Mixed Martial Arts is rapidly growing in Asia, and nowhere outside of Japan is there a country with a deeper understanding of this than the Philippines. The nation’s oldest MMA promotion, URCC, will be holding its monumental tenth year anniversary event in November. Recently, ONE FC hosted its first show in Manila to the largest audience that ever witnessed an MMA event in the history of the Philippines. And while it hasn’t been able to nail down a card or a reality show there yet, the UFC regularly sends athletes on promotional tours for the fanatic Filipino fight fans, garnering audiences in the thousands just to watch someone hit pads.
At the pinnacle of this country’s MMA scene, both in longevity and contribution to the sport, is Coach Marquez “Mark” Sangiao, founder of Team Lakay. After becoming a professional MMA fighter himself, Coach Mark turned his talents to teaching others how to condition and prepare for excellence in the ring. His team members not only compete and and hold championship titles across several MMA promotions regionally, but he also leads them to international wushu competitions, most recently with golds in the SEA Games. Coach Mark is entrenched in the fight business. And right now, business is good.
At the recent ONE FC 5: “Pride of a Nation” held in Manila on August 31st, MMA-in-Asia had the opportunity to speak at length with Coach Mark as he prepared his fighters for the event. He is incredibly humble and kind, soft-spoken and articulate. Everyone who comes into contact with Coach Mark has nothing but positive things to say. His rivals respect him, his students adore him, and his fans simply thank him for all the action his fighters bring to the ring and cage.
You’ve been involved in MMA since the beginning of it outside of Japan.
Yes. Here in the Philippines since 2003.
Since the URCC started? You were one of the first guys on the roster?
Yes. I started in the URCC in 2003. Then I got a title shot in 2004. Before professional MMA started in the Philippines, it was going on underground.
I love this country!
It was about 2002, it was already here in the Philippines when the URCC started up. In the beginning it was like the UFC, karate against other martial arts, that kind of thing. We had different clubs here, the kickboxing, the Yaw Yan from Bagiuo. The best one was DEFTAC, under Alvin Aguilar, because he was the first one who knew jiujitsu. So they were very advantaged at that time. I was very fond of the UFC at that time – i thought “I have to train in judo, I have to train in jiujitsu!” In 2004 I got the title shot. At that time I had to work on my ground skills, because my background was kickboxing and wushu.
How did you start with jiujitsu? Who did you work with?
There was a man who was a student of Royce Gracie who came from the US, so I joined the training in Bagiuo. I cross-trained with the judo varsity. At that time, slowly I got skills from them. Then I had to come down to this area [Manila] because there were more advanced people here. I had to get more techniques. And at that time – while I was teaching wushu before – I slowly started teaching grappling to my students. By 2007, when three of my students got title belts – Kevin [Belingon], Roy [Docyogen], and Eduard [Folayang] – they were saying “Where did these people come from?”
So it was about five years in development, learning technique and then teaching it to others. So would you say that’s what it takes to develop a solid team?
Yes. Then we began to join some other promotions. In 2010, we played in Martial Combat, and we’ve done Fearless FC, Legend FC, PXC, and now ONE FC.
Have you ever sent guys to Korea?
Not yet. When we noticed there were a lot of promotions around now, we started our own elimination competitions. Three times a year we do our own MMA eliminations and six grappling events. Whoever is selected there will go on to the national level, and then when they are ready, we bring them to the international level, ONE FC.
So you want to test your guys before you send them out? You want them to have sufficient experience at amateur level before you agree to signing pro contracts.
That’s unusual in Asia, in fact you’re following more of the western model. Like Matt Hume says, he wants his guys to have so many fights in boxing, so many fights in grappling before they actually consider having them fight professional MMA. They want them to have a level of competence in every area. You have to have a big team in order to do this. How many people are on your team? As competitors and students?
In international competition there are maybe 15 to 20; for all fighters, maybe 50.
Who are the young names coming up in the team?
Tristan Reybuyaco, Honorio Banario, Jerome Wanawan. We had Cristiano Pitpitunge, the champion. We have Eduard’s [Folayang] cousin Mark, who fought Alex Lee in Hong Kong. And some of my varsity in UC [University Cordillieros] are ready to fight.
