Team Lakay coach Mark Sangiao explains a drill as fighter Danny Kingad listens.
Drive Sports and Fitness

As the sporting world stops for COVID-19, Filipino MMA fighters work hard behind closed doors

Local fighters have to find creative ways to stay battle-ready in the middle of the COVID-19 crisis. By NISSI ICASIANO
| Mar 22 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic sweeping the globe has caused the entire world to halt to a standstill. As of this writing, the outbreak has recorded 275,964 cases and 11,399 deaths across more than 100 countries—numbers that are rapidly rising. It caused the postponement and cancellation of public gatherings and sporting events.

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In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte announced a lockdown of the whole Luzon last Monday to contain the threatening virus that has claimed the lives of 18 Filipinos. Meanwhile, local cases have soared to more than 300.

Sangiao demonstrates a kick against Joshua Pacio in the middle of their gym in La Trinidad.

With the government implemented a month-long enhanced community quarantine, athletes and professional sports teams like Team Lakay have to make the necessary adjustments. The prominent mixed martial arts (MMA) stable’s home base in La Trinidad, Benguet remains free from the virus, but head coach Mark Sangiao is not about to take his chances. 

“Luckily for us, we don’t have it yet here.  There have been slight adjustments to our routine. For our training and to all our athletes, we advise them to disinfect before entering the gym," Sangiao says. "The equipment will also be cleaner this time, and general cleaning will be frequent. The best way to stay away from the virus is to stay fit and stay clean.”

Fighter Eduard Folayang confirms that they are moving to a more striking-based training to limit contact among his teammates. “We had to reduce close contact at the moment. It’s very difficult for us because we have to do sparring and grappling. Now, we have to rely on our creativity and resourcefulness to cope up in our training,” says the former ONE Championship lightweight titlist.

Eduard Folayang says that the way for him to support the local government's efforts is to stay clean and healthy himself.

It may be business as usual for Team Lakay, but Sangiao disclosed that they would not accept regular clients at the moment and training would be exclusive for his professional athletes. In times like these, he is delighted on the fact they are putting their new gym to good use.

“What if we don’t have this facility like before? It would definitely be a struggle for the members of the team. It’s a blessing for all of us," the coach says. "We would continue to exert effort in the coming days."

While there are three to four patients who manifest the classic symptoms of COVID-19 in Baguio, all towns in Benguet have taken great measures to avoid it from spreading. Being an attraction for its mountainous terrain and cold weather, the area has tentatively closed tourist spots to the public while putting up checkpoints for vehicles entering to check passengers’ travel histories and temperature.

Folayang lauds the action done by the local government, and does his part by staying fit and clean. “We’re still training so we can strengthen our immune system, but we’re much more careful with our movement and there’s added focus on sanitation," he says. "We also avoid crowd gatherings. So far, our routine is strictly home, gym and train.”

The Team Lakay captain also urged everyone to stay informed during the ongoing global occurrence. “As a concerned citizen, the tips coming from the Department of Health are useful. We should always stay hydrated, stay away from crowds in the meantime, strengthen the immune system, and we should be properly informed when it comes to facts, so we won’t panic easily,” the two-time world champion advises.

 

Waiting game

It is the same story 315 kilometers away from Benguet as one-time world title contender Rene Catalan is balancing safety and activity in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has paralyzed Metro Manila. Situated in Makati, he and his group cannot afford to stop training.

“We’re in survival mode right now, to be honest,” Catalan bares. “For us, we keep on training even though there is no scheduled match because we are just waiting for the go-signal from our promoter to compete again.”

As he prays that this ordeal finds its ending soon, he urges the people to take the necessary precautions in combating this virus and keep the faith to get through these tough times. “To my fellow Filipinos, stay healthy. Boost your immunity. Find a way to exercise, even if you’re locked in at home. And the most important thing of them all is that we should always trust God."

Around the world, leagues and sporting associations are wrestling with how to respond to the virus. The NBA immediately suspended its season indefinitely after Utah Jazz player Rudy Gobert tested positive. NHL, Major League Baseball and Major League Soccer followed suit. Meanwhile, US NCAA also canceled its annual men’s and women’s basketball tournaments.

Meanwhile, staples of Philippine sports have not been spared as PBA, UAAP, Philippine Superliga, MPBL, and Philippine Football League opted to postpone their scheduled games. Putting the safety of its stakeholders above all else, NCAA officially terminated the already-suspended Season 95 on Thursday.

Like the rest of her stablemates, Gina Iniong is still training hard while waiting for her next fight.

While many have essentially ceased operations in light of the global health crisis, the world of MMA is exploring options to go through with most of their upcoming cards. With their main sources of income now severely truncated, everyone in the industry finds themselves facing a different battle in an effort to stay afloat as they adapt to a new norm during the pandemic.

Concerns about spreading the virus triggered Bellator 241 to be shelved just hours before the show. It was supposed to happen at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Connecticut. All fighters and officials were paid, unlike most combat sports events that depend on gate receipts and television revenue to pay everyone involved.

The Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) went ahead with its event in Brazil over the weekend inside an empty arena with only competitors, cornermen, referees, judges and the broadcast team. However, the Las Vegas-headquartered MMA company postponed its next three events.

Several sports organizations might be on hiatus up to six weeks or more, but the UFC is adamantly scrambling to preserve its highly-anticipated April 18th showcase, set to be held at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York. It is headlined by a lightweight championship clash between Khabib Nurmagomedov and Tony Ferguson.

On the other hand, ONE Championship was compelled to move its next four fight cards to Singapore, which will all take place behind closed doors. Though travel restrictions have been tightened significantly across the Asian region, Sangiao revealed that he and his team would be keeping their lines open for match offers.

Team Lakay says that they have adjusted their drills and minimized contact in response to COVID-19.

“Yes, we will be accepting fight offers from our mother promotions if there’s any. In spite of our current situation, our pursuit to hold our flag high in combat is consistently calling. We have to be ready,” the trainer explains.

Despite the preventive measures that they have to abide by, Sangiao is keen that his squad can stay motivated and committed to honing their craft as mixed martial artists. “We have to keep moving forward and think of what our athletes need. At the end of the day, they’re the ones who are standing in the cage and we need to give them everything they need, both physically and mentally."