In a little over a week, three stars of MMA powerhouse Team Lakay will be seeing action in the birthplace of martial arts. Their training is now at its peak for ONE Championship’s inaugural show in Tokyo on March 31, which is being billed as “A New Era.” Singapore-based ONE Championship is regarded as one of the fasting growing sports platforms in the world and is the leading mix martial arts promotion in Southeast Asia.
At the top of the card, ONE Lightweight World Champion Eduard Folayang will defend his belt in a rematch with Japanese martial arts icon Shinya Aoki. ONE Bantamweight World Champion Kevin Belingon faces Bibiano Fernandes for the third time to decide once and for all who the best bantamweight is. The third Team Lakay fighter, flyweight Danny Kingad will be up against Japanese veteran Senzo Ikeda, after his original opponent Andrew Leone withdrew due to an injury.
Team Lakay coach and founder, Mark Sangiao is brimming with anticipation, “Japan the Land of the Rising Sun! We all know that Japan is where martial arts came from, kaya dito natin maganda i-prove yung talent ng mga atleta natin. This would be historic and a good experience for our athletes.”
ANCX caught up with a typical Team Lakay training day in Baguio, at the Lourdes Grotto, which is known for its 252 steps. The mountain air is cool and crisp as the sun beats down on the athletes. Sangiao stands at the top of the steps just beneath the last flight of steps leading to the Grotto, surveying his warriors. “We’re preparing them, of course; physically, mentally, and spiritually. We have a good program. We created a good game plan for their opponents,” the coach says.
Team Lakay beginnings
Sangiao was known as “The Machine” during his career as a mixed martial artist, and was a gold medalist for wushu in the Southeast Asian Games. But he hung up his gloves in 2009 to slowly build his stable of fighters, now hailed as some of the best in Southeast Asia. When the gym opened 10 years ago, there was barely any equipment to train on. “We started before, jogging in the oval skating rink. We also experienced, iisa lang punching bag namin. We train sa semento.” But they weren’t disheartened, “We kept on going. We have good resources here. Nakaka-jogging tayo kahit na ganitong tanghali. Friendly yung air natin dito. Cool. We’ve proven that the limited resources is a reason for us to go beyond or go to this kind of level -to be on the international stage.”
Team Lakay has become the dominant MMA team in the Philippines, while Sangiao is regarded as one of the best coaches in Asia. “Before, we were just doing this because of passion. We didn’t know that we will come to this stage. And alam lang namin noon, site training lang for ourselves. We know that martial arts gave us good values before-discipline both physically and mentally. Ngayon, ito. Nandito na and mga atleta natin ngayon—they are world class champions. Hopefully we’ll bring home the belts again.”
At the Grotto, the fighters work on their physical conditioning with their cardio workout and cross-fit exercises. And at the now famous Team Lakay gym in La Trinidad, they lift weights, have step-runs and spar against each other. “We’re creating a good game plan para doon nila ma-apply yung game plan nila,” says Sangiao confidently.
He zeroes in on what he sees as the edge of his athletes. “Their mental toughness. Kailangan buong-buo ang puso nila pag pumunta doon. It should be balanced. Physically, mentally and spiritually kaya you have to be very strong inside. Inside of them they have to be 100 percent confident.”
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For Folayang, their training together as a family is a big advantage for all the Team Lakay fighters. “I think it helps kasi nakikita ng mga kasama mo kung ano yung weaknesses, they help you to unveil it, to discover it and to refine it,” he says. The distance from the capital and the climate are other pluses. “Malayo ka sa distraction and, of course, the altitude here in Baguio is high so it gives us more advantage kasi mas manipis yung hangin.”
The tougher the training, the better, Belingon believes. “Lahat mahirap sa training. Mas maganda yung dito kami mahirapan kesa sa laban. Kailangan tiisin yung hirap. Kailang i-enjoy yung ginagawa mo para yung hirap di mo maramdaman. The 31-year-old thinks that the only secret to it: it’s important that you execute during training, and ill preparation rarely leads to success.
Sangiao says that they have another thing going for them: the blood that runs in their veins is that of their Igorot warrior forbears. “Meron tayong namana sa mga ancestors natin lalo na dito sa highlands. The Igorot are known as warriors. Before they really fought for their land kaya hindi masyado na-conquer dito especially sa highlands. Meron pa ring Igorot spirit.” Folayang adds, “You want to represent, not only your tribe, but your nation as well. As much as possible, maghahanda ka talaga ng mabuti kasi alam mo na kung yung mga ninuno mo hindi nagpasakop, ako pa kaya na nasa bagong generation.”
Folayang versus Aoki
The main bout in Tokyo will be headlined by Folayang, who will go up against Aoki. The Japanese fighter was ONE Championship’s lightweight champion for three years before losing to Folayang. Aoki faces his nemesis, after three straight victories in 2018 and is bent on regaining his title. Sangiao praises his ward’s opponent, “He is a genius in grappling, in jujitsu. Name it. In his three past fights he finished his opponents in the first round. No submissions. Saka hindi basta-basta yung mga tinalo niya, ang gagaling nung mga tinalo niya. Pero tinapos niya lahat sa first round. Eduard should work hard for this in order to win.” But the coach knows Folayang’s main advantage, mental toughness. “Kahit ano, kahit gaano kahirap yan, we never see Eduard tap. If you want to beat him, you have to submit him and you have to knock him out. Never in his career, never siyang na-submit.”
