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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Mixed Martial Arts takes off in Manila thanks to homegrown hero

Mixed Martial Arts takes off in Manila thanks to homegrown hero

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Filipino fighter Eduard Folayang lands a kick on South Korea’s A Sol Kwon during their ONE FC main event bout on September 4, 2011, at the Singapore Indoor Stadium. Photograph: James Goyder

People in the Philippines love to watch fighting – be it combatant cockerels, boxers or, most recently, mixed martial artists. The sport of MMA has taken the country by storm, largely due to the success of the sport’s first true homegrown Filipino hero, Eduard Folayang.

Folayang has the sort of fan following few fighters ever get to enjoy. He has captured the imagination of his people because he is a fearless warrior inside the ring who, even in victory, often ends up bloodied and battered but remains a humble, softly spoken and deeply religious man.

The 27-year-old currently has an outstanding professional record of 11-2 and is the reigning welterweight champion of the URCC, the longest-running promotion in the Philippines. Folayang has also emerged as a star of ONE FC, the biggest MMA promotion in Asia, but his life would have been dramatically different had he stuck to his original career path, “I was a PE teacher for high school children, but I decided to stop teaching so that I could focus full time on my MMA career because fighting is more fun than teaching,” he said.

“Thank God I have been successful in MMA and have been able to win many fights.”

One of the reasons Folayang is so popular is that, despite being the best mixed martial artist the country has ever produced, he has continued to represent the Philippines at wushu. He has been to the SEA Games three times and finished on the podium on every occasion, winning a gold medal in Jakarta in November last year.

Although wushu, a sport derived from Chinese martial arts, is not professional and the financial rewards for success are negligible, Folayang is deeply patriotic and in the past has been prepared to miss out on an MMA payday if it means he can represent his country in an in international tournament.

“I am very proud to be part of the Philippines team and that is why I have carried on with wushu, even though you cannot earn the same money as you can in MMA. When my country selects me to go to a competition like the SEA Games it is an honour,” he said.

With Folayang on the brink of a ONE FC title shot, the stakes are getting higher and the journey which began when he made his MMA debut in 2007 is reaching a critical stage.

His last fight was against Japan’s Felipe Enomoto at the Smart Araneta Coliseum, the same venue which held the famous ‘Thrilla in Manila’ between heavyweight boxers Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier in 1975.

In front of 16,500 fans on August 31, Folayang claimed a hard-fought decision victory.

ONE FC was founded last year but after selling out stadiums and arenas in Singapore, Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur and Manila, it is already firmly established as the most prestigious MMA promotion in Asia. Folayang has been invited to fight three times so far and, following his win over Enomoto, he was promised a shot at the lightweight title.

That belt is currently held by Japanese veteran Kotetsu Boku, and the Filipino is hoping he will get to challenge for the title in front of his fans in Manila.

“After my last fight, ONE FC told me I would be fighting for the title, and I would love to win the ONE FC belt in the Philippines,” said Folayang. “Boku has very hard punches and he is an aggressive fighter. I think a fight between me and him would be very exciting.”

Folayang is a native of Baguio in the north of the Philippines where he is a member of Team Lakay and trains alongside fellow URCC champions Rey Docyogen, Kevin Belingon and Honorio Banario. Almost every single team member including Folayang graduated from the University of the Cordilleras, and this academic establishment has effectively become a production line for the most talented Filipino mixed martial artists.

Team Lakay was founded by Mark Sangiao who, after winning a gold medal in wushu at the 2001 SEA Games, decided to turn his attention to competing in MMA. He himself is a former student at the University of the Cordilleras and still teaches martial arts there.

Sangiao deserves the credit for forming Team Lakay and coaching so many successful fighters, but, according to Folayang, it is no coincidence that mixed martial artists from the Baguio region have been so successful.

“Because Baguio is in the mountains we train at high altitude which gives us very good stamina when we go down to sea level to fight. But the Igorot people have always been warriors – it is in our blood,” he said.

Folayang’s next assignment will be at the URCC’s tenth anniversary show, which is taking place at the brand new SM Mall of Asia Arena in Manila on December 1. He will be going up against American Lowen Tynanes and is already training hard in preparation for that fight.

“I train twice a day, six times a week, and on Sunday I rest and go to church. We do a lot of running in the mountains and sometimes it is hard and my body hurts, but it is worth it because I know I will have very good stamina when it is time to fight,” he added.

Asian MMA has developed at a dramatic rate over the past 12 months, and ONE FC, which is broadcast by ESPN Star Sports in Cambodia, has been at the forefront of this growth. A number of fighters on the roster have started to develop a big fan following, but none more so than Folayang.

He is already a household name in the Philippines but, with a shot at the ONE FC lightweight title beckoning in 2013, Folayang is on the verge of taking his career to a completely new level. However, while fame and fortune are an inevitable by-product of success, neither motivated the Baguio-based brawler.

“Every time I step into the cage, I represent my team and my country, and that is a responsibility I take very seriously. It is an honour to be URCC champion and to have an opportunity to be ONE FC champion, and I hope to bring more glory to the Philippines in the future,” he said.

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