Over the past 10 years, women's MMA has grown rapidly all over the world, from smaller promotions and mere novelty acts to being a key piece of every card. But its development in the Philippines didn't seem to be as exponential, at least in comparison to its male counterparts.
Along with the likes of Gina Iniong, Denice Zamboanga, and Jomary Torres, Angelie Sabanal is one of the few female athletes who has been hoisting the Philippine flag internationally.
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Sabanal left a lasting impression in her maiden trip to the ONE Championship cage in March 2018, silencing the partisan crowd in Bangkok when she defeated hometown heroine Rika Ishige via unanimous decision. Despite the attention that her shocking win over Ishige gave her, Sabanal didn't get used to the spotlight right away. She still thought of herself as a shy, soft-spoken math professor from Cagayan de Oro.
Math by day
Sabanal is a math professor at the University of Science and Technology of Southern Philippines. Prior to becoming a fighter, she was more concerned about her career as an educator, and enjoyed the life she had. “I am not the type of person who wanted fame," she insists. "All I ever wanted was a simple life with a stable job. I was happy living in my hometown while being able to mold the future of my country as a teacher.”
However, things changed when her friends convinced her to give Muay Thai a try, and she instantly fell in love with the revered striking art. Sabanal, then 22, started to learn the ropes of “The Art Of Eight Limbs” at Mindanao Ultimate Mixed Martial Arts, where some of the best and the brightest train.
“I never thought that I would be a martial artist because I didn’t have the interest to try it back then. I was a volleyball player in grade school," she shares. "Maybe it’s my competitive spirit that brought me into this position right now.”
Many took notice of Sabanal's intrepid fighting style inside the cage. Despite taking up the sport a few years after college, she consistently and systematically broke down her opponents and sparring partners like a seasoned veteran. “I enrolled in Muay Thai classes purely for fitness and self-defense," the late bloomer says. "It never crossed my mind to compete nor become a fighter. I am just a regular teacher who enrolled in a gym to stay fit and healthy.”
It took her five years to muster enough courage to fight, right after she finished her master’s degree at the same university where she works. “I was busy finishing my dissertation paper. My priority at that time was to graduate, if not with honors. Although I was really progressing in Muay Thai, my focus was still fixed on getting a degree,” Sabanal discloses. “After I earned my master’s degree, my coaches were the first ones who congratulated me, but after that, they asked me if I wanted to join the team. It was in 2017 when I accepted the offer. Well, the rest is history.”
It did not take too long for Sabanal to capture gold at the provincial level. The win led her to the 2017 Philippine National Muay Thai Championship where she had a bridesmaid finish in the 57-kilogram category. “I got silver, despite the fact that I weighed 49 kilograms. I was supposed to fight in the 50-kilogram category, but unfortunately, I didn’t have an opponent. I decided to fight in a higher weight class,” she remembers.
The big show
Sabanal’s success in Muay Thai caught the attention of ONE Championship, giving her a chance to compete in Asia’s largest MMA organization. When she was called to duke it out with Ishige, no one inside Bangkok’s Impact Arena knew her name. But the then unknown Filipina did not disappoint by making the most of her big opportunity.
She pulled off a major upset in her debut, relying on her Muay Thai background to convincingly rout Ishige over the course of three rounds. To this day, it remains a surreal moment for Sabanal. “I did not know what to do. Do I celebrate or do I cry? I was really surprised because I did not expect the outcome. I can't explain the feeling at the exact moment my name was announced as the winner,” the professor recalls.
“I could not believe it because people were telling me that I should compete at the local level first before I get my chance in ONE Championship," she says. "Aside from that, my opponent was clearly more experienced than me. Getting the victory over Rika is like winning a world championship.”
Unfortunately for Sabanal, she did not replicate that success in her next two assignments. She dropped a unanimous decision to Indonesian stalwart Priscilla Hertati Lumban Gaol in November 2018 and then succumbed to a first-round defeat to Japan’s Itsuki Hirata seven months later.
Sabanal may be reeling from a two-fight losing skid, but she sees her series of setbacks as an opportunity to patch the loopholes in his overall game.
“This will not stop me. I have to go back to the drawing board. We have to work more on my areas of improvement. These skills will be essential to my career moving forward. Hopefully, my team and I can show the improvements in my next bout," she explains.
In the constantly-expanding world of MMA, versatility is the key to success. As Sabanal seeks to climb the ranks of ONE Championship’s 52.2-kilogram division, she explores different combat disciplines to supplement her growth as a competitor.
To complement her intimidating stand-up arsenal, Sabanal has put her attention on mastering the grappling art of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Working extensively on her ground game has reaped rewards for her as she won silver at the ADCC Northern Mindanao Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Competition.
“My goal is to be a complete fighter. This is mixed martial arts, and the sport requires me to cover all bases. Win or lose, I shouldn’t be complacent. I need to grow and learn more,” Sabanal points out.
Teachers are usually the ones that inspire their students, be it with how they handle things in class or the things they do outside of it. For Sabanal, it is the other way around as her valued pupils give her the reason to keep on going in her journey.
“What motivates me, aside from my family, are my students. I want to show them the value of martial arts, especially the type of impact that it will have on them. Martial arts is a lifestyle. My goal is to encourage more women and young people to take it up,” she stresses.
More than her personal gain, Sabanal understands that it is easier to send a message across when she herself has walked the talk.
“In martial arts, you’ll be taught the main components of the sport–which is respect and discipline. Both things are essential in our lives," she says. "Being an athlete and a teacher at the same time, I am thankful to have this platform to show the beauty of martial arts on a larger scale. That’s why I always strive to be better to inspire more young people."