You have branches around the Philippines, right?
Some, we are concentrating on our place – we are based in Bagiuo, and around in the provinces.
So you put your top coaches in those schools?
Yes, so when we have competitions, they are real eliminations.
How many Lakay gyms are there?
For now we have one… two… three… four… five… six… seven. Seven gyms.
How many students would you say there are?
If you total all of them? Maybe 150 to 200.
Do you personally visit them regularly?
No, normally we have these competitions, I usually meet these coaches then. But because economically the level is what it is, we focus more on [athletic] development.
So what do you think about MMA in Asia now? Do you think it has gotten really big in the last 2 to 3 years?
Yes, every year it’s become better and better. I think ONE FC announced they will be having 18 events, 4 in the Philippines, so if they do that, it’s like shouting MMA in Asia. It will become big.
Are more people coming into your schools and wanting to learn MMA now?
Yes, many people have come in and they want to train MMA, but it’s [the training is] hard, so we have to focus on more as a business. Producing a high level athlete takes a lot, around 3 to 4 years to produce a world-class athlete.
What’s the best age to start them?
The best? I started at 16! [laughs] But the earlier the better, maybe to start at 12, just playing inside the gym. Sparring at maybe 17 or 18, and competing at 18.
Your wushu team has gotten international recognition, so does the Philippines have an interest in wushu, or in Chinese martial arts?
No, because in our part, in Bagiuo, our basics are not actually wushu but kickboxing. When I was in high school, every month we had kickboxing tournaments. I was inspired by those tournaments and I joined them. Then when wushu competitions came, I entered them.
Did the wushu competition develop your trademark fancy kicks?
No, for wushu, it develops my wrestling technique, my power.
Wrestling? So where did the kicks come from?
Taekwondo varsity. I did kickboxing, and only then came the wushu.
People identify you with the red silk wushu shorts, so why do you wear them?
Because wushu was the longest discipline that I trained.
And by wushu, you mean sanshou?
Sanshou, sanda same thing. After I went to the SEA Games, I decided to go back to school, finish my studies. I was already watching the UFC then, so when I saw judo in school, I went straight there. Then afterwards I would go to jiujitsu class. And in the afternoon, I trained sanshou.
Did you ever do a judo competition?
Judo? Once. I did a few matches and made it to the finals. They said “one more, one more” [competition] … no more!
It’s hard! It’s not an easy sport.
The same with taekwondo. Those two sports really rely on the rules. Even if you’re strong, if you don’t know the rules, you’ve lost.
Tell me about your training now. You guys do a lot outside in the natural terrain, right?
We are always training outside, especially when we have competitions. We do trails, go up mountains, every morning for our cardio and conditioning. Afternoons we train in the gym.
Through all the hard work, how do you keep your guys enthused as a team?
If it’s a victory, we’ll go out like family and have a party. We go to the beach, do things like a family. It’s nice, we have good bonding. It’s really hard to maintain this lifestyle, to be strong, and always go out [to compete].
Can you tell me about what you went over after Kevin Belingon’s loss to Masakazu Imanari?
I talked to Kevin already. This was a big lesson for us. We all trained together very well. Now, I’m not as good in grappling, but I caught him in many leg locks before. We went there not really prepared. We went there with a bolo, and the opponent had a gun.
So you take this upon your entire gym, and feel like you need to up the level in the entire gym?
It’s like a mistake, a mistake on our part. We did not work on the defense of the foot lock. But we went because we did train, we just didn’t balance the techniques. I told Kevin, just defend, don’t go down. You will win the fight through decision or a knockout. He lost here through the submission. I told him if you finish the fight, you will win. But if you lose, it’s because of submission. If they rematch, I know Kevin would win. Because now after that, I researched. I searched for the foot lock defense. I saw Bibiano and Imanari’s match before, what he used to hold the leg, but Kevin was concentrating on the other leg, with his hands, but the key there is you have to remove the leg so it will not be properly executed.
You’re still a student of the game.
Yeah, always. We’re always researching, always learning, getting better. If I could only fight, I still would. I already talked to my students about it. What if I fight again? But the focus should be on them now, on Eduard, on all the other students. They are the future now.
Thank you Coach Mark, and best wishes for the continued success of Team Lakay.