Gina “Conviction” Iniong may be the only female representative of Team Lakay on the global stage, but she is proud to use her status to encourage more Filipinas to find their way to The Home Of Martial Arts.
The 30-year-old from Baguio City – who is set to face Asha “Knockout Queen” Roka at ONE: FIRE & FURY this Friday, 31 January – did not plan to be a role model for women in her country, but now that she is one of the world’s top atomweights, she hopes she can pave the way for more people like her to follow in her footsteps.
Iniong began her mixed martial arts career almost by accident when her wushu success led her to her gym in Baguio City.
When she first began her training, her parents were not thrilled because they thought the mixed martial arts scene was no place for girls.
Their view was not without just cause. As a child, Iniong and her six sisters far outnumbered her three brothers, but on the Team Lakay mats, she was in the minority. However, that was no barrier to her growth and her mother and father soon came around when they saw their daughter’s talent.
“I don’t find this position difficult at all,” Iniong says.
“It’s great to have an amazing team who has always supported me, though I hope that there will be more women athletes who will join mixed martial arts.
“I am fortunate to be in this position and I am very proud that I started here, that I developed here, and this where I got a break,” she adds. “From the beginning, [my male teammates] have been nothing but a blessing.”
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In fact, the small number of female training partners was arguably a benefit for her evolution into one of the toughest competitors in the ONE women’s atomweight roster.
With just a few of them in the gym, the women were encouraged to spar with their bigger, stronger teammates.
“In training, sometimes I spar with men and I’m getting used to facing stronger athletes,” Iniong says, naming Team Lakay’s Estrada Dong-As and Edilberto “Scooby” Coquia Jr. as her current sparring partners.
“Coach Mark (Sangiao) has always told me that it’s better to struggle in training than in the actual fight, so that’s why he asked me to start getting used to it.”
Sangiao, “Conviction’s” head coach, was also the man who was the catalyst for her rise to the world’s largest martial arts organization.
At first, he was her wushu coach at the University of the Cordilleras, where she had earned a scholarship and was studying to become a policewoman, which she hoped would help her family lead a better life.
However, when Sangiao saw her potential, he encouraged her to try a new sport as a way to achieve the same goal. She made her debut in February 2010 on a local show, and after a win by first-round submission, she was on her way to the top.
It was not always easy for Iniong, but while some of her contemporaries stepped away when they hit some bumps in the road at a time when mixed martial arts was not as popular as it is now, she stayed the course.
The difference, she says, is the guidance she had.
“For me, there are a lot of ladies who are into mixed martial arts but they haven’t found the right coach and the right gym to train them, and that’s why they struggle to push their way up,” the six-time national wushu champion explains.
Iniong’s efforts were rewarded when she signed with ONE in 2017, and she quickly became one of its most popular competitors thanks to her powerful striking, aggressive grappling, and willingness to take on the toughest opponents at any time.
Her success has shown what is possible, for soon she may be at the forefront of a wave of female martial artists that could one day rival what the gym’s men have achieved.
“Right now we’re preparing some athletes to follow my footsteps,” she says.
“It’s all about making sure that they’re well-equipped when they step into mixed martial arts. Others are still fairly young. They just have to pursue their dreams and do what they really want to do. In mixed martial arts, you’ll get rewarded with proper training, good-sized confidence in yourself, and of course, faith in God.”