For nearly two decades, mixed martial arts (MMA) has gradually become a staple of Philippine sports, exciting fans with a wide array of memorable cage battles and paving the way for homegrown heroes such as Eduard Folayang, Kevin Belingon, Geje Eustaquio, and Joshua Pacio.
But Filipino MMA athletes will have to answer a different call of duty this month as athletes from around the region congregate here for the 30th Southeast Asian Games. This includes Mark Sangiao and members of his revered Team Lakay, who will be participating at the biennial sporting meet.
Alongside former boxer Glenn Mondol and Olympian Donald Geisler, Sangiao has been tapped to coach the eight-person roster that will compete in kickboxing from December 7 to 10 at the Cuneta Astrodome. Joining the soft-spoken mentor are his students Gina Iniong, Jerry Olsim, and Jean Claude Saclag.
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Iniong is set to vie in the women’s 55-kilogram category, while Olsim and Saclag will try to hoist the Philippine flag aloft in the men’s 69-kilogram and 63-kilogram brackets respectively.
Known by the moniker “Conviction” due to her hard-hitting style, Iniong is recognized as one of the pioneers of women’s MMA in the Philippines, strutting her wares in promotions such as Pacific Xtreme Combat and ONE Championship.
Olsim, meanwhile, is one of the many top prospects in ONE Championship’s developmental league, Rich Franklin’s ONE Warrior Series. Saclag is an Asian Games silver medalist who made his professional MMA debut last May in a losing effort against Japan’s Ryo Okada under the Shooto banner.
Something to prove
Despite Sangiao’s mastery in the fields of MMA and wushu, several pundits are skeptical about his wards’ transition to kickboxing. But the Team Lakay headmaster is confident that it will not be an issue. “I've separated their training from MMA. It wasn't difficult to do since my first art is boxing even before I got into wushu. I've created a program for the team. What we need to do now is find out the level of competition in the SEA Games,” he says.
The main problem for Sangiao at the moment is scouting as he just received the list of their opponents, prompting him to squeeze all the time that he can give to review their styles. "We don't know for sure how good they are, so we're doing our research. So far what we know is Vietnam is quite good, while this one is pretty much basic for Thailand," he says.
"I see potential gold medalists, but I just can't predict how many. We have to consider that our athletes like Jean Claude Saclag came from wushu where he is a world champion," the mentor continues. "Saclag has a huge chance of bagging gold. I also see others capable of winning, but it is just hard to predict.” Sangiao will likewise be sending some of his up-and-coming stalwarts to represent the nation at the SEAG. Islay Erika Bomogao and Alexis Badol Mayag-as will don the nation’s colors in Muay Thai from December 3 to 8 at the Subic Bay Exhibition Convention Center.
While Sangiao refused to guarantee the number of gold medals that his squad can claim for the Philippines, he vowed that his fighters will be out to give their all, especially since the SEA Games will be held on home soil. "The nation can expect that our athletes will compete with all their hearts. We carry the entire country on our shoulders, so we've been working hard since day one of our training," he promises.
A new fight
Several Filipino MMA athletes will be making their presence felt in other combat sports events, including former strawweight title challenger Rene Catalan. The Iloilo native last won a wushu gold medal at the 2005 SEAG, and has once again made himself available to represent the country—this time for the sport of sambo.
After falling short to Team Lakay’s Joshua Pacio for the ONE Championship strawweight belt last month, Catalan targets a podium finish here to redeem himself.
“Make no mistake about it, we won’t be coming in just to compete. We are coming to win a gold medal for the Philippines,” Catalan expresses. “What’s important is to take home the gold for my country, which will only give me more confidence when I go back to MMA next year.”
Catalan will be teaming up with other MMA practitioners such as Fil-Am sensation Mark Striegl, Jerry “Uno” Legaspi and Patrick Dos Santos. Sambo will make its SEA Games debut on December 5 at the Angeles University Foundation gymnasium in Pampanga. Also included in Sangiao’s kickboxing lineup are non-Team Lakay members and MMA veterans Rex De Lara and Ruel Catalan.
Meanwhile, Alvin Aguilar had to cancel Universal Reality Combat Championship’s November 28th card to fully focus on the Philippine national wrestling team. He holds the position as president of the Wrestling Association of the Philippines since 2014.
“All of our athletes are homegrown. They’re all potential gold medalists. How they perform will depend on their mindset on the day of competition. They’ve all trained so hard and have dealt with so much adversity. I am happy that we can all set aside our differences for the greater glory of our country,” Aguilar stresses.