Some doubters thought Eduard Folayang’s career as a mixed martial arts (MMA) fighter had ended years before he won two consecutive victories in 2016 to earn a shot at the ONE Lightweight World Championship.
Many believed the 32-year-old Wushu practitioner’s comeback would come to a screeching halt against highly-decorated grappler and former lightweight champ, Shinya Aoki.
Aware of the adversity before him, Folayang — who bears the nickname, “The Landslide” — remained undaunted, trained hard, and came ready to their match on Friday, November 11.
“I didn’t panic when I was taken down,” said Folayang during an interview with the Asian Journal at Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church in Hollywood, California on Sunday, November 20, just a few days after dethroning the Japanese fighter for the ONE lightweight title. “I prepared in a way that I was always in a disadvantaged position.”
Winning the fight
Folayang knew he would face one of the toughest matches of his career against Aoki.
Since claiming the lightweight belt in April 2013, Aoki — a world-class Judo and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu practitioner — had won all six of his prior fights going into the championship fight in early November.
Meanwhile, Folayang, who traces his roots to the Igorot tribe, had spent an entire year training in the high-altitude environment of Baguio following a loss to Timofey Nastyukhin in December of 2014.
The fighter from Baguio made an impressive return to the ring in 2016 by winning a series of unanimous decisions over Tetsuya Yamada in January and Adrian Pang in August. Those victories earned Folayang a fight against Aoki and a chance to claim the ONE lightweight championship.
As expected, Aoki brought the fight to the ground at the outset of the match, where it remained for the majority of the first two rounds. However, Folayang and his trainers had anticipated their opponent’s strategy. The challenger managed to maintain his composure while working in the ground-fighting expert’s element. The Wushu striker thwarted several submission attempts while dealing damage with elbows and a variety of kicks.
Early in the following round, Folayang managed to secure double underhooks (positioning both of his arms to control each of his opponent’s shoulder-blades) after stuffing a takedown attempt by Aoki. From there, a decisive knee to the head, followed by smothering ground and pound, led judges to stop the fight in Folayang’s favor roughly 40 seconds into the third round.
A little more than a year after many skeptics were ready to dismiss him, Folayang prevailed in one of the toughest matchups of his career and stunned the world by beating Aoki, who has been considered one of the best mixed martial artists to come out of Asia.
Although Folayang’s victory might have shocked many fight fans, he has spent most of his life beating the odds.
Chasing the dream
Folayang acknowledges, but speaks sparingly, of the poverty that haunted his childhood.
“I need to keep on moving,” said the recently hailed champion in his interview with the Asian Journal. “My future is bigger than my past.”
He worked hard to overcome his circumstances, eventually becoming a teacher while simultaneously continuing to develop his skills as a mixed martial artist.
At the age of 16, Folayang began training under the instruction of Wushu coach Tony Candelaria. He showed promise early on and eventually began competing with the Philippine National Wushu Team while attending Cordillera College.
It was there that Foayalng met Mark Sanguiao, the trainer who would eventually found Team Lakay. Over time, Sanguiao’s gym helped the Baguio region earn a reputation for incubating strong fighters and built a name for itself as one of the Philippines’ premiere training camps.
In 2002, Folayang began winning recognitions at international Wushu competitions, culminating in a gold medal at the 2011 Southeast Asian Games, which was won via knockout with a spinning back kick.
Folayang also served as an instructor and cornerman at Team Lakay MMA events, an experience that led him to develop an interest in branching out from Wushu.
The current ONE lightweight champ had made a stunning MMA debut in 2007 by knocking out Allan Co — the undefeated welterweight champion of the Universal Reality Combat Championship (URCC) — in one round. Folayang would go on to win nine out of 10 matches before he began fighting in the ONE Championship in 2011.
Braving life’s challenges
Folayang and many of the other fighters who train with Team Lakay employ spinning backfists, flying knees, widely-arcked kicks and a host of other eye-catching strikes. TThe unconventional attacks have devastated some fighters and drawn gasps of excitement from ONE Championship spectators. Folayang delivers an especially tremendous amount of power with his strikes, according to those who have worked with him.
“On some days, I would walk into the gym and hear this loud banging noise over the sounds of the weight room on the second floor,” said Tristan Rebuyaco, a Filipino-American member of Team Lakay and former student who used to train with Folayang in Baguio. “We all knew that was Eduard, training on the third.”
Despite the praises and wins, Folayang’s career has seen its share of frustration. Following his loss in 2014, he faced a lot of criticism, including claims that his career as a mixed martial artist was over.
He could have returned to the classroom to resume teaching then, rather than endure the extreme highs and lows of a fighter’s career. Instead, he entered a year-long period of introspection and self-improvement intent on becoming a role model.
“I want the [Philippines’] youth to be inspired,” said Folayang. “There is something in them…if they push, there are no obstacles they cannot conquer.”
In 2014, the flagship fighter of Team Lakay MMA redoubled his resolve in the face of doubt. Throughout the following year, Folayang matured his strengths as a striker and fortified his takedown and submission defense. He emerged from his training as a more confident fighter primed to make a statement to both fans and skeptics.
In this process, Folayang said he never doubted his decision to commit himself to MMA. The way the reigning ONE lightweight champion sees it: it’s either now or never.
“I believe there is a time and a season for everything under heaven,” Folayang said. “While I still have the energy to compete in this sport, I need to utilize it.”
A growing family outside the spotlight
It’s been a big year for Folayang. Still, despite the commotion involved with celebrating and promoting his upset victory, his thoughts rarely stray from the well-being of his family back in Baguio.
After posing for selfies and getting to know fans who had invited him to a private baby shower in Chino Hills, California on Sunday, November 20, the mixed martial artist snapped pictures of decorations and dessert displays his wife, Genevieve, might consider using in her own upcoming baby shower.
She rarely complains about the dangers Folayang faces as he builds a name for himself in the world of MMA, but her husband knows she worries, especially now that the couple is expecting their first child. Their potential future drives Folayang to keep his health and safety at the forefront of his mind, even if his seemingly high-risk/high-reward fighting style might suggest otherwise.
Although many of those who know the champ are quick to commend his work ethic, Folayang credits his faith as the inspiration and source of his strength. Following tears of joy and a surge of emotions, the very first words he shared with ONE Championship fans following his recent victory were praises for the “master of masters and Lord of lords, Jesus Christ.”
“A victory without God is no victory at all,” the devout Catholic added.
Now in his prime, Folayang says he won’t squander opportunities presented before him for fear of the challenges invited by his success. On a never-ending mission of self-improvement, Folayang is hoping to develop his time management skills so that he can maintain his rigorous training schedule while taking on new roles as the lightweight champion and a first-time father.
“I need to keep on improving,” he reflected. “In the coming days, I will check those areas where I am weak, where I am strong, and keep on improving … so I can be able to defend my belt well.”
The fighter said he could see himself settling into a quieter, though perhaps no less hectic, life educating children in Baguio sometime in the future.
However, right now, he believes he can make a more meaningful impact on the lives of young people in the Philippines as a fighter rather than a teacher.
“Someday I can be able to teach, perhaps when I am not able to compete,” said Folayang. “[But] you can teach even if you’re not in school…you can teach in the way they can see what you are doing and what you are accomplishing.”