When it comes to mixed martial arts in the Philippines, there is no other gym that can hold a candle to Team Lakay.
First, the pioneering martial arts stable from the mountains of Baguio City ignited the national scene, and then it electrified the international field with an explosive brand of wushu that most practitioners in the all-encompassing sport had never seen before.
The Filipino collective experienced triumph, suffered heartbreak, and rose from the ashes again, and its story will be told – and re-told – for generations to come.
However, in order for that extraordinary tale to be appreciated, we must go back to the very beginning.
The Very Beginning Of Something Special
Truthfully, Team Lakay’s inception was an accident that stemmed out of necessity as Mark “The Machine” Sangiao juggled his responsibilities as a coach, student, and professional athlete.
Fresh off a gold-medal run in the 2001 Southeast Asian Games for sanshou wushu, he returned to the University Of The Cordilleras in Baguio City to finish his Bachelor’s degree in Criminology and guide the school’s wushu team.
But soon, mixed martial arts was being introduced into the fabric of Philippine society and Sangiao was intrigued by the competition.
With a desire to apply his wushu skills to this fresh, new, and exciting combat sport, he laid the foundation of Team Lakay. The candle was officially lit.
“In 2003, we started this group here in the University Of The Cordilleras,” he shares.
“That’s when I started competing in mixed martial arts. Soon, I was competing in the URCC (Universal Reality Combat Championship), a national promotion in the Philippines, and I needed somewhere to train. That’s why we decided to put up the gym.”
Originally known as Lakay Wushu, Sangiao’s newly-formed group featured some of his first wushu students – including Edward “The Ferocious” Kelly and Mark Eddiva.
The squad did not have an official facility they could call their own, and Lakay Wushu was technically an unregistered business. From the outside, it looked more like a club gathering than a legitimate entity.
Nonetheless, the team practiced in the college’s gymnasium to help prepare their leader for his bouts. After winning his debut in March 2003 via second-round TKO, “The Machine” was hooked.
“I just wanted to train every day at that time,” he admits.
Nearly 250 kilometers away from Baguio City, Sangiao’s friend and former wushu teammate Eduard “Landslide” Folayang was still honing his skills with the Philippine national wushu team in the country’s capital.
Folayang was interested in mixed martial arts and co-leading the squad, but he was not ready to commit – at least not yet – as he focused on being a national athlete first.
With that in mind, “The Machine” joined forces with Tony Candelaria, the President of the Philippine Wushu Federation-Cordillera Administrative Region Chapter.
“At first, Eduard was still in Manila, so I decided to open it with the wushu president here – that’s Tony Candelaria,” Sangiao explains.
“Eduard was still active in the wushu national team, but when he came to Baguio, he was my companion teaching there. If he was not there, I was the one teaching every day.”
Soon, when Folayang returned north to complete his degree at the University Of The Cordilleras, he got the itch to compete in mixed martial arts and scratched it in a big way.
In his debut in June 2007, he knocked out Allan Co in the first round to claim the URCC Welterweight Title.
With mixed martial arts starting to pick-up in the Philippines and “Landslide” redirecting his focus to that sport, Sangiao knew changes had to be made.
On The Verge Of Financial Collapse
The newfound attention on mixed martial arts in the country became problematic for the Philippine Wushu Federation, and the organization wished to disassociate itself from this burgeoning sport.
That situation forced Sangiao to switch gears and overhaul his developing program.
“In 2006, the wushu federation did not want to be involved in mixed martial arts. They only wanted to focus on wushu,” he explains.
“Mixed martial arts was starting to become popular in the Philippines, so we decided to put up another name to avoid conflict. We came up with Team Lakay [to keep it] separate from wushu.”
Sangiao registered Team Lakay as a business in 2006, and he moved its practice space from the university’s gym to the top of a meat shop in the city market.
It was nothing elaborate. In fact, the humble facility did not have much equipment, which could partially explain why the team’s grappling ability took longer to flourish.
“We did not have mats, so we struggled working on our grappling,” Folayang admits. “Those were the early struggles, the birth pains. We really started from zero.”
Soon, those cosmetic and equipment issues led to bigger ones.
When “The Machine” achieved success in the cage and later won a national title, gym memberships immediately escalated. But just as quickly, they disappeared.
“I was the URCC Bantamweight Champion at that time. Every time I fought, when I went back to the gym, people were inspired and motivated to come in and train with us,” Sangiao recalls.
“After each fight, the gym was full. But after two to three months, there were no students again. That was our story. Every time we fought, there were always students. But after a while, it became empty.”
The financial woes continued. Despite a growing love for the sport in “The Pearl Of The Orient,” local promotions were not holding events on a consistent basis. Because of that, athletes could not make a living solely from competition.
Alongside his status as the URCC Bantamweight Champion, Sangiao taught Basic Criminology at the University Of The Cordilleras and coached the wushu team. However, the combined incomes were still not enough.
“This is not a joke – there was a time when I really had no money to go to the gym to teach, so I had to jog to the gym to teach and go back home. That’s how passionate I was about martial arts,” he reveals.
“Financially, we were broke. We didn’t have any income. We had our families, of course. It was really hard, especially on my part because I was the one managing the gym.
“Maybe it’s just because of passion that I continued to teach instead of working normally to look for money for my family.”
But as each day passed by, it was getting harder and harder to keep the candle’s flame burning.
Making The Hardest Choice
“The Machine” may have experienced some financial difficulties, but he believed in his passion and continued to see it through.
He started building an army of warriors with wushu backgrounds by recruiting some familiar faces from the surrounding educational institutions, including Honorio “The Rock” Banario from the Cordillera Career Development College and Geje “Gravity” Eustaquio from the University Of The Cordilleras.
