November 11, 2016 was likely the most significant date in the history of Philippine mixed martial arts (MMA). It was the day the athlete most associated with the sport in the country was able to capture an intricately-crafted hardware that acknowledged him as world champion.
Widely regarded as the face of Philippine MMA, Eduard “Landslide” Folayang did the impossible that fateful night, dethroning Japanese legend Shinya Aoki by way of a third-round technical knockout to become the ONE Lightweight World Champion.
Folayang’s nine grueling years of blood, sweat and tears paid off with a moment that will forever define his professional career.
If previously he only dreamed of stepping on the proverbial Promised Land, with his scintillating triumph against Aoki he felt the soil with the soles of his feet, and smelled its waft of fresh sweet air. With raised hands, he finally arrived at the destination only a chosen few have reached.
His tenure in the Promised Land, however, was cut short when he was harshly evicted from the domain he long fought for.
Heartbreak in Manila
Before midnight of November 11, 2017, the first anniversary of his much-celebrated title win over Aoki, Folayang hazily opened his eyes, and the only thing he saw was the bright lights at the ceiling of the Mall of Asia Arena. As an eerie silence swept over the state-of-the-art showground, Folayang knew very little as to why he was lying supine inside the ONE Championship cage.
It was only when he saw the harried face of trainer and confidant Mark Sangiao did it slowly sink in that the outcome of his super-fight against featherweight kingpin Martin Nguyen was not in his favor.
“The whole stadium was very silent. When I saw coach Mark Sangiao and his facial reaction, I realized I messed up,” Folayang said.
Folayang suffered an excruciating defeat at the hands of Nguyen, who uncorked his signature overhand right at the Filipino MMA superstar after he attempted to deliver a spinning back-kick.
The punch connected right on Folayang’s chin, eventually knocking him out in the second round and costing him his coveted ONE Lightweight World Championship.
In the aftermath of his unsuccessful world title defense against Nguyen, Folayang admitted that he did not exactly know what to say or how to address the loss.
“It was hard to talk about it for a time. Finding the right words to describe what I was feeling was a challenge, even for myself. It was very difficult,” he disclosed.
Aside from finding the right words to express himself, Folayang also took an extended break to understand the errors that he made during his cage encounter with Nguyen.
“I needed the time off to realize where I went wrong—whether that was in my preparations or in the fight itself. I wanted to know where I had miscalculated. I reviewed every angle, and I really took the time to look at my mistakes,” he stated.
Folayang stressed that he needed to relax and ease his mind before he could even think about returning to his local MMA group Team Lakay and resume training for another bout.
“I am a firm believer that this game is mental, first and foremost. After you get your mind right, then you can start to work on the physical aspect of it all. It does not matter how strong you are. If you are not in the right frame of mind, you cannot move forward,” he explained.
“Excruciatingly painful” would be the best way to describe his loss to Nguyen. But the only course of action the Filipino fighter resorted to was to put it behind him and move forward.
“I don’t need to give any excuses, but I need to accept that it’s already done. I don’t want to remain in that moment,” said Folayang.
From setback to comeback
The heartbreaking loss could have swallowed Folayang whole, but it only ignited the fire within him to continue with his already illustrious career.
“Sometimes, you are awakened by some of the failures that you face in life. I saw my loss to Martin Nguyen as a turning point in my career,” he shared.
Folayang realized that every setback that he has experienced in MMA was always followed with a triumphant rebound.
“Losing is not new to me, but it is also an opportunity for me to take a step back and try to pick up the pieces,” he asserted.
On the night Filipino fans witnessed Folayang lying flat on his back in an immobile state, many cageside pundits perceived the end of his run in the sport.
But although Folayang was in the threshold of a cruel conclusion to his MMA career at that moment, he found the verve to rise again and personify the truth in the old adage "you cannot put a good man down."
After being shelved for six months, Folayang triumphantly returned inside the cage by notching a lopsided decision victory over Russian juggernaut Kharun Atlangeriev last May.
Folayang then survived a grueling encounter against previously-unbeaten Russian combatant Aziz Pahrudinov via unanimous decision two months later.
In the most difficult chapter of his storied MMA stint—which put him in a difficult position to mount a seemingly impossible comeback—Folayang managed to inch his way out of the pit. He climbed back to the upper echelon of ONE Championship's lightweight division.
“The loss to Martin made me a better athlete. I refocused myself on the things that I love. Deep inside, I knew I had so much more to give,” Folayang said.
One step closer
Folayang has the chance to reclaim what he lost this Friday, November 23 when he vies for the vacant ONE Lightweight World Championship against Singaporean contender Amir Khan in the co-main event of ONE: Conquest of Champions.
According to the 35-year-old Baguio City native, his ultimate motivation is to achieve his desired redemption.
“My tough loss last year was very hard to get through, but I really worked hard, and now the opportunity is here again, and I don’t want to miss that gift,” he said.
“Last year, I was in the same place, but things didn’t go as expected. I lost the belt, but I worked hard, so now there is another story to be told,” Folayang continued.
Folayang's maiden journey to becoming a world champion took him nine arduous years, after having fought in 22 bouts that came with five upsetting defeats.
In his second try, Folayang needed only one year and two fights to reinsert his name into the world title picture.
If his re-entry to the Promised Land is but one stride away, nothing will prevent him from taking the giant step.
“I have my eyes firmly set on redemption. I truly believe the title is within my reach,” Folayang said. “I will do whatever it takes to win it back.”
All photos courtesy of ONE Championship.