The Philippines’ imprint on mixed martial arts has yet to reach the stratospheric, record-shattering heights of our stamp on boxing. But it’s getting there. Just take a look through the ranks of One Championship and count the number of victorious Filipinos who have flown our flag across Asia with pride. Look closer, and you’ll notice that many of them sport a different kind of flag—a red one—around their waists.
Team Lakay, the Wushu-based team from Baguio City, proudly calls itself the most highly decorated MMA group in the Philippines. It’s hard to argue with that when fighters like Eduard Folayang and Honorio Banario have held One Championship belts, while their other teammates have also performed well in different parts of the globe.
Right now, there’s one Team Lakay fighter with One Championship gold draped around his red flag: Geje Eustaquio. This Saturday, the 29-year-old will attempt to unify his interim flyweight title against Adriano Moraes in the main event of One Championship: Pinnacle of Power in Macau.
“A lot of people who have been hitting me up on social media have been waiting for this to happen ever since Geje won the title. This has been one of those things that a lot of people have been talking about,” One CEO Victor Cui said.
If you’re accustomed to Folayang’s strong, silent type facade, or coach Mark Sangiao’s worldly sensei vibe, it becomes apparent when you meet Eustaquio that he brings something different to the team’s camaraderie. He’s the one with a sheepish smile fit for TV. The kind of guy who claps and smiles with pride when Cui rattles off One’s business stats.
“Girls, drugs—a lot of bad vices are everywhere. Without martial arts, I believe I would not be sitting in front of you ladies and gentlemen and talking this boring speech,” he joked during a press conference.
He and Moraes have fought once before, with the latter coming out victorious via a first-round guillotine choke. Eustaquio calls it his toughest loss, and no doubt wants to avenge it and cement his seat as the undisputed champ. He’s worked hard over the last four years since that fight, he says, and he wants to prove it to the world.
“Adriano,” he told his rival. “It’s been four years since the last time we fought. This will show the development between the two of us, how we grew up in this sport, whether we win or we learn. There’s no such thing as a loser here.”
Eustaquio’s style is vintage Lakay: fast footwork, hard punches, and flashy kicks that leave his red satin flapping in the wind; telltale marks of a talent honed under the watchful eye of coach Sangiao. But Eustaquio’s grappling—it’s mixed martial arts, after all—has improved by leaps and bounds over his career. He hasn’t merely evolved into the sprawl-and-brawl template, but he uses his skills offensively as well, chaining takedowns and ground transitions to great effect.
The turnaround not only for Eustaquio, but all of Team Lakay, is nothing short of remarkable. Baguio is home to many talented strikers, but no Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belts or decorated wrestlers thus far have made the move up north. Once upon a time, the world branded them as skilled strikers with no ground games. Cannon fodder in MMA, ripe for the picking by fighters born from Royce Gracie’s mold.
In the past, One received criticism for matching the Lakay fighters repeatedly against talented grapplers. Through their own resourcefulness and sheer grit, though, the men from Baguio have strengthened their weakness by learning and bleeding together on the mats every single day.
“In Asia, [Team Lakay has] a successful record not because they’ve been coddled, but because they’ve been given, repeatedly, the toughest competition ever and they’ve risen,” Cui said.
It’s not about jiu-jitsu or wrestling, Eustaquio says. It’s about the fact that he trains with some of the country’s best fighters. Brothers in arms that he’s proud to have in his corner.
“The good thing about Team Lakay is that we are family. We are family in the sense that we always make sure that everybody is growing up. We always have to make sure that humility is always at its best,” he explains.
Whenever he fights, Eustaquio not only represents the Philippines, but also his team from the mountains. For him, donning the red flag is a responsibility that comes naturally.
“Pressure? I’m used to it. When I step in that cage, it’s work mode.”