Folayang is more excited than nervous about the fight, “Yung kaba nandyan na yan pero it’s about overcoming it and then not letting it go into your heart kasi it will distract you. It’s more about the excitement na i-pe-perform mo ng maayos yung abilities na pinag-prepare-an mo dun sa time na ibinigay sa yo before the fight.”
It’s the hundreds of hours poured into intensive training and preparation that gives the champion his confidence, “I think it’s about the mindset. You know that you are capable of winning. But you need to understand that your opponent is also trying his best to win against you. So you need to see kung ano yung gusto niyang i-implement for you and that makes you not so confident kasi alam mo na, in just a flicker of an eye, pag nagpabaya ka, talagang makukuha ka.” As much as possible, he says, you should build your confidence during training, without forgetting that the one you’re going up against is doing the same. The 34-year-old knows that his opponent’s strengths will be how he attacks, and it’s all about preparing and countering that with a good game plan.
Folayang proceeds to dissect his opponent’s main strength: a largely unmatched ground game, an advantage that made the Japanese a legend. “Sa 40-plus na wins niya more on submissions talaga. Alam ko naman na yun yung area of expertise niya, yung sa ground, wrestling saka grappling so yun ang pinaghahandaan ko din. As much as possible ma-avoid ko yun and ma-implement ko yung dapat kong gawin para sa kaya.”
The fight in the octagon is not just about physical prowess, mind games play a big part in getting an opponent’s submission. He says that he needs to take advantage of Aoki’s mental weakness. If he’s able to penetrate that in the first round, or even before the fight, he’ll be able to break his spirit. “Doon ko siya ika-capitalize. It’s about hurting him. Dapat maramdaman niya yung determination mo to defend the belt is much stronger than your will to win,” Folayang says. The Filipino-native also adds that the hometown crowd rooting for Aoki may even work against him. “Pressure, kasi the whole nation is rooting for him. Kapag na-take niya yun na motivation, it will be an added factor for him to prepare well. Pero kapag naging pressure naman sa kanya na weight na kine-carry niya it’s a disadvantage naman. It’s an advantage for me also.”
Kevin Belingon versus Bibiano Fernandez
As for ONE’s reigning bantamweight champion and Belingon’s opponent, Bibiano Fernandez, Sangiao is all praises. “Bibiano is an intelligent fighter. Ten years na hawak niya yung belt,” he commends. “This will be the trilogy between Kevin and Bibiano.” But the coach points out one flaw in the Brazilian’s arsenal: poor legwork. “He’s a strong wrestler, grappler and boxer. Yun ang kulang sa kanya, yung legwork niya. Puwede rin nating i-capitalize din yun pero hindi naman natin ina-under estimate because knowing Bibiano, he’s a genius in grappling.”
“When you’re inside the octagon, the coach says, you have to prove that you’re a champion, something that Pinoy fighters sometimes struggle with. Take Belingon, for example. Sangiao thinks he is a complete fighter with commendable speed. “He can wrestle, grapple, he can kick, punch, name it.” His weakness? “Maybe his confidence,” Sangiao says. “Konti lang. Knowing our guys, they’re very silent but when they are inside the gym, makikita mo talaga yung pagka-warrior nila.”
Belingon says he is working on this. The 5’5” bantamweight is excited to show off his skills and is itching to prove that he can take on Fernandez since he’s able to beat him before. “Mas desidido siya ngayon kumpara nung huling laban namin pero mas gutom ako sa laban na to,” The Silencer says. “Kasi gusto kong manatili yung belt sa akin kaya I’m motivated and excited para sa laban na ’to. Gusto kong i-prove na ako talaga ang champion dito.”
Danny Kingad versus Senzo Ikeda
The third Team Lakay member to fight in Tokyo is Danny Kingad. But at the last hour, Danny Kingad ‘s foe was replaced, from American Andrew Leone to Japanese veteran Senzo Ikeda. “Medyo matangkad, pero malaki pa din ang chance natin,” pronounces Coach Sangiao.
The sudden shift is not taking away the excitement from Kingad. “Gusto ko na nga bukas na and laro,” the flyweight admits. “Part of the game yung talagang kinakabahan ka pero kailangan mo talagang hanapin ang sarili mo para maalis yung kaba mo.”
Kingad says being headlined with Folayang ang Belingon is like a dream come true for him. “Sina Kuya Eduard Folayang, sina Kuya Kevin, idol ko sila. Noon pinapanood ko sila. Hindi ko na-expect na nandito pala ako sa mga top na team sa Pilipinas. Very happy ako.”
On March 31, the Ifugao fighters will be bringing their warrior spirit to the octagon hoping to conquer the land where martial arts began. The tournament will be held at the historic Ryogoku Kokugikan, mainly used for sumo wrestling tournaments. It will also be the site of the boxing competition at the 2020 Summer Olympics.
For more on ONE Championship’s A New Era including ticket information, visit ONEFC.com.
Team Lakay photographs by Andre Drilon