The untold story of famed Team Lakay to stardom
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 and Benguet 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.
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 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. 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 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 technical knockout, “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 Folayang was still honing his skills with the Philippine national wushu team in the country’s capital.
Folayang was interested in MMA and in 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 chapter.
“At first, Eduard was still in Manila, so I decided to open it with the wushu president here – that’s Tony Candelaria,” Sangiao explained.
“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 UC, 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.
The newfound attention on MMA 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 MMA. 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.
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.
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 UC and coached the wushu team. However, the combined incomes were still not enough.
“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.
“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 Banario from the Cordillera Career Development College and Geje Eustaquio from UC.
Sangiao’s team dominated the local mixed martial arts scene. Folayang, Banario, Kevin 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.
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 stable into the fold.
Over the next several years, Team Lakay fighters popularity skyrocketed. They added a second gym in La Trinidad, became national heroes, and were part of some key moments in MMA history.
Banario defeated his compatriot, Eric Kelly, in February 2013 to become the inaugural ONE featherweight world champion and the first-ever Philippine-born MMA world champion. Unfortunately, he would lose the gold in his next bout.
Folayang knocked out the seemingly unstoppable Japanese martial arts icon Shinya 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 Moraes to become the undisputed ONE flyweight world champion in June 2018, Joshua Pacio beat Yoshitaka Naito to claim the ONE strawweight world title in September, and Belingon edged out Bibiano Fernandes to take the ONE bantamweight world championship two months later.
Team Lakay finished 2018 holding four ONE world title belts and one Brave Combat Federation belt courtesy of Stephen Loman simultaneously, which only justified Sangiao’s hard decision several years earlier.
Sangiao, Folayang, and company laid the foundation for Team Lakay over the past two decades, but a whole generation is ready to emerge. – ONE release