When Lito Adiwang steps into the ONE Circle this Friday, he will do so with the weight of the most difficult two-month stretch of his life resting firmly on his shoulders.
Less than a month after losing his mother Leticia, Adiwang will be looking to get back on track against debuting Japanese fighter Namika Kawahara in the undercard of ONE: Unbreakable on Jan. 22 at the Singapore Indoor Stadium.
"This loss has become one of his motivations to win," Team Lakay head coach Mark Sangiao said in Filipino during a virtual press conference Monday.
Adiwang's mother passed away last Dec. 30 and had been terminally ill since suffering multiple strokes in 2016.
"I sat down with him while he was watching over his mother," said Sangiao. "He's accepted it. We've talked about it, and he understands that it's a part of life, that perhaps his mother needed to finally rest."
But instead of taking some time away from the cage, Adiwang chose to compartmentalize and throw himself back into fighting as a means of coping and redeeming himself.
"I have to admit that it affected me and my mindset in training," Adiwang said. "But I needed to overcome as fast as I can to get back in the game. I put it aside for now and I left the tragedy in Baguio just to stay focused here."
The task at hand is an upcoming battle at the strawweight division with Kawahara, who is coming in as a late replacement for "Wolf of the Grasslands" Hexigetu.
Coach Sangiao believes his ward has the advantage in this matchup despite the height advantage that the 5'7" Kawahara holds over Adiwang, who stands 5'3".
"We made a bit of adjustments to our game plan since his new opponent is taller and leaner than Hexigetu," said Sangiao. "But we think his new opponent will struggle a bit more since he only had a nine-day notice to fight Lito. On our part, the adjustment is a little easier."
Adiwang has made note of Kawahara's prowess as a striker, but Sangiao thinks there are still some aspects of the 31-year-old Japanese fighter's game that they can take advantage of come Friday.
"He's a good striker. We'll see if he's improved his ground game, but their weapon is really their toughness and mindset. So I need to come out with a good plan," Adiwang said. "We need to finish this via knockout or submission or a good decision because he's not going to be an easy opponent."
"We watched film from his opponent's previous fights. He's good and he has a lot of experience, but I still see that Lito has the advantage. We all know he's very powerful and explosive," Sangiao added. "We also saw some holes in his game, some weakness that we can exploit."
But Adiwang asserts Kawahara (7-3-2), who is riding a two-game win streak before his first fight in ONE, isn't just roadkill.
"I know he's prepared himself for this because I was like that during my ONE debut as well -- you need to show that your main goal is to win every time. He probably wouldn't have taken this fight if he wasn't ready," Adiwang noted.
"The Japanese are professionals. They're always prepared," Sangiao said. "We're not underestimating his opponent. He needs to win to advance again to the next level."
Kawahara is the second Japanese debutant in a row that Adiwang will face after Hiroba Minowa, who managed to eke out a contentious split-decision win over the Filipino fighter last November at ONE: Inside the Matrix III.
That loss against Minowa is still very much on the mind of Adiwang, whose ears admittedly perked up when he got word that a Japanese fighter will be taking Hexigetu's place.
"When I heard that they were replacing Hexigetu with a Japanese fighter, I got excited," shared Adiwang. "We all know the toughness and the mindset of the athletes of Japan. They never give up. This is gonna be a good fight."
There's a lot of regret on Adiwang's part in terms of the way he handled that bout against Minowa given how he could've ended things early.
His camp believes Adiwang actually got his opponent to tap in the first round after securing a kimura lock on his left arm, but the fight wasn't stopped by the referee right then and there. Minowa later kept his distance and scored the upset over Adiwang to take his first win in ONE.
The loss snapped a seven-fight win streak for Adiwang (11-3) and was the Filipino fighter's first setback in ONE.
"He was really down. When we got home and watched the fight, we saw that he should've won, that there were chances to win, that he should've held him in the right position," Sangiao opened. "He understood that he committed mistakes. He said it was either we win or we learn. He knows he won't repeat the same mistakes again."
Adiwang, for his part, admits that the loss still haunts him and that a rematch with Minowa is still on top of his wish list.
"I'm very obsessed with having a rematch with Minowa," he expressed. "I had a lot of things I wanted to execute during that fight but I wasn't able to do so because of my own mistakes. Up to now, I still can't watch the full video of our fight because it stings."
For now, however, the focus is on Kawahara, with an in-rhythm Adiwang looking to lean more on the technical aspect of his game while still hunting that early finish.
"He was on fire in training. He's very motivated to win," said Sangiao. "That's what people want to see -- how motivated you are, how inspired you are, and whether or not you have that fire. I think this is the best time for him to show that he should've won the last fight."
"I'm going to make this a technical fight. As long as I get the win, whether I get the chance to knock him out or submit him, I'll do it. But for me, the best way is to make this a technical fight, to tip the fight to my strengths," bared Adiwang. "Before, I used to rely more on my power and I just went out there and smash. This time, I can show a side of me who can be more technical."
The plan to pace himself properly instead of storming right out of the gates with guns blazing is an adjustment brought by that Minowa loss, where Adiwang admits he became a little overeager in wrapping up the fight immediately.
"The main reason I want to slow things down is really because of that Minowa fight. I went out there and unloaded all my strength in the first round. I thought I could just go in and finish the fight immediately. That's biggest lesson I learned from that fight - to adjust, play it safe and technical, and get the win," he said.
Adiwang will be the first Filipino to fight in 2021. A win, according to Sangiao, could help set the tone for a bounce-back year that Team Lakay wants after its prized fighters sustained tough losses in the recent year.
"Our story here in ONE has been a roller-coaster," said Sangiao. "We want to get back on track and get the belts again. And of course, we want to produce more athletes to represent the Philippines and be our heroes in the future.
"He'll be the first to represent the country this year, so it's very important for him to win. That should also serve as motivation for the others who will be fighting soon."
For Adiwang, a win could not only help him land a possible rematch with Minowa, but it could also help propel him back to the strawweight rankings after he slid out of the top five.
"The goal this year is to learn from my mistakes and get to where I want to go," said Adiwang. "I haven't really followed the rankings, recently, but my goal is to get back in the rankings and go higher than fifth."
ONE: Unbreakable will air live on One Sports and One Sports+ on Friday at 8:30 p.m. with replay on TV5 on Saturday at 11:00 p.m.