed my prospects in life.”
However, the rise of mixed martial arts in the mid-2000s sparked Naito’s interest and led to him joining a gym to try his hand at learning some of the techniques he watched on television.
Naito was instantly hooked, and dedicated his spare time to training and improving his skills. It also meant he found himself part of a community without even realising it.
After years without any real friends, he finally discovered like-minded people in the gym.
“Being surrounded by gym buddies, who were working hard to prepare for amateur and professional bouts, made me want to reach for the same heights,” he explains.
“Also, I was drawn to the atmosphere of support for members striving to win their next fight.”
Naito’s career had an unspectacular start, as he suffered a host of defeats during his amateur career.
“In the beginning, I lost many fights and wondered why I even bothered trying my hand at mixed martial arts,” he explains.
“At one point, I stopped going to the gym because I was so discouraged from my losing streak, but in the end, the camaraderie at the gym led me back, and I decided to stick it out.”
Naito’s determination paid off. He won the 2011 All Japan Amateur Shooto Tournament. It led to Naito turning pro, where he reeled off 10 successive wins and captured the Shooto Flyweight Title.
That earned him a shot in ONE Championship, where he captured the ONE Strawweight World Title on his debut.
Naito says his success isn’t down to any natural athletic talent. It is more down to his perseverance.
“I am not blessed with athletic abilities,” he says.
“As you can see from my fights, my movement and technique lack finesse.
“I do not have natural talent, but I have the choice of giving up or trying to figure out how I can win despite my lack of natural talent.”
And when he lost his title to Alex “Little Rock” Silva last December, Naito put all his efforts into improving his game – and his plan – ahead of the rematch.
It paid off, as he turned in a superb display to win back his title in May 2018.
“I honestly thought I would never find myself in an environment where I am surrounded by people who speak English or some other language I do not understand, let alone being recognised by them,” he says, reflecting on his unexpected fame.
“I initially struggled to speak to the media without blushing, but I am slowly getting used to it.”
Naito hopes his story will encourage those who have struggled to find their place in the world, as he was once in that situation as a youngster.
The thought of him becoming a mixed martial arts World Champion and inspiration to millions could not have been further from his mind back then.
But that is where he finds himself today, and the bashful Japanese star is now beginning to feel happy in his own skin and become more outgoing as a result.
“When people recognise me, they usually approach me, and I do not have to initiate the conversation. This has helped me to get comfortable in talking to strangers,” he explains.
“If I had not become a fighter, I would still be tight-lipped and nervous in front of people.”