Former ONE Featherweight Champion Honorio “The Rock” Banario is on his way back to the top of ONE Championship.
The Filipino star, who previously held World Championship gold as a featherweight, has reinvented himself as a lightweight and is looking to capture his second ONE World Title.
His latest step in that journey takes place on Saturday, 8 September when he faces off against Singaporean knockout machine Amir Khan at ONE: BEYOND THE HORIZON in Shanghai, China.
It pits the 28-year-old from Benguet, Philippines against one of the division’s top contenders, with victory sure to push the Team Lakay star one step closer back to title contendership.
In 2013, Banario captured the ONE Featherweight World Title with victory over Eric “The Natural” Kelly at ONE: RETURN OF WARRIORS in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
It was the pinnacle of Banario’s career to date, and he still remembers that day fondly.
“Winning the ONE Featherweight World Championship was by far the best victory of my career,” he says.
“I can still remember the feeling of becoming a World Champion. It was a dream come true for me.
“I had worked so hard to reach that point, and when I finally got to it, it was a tremendous honour. It is the most memorable bout I have ever had in ONE Championship.”
Banario’s win came early in his ONE Championship career, and he was somewhat surprised to be given a title shot when he did.
“It was a shock when they made the announcement,” Banario admits.
“I was happy and honoured to be the first in line for the featherweight throne. There was definitely a lot of pressure though, and I could feel it.
“We were just starting out at Team Lakay – just beginning to shape our style. Our skills needed a lot of work, and we were just trying to build momentum in a new promotion.
“It was an unexplainable feeling – a mix of excitement and immense pressure. We really killed it in training. We went all out, and I trained as hard as I ever had in my life.”
The bout had an air of familiarity about it, with Banario having spent time sparring with Kelly in the past. He had also seen his fellow countryman’s successes as he rose up through the featherweight ranks.
He was particularly aware of “The Natural’s” submission skills, and knew he had to be prepared for takedown attempts and grappling attacks on the mat.
“I had sparred with Eric prior to that match, so I got a good feel of what he was capable of,” Banario recalls.
“The strategy was to stay away from a grappling exchange with him because he is very slick on the ground. We planned to keep moving and strike from a distance. Using my speed and footwork, we planned to keep Eric on the outside.”
The game plan was perfect. Guided from his corner by Team Lakay’s head coach Mark Sangiao, Banario effectively controlled the distance, steered clear of Kelly’s big punches and kicks, and countered crisply with strikes of his own.
When Kelly looked to take the bout to the ground, Banario’s well-drilled takedown defence worked wonders, as he was able to keep the bout standing for the majority of the contest.
In the fourth round, “The Rock” landed a hard left hook that forced Kelly to turn away, holding his face.
It was all referee Yuji Shimada needed to see to call off the contest, and give Banario the win, and the World Title.
However, Banario’s elation at becoming World Champion was short-lived.
He was knocked out by Koji Oishi in his next bout and lost the belt in his first defence. He then faced Oishi in a rematch, and lost again.
“Back then, I did not realise the amount of responsibility I had as World Champion,” he admits.
“It was my first ever World Title, and I just did not understand at the time. I did not value it as much as I should have, and as a result, I failed to keep sharp and improve my skills.
“It is true what they say, that keeping the title is much harder than capturing it. Building up to a World Title, momentum is on your side, but once you have that belt around your waist, everyone is gunning for you, and every fight from there is the toughest of your career.”
Now competing as a lightweight, Banario is once again chasing a World Title, and will hope to move one step closer with a victory over Khan in Shanghai.
If he can get his hands on the gold again, he will do so knowing the challenges that await him as a World Champion.