Sangiao’s team dominated the local mixed martial arts scene. Folayang, Banario, Kevin “The Silencer” Belingon, and Rey Docyogen all captured belts in the URCC, and membership at Team Lakay started to boom.
Ultimately, that put their leader in a tight spot. As a competitor, he was still in the prime of his career – the Filipino was just 29 years old and his peak was still ahead of him.
But someone had to watch over the squad, cultivate all of their talent on a full-time basis, and focus entirely on helping them develop new skills. For this to truly work, Sangiao knew he had to make the ultimate sacrifice.
“Eduard got the belt in URCC, Rey got the belt, Kevin and Honorio got the belt, and now, we were busier in training and preparing,” he begins.
“Slowly, students were coming in, so I had to focus on teaching and coaching. Of course, retiring was tough. My body still wanted to compete, but I could not focus now on my training.
“I was so focused on teaching, so I had to decide if I wanted to focus on coaching or competing, and I decided to coach.”
This decision was the catalyst that took the team to the next level.
ONE Amazing Ride
Team Lakay’s domination of the Philippine mixed martial arts scene captured the attention of other promoters in Asia.
“Soon, we saw international promotions coming in,” Sangiao says. “We had Legend FC, PXC, and then Martial Combat.”
The latter was truly a game-changer. Victor Cui operated the Singapore-based Martial Combat, in which Folayang won three consecutive bouts and even claimed the Superfight Lightweight Championship in his second match with the company.
In July 2011, however, Cui changed course and launched ONE Championship with Chatri Sityodtong. The duo immediately signed Folayang, had him headline the organization’s inaugural show, and then brought the rest of the Baguio City stable into the fold.
Over the next several years, Team Lakay’s popularity skyrocketed. They added a second gym location in La Trinidad, became national heroes, and were part of some key moments in mixed martial arts history.
Banario defeated his compatriot, Eric “The Natural” Kelly, in February 2013 to become the inaugural ONE Featherweight World Champion and the first-ever Philippine-born mixed martial arts World Champion. Unfortunately, he would lose the gold in his next bout.
Folayang knocked out the seemingly unstoppable Japanese martial arts icon Shinya “Tobikan Judan” Aoki to capture the ONE Lightweight World Title in November 2016. He lost the strap a year later, but regained it in November 2018.
Also, Eustaquio defeated Adriano “Mikiniho” Moraes to become the undisputed ONE Flyweight World Champion in June 2018, Joshua “The Passion” Pacio beat Yoshitaka “Nobita” Naito to claim the ONE Strawweight World Title in September, and Belingon edged out Bibiano “The Flash” Fernandes to take the ONE Bantamweight World Championship two months later.
Team Lakay finished 2018 holding four ONE World Title belts simultaneously, which only justified Sangiao’s hard decision several years earlier.
“There are no regrets, especially since they won a lot of belts and won in international competitions,” the 41-year-old coach explains.
“I am happy for them. What they get, I feel it as well. I also feel the glory.”
The Future Is Now
Sangiao, Folayang, and company laid the foundation for Team Lakay over the past two decades, but a whole new generation is ready to emerge.
Pacio has taken the lead in representing the Philippines as he continues to decimate veterans in the strawweight division at the young age of 24.
The reigning strawweight king was lucky enough to join the crew right when they were starting to peak, and while he was not present during their struggles a decade earlier, he knows what this squad has gone through to be in their current position.
“This is a team that has seen its fair share of ups and downs, and they have taken those things to heart,” he observes.
“When I came here, I saw the brotherhood, that we’re in here as one big family. I think that’s what makes this team so special.”
Pacio’s best friend, Danny “The King” Kingad, has also come into his own.
The wushu specialist has illuminated the flyweight division with his well-rounded and energetic style. Though he lost to all-time great Demetrious “Mighty Mouse” Johnson in the ONE Flyweight World Grand Prix Championship Final in October 2019, he pushed the pace for 15 non-stop minutes.
There is also Lito “Thunder Kid” Adiwang, who owes his newfound success to Team Lakay. He went from being an unknown trainer in Malaysia to one of the hottest young stars in The Home Of Martial Arts through Rich Franklin’s ONE Warrior Series.
“Working with them every day is an honor for me,” Adiwang offers.
“You get to train with World Champions, people who have reached the top, and you’ll certainly get pulled up and motivated to be better. That was one of the turning points of my career.”
Due to his team’s thrilling victories and immense popularity, Sangiao closed their La Trinidad location and opened a bigger facility in the same town in August 2019.
From sharing the university grounds with regular students to producing World Champions in a humble space on the second floor of a meat shop, Team Lakay has certainly come a long way.
That would not have been possible if the collective’s leaders did not push through the hardships.
“We visualized this back then,” Folayang says. “This is the fruit of our labor. We’ve been looking at this opportunity for the longest time and we did not know when that time would come, but it wouldn’t have happened if we did not have the vision back then.”
Perhaps the only thing that can stop Team Lakay now is complacency, but Sangiao promises to do everything in his power to avoid that.
“We never stop learning and searching for the next steps moving forward. Whatever we get, if we achieve one thing, we don’t stop there. We have to keep moving forward and think of what our athletes need,” he offers.
“At the end of the day, they’re the ones who are standing in the cage and we need to give them everything they need, both physically and mentally. They have to be 100 percent ready when it comes to the cage, and that’s the reason why we are clicking as a team.”
Even when things seemed grim, Sangiao, Folayang, and the rest of the Team Lakay members kept the fire alive. Their passion is a testament to martial arts, and when people re-tell their story, they will do so knowing the candle still burns bright.