Joseph "The Hurricane" Lasiri has long been considered an underdog in his muay Thai career, but time and time again, he has proven the naysayers wrong. And now, he is one victory away from winning the biggest prize in the sport.
The Italian striker will challenge reigning ONE strawweight muay Thai world champion Prajanchai PK.Saenchai for the gold in the co-main event of ONE 157 on Friday, and taking the belt off the seemingly invincible titleholder would silence all of his critics for good.
"Everyone who practices muay Thai knows Prajanchai. He has a unique and elegant style. I am a huge fan of his, but what I have in front me now is the opportunity of a lifetime," the 30-year-old said.
"I will not enter the circle thinking about my opponent. I will go there with the mindset of achieving my goal. I will go there to bring something important home for all the people who helped me to get here."
Lasiri may have had a rough start to his career in ONE Championship, but he persevered and defied the odds – just like he has his entire life.
Lasiri was originally born in Milan, but he was raised alongside his three brothers in Monza. His mother and father – both Moroccans – worked hard to provide for their children.
Like all parents, they wanted their kids to succeed academically in pursuit of a better life. "The Hurricane," however, didn't prosper in the classroom.
"I didn't really like my school. Unfortunately, I didn't pay a lot of attention. I was very argumentative with the other kids, always very competitive in everything we did," he said.
Lasiri may not have enjoyed academics, but he developed a passion for soccer, and through that sport, he seemingly found the perfect outlet to channel his energy and stay out of trouble. He even joined a local team and competed frequently.
But soon, he was booted off the squad due to his diminutive stature. That ultimately paved the way for a new activity and ignited a different kind of fire.
"I started martial arts after getting kicked out of my football team for being too small – I was a lot smaller than all of the other kids," he said.
"I had a vendetta about being excluded from football because they told me that I couldn't do something."
Lasiri ended up in a muay Thai gym, and there, he trained under the watchful eye of Diego Calzolari, a key figure in Italy's Muay Thai scene.
Calzolari, who had several years of experience developing young talent, saw potential in "The Hurricane" and soon transformed him into one of the brightest prospects in the national scene.
However, his diminutive stature was once again questioned – this time by his father, who felt that he was too short and skinny.
Lasiri couldn't be bothered, though. He did not want to let his physique come in the way of his new endeavor, and his success in the ring eventually convinced his dad that he could excel in muay Thai.
"The Hurricane," however, had to momentarily put his training under Calzolari on hold. Due to the economic turmoil in Italy, the aspiring muay Thai fighter relocated to London to find work and send money back to his parents so they could pay rent.
Making it extra difficult was the fact that Lasiri couldn't speak English and was in a completely unfamiliar place.
But the Monza native persevered. He scored a job and even squeezed in some time to train, and he learned a valuable life lesson in the process.
"What I learned from this is that you can always adapt to difficult situations without losing your passion. Hardships always teach you that once you have been through a hard time, it always gets easier afterward," Lasiri said.
"It helped me in the sport as it taught me discipline and commitment, and it meant that I will always keep fighting for my goal. There is always a way."
When Lasiri returned home, he brought a sharpened skill set with him, which paid dividends. He went on to amass a list of accolades, including five gold medals with the Italian national team, two European muay Thai titles, and a WBC muay Thai world championship.
In January 2018, he made history when he joined ONE Championship and competed in the promotion's first muay Thai bout against Sam-A Gaiyanghadao. The Italian would lose to the Thai legend, and he would drop his next three bouts at flyweight.
Despite that, Lasiri won over the crowd with his scrappy attitude and come-forward style, and he turned the corner when he became the only man to defeat future ONE world champion Hiroki Akimoto.
And then when "The Hurricane" moved down in weight, he was electric, as he edged out former ONE world title challenger Rocky Ogden and knocked out Asahi Shinagawa.
"It is not just my physical power, but the new division helped me a lot from the mental point of view. Having the opportunity to compete in a heavier division against elite athletes and champions gave me an incredible mental confidence to fight in the new division," Lasiri said.
"It was an incredible opportunity to get moved to my [more natural] weight division, and I took the chance and exploited it with two wins."
Now, Lasiri is the No. 1 contender to Prajanchai's ONE strawweight muay Thai world title.
The defending champion may be the favorite in this co-main event showdown at ONE 157 on Friday, but if there's something that the Italian's journey has taught anyone, it's to never count him out – even when the odds are stacked against him.