Eduard Folayang is a fighter. That much is obvious. Bowling ball shoulders? Check. Cauliflower ears? Check. The unmistakable squint that tells you this is a guy you shouldn’t mess with? Big check.
While he looks the part of a fighter, his demeanor might be unrecognizable to newer fans of mixed martial arts (MMA). He doesn’t scowl and flaunt his badassery like Ronda Rousey. He doesn’t wear bespoke suits and wax lyrical about making absurd amounts of money like Conor McGregor.
Instead, he arrives at our office in a T-shirt and track pants, humbled by his success and championship status. He’s flanked not by an entourage, but by his long-time coach and older brother figure, Mark Sangiao. No frills. You get the impression that he treats fighting like how most of us treat our own jobs: all business, no glamour.
Eduard Folayang is the current One Championship lightweight champion. He is a Filipino. He hasn’t forgotten his roots.
A natural from the start
Folayang was already playing sepak takraw in high school when he started training martial arts at 15 years old. His first style was kickboxing. Eventually, he found his way to the art of Wushu—the Chinese style appealed to his dream of representing the country as an athlete.
“May impact yung mga napapanood ko nung bata tayo, mga pelikula nila Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Jet Li. [Naisip ko] someday, gusto ko matutunan yung ginagawa nila,” he said.
It didn’t take him long. At 16, Folayang was already a member of the national team. His first few losses were tough, but he stayed on course, vowing to win a medal for the country. “Maganda yung pakiramdam ka pag tinataas ang bandila mo. Nakikita mo na kahit sinong lahi, tatayo para titignan yung bandila mo na tinataas. Napaganda sa pakiramdam.”
Folayang’s persistence paid off—his Wushu carer was capped with multiple medal-winning efforts, including a gold at the South East Asian games back in 2011. In 2007, he decided to follow in the footsteps of his idol Sangiao and transitioned into MMA.
From prodigy to also-ran
Like Wushu, MMA also came easy for Folayang. After all, he already had a solid foundation to build on. “Hindi naman ganun kahirap (yung transition) kasi halos na-combine ko na yung striking ko tsaka takedown. Kailangan mo lang talaga dagdagan ng grappling,” he explains.
He started in local organizations and found success early, beating more-experienced fighters with relative ease. He fought his way to a slot in One Championship, a Singapore-based outfit that’s home to some of Asia’s best talent. He racked up a record of four wins and two losses in the organization before a 2014 knockout loss to Timofey Nastyukhin almost took him out for good.
He reveals: “In-expect ko kasi na ka pag nanalo ako that time, yun na yung chance na magkakaroon ako ng title shot, and then natalo ako. Very disappointing sa part ko kasi yun na yung iasam-asam mo as a fighter na makakalaban ka ng title shot.”
He was out for over a year following the devastating loss. When he finally got the call from One Championship to fight again in January of 2016, Folayang saw it as his point of no return. Either he was going to work his way to a title shot again, or his hopes would be dashed once more. In the fickleness of the fight game, another loss could’ve spelled doom for Folayang’s career.
To rise up again
In January of 2016, Folayang emerged victorious against Tetsuya Yamada on that fateful comeback fight. He followed it up with a decision win over tough Aussie Adrian Pang seven months later. Then it happened. He got the call up for a title shot. “In the perfect time,” he calls it.
The man standing in front of Folayang’s title dreams was no pushover. Shinya Aoki hadn’t lost in four years and is something of a cult legend in the sport. The limber Japanese fighter can snare a limb without a second’s notice, leaving opponents writhing in pain as they tapped out.
“Siyempre, yun talaga yung nakita naming na strength nya. Ka pag papanoorin mo yung fights nya, halos yun naman yung mga panalo nya…mas tinignan naming kung saan nya ipipunta yung laban then having a good way to counter it, yun ang strategy namin,” he said.
Part of MMA’s beauty lies in its diversity. A master of one facet of the game can be overcome by his opponent’s expertise in another. Folayang nullified Aoki’s legendary ground game and finished him off with a flying knee and a series of devastating punches.
“Napakasaya sa pakiramdam. Nakita mo na all those times na inantay mo yung pagkakataon, inantay mo maging champion ka for almost five years,” he shared, as docile a legend killer if there ever was one.
Folayang is now a champion. He has been met with a hero’s parade and much more in his native Cordillera. Now, he sees himself as a representative for his people and for all Filipinos.
“[The Igorot] is yung tribe kung saan nangaling tayo. Much more than the tribe, [I represent] the nation as a whole. Aminin man natin or hindi, ang daming tribes dito sa Pilipinas and of course may mga minorities that you belong to. Pero at the end of the day, you are not only representing your own tribe, but the whole nation itself.”
Folayang’s success, according to his coach, is due to his toughness in both body and mind. “As a brother, and as an athlete, nag reflect naman ito sa performance nya. Nakuha nya yung belt. Eduard is the strongest in terms of mental toughness,” coach Sangiao reflects.
Folayang’s next hurdle is an impending title defence in April at the Mall of Asia arena. While ready to defend his title, not even the big gold belt has changed his humble outlook when it comes to the sport he's found himself succeding at.
“Right now, it doesn’t stop [with winning the title]. Lalo na maraming contenders sa lightweight division. I’ve been there, doon sa feeling na gusto mo kalabanin at talunin yung champion. Mas malaki responsibility ko ngayon, kailangan mas maganda pa yung preparation ko.”