The last year was a rollercoaster ride for the local mixed martial arts (MMA) scene; it started full throttle but was plagued by horrible inconsistencies and disappointing losses. While established names such as Eduard Folayang, Kevin Belingon, and Geje Eustaquio failed to shine in their respective campaigns in 2019, the new year presents new opportunities for redemption and the birth of new superstars.
The local industry is still brimming with young talent in every division. Here are six up-and-comers that we believe are on the verge of a breakthrough this year.
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Jean Claude Saclag
A Filipino wushu practitioner, Saclag won the silver medal in the 2014 Asian Games, and was one of the many combat sports athletes who turned heads in the recently-concluded 2019 Southeast Asian Games. After five-year hiatus, the 25-year-old from Kalinga suited up for flag and country once again—this time in the sport of kickboxing. Saclag was nothing short of outstanding, emerging victorious in the finals of the men’s 63.5-kilogram low kick tournament by defeating “Jordan Boy” Mohammed Bin Mahmoud of Malaysia.
After bowing to Japanese veteran Ryo Okada in his professional MMA debut this past May, he earned a bit of redemption at the expense of Mahmoud, a Muay Thai competitor in ONE Championship’s “Super Series” all-striking league.
Right off the bat, Mahmoud felt the pain of the Filipino’s power strikes, eating a stunning right hand and a crisp left hook that had him crisscrossing around the four corners of the ring. He appeared on his way to finishing the match in the second round when he uncorked a perfectly-executed sidekick to the Malaysian’ midsection.
Although Mahmoud miraculously survived the onslaught, the punishment at the hands of Saclag continued in the third and last round, putting him on the receiving end of more harrowing blows. Saclag was jumping in joy and tears after the final bell, knowing that he had it in the bag after a dominant showing to become a SEA Games gold medalist.
Saclag is 0-1 so far in his MMA career, and, if his emphatic SEAG performance was any indication, remains a diamond in the rough. With a bit of fine-tuning of his ground game to complement his striking, he could transform into a lethal weapon just like his globally-recognized Team Lakay comrades.
Ian Jay Batoto
Arguably one of the best-kept secrets in Philippine MMA today, Batoto and his constricting style of fighting has earned him the moniker “The Argonaut.” Training out of Elorde Southbox-Checkmat, he has been a staple of the amateur MMA ranks, possessing a standing of 8-1.
Under the banner of Cage Gladiators and Hitman MMA’s “Fight Night” series, he made quick work of compatriot Ezekiel Cerbito, who tried to make it a stand-up contest early. However, Batoto took the action to the mat where he sunk in a rear-naked choke to finish his opponent in the first round. Skilled in both striking and grappling departments, the 24-year-old from Iligan has two recorded pro bouts on websites such as Sherdog and Tapology, winning both matches by way of submission.
Many are still wondering why no one has picked up Batoto from the free agent market yet despite his promising credentials. As he continues to steamroll every opposition in front of him in amateur leagues, it is a matter of time before he receives a phone call from a major organization. As the saying goes, “hard work cannot be denied forever.”
Biagtan is among the new breed of homegrown talents that gives a glimpse of how bright the future of the local MMA circuit is. At only 24, he has demonstrated the gallant spirit of a true Filipino warrior, winning the Universal Reality Combat Championship (URCC) strawweight title in just his third fight as a pro.
Biagtan successfully defended the belt against countryman Solomon Dultra by way of third-round technical knockout in August 2017 before he relinquished it to Anthony Do via submission a year later.
He laced up a pair of eight-ounce gloves this past April, squaring off with Japanese kickboxing phenom Tenshin Nasukawa in a losing effort. Meanwhile, Biagtan also doubled up in boxing, effortlessly putting away Uzbekistan’s Shekhnazar Yusubov in the second round of their March 2018 bout.
His father and head trainer Ray recently told this writer that they are exploring new opportunities as the contract with URCC had already expired a few months ago. According to the family patriarch, they are willing to sit down and negotiate with any major promotion.
The only woman on this list is Denice "The Menace" Zamboanga, who hails from the mean streets of Quezon City. She owns an immaculate professional record of 6-0 with two wins by knockout and one by submission.
Coming from a family of martial artists, the younger sister of URCC bantamweight titlist Drex Zamboanga made a strident splash in ONE Championship earlier this month by beating Malaysian standout Jihin Radzuan.
Radzuan’s growing mastery in the grappling department was harshly tested by the upset-seeking Zamboanga as the Filipina immediately took her to the ground and applied pressure with a sturdy top control to limit the Malaysian’s movement. As Zamboanga advanced to better positions to smother Radzuan, the latter responded by applying different submission holds with the intent to disrupt her plan of attack.
Unfortunately for Radzuan, Zamboanga kept her composure and devotedly stayed on her strategy of pinning the Malaysian on the canvas and landing serious ground-and-pound from bell to bell. In the end, she walked away with the unanimous victory.
Zamboanga’s conquest of Radzuan put the women’s atomweight division on notice. Being a late revelation in ONE Championship’s female 52.2-kilogram bracket, she gave herself a huge boost toward some big matches in 2020 against the likes of Mei Yamaguchi, Bi Nguyen and fellow Filipina Gina Iniong.
Ernesto Montilla Jr.
For a long time, Montilla Jr. has been one of the most enthralling Filipino flyweights, holding remarkable wins over the likes of Jenel Lausa and the late Ale Cali. The man from San Pedro, Laguna utilized his aggressive striking approach and no-frills wrestling techniques to subdue his opponents inside the cage, only going the distance twice in his ten career victories so far.
Montilla captured the vacant URCC flyweight championship at the expense of Jiar Castillo by first-round submission in September 2018. He then put the gold-plated strap on the line against Team Lakay’s Edilberto Coquia Jr. last April, keeping the belt around his waist by unanimous decision.
He was supposed to make his second title defense in November, but the event was cancelled after URCC founder and Wrestling Association of the Philippines president Alvin Aguilar chose to give way for the hosting of the SEA Games on home soil.
Rumor has it that Montilla is on the radar of the Ultimate Fighting Championship along with Team Lakay’s Stephen Loman and the once-released Rolando Gabriel Dy.
Known by the nickname “Thunder Kid” due to his relentless, aggressive fighting approach, Team Lakay’s Lito Adiwang is one of the top prospects to come out of Baguio. A tremendous striker who possesses a marvelous takedown defense, he impressed throughout his run in ONE Championship’s “Warrior Series” developmental territory.
Adiwang was offered a six-figure contract to compete on the promotion’s main roster after his defeat of Biagtan’s tormentor Do in August. As part of the historical ONE: Century event in Tokyo, Japan last October, he authored a rousing maiden appearance.
The 26-year-old Igorot spitfire attained a first-round technical knockout triumph over former Pancrase champion Senzo Ikeda. He showed off a different facet of his game as he scored an early takedown and immediately executed a scarf-hold armlock. The bout was stopped just moments later after the Japanese suffered an injury to his arm, giving the win to the Filipino.
Adiwang returns to action on January 31st at the Mall Of Asia Arena, battling Thailand’s Pongsiri Mitsatit in a three-round encounter on the undercard of ONE: Fire & Fury.