It is an obsession that took a physical and emotional toll on him. But on 11 November 2016, he finally got his shot at Shinya Aoki’s belt at ONE: DEFENDING HONOR in the Singapore Indoor Stadium. It is an opportunity he seized with both hands.
“My journey in ONE Championship ever since my first bout has been a roller coaster,” said Folayang, in the days before the bout. “There were moments in my career when I was already near to a title shot, but suddenly I lost momentum. And then I climbed the ladder again, and fell again.
“This time I really pushed hard to be on the top, and finally, after five years, I had the chance to compete for the title.”
Folayang made history that night, accomplishing what many thought was impossible for him by scoring a technical knockout of Aoki in the third round. It was a fairy-tale ending to a story that began with Folayang growing up through poverty, and struggling to pay the bills.
“It feels good after a long journey,” he proudly proclaimed following his win. “It is just like what I said, this is my time, and I proved it.”
However, claiming the belt went much deeper than simply adding a world title to his many accolades. For the man known as “Landslide,” it was the culmination of his life’s work, as well as a tribute to the people, community, and society that raised him.
Supporting His Family Through Martial Arts
Growing up in Baguio City, Philippines, Folayang’s family was tragically impoverished. The Filipino was one of nine children, five of whom passed away due to sickness, simply because they did not have access to proper medical care.
His father toiled as a laborer and part-time farmer, while his mother worked at a laundromat, and both of his parents never learned to read or write. It is something they made sure didn’t happen to their children.
“My parents sacrificed a lot to bring us to school. Sometimes, they even borrowed money just for us to pay our tuition fees,” recalled Folayang, sadly. “In their daily lives they didn’t focus on just one job, they found extra work that they could do, so that it would compensate for the needs that we had.”
Though his parents had hoped he would become a police officer following his education, Folayang had other plans. He picked up martial arts, and took up a wushu college scholarship to help pay his way, and lessen the burden on his parents. It would prove to be a decision that would change his life forever.
After proving talented enough to join the Philippine Wushu Team, Folayang won eleven major medals, including three golds at the Southeast Asian Games. Plus, while still actively participating in the discipline, he adapted his skills for the cage in 2007.
Inspired to work as hard as his parents were, he did so all while teaching English and Physical Education in high school after graduating from the University of the Cordilleras.
As the most prominent member of Team Lakay, “Landslide” made his professional debut for a Filipino promotion in June 2007, taking on its then-undefeated welterweight champion. He knocked out the champ in the first round, and took home the belt. Just like that, martial arts would become the means for him to inspire others with his abilities.
“The reason I compete is because I have the passion for it, and because I know God has given me the ability to influence my countrymen,” said Folayang. “There are a lot of problems in the Philippines. We’ve seen the effect of drugs on the Filipino people.
“As an athlete, I want to inspire the youth to not waste their lives on doing drugs, but to find the purpose of their existence; to find if they have the talent in sports or whatever areas they are talented in.”
Becoming A World Champion And Filipino Hero
Folayang racked up eight more wins and one loss before signing with ONE in 2011, where he participated in the main event of the organization’s inaugural show, ONE: CHAMPION VS CHAMPION, and defeated A-Sol Kwon via unanimous decision.
Although “Landslide” experienced some mixed results in the years to follow, including a heartbreaking knockout loss to Timofey Nastyukhin in 2014 that even made him ponder retirement, he was determined to turn his luck around and come back stronger.
“I took some time off, gathered my thoughts, and re-evaluated my career,” he explained. “I knew I had to go on, as a martial artist. I knew I had to persevere. I knew the best of me was still deep inside somewhere.”
For much of 2015, Folayang made regular trips to the United States in an effort to polish his skills. He visited many gyms to improve both his striking and wrestling, and the results showed almost instantly.
The Filipino returned to ONE in 2016, and had the best year of his career. He dominated Japanese debutant Tetsuya Yamada via decision in January, followed that up with a thrilling win over Australia’s Adrian Pang later that August, and then defeated Aoki to capture the ONE Lightweight World Championship in November.
Immediately after defeating the living legend and realizing a lifelong goal of becoming a world champion, Folayang was instantly put in a position he did not quite expect, but embraced nonetheless.
“Being champion gave me the opportunity to touch the lives of so many. Even by just giving the fans a single evening, just one performance that can prove to them that anything is possible if you really want it, means the world to me,” said Folayang.
Keeping the title, not for glory, but the ability to provide his people with hope and faith in limitless possibilities, was the 33-year-old’s driving mission. For a while, he stood as the best of ONE’s stacked lightweight division, at the top of a food chain teeming with hungry sharks.
“That match helped me to realize that every bout from there on would become increasingly difficult. Ting was no easy opponent. When you are the champion, everyone wants to take the belt from you, everyone comes in with their A-game,” he said.
Unfortunately, his next title challenge saw him lose the belt. At ONE: LEGENDS OF THE WORLD, ONE Featherweight World Champion Martin Nguyen knocked Folayang out in the second round to make history as the promotion’s first-ever dual-division titleholder.
It was yet another heartbreaking setback in Folayang’s storied career. But as he has shown time and time again, he possesses the true heart of a champion, and it is almost a sure bet that he will bounce back stronger than before.
Till then, he can take solace in the fact he has already touched millions of lives with his accomplishments, as he labors to recapture his beloved world title in 2018.