If you travel to the northern hills of Luzon to Baguio City, Philippines, you’ll discover a man with a special ability to transform humble fighters into world champions. His name is Coach Mark Sangiao, the founder of Team Lakay, and he has four world championship martial artists under his wing.
Four gold belts in ONE Championship is no small feat. The championship fighters at Team Lakay have endured the pain of loss, criticism from fans and MMA analysts, and unshakable pressure. The life of an elite martial artist is no joke, but equally impressive are the challenges of transforming everyday people into real-life superheroes. This is Coach Mark’s gift.
To succeed as a martial artist, it’s advised that you train with as many people as possible. The more opponents you face in the gym, the more you’ll be prepared for whatever happens during fight night. But Coach Mark and his champions Eduard Folayang (lightweight), Kevin Belingon (bantamweight), Geje Eustaquiao (flyweight), and Joshua Pacio (strawweight) have accomplished something uniquely spectacular because they’ve been training alone. Their unique training camps have produced nothing but results, and they’ve defeated some of the greatest champions we’ve ever seen in MMA history including the reigning bantamweight champ Bibiano Fernandez who was on a 13-fight win streak.
Humble Beginnings Make Humble Champions
Located in the highlands of Baguio City over 4,800 feet above sea level, these Filipino fighters sharpen their elbows and toughen their chins in their quest for more gold and title defenses. How does Coach Mark do it? Nextshark spoke with the head of Team Lakay to figure out what makes his team so remarkable.
NextShark: When Eduard Folayang beat Amir Khan to become the lightweight world champ, he became the fourth champion at Team Lakay. Your team is already the best, how else do you plan on improving the team? What do your fighters need to work on?
Coach Mark: We’ve lost before and everyone told us about our weaknesses with grappling and wrestling. We need to work on those skills to become more well-rounded fighters
NextShark: Speaking of grappling, Kevin Belingon first fought Bibiano Fernandez and was submitted in the first round. Many criticized Belingon’s ground game. However, in their rematch, Kevin defeated Bibiano and stopped his takedowns and submissions attempts. How did Team Lakay prepare for the Jiu Jitsu of Bibiano Fernandez? Did you invite wrestlers and grapplers to train with Belingon, or was this purely an effort between Team Lakay?
Coach Mark: We knew Bibiano Fernandez was a world-class Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu athlete and he has the best wrestling partners. But we managed to work on our wrestling. We prepared with Eduard Folayang, Honario Banario, and Danny Kingad, and we made decisions based on what would be possible during this competition like our back control and armbars.
But Kevin is good now, he’s good at grappling and he managed to practice his back control and rear-naked choke attempts. We worked with other people in Team Lakay but Kevin didn’t go anywhere. Last year we practiced in Manila, but today we only work at our gym.
NextShark: You and many of your fighters have a long history of training in Wushu, competing at the Southeast Asian Games, and educating young Filipinos in the art of Wushu. Why did you choose Wushu and why don’t you think more MMA fighters train in Wushu?
Coach Mark: Before we practiced kickboxing but when Wushu came, we saw that it was a combination of kickboxing and takedowns. We tried Wushu because it’s complete. When you transfer Wushu to MMA, you need to learn the grappling side. In Wushu, we have takedowns and wrestling. It’s almost complete, you just need to add elbows, knees, groundwork and other wrestling techniques to make it complete. It’s a good style for MMA basics.
The Explosion of Mixed Martial Arts in The Philippines
NextShark: The Philippines is known for having some of the best boxers including Manny Pacquiao, Nonito Donaire, and Ceferino Garcia. This might be a very big prediction, but I believe the success of Team Lakay will create a shockwave of Filipino Martial Artists who will pursue MMA for the very first time. What do you think about MMA in the Philippines? Is this the future? Do you think more Filipinos should switch from Boxing to MMA?
Coach Mark: MMA in the Philippines is getting bigger and bigger. If you notice, every time there’s a competition in the Philippines, we fully pack the Mall of Asia Arena. Last time, some of the people couldn’t enter because there wasn’t enough space. MMA is becoming bigger and bigger and a lot of disciplines will start to switch to MMA.
I think this is a sign MMA will become a huge and sustainable career here in the Philippines. A lot of gyms are coming up like mushrooms – they’re opening here and there, especially in Baguio City. We have 10+ gyms and some of them are already starting small promotions which is a good sign.
NextShark: Is this the future of the Philippines?
Coach Mark: Yes, I think this could be the future. A very good future.
NextShark: Your gym is opening so many opportunities to disadvantaged Filipinos and I can’t help but think that your legacy is going to be bigger than just these four champions. I think Team Lakay will continue to produce champions for many years to come and I also believe you’ll make an impact on the Philippines and the Filipino people — both domestically and internationally.
What is the main message you’d like the world to know about Team Lakay?
Coach Mark: The message here at Team Lakay that I want the world to know is that martial arts isn’t just fighting. It also teaches values as a person. For us, we started martial arts as a passion. We didn’t know before that it would be a good career. We were just doing it for ourselves because it teaches discipline, respect, humility, and courage.
And we can see the return: fighters have a positive attitude which has become useful and helpful to the community. I think that’s the one message – for people to practice martial arts for their own selves, and the values they teach to a person.
NextShark: If someone from Manila or The United States wanted to join Team Lakay and become the next Eduard Folayang, what do they have to do? Can anyone join Team Lakay and what can a new member of Team Lakay expect?
Coach Mark: We’re not in that situation quite yet, but we’re open. We’re looking to accommodate more students and next year we’ll look for a bigger gym for these new students.
NextShark: What are your plans for Team Lakay in the future? Would you ever move away from Baguio City to a bigger gym or is Baguiao City the only place for Team Lakay?
Coach Mark: That’s the future plan. Later on, we might manage some Team Lakay gyms somewhere else. We’ll have other gyms, not only here in the Philippines. But that’s our dream: to have gyms in other locations.
Team Lakay vs. The World
NextShark: Lasty, I’d like to ask about your toughest challenge coming up: the ONE Championship grand prix. How are you preparing for the upcoming Lightweight and Flyweight Grand Prix where Team Lakay will face off against Demetrious Johnson and Eddie Alvarez?
Coach Mark: We know that Demetrious Johnson and Eddie Alvarez are tough. I told my athletes that they have to be prepared because these guys are no joke. But you know, this is going to be a great test for our athletes. We know that Johnson is truly the G.O.A.T (greatest of all time.) We look at Eddie Alvarez and Demetrius Johnson as the best in the world. We lost in 2017, we had a good 2018, but for 2019 we have to upgrade our skills even more for this Grand Prix.