When people talk about the flourishing Philippine mixed martial arts (MMA) circuit, the name Team Lakay would certainly be the first topic. This group of Filipino competitors whose base camp is in La Trinidad, Benguet has gained so much respect and admiration from both local and foreign MMA aficionados over the years.
For decades, the country has produced world-class athletes in a variety of combat sports, with perhaps the most notable being eight-division boxing world champion Manny Pacquiao.
However, the Philippines has been developing quite a reputation as one of the world’s premier hotbeds of MMA, mainly because of Team Lakay, as its fighters have etched an indelible mark in every major organization that they have competed in.
Team Lakay rose to prominence in the Universal Reality Combat Championship, a local MMA promotion in the Philippines that was founded by first Filipino Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt Alvin Aguilar in 2002, where six of its members were able to win titles in different weight classes.
Meanwhile, Crisanto Pitpitunge held the bantamweight championship in Pacific Xtreme Combat, an MMA juggernaut in the Asia-Pacific region, in July 2012 when he knocked out Justin “The Shocker” Cruz with one punch in the first round.
Stephen Loman added more feathers on Team Lakay’s cap in November 2017 when he defeated Gurdarshan Mangat by way of first-round technical knockout to capture the maiden bantamweight title in the Middle East-based MMA company Brave Combat Federation.
The signature bright red colors of the squad glared inside the famed Octagon as Dave Galera, Mark Eddiva and Roldan Sangcha-an represented Team Lakay under the banner of the Ultimate Fighting Championship.
With Team Lakay at the helm, the Philippines holds the unprecedented record for most title wins in the nascent seven-year history of ONE Championship, an international MMA promotion that is headquartered in Asia.
Honorio Banario became the first homegrown talent to notch a huge prize in ONE Championship when he defeated compatriot Eric Kelly by fourth-round stoppage for the inaugural featherweight strap in February 2013.
It was followed by Eduard Folayang, who pulled off a major upset victory over Japanese legend Shinya Aoki to bag the coveted lightweight championship in November 2016.
Geje Eustaquio joined the list of Team Lakay world titleholders this past January, claiming the interim flyweight title with a split decision win over Kairat Akhmetov in a rematch before becoming the undisputed division kingpin in his second meeting with Adriano Moraes last June.
On the other hand, it took Joshua Pacio two tries to dethrone Yoshitaka Naito, defeating the Japanese submission specialist in a rematch via a hard-earned unanimous decision in September of this year to be crowned as ONE Championship’s strawweight champion.
Like Eustaquio and Pacio, Kevin Belingon’s star shined luminously on the ONE Championship stage in 2018 as he copped the interim bantamweight belt at the expense of two-division world champion Martin Nguyen last July.
Belingon became the official ONE Championship bantamweight titleholder by defeating longtime champion Bibiano Fernandes via split decision in their highly-anticipated title unification rematch last Friday, November 9.
Despite being nestled at an elevation of 5,050 feet above sea level within the Cordillera Central mountain range of Northern Luzon, Team Lakay has captured the attention of MMA followers around the world.
2018 is shaping up to be a banner year for Team Lakay as the group has received recognition from various award-giving bodies. In addition, Team Lakay has won three world titles this year, with the potential fourth one waiting in the wings as Folayang is scheduled to vie for the vacant lightweight championship on November 23.
Mark Sangiao, the benevolent headmaster of the well-regarded MMA pack, acknowledges that 2018 is Team Lakay’s most successful year so far since its establishment in 2003.
“Yes, it’s our biggest year. We won championship titles and received many awards this year. This is the result of our hard work, dedication, and sacrifice. Like we always say, this is our passion. We love what we do. These awards and titles are just the fruit of our hard labor,” he said.
With the continuous rise of Team Lakay in the sport, many people muse if the local MMA scene in the Philippines is at its Golden Age.
But Sangiao sees it differently, believing that Team Lakay is only doing what it should do as part of the community by contributing to the growth of Philippine MMA.
“The way I look at it, we are merely doing our part in the overall MMA scene in the Philippines. We function as examples to inspire others that they can do it as well,” he stated.
“It is not because of Team Lakay’s success that Philippine MMA is what it has become. We are only part of this growing community. In all probability, people, history, era, and time will determine if we have indeed reached the Golden Age,” Sangiao added.
Putting all things into consideration, Sangiao’s students appear to be a cut above the rest, with other Filipino MMA athletes failing to come close or touch what Team Lakay fighters have achieved.
Team Lakay’s phenomenal run in the sport has been molded from simple, old-fashioned values and work ethic that have harvested numerous rewards for the celebrated Filipino MMA group.
What makes Team Lakay’s success exceptional is that, for the most part of its existence, its operational budget has been close to zero. The camp scrimps to make ends meet to cover costs, and the talent pool consists of locals that come from the area.
Team Lakay does not have access to state-of-the-art training facilities, but its members all seem to be possessed with the will to train harder and longer than any normal athlete, working 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, Team Lakay managed to turn its critics into believers.
Upon entering the Team Lakay gym, the first thing that catches the attention of its visitors is the statement “Champions are not born, they are made,” which Sangiao teaches his valued pupils to live by.
“If everyone were to believe that only certain people are blessed with the gift of talent and others aren’t, then champions such as Manny Pacquiao, Muhammad Ali, or even Georges St-Pierre wouldn’t have ever existed. They believed in their abilities to become the legends they knew there are capable of becoming,” Sangiao explained.
By changing the landscape of MMA in the Philippines through its dynamic stand-up expertise and developing ground game known as “Baguio Jiu-Jitsu,” Team Lakay deserves a place in the annals of combat sports history.
Even if Sangiao does not believe that the success of his band of fighters translates to a hastened arrival of the country’s thriving MMA scene to the Golden Age, one thing is certain—with all eyes on them, Philippine MMA goes where Team Lakay takes it.