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Mark Sangiao vows Team Lakay will bounce back from recent run of defeats

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Down, but not out.

Mark Sangiao and Honorio Banario
Mark Sangiao and Honorio Banario
James Goyder

ONE FC: "Rise to Power" last May was a bittersweet moment for Filipino mixed martial arts (MMA). Nearly 20,000 fans packed into the SM Mall of Asia Arena, an unprecedented crowd number, but they were sent home despondent after seeing all five local fighters lose.

There were mutterings that, while the sport itself was growing rapidly in the Philippines, the fighters had not yet evolved at the same rate and were struggling to hold their own against the competition with the biggest MMA organization in Asia.

No one would have been more hurt by this criticism than Mark Sangiao, the man who founded Team Lakay and coached all five of the Filipino fighters who fell short that night, because it was his camp which took the brunt of the barrage of negativity.

The presence of five Team Lakay fighters on the biggest MMA event to ever take place in the Philippines was a testament to Sangiao’s remarkable achievement, but this moment of glory was brutally undermined by the five defeats and he admits to being hurt by the reaction.

"A lot of discouraging words came out and it was hard to hear people saying such harsh things about Team Lakay, but this only motivates me and my fighters, it has helped us because we realize we need to work harder and learn more."

To put into context what Sangiao has achieved it is instructive to look at some of the other rival camps in the region. Evolve MMA, for instance, is one of the most successful businesses in Singapore and has a multi-million dollar budget which allows it to scour the globe, bringing in the best coaches as well as financing the fight team to train full time without any distraction.

Tiger Muay Thai has several hundred paying guests arriving every month, bringing in a significant income for the camp which in turn allows it to employ UFC veterans to head up the MMA program as well as offering selected fighters free training and accommodation.

Team Lakay is situated in the mountains of Baguio, there is no airport and it is a 12 hour bus ride north of Manila. The students who attend classes pay enough to cover the costs of renting the small classroom and paying the trainer but there is no budget to bring in coaches from elsewhere.

In the aftermath of ONE FC: "Rise to Power" the critics were quick to condemn Team Lakay for failing to bring in a top class wrestling coach but for Sangiao (pictured with Honorio Banario after his ONE FC title win in Kuala Lumpur), this is simply unrealistic,

"I respect them if that's what they think, but it's too expensive for us, although I am trying my best to get good trainers who can work and help my fighters here in Baguio."

If anything, Sangiao’s accomplishments as a coach are made all the more impressive when you consider that Team Lakay takes its talent exclusively from a small city with a population of just over 300,000 people. Almost every single fighter on the team, including Sangiao himself, is either a student or a graduate from the University of the Cordilleras, which offers Wushu scholarships.

They are a tight knit group and the Team Lakay founder says his charges are determined to break the recent losing streak.

"Not only our fighters who lost at ONE FC in Manila, but everyone on the team are even more motivated to train harder and bring back glory to our team and the Philippines. We have evaluated our losses and we know what we need to work on."

The most controversial of the five defeats at the SM Mall of Asia Arena was Rey Docyogen’s, which came at the hands of UFC and Shooto veteran Yasuhiro Urushitani. When the judges announced the Filipino flyweight had lost a split decision, there was disbelief in the crowd and Sangiao still cannot understand it.

"I was surprised, I thought Rey had won and I don't know on what basis the judges scored that fight. He was distracted with his nose in the third round because he had a hard time breathing so he was keeping the distance, but still landing some shots when there was a chance."

The night also saw Honorio Banario come within seconds of stopping Koji Oishi in his ONE FC featherweight title defense only for the Japanese veteran to get saved by the bell at the end of the first round and then catch him with a perfect overhand right early in the second.

It could so easily have been different for Banario but rather than dwell on what might have been, Sangiao prefers to focus on the positives and Team Lakay's Kevin Belingon did brilliantly to reach the final of the ONE FC Bantamweight Grand Prix before missing out to Masakatsu Ueda in a razor thin decision loss.

It was awarded "Fight of the Night" and Belingon left Ueda bloody and bruised with many believing the Filipino had done enough to win. Very few opponents have caused the Japanese veteran as many problems and Sangiao believes that despite the defeat, his student is firmly established as a force to be reckoned with in the bantamweight division.

"Kevin had shown his best during this tournament and I thought he should have won the final, but he showed he is still a title contender for the ONE FC 135-pound division and has the potential to be a one of the best in the future. He is a very hard-working athlete and just needs to work on improving a few techniques and he can be one of the best in the world."

Team Lakay has dominated the Filipino MMA scene to the extent that Sangiao's fighters hold the pinweight, flyweight, bantamweight, lightweight and welterweight belts with leading domestic promotion URCC, but of late they have struggled to replicate this success on the international stage.

There have been highlights notably Eduard Folayang's dominant wins over A Sol Kown and Felipe Enomoto, Geje Eustaquio's one-sided decision defeat of Alex Silva, Cris Pitpitunge's brutal KO of Justin Cruz and Roldan Sangcha-an stoppage success against one of the top bantamweights in Eastern Europe, but there have also been plenty of disappointments and Sangiao thinks this is inevitable when his charges are competing on the biggest stage in Asia.

"I believe ONE FC has 90 percent of the best Asian fighters, so it is very difficult to win every fight. For Team Lakay to win against our fellow Pinoys is not easy, but beating the best fighters in Asia is an even bigger challenge and we must work very hard if we are to succeed at it."

ONE FC is the market leader in Asia and has signed an exclusive agreement which gives the Singapore-based promotion first choice of any of the Team Lakay fighters. This deal has helped to massively increase the profile of Sangiao's team and he says the last couple of years has been a roller coaster ride.

"Before ONE FC, Team Lakay was famous in the Philippines but now everyone in Asia knows about us, there is more pressure but we welcome the challenge of facing the best fighters in Asia and being part of the ONE FC Network helps our team to grow by fighting on other promotions like URCC or the Team Lakay Elimination competition which is our event in Baguio."

While the names of Team Lakay fighters like Banario (8-2), Folayang (12-4), Belingon (11-3) and Docyogen (10-2) are already well known, there is a seemingly constant stream of up-and-coming talent emerging with the next generation led by Dave Galera (5-0), Tristan Rebuyaco (4-0), Roldan Sangcha-an (3-0), Dario Banario (3-0) and Harold Banario (3-0).

It is an impressive collection of records and, with the Team Lakay veterans all determined to learn from their recent defeats and come back even stronger, Sangiao is overseeing a process of nonstop development in Baguio which has helped put the Philippines firmly on the MMA map.