Nestled among the winding streets of Baguio City, which sits 5000 feet above sea level in the Philippines, Team Lakay is about the closest thing you’ll find to a gym in the clouds. Yet this MMA training facility only recently began to achieve the lofty successes you’d expect from a place at its altitude.
In 2018, almost fifteen years after its inception, Team Lakay produced a whopping four ONE Championship titleholders. Geje Eustaquio captured the promotion’s flyweight title, Kevin Belingon assumed the throne at bantamweight, Joshua Pacio became the strawweight champion, and Eduard Folayang, the most notable fighter to emerge from the gym, capped off the year by reclaiming the ONE lightweight title.
Suddenly the home of four ONE Championship titleholders — and of Brave Combat Federation bantamweight king Stephen Loman — Team Lakay finds itself as a frontrunner for 2018’s Gym of the Year honors. It was recognized as such at the 2018 Asian MMA awards and, at the very least, deserves consideration at other international award shows.
Without any exaggeration, this rugged, mountain gym is now one of the best in the world. And there’s been one man at the helm for its entire existence.
His name is Mark Sangiao.
Sangiao founded Team Lakay in 2004, although it did not come into existence legally until 2006. In those early days, the team was purely an amateur Wushu outfit, but after a few years, Team Lakay veterans like Folayang and Sangiao himself began to transition into MMA. Several of them captured titles in the long-running Filipino MMA promotion Universal Reality Combat Championship (URCC), kickstarting the team’s longstanding habit of belt-collecting.
“By the year 2007, most of our athletes got titles from local promotion URCC,” he told BJPENN.com. “They started getting all the belts there.”
In those early years, Sangiao battled alongside his Team Lakay protégés in the URCC cage, constructing a respectable pro record of his own. Yet in 2010, he elected to hang up the gloves and dedicate his focus to coaching.
He has not looked back since.
“I decided to retire because I was busy managing the gym and organizing events,” he explained. “I was also organizing Grappler’s Cup and MMA events, and at the same time I was teaching in the gym, so I had no time anymore to train. So I decided to focus on teaching the athletes.
“It was the right choice,” he added. “I’m a positive person, and everything I do, I do it with my heart.”
Sangiao led his Team Lakay students to some amazing victories under the URCC banner, but in 2012, the team found an opportunity to start showcasing their skills on an even bigger stage.
A number of Team Lakay staples, such as Eduard Folayang and Honorio Banario, were signed by a new promotion called ONE Fighting Championship, which would later drop the word ‘Fighting’ from its name and evolve into the Asian MMA powerhouse we know today. Folayang actually picked up a unanimous decision victory over South Korea’s A Sol Kwon in the main event of the very first ONE Championship card.
Sangiao is grateful that Team Lakay has had the chance to compete under the bright lights of ONE Championship — a promotion that upholds the very same values he tries to instil in his fighters.
“In 2012, here comes ONE Championship, and that’s where it all started,” he said.
“We’re lucky that we have ONE Championship, and that they’re promoting the same core values that martial arts taught us,” he added. “Which is discipline, respect, humility, courage and compassion.”
“That’s the number one thing that we’re imparting to our athletes. Number one is the attitude. Next is the skills and everything else.”
While Sangiao has been able to shepherd his fighters to championship heights in the year 2018, the team has endured some difficult years in the past. They’ve experienced some tough losses inside the ONE Championship cage — sometimes several losses in succession. Yet even in the midst of these rough patches, Sangiao has managed to keep his charges focused on their ultimate goals.
“Our experience has been like a roller coaster,” he said. “We’ve had some losses, but we took them as lessons. After fights, after every competition, I’m always telling them, I’m always motivating them to keep trying, to work on this, to work on that, on their weakness.”
One factor that has made losses a much rarer occurrence for all of Team Lakay’s top fighters is an improved ground game. The Filipino fighters have all added fantastic grappling to their arsenals of late, and Sangiao thanks the team’s doubters for this fact.
“We have to thank the bashers, the negativity” he said. “They help to improve our weaknesses. They’re trying to say ‘you’re lacking like this, you’re lacking like that,’ so we took time to improve those weaknesses.”
Tough losses aren’t the only obstacles Team Lakay has had to overcome over the years. The Baguio City gym has also had to operate with a tight, restrictive budget, and without many of the amenities enjoyed by the super gyms that have popped up all over North America.
Yet under Sangiao’s leadership, the team has found a path to the pinnacle of the sport in spite of these deficits. Sometimes, that means making do with the resources they have inside the gym. Other times, that means training outside in the brisk mountain air, often at the track at the nearby Benguet State University (BSU).
“We have limited resources but we have a friendly environment,” he said. “We can train outside the gym. We have a cool environment. So that’s a big help to us.”
“We train like twice a week outside the gym, for our conditioning. That’s a big help too.”
Conditioning, incidentally, is perhaps the biggest single strength of every fighter to emerge from Team Lakay. That’s due in part to the team’s relentless efforts to stay in tip-top shape, yet it can also be attributed to their environment.
Sangiao, Folayang, Belingon, Eustaquio, Pacio and the rest of the team train so far above sea level that it triggers something called hypoxia in their bodies. Over the long term, hypoxia causes the body to boost red blood cell production, and effectively allows the body to operate with less oxygen.
“It’s a big help, the high altitude. We’re on top of the mountain,” Sangiao said. “We have a very good environment.”
Up in the thin air of Baguio City, and under the leadership of Mark Sangiao, Team Lakay’s fighters have thrust themselves into the MMA limelight, and put the Philippines on the map.
“We’re very happy,” Sangiao said. “The Philippines is now known to have some of the best MMA athletes. We’re very proud representing The Philippines. Our boys, our athletes have put the Philippines on the map.”
“For now, this is the golden age for us, 2018,” he added proudly. “This is when we’ve got a lot of belts and recognition. So we’ll say that this is the best year for us, but of course we will not stop. We have to keep on improving and defend those belts.”
Defending the belts that Team Lakay has collected in 2018, as Sangiao suggests, is a big priority. He is thrilled that so many of his students have become champions, but he’s not taking it for granted. In fact, he says he’s actually afraid of what the future could hold.
“You know it’s tough, because this is MMA,” he said. “But we have to win, we have to defend those belts.”
“We started from scratch,” he continued. “We started from the [BSU] oval, we started from nothing, and of course we’re very happy that we’re here now. We’re considered the best team, not only in the Philippines, but also in Asia, so we’re very proud and happy. Hopefully we can maintain this and keep on improving.”
“I’m very happy and afraid,” he concluded with a laugh. “As a coach, you have to know how to maintain and how to say to these guys ‘you have to keep on winning, you have to maintain your belt.’ Of course the emotion is very happy, but I’m afraid. That’s the number one thing, you have to look at your guys, at how they will go on and keep on winning. You hope that they will not change in spite of the recognition and those belts that they’re getting.”
Whatever the future holds, Sangiao is understandably incredibly proud of the year Team Lakay has had.
“I’m very proud and very happy with all these results,” he said humbly. “I was not expecting that we would get all these results, but I’m very proud and happy.”
Shortly after Eduard Folayang captured the ONE lightweight title in late November, he was joined in the cage by his fellow Team Lakay titleholders, and by their dedicated leader, Mark Sangiao. Grinning amid a blizzard of gold confetti, the quintet of Filipino martial artists posed for an iconic photograph.
“It was unexplainable,” Sangiao said of the moment the shutter closed and this incredible photo was taken. “It was very fantastic. I’m very happy for that. It was an unexplainable feeling.”
This article first appeared on BJPENN.COM on 12/23/2018.