When Team Lakay started to gain traction in the early 2010s, Jerome Wanawan was one of the pioneers who laid the foundation for the legendary stable based in La Trinidad, Benguet. Alongside comrades like Eduard Folayang, Kevin Belingon, Rey Docyogen, and Tristan Rebuyaco, the Baguio native competed in different promotions like the Universal Reality Combat Championship and the now-defunct Pacific Xtreme Combat.
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“I feel a sense of pride and honor with what we have achieved in the sport because we started from nothing. Now, look at where we are,” Wanawan says in his native tongue. "Being a member of Team Lakay is priceless. Each member of the team treats you like family. It’s my second home."
Wanawan has had a fair share of wins and losses, sharing the stage with the likes of Eugene Toquero, Ernesto Montilla Jr., and Roy Doliguez. After an active four-year run in the sport, he decided to take a long hiatus in 2014, focusing on building his own family while taking a role in the team’s coaching staff.
At one point, he was about to hang up his gloves for good and accept a job at a local gym in China. But Team Lakay head Mark Sangiao sat him down and broached the idea of a return to action. Wanawan realized that it could be his second shot at glory and accepted the offer, breaking his brief retirement to square off against Japanese prospect Ryohei Kurosawa under the Shooto banner last March.
Unfortunately, he succumbed to a first-round knockout in that comeback match. “It was heartbreaking. It’s my first fight in years," he admits, but adds that he did not lose hope and is filled by motivation by those who train with the stable. "Whenever I see the young lions in the gym, I get so motivated. Deep down, I know I still have a lot to prove as an MMA fighter. I put that in my head every single time I train."
During Team Lakay's early days, Wanawan says they did not have access to state-of-the-art training facilities. Its members worked out on the top floor of a dilapidated building on an obscure street, within a packed room laden with nothing but sweat-soaked mats. In spite of the camp’s limited resources and meager budget, they managed to turn their critics into believers, producing seven MMA world champions. Recently, they opened a posh new gym in the La Trinidad village of Pico. There, they have better training equipment, a much bigger space for grappling drills, physical therapy and dry sauna rooms, and a full-size replica of a cage that they have never had before.
“I came from a different time. We didn’t have these before," Wanawan shares. "Even though I was not in the frontline fighting, I was doing my part behind the scenes. We all worked very hard. Our team has been very blessed."
Wanawan is intent to get a win for his team. On January 26, he locked horns with Junji Ito on the undercard of Shooto 0126, which took place at Tokyo's Korakuen Hall. He, however, succumbed to the seasoned Japanese veteran, dropping a unanimous decision. He later acknowledged that beating Ito was a monumental task.
Despite the loss, he chooses not to walk away from his stable and the sport that he loves.
Instead, Wanawan continues to be inspired by his teammates. He was at the Mall Of Asia Arena last month when Team Lakay won four of their five matches in ONE Championship’s Fire & Fury. In one of the night's main fights, Wanawan's teammate Joshua Pacio successfully defended his strawweight crown against former champion Alex Silva.
“In MMA, there is a winner and a loser. But I will never say die," Wanawan promises. "My Team Lakay brothers have inspired me a lot. Their determination to improve their game in order to be a complete martial artist never fails to amaze me."
These wins have challenged Wanawan to focus on training even more. "I want to reach the level where they are at the moment. Even at this age, I know I can still be successful in this sport,” the 30-year-old says.
Knowing that one win could turn things around for his professional career, Wanawan vows to grab the opportunity by the horns. “What’s important is we’re improving. We are all learning from our previous setbacks," he says. "We all know that with hard work comes success. It won’t be easy, but I’ll do everything to win in my next fight."
Photographs courtesy of Pacific Xtreme Combat