By Reuters

Manny Pacquiao’s impending retirement will leave a void that one MMA fighter is hoping to fill.

The sport has produced a handful of homegrown heroes but none has proved more popular than undefeated bantamweight Mark Striegl.

He was educated outside the Philippines, unlike Pacquiao, but Striegl returned to the country to launch his MMA career and has fought in Manila five times and Baguio once. His poster boy looks and 14-1 professional record have quickly helped to establish him as a firm favourite among the Filipino fans.

Four of Striegl’s last five fights have been in Manila and he has the co-headlining slot at next month’s ONE: ‘Spirit of Champions’ card where he will be taking on an undefeated Australian at the Mall of Asia Arena. It’s a venue that the 26 year old says is starting to feel like home.

“I always look forward to fighting in Manila. There’s no place I’d rather be. Filipinos have a strong sense of pride in any of their athletes competing on the world stage but fighting in Manila definitely makes it more meaningful.”

MARK STRIEGL CASEY SUIRE ROUGH MMA ASIA ONE CHAMPIONSHIP

IT’S DEFINITELY A DANGEROUS FIGHT BUT I KNOW BEATING JORDAN LUCAS WILL BRING ME ONE STEP CLOSER TO A TITLE SHOT.

It’s a pertinent remark because Pacquiao hasn’t fought in Manila since 2006, well before he became a major global star by beating the likes of Oscar De La Hoya, Antonio Margarito and Miguel Cotto. It means Filipino boxing fans wanting to see their hero in action have had to fly to far off places like Macau or Las Vegas.

MMA fans by contrast are fortunate enough to see the top Filipino fighters competing regularly at venues like the 20,000 capacity MOA Arena. However matchmakers have resisted the temptation to hand Striegl the sort of easy matchup which would have guaranteed a crowd pleasing result on December 11th.

Instead he is being thrown in with Jordan Lucas, an 8-0 champion from Australia who is six years Striegl’s junior. It’s the sort of high stakes fight in which reputations are won and lost and the Filipino is expecting a tough test.

“He’s a well-rounded fighter and he has a good overall game. It’s definitely a dangerous fight but I know beating Jordan Lucas will bring me one step closer to a title shot.”

A title is the one thing which has eluded Striegl so far in his MMA career. Since debuting in 2009 he has fought in the US, Taiwan, Saipan, Macau, Malaysia and Thailand but has yet to have a belt wrapped around his waist.

A win over Lucas would put him within touching distance of the ONE Championship bantamweight title but to actually win it would be another thing altogether.

That’s because the belt is currently the property of arguably the best bantamweight in the world, Bibiano Fernandes. The Brazilian is currently riding a ten fight winning streak dating all the way back to 2010 and has already defended his ONE Championship title successfully three times.

A fight between Fernandes and Striegl would be a huge draw but the Brazilian looks absolutely unbeatable at present. However the man who is moving closer and closer to number one contender status is not intimidated by the champion’s resume.

“Bibiano’s a great champion but I believe in my skills. First and foremost though, I need to beat Jordan and climb the ladder. Bantamweight is definitely one of the strongest divisions in ONE Championship, the roster is completely stacked and I look forward to testing my skills against any of the top fighters in the division,” Striegl said.

In order to take his career to the next level Striegl made the difficult decision to leave the Philippines behind and move to Singapore. He accepted an invitation to join the fight team at Evolve MMA where he has been rubbing shoulders with some of the best fighters in the world.

“I’ve been training with all the beasts at Evolve MMA like Jake Butler, Leandro Issa, Bruno Pucci, Marcos Ratinho, Amir Khan, and Benedict Ang. Every day is a day to learn and improve. My goal is to get better every single day as a martial artist. I’m fortunate that at Evolve MMA I have such high level guys to work with across all disciplines,” he said.

Pacquiao prepares for most of his fights with Freddie Roach in Los Angeles and the very best Filipino fighters often look beyond the country’s borders to find the right trainer or training camp. Striegl is no exception but, while he’s now living in Singapore, the bantamweight will still be fighting regularly in Manila.

He’s emerged as the single most marketable MMA star from the Philippines but Striegl is playing down the Pacquiao comparisons.

“I do feel that Filipinos are starting to enjoy MMA but boxing has a special place. I’ll be sad when Pacquiao retires because he is one of the greats but there are also other great boxing champions to look out for like Nonito Donaire.”