Filipino martial arts practitioners have long been known to be masters of the striking arts.
Many of the Southeast Asian country’s best combat sports athletes are decorated boxers and wushu champions, who have used their stand-up expertise to rise up the ranks in ONE Championship.
In the past few years, however, many of them have experienced difficulty ascending to the next level, due to the perceived lack of a ground game. That is no longer the case.
The writing was on the wall back in January 2016, when the grappling shortcomings of wushu knockout artist Kevin “The Silencer” Belingon were exposed by ONE Bantamweight World Champion Bibiano “The Flash” Fernandes. The Brazilian jiu-jitsu expert immediately took the Filipino to the canvas in their title clash, and kept him grounded until submitting him inside the first round via kimura.
These issues continued to plague the Baguio City-based wushu camp Team Lakay. Joshua Pacio, Geje “Gravity” Eustaquio, and Danny Kingad all fell in World Title challenges, and Mei Yamaguchi clearly outworked Gina Iniong to solidify her shot at the ONE Women’s Atomweight World Championship.
However, the problems were not just limited to Team Lakay.
The Catalans, a family of proud wushu and Muay Thai warriors, has endured difficulties mastering the ground element. In fact, three of the brothers fell to BJJ world champion, and future ONE Strawweight World Champion, Alex Silva.
Also, other Filipinos, such as well-respected boxer Roy “The Dominator” Doliguez, and wushu competitor Eric “The Natural” Kelly fell victim to jiu-jitsu specialists Silva, and Rafael Nunes, respectively.
If anything, these defeats have further validated the ideology that one simply cannot rely on a singular area of expertise to become a world champion in the all-encompassing sport of martial arts, even if that area of expertise is considered world-class.
The sport’s best martial artists evolve, and master all disciplines. That point is not lost on Mark Sangiao, head coach of Team Lakay.
“We hear all the comments, that Team Lakay is lacking in ground skills. That is why we have placed extra focus on refining this aspect of our game,” he said this past January.
“Losing is the greatest teacher, and sometimes in victory, you cannot see your faults. The losses helped our athletes re-evaluate their abilities, their weaknesses, and how we can become better.”
For months, Sangiao has placed a great emphasis on improving the ground game, and putting his pupils through consistent grappling drills. Also, many of his talented students have driven from Baguio City to Manila to train under John Baylon, a highly decorated judoka and BJJ black belt who has his own academy.
All of this effort is paying off, as practically every member of Team Lakay has started 2018 on a high note.
“I wanted to prove to the world that our ground game is as capable as any,” Pacio said following the win.
“At Team Lakay, we just like to help each other improve and get better. As a member of the team, that is all we could ever really hope for. When we learn something new, we make it a point to teach others what we know. This way, we rise as a team.”
Conversely, Eustaquio used his improved grappling to counteract Akhmetov’s wrestling in their January 2018 rematch. He either scrambled away from takedown attempts, or immediately returned to his feet to keep the bout standing, which allowed him to utilize his dangerous wushu striking.
That ultimately earned him a unanimous decision victory, and the ONE Interim Flyweight World Title.
“One of the things we worked on was how to bring the bout back to the feet. If he was able to take me down to the ground, we made sure I could get back up,” Eustaquio said a week after his life-changing victory.
“This is a result of thousands of sprawls and wrestling drills. We really did not stop until I could get it perfect. I still have a lot to improve on, but this was definitely one of the things we worked on for this match.”
All of that improvement has been seen across camp, as Kingad leaned on his grappling to defeat a very game Sotir Kichukov in March. It is also something Belingon has worked extensively on, as he defeated a trio of world-class grapplers in Toni Tauru, Reece McLaren, and Kevin Chung in 2017.
Both “The Silencer” and Iniong have been focusing on their grappling in anticipation for their upcoming bouts against American wrestler Andrew Leone and Chinese Taipei black belt judoka Jenny Huang, respectively, at ONE: HEROES OF HONOR on Friday, 20 April. Convincing victories could earn each Lakay representative a world title shot later this year.
The Catalans have experienced similar success, too.
Rene Catalan, the head coach of the family’s Catalan Fighting Systems gym in Manila, is a former wushu world champion, and sambo specialist who had a difficult start to his tenure in ONE. He had two losses and a draw in his first three bouts.
However, in September 2016, he turned it all around. He stopped self-training in one area, and brought on experts to help in another.
“In my first three bouts, I ate a bit, slept a bit, taught a bit, and trained a bit. Any athlete or martial artist who teaches, works, and trains at the same time will not improve,” he previously stated. “What I did to correct that was hire coaches who would help me train our guys, and at the same time, help me prepare for matches.”
Due of that change in philosophy, he finds himself on a four-bout win streak, his most recent win being an impressive TKO victory over Peng Xue Wen in January, a Chinese wrestling champion who Catalan actually out-wrestled.
“If I can defend against my freestyle wrestling coach, it means I should be able to perform against Peng, because he is smaller than I am used to matching up against,” Catalan offered. “I was not worried about wrestling, because I prepared really well.”
Catalan has also prepared his troops. In fact, his unbeaten pupil Jomary Torres is on a four-bout win streak, having displayed a proficiency in grappling and jiu-jitsu. And lately, his younger brother, Robin, seems more like a wrestler than a national Muay Thai champion.
There is no doubt most of the Filipino martial artists’ strengths lie within their remarkable striking pedigree, but they are making major strides in their ground ability. What has been considered a weakness is emerging as a strength, and that amalgamation of expertise could lead them to world title glory in the not-so-distant future.