Being a student and being a mixed martial artist are both difficult. Joshua Pacio is finding it exponentially difficult to balance those two conflicting lifestyles these days.

On one side of the spectrum, Pacio (13-2) leads a relatively nondescript lifestyle as a Hotel and Restaurant Management undergraduate student at the University of Cordilleras. He hopes to eventually open up a cafe or an MMA gym to pass his knowledge of the sport, or a cup of coffee, to the next generation.

That existence has been overshadowed in recent months by the fact that he now holds the ONE Championship strawweight title after defeating Yoshitaka Naito in September.

“I’m a champion and there are responsibilities but I’m enjoying it,” admitted Pacio, 22, who makes his first title defense against Yosuke Saruta (18-8-3) at ONE: ‘Eternal Glory’ on January 19 in Jakarta, Indonesia.

He admits that sometimes his schoolwork takes a backseat so that he can get in his training, but has his eyes set on graduating this year. That’ll take the right set of circumstances, but he’s no novice to juggling priorities.

“I think I’m gonna face these challenges and I’m gonna graduate the same time that I’m the champion,” predicted Pacio.

Trainer Mark Sangiao has seen other Team Lakay fighters make the same dual effort as fighting students, but says it’s always a struggle for the fighter to stay disciplined.

“Like his seniors, he has this ability to balance his time between school and fighting/training. But then also, this balance entails a lot of sacrifice and a very strong will to stay focused in two things,” said Sangiao.

Joshua Pacio punch

Pursuit of Knowledge

For Pacio, life has been about the nonstop pursuit of knowledge. He first became acquainted with combat sports at age 11, learning Muay Thai from his uncle before switching to Wushu Sanshou at age 12. It was at that time when he first became a student at the Team Lakay gym in the mountain city of Baguio in the Philippines, before moving down the mountain to La Union for high school and switching to Lakay’s local branch.

It was in Manila for the 2010 Wushu Nationals where he first got the urge to put his disciplines together to become a MMA fighter. There he saw his Team Lakay stablemate Honorio Banario in action and decided he wanted to do the same thing one day.

“That’s the time I said ‘wow MMA is so wonderful, I want to experience it, I want to try it’,’” said Pacio.

Pacio made his pro debut in 2013 at age 17, and then earned a shot with ONE in 2016. After two straight wins under the ONE banner, Pacio suffered his first defeat at the hands of Naito, tapping out from a rear naked choke in the third. After suffering the same fate at the hands of Hayato Suzuki in 2017, Pacio realized he had to hit the books and improve on his ground game.

“We’ve concentrated on developing our weaknesses, all of us. There’s a lot of criticism that Team Lakay has no ground game. We take that as a positive, not negative, and we take it as a motivation to improve,” said Pacio.

Joshua Pacio guillotine

Training trip

Pacio and the team traveled to Manila to learn drills from John Baylon, a two time Olympian and nine time Southeast Asian Games gold medalist with black belts in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and Judo. There on the mat, Pacio absorbed his lessons, practicing them until they became muscle memory.

“If someone takes our back we do not panic, we just focus on the techniques,” said Pacio.

Pacio’s ability to adapt hasn’t been missed by his trainer Mark Sangiao, who has noted his dedication to rounding out his skillset in the gym,

“There is something special in Joshua. He’s young, but he is hardworking and willing to give his best. Joshua always pushes himself to the limit. He knows that he has to do the grind in training to be successful in his fights,” Sangiao said of Pacio in 2017.

Joshua Pacio ground and pound

Special submission

Since his second loss, Pacio has won four straight, and made headlines last July for his win over Pongsiri Mitsatit, introducing ‘The Passion Lock’ to the international stage. Three minutes into the first round, Pacio successfully took Mitsatit’s back, and then obtained control of his left wrist with both arms and cranked a painful submission more commonly known as ‘the chicken wing’ that threatened to touch his hand to his head.

The previously unbeaten Mitsatit tapped immediately, and a viral sensation was born.

“I tried it twice or three times in the gym when we were rolling but I never thought that I could apply it in a real competition,” said Pacio.

“I think a lot of my opponents know about it and how to counter it, but I can still use it, it’s just about the proper set-up.”

The win over Naito was fulfilling in that it gave him the opportunity to show that he wasn’t the same fighter as last time. He had hoped to show Suzuki his new moves as well before the Japanese strawweight had to withdraw due to an injury. Now he faces a different sort of fighter in Saruta (18-8-3, 5 KOs).

“I think Saruta is more complete fighter than Suzuki. I watched his bout against (Alex) Silva, his striking is good and his takedown defense is very excellent,” said Pacio, who has watched his Jiu-Jitsu matches on YouTube as well.

Revenge would be sweet, but keeping the belt around his waist is the ultimate goal, he says.

“It doesn’t matter for me if I avenge it or not, as long as I am the champion. If we face each other again, I’m gonna bring it on, I’m gonna show the different Joshua Pacio,” said Pacio.

Joshua Pacio kick

Dedication to the sport

What does matter to him is making an impression on his countrymen. Pacio says he didn’t have a chance to go through some of the pitfalls of youth, be it smoking or drinking or elsewise, because of his dedication to the sport. If nothing more, he wants to prove through his platform that there are more constructive ways for the youth of the Philippines to spend their time.

“It’s unexplainable feeling but for me it is a privilege to become a champion, I can inspire and motivate the next generation,” said Pacio.

“They can become a champion, not only in this sport but in their own chosen career.”