Shoko Sato is a veteran of over 50 fights. His career has had its ups and downs but the Japanese fighter won three fights out of three in 2019 to establish himself as a top contender in ONE Championship’s bantamweight division.

If Sato can defeat Kwon Won Il at ONE: ‘Fire & Fury’ on Friday his next fight could well be for the bantamweight belt. But if the 32 year old comes up short against the Korean in Manila he probably won’t let it get him down.

Sato has experienced plenty of highs and lows. He entered his first BJJ competition as a white belt, and it didn’t exactly go according to plan,

“I lost quickly by submission and remember feeling very frustrated about it,” he recalls.

Disappointing debut

In 2007 he made his professional debut under the Pancrase banner and lost. Ten years later he earned a shot at the Shooto bantamweight title but could only battle to a draw with reigning champion Keita Ishibashi.

He missed out on the belt and memories of that night are still raw for Sato,

“I felt that I’d disappointed all those expecting me to win. I couldn’t win the belt, but I felt I had given everything in the match.”

However that experience would only motivated him to come back stronger and seven month’s later he met the same opponent again. This time Sato did prevail and the Shooto 135lbs title was his,

“I don’t remember much about it. My mind went blank, and it was only afterward that it sank in that I’d become the champion. I remember feeling very relieved more than anything,” he recalls.

Winning mentality

Sato has won 34 fights as a professional since making his debut. Last year he beat Rafael Silva and Mark Abelardo on ONE Championship cards and Chang Hwan Hwang at Shooto 30th Anniversary World Tour in Tokyo.

He has more experience than most when it comes to winning. But Sato says that for him the novelty will never wear off,

“It’s frustrating to lose but it doesn’t stop me. The feeling of winning is the best, I love being in my own world in the cage (and) that tense feeling with just me and my opponent.”

The win against Silva, the reigning bantamweight King of Pancrase, last October was particularly impressive. Sato stopped the Brazilian in the second round at ONE: ‘Century’ and says he prepared particularly well for this contest,

“Rafael Silva is a strong opponent who has only ever lost to strong opponents. Of all my opponents until now, I studied him the most, watching lots of footage.”

Prospective opponents

On Friday he faces a Korean opponent for the eighth time in his career. Sato has been beaten four times by fighters from this country and is determined not to make any mistakes against Kwon,

“I’m going to treat each match with care. If I use my strengths I think things will go well for me. I want to be myself, give 100% and move the crowd with every match.”

A win would surely put him on the brink of a bantamweight title shot. Bibiano Fernandes‘ last three title defences have all been against Kevin Belingon and the Brazilian will surely face a new contender in 2020.

Sato has cast a careful eye over the division’s runners and riders and three names stand out,

“Of course, I want to face the champion Bibiano (Fernandes) and the former champion (Kevin) Belingon. Also, I think I’d make an interesting match-up with John Lineker he’s very strong.”

Having finished his last five opponents inside the distance Sato is clearly approaching the pinnacle of the bantamweight division. He has already earned the right to call himself a Shooto champion and will be hoping to add the ONE strap to the collection this coming year.