But if there’s one thing he’s learned while competing in mixed martial arts for nearly two decades, it’s to always be ready for unexpected circumstances.
This coming Wednesday, 28 April, Folayang will aim to get back on track and end his storied rivalry with #4-ranked lightweight contender Aoki on top when they clash in the lead card of “ONE on TNT IV.”
While the Filipino icon was surprised to meet Aoki after struggling in his last two bouts, he welcomed the switch with open arms.
“I did expect a trilogy, but I didn’t expect it to happen this early. Aoki has been on a roll as of late while I admit that I am in the middle of a skid, so while I hoped for this to happen, I didn’t expect it to happen this early,” Folayang says.
“When they said Akiyama was out, but it was Aoki who stepped in, of course, I got excited. This is a very important fight for my career, knowing where Aoki is right now in the division. If I could beat him, not only will I win the trilogy, but it could catapult me to another run for the World Title.”
While happy with the development, “Landslide” has also been forced to double his training efforts in preparation for Aoki.
After all, he and the rest of his Team Lakay stablemates had already spent a considerable amount of time putting together a game plan for “Sexyama,” and the styles of the two legendary Japanese athletes couldn’t be any more different.
“To be honest, the adjustment is tough. For the longest time, we had our eyes set on Akiyama, and all of a sudden, we had to focus on Aoki’s expertise, which is very different from what Akiyama brings to the table,” Folayang shares.
“In Akiyama, we were expecting someone with a judo base who is willing to stand and trade with you. That all changes with Aoki, who’s a pure grappler in every sense of the word. It’s a really big shift for us, but we’re doing well so far.”
Fortunately, Folayang is very familiar with Aoki. The two pillars of the lightweight division first crossed paths back in November 2016 in a match that catapulted the Filipino to superstardom.
Despite facing the heavily favored Japanese legend at the sold-out Singapore Indoor Stadium, “Landslide” pulled out all the stops and scored a third-round TKO win to claim the ONE Lightweight World Title for the first time.
For the 37-year-old Folayang, this trilogy is about taking all the experience of that loss and learning from it.
“Before that match, I saw that he won via arm triangle against Ev Ting, but I became too confident that I could defend that,” the Filipino recalls.
“I overlooked just how good Shinya is when he gets the opportunity. The moment he gets his hands locked together, you’re done. That’s one thing I truly overlooked.
“I also got too casual with my kicks, and that’s what Shinya capitalized on to get me to the ground. Against him, you don’t want to be on the mat, but that’s what happened and that’s what we want to avoid.”
Having faced each other twice already in the past, there won’t be many secrets to each of their strategies inside the Circle.
For his part, Folayang will aim to avoid the ground game against the storied grappler and look to dominate on the feet.
“We’re preparing for what Shinya plans to do, and knowing him, he plans to get the fight to the ground as early as possible,” the Filipino says.
“We’re working to prevent a battle on the ground, and we’re also working on what to do just in case we’re there. We’re also looking for ways to strike Shinya when the match remains standing.
“As much as possible, if there’s an opening for the finish, make no mistake that we’re going for that. That’s the result that we’re hoping to get, but of course, we’re always looking to prepare for different situations because this is a very unpredictable sport.”
On Wednesday night, Folayang will enter the Circle with a now-or-never mindset.
The Filipino knows that a victory over Aoki would write a storybook ending to this famous rivalry and get him closer to the current ONE Lightweight World Championship picture.
It’s simply an opportunity that he has no plans to waste.
“This means a lot. Winning a trilogy against a legend of the sport, someone who’s adored by many people will be a big thing for my legacy,” Folayang says.
“Aside from that, given that Shinya is still in the top five of the division, it will also silence the critics and hopefully push me to another run for the World Title.”
Read more: How To Watch ‘ONE On TNT IV’