MANILA, Philippines – Somewhere in Benguet, Honorio Banario assaults the mitts with heavy punches as he prepares for an upcoming fight.
Near the gym's cagewall, Kevin Belingon grapples his training partner on the matt and pulls off an arm lock that forces his opponent to tap out.
Eduard Folayang whips the heavy bag, hanging near the gym’s window, with a series of powerful lowkicks. A loud "whap!" can be heard each time his shin lands onto the hapless bag.
This is the house of Team Lakay. This is Philippine MMA.
Team Lakay was formed eight years ago by a group of Baguio-based fighters headed by Mark Sangiao.
Geje Eustaquio, Eduard Folayang, Honorio Banario and Kevin Belingon. Photo by Roxann Ng.
“Nung lumalaban ako dati noong 2003, wala pang Team Lakay,” remembers Sangiao, a former member of the National Wushu Team.
”Hanggang noong 2005, nag-create kami ng team. Noong 2006 doon namin ni-legalize ang grupo.”
Some of their earliest members were also former members of the national Wushu team, which is why the team has its roots in Wushu Sanshou.
With the successes of Lakay members Folayang, Banario and Belingon along with Crisanto Pitpitunge and Rey Docyogen in MMA promotions like Universal Reality Combat Championship (URCC) and Pacific X-treme Combat, Team Lakay has become one of the recognizable names in the Filipino mixed martial scene.
From a handful of fighters, Team Lakay’s membership grew to at least 50 fighters.
“Yung professional fighters namin nasa 20,” Sangiao says. “Kahit bata nate-train dito, laro laro lang muna, sparring... some start as early as 7 years old.”
“Dati mga estudyante lang... kalaunan mga professionals na dahil ‘yung iba nasipagtapos na. Pero yung karamihan mga scholar sa school,” he adds.
Team Lakay recently became part of ONE Fighting Championship’s (ONE FC) network, which aims to promote Filipino fighters to the Asian market.
The team soared to new heights last February when one of its top fighters carved his name in ONE FC. Honorio Banario defeated Eric Kelly to win the ONE FC featherweight crown, becoming the first Filipino to own an international MMA title.
Team Lakay coach Mark Sangiao shares a light moment with former MMA champion Honorio Banario. Photo by Roxann Ng
But three months later, the fabled team suffered a huge setback in its bid to achieve Asian supremacy.
Four of its members, including Banario, Folayang and Belingon, got beat by their foreign counterparts in ONE FC: Rise to Power last May.
Belingon suffered the biggest loss after he got knocked out by Koji Oishi who walked away with the featherweight title.
Instead dwelling into their losses, Sangiao viewed the setbacks as an opportunity to improve his fighters.
“Honestly ako nalungkot [after the losses]. Pero malungkot na masaya dahil may natutunan din. Kahit papaano nalaman namin na marami pang kulang sa training namin,” he says.
Admitting flaws in their ground game, the team decided to bring in Iranian-European wrestling champion Ali Heydarabadi to improve their wrestling and grappling skills.
With regards to conditioning, the Filipinos were made to undergo eight weeks of rigid training that included striking, cage defense, takedown, and ground wrestling, as well as high-altitude running and sprinting.
Sangiao hopes their labor will bear fruit when their fighters again return to the international stage on December 6 in "ONE FC: Moment of Truth."
Banario will get his chance to reclaim the title against Oishi at the MOA Arena, while Folayang and Belingon test themselves against visiting fighters.
"Dinagdagan namin ang training at conditioning ng mga fighters natin. Mas well rounded sila ngayon dahil may training sila sa wrestling at grappling,” says Sangiao.
“Expect more explosiveness from them," adds the Team Lakay head coach.