MMA: Life's cruel lessons strengthen Eduard Folayang for ONE Championship Tokyo

Folayang will take on Shinya Aoki at ONE: A New Era.
Folayang will take on Shinya Aoki at ONE: A New Era. Photo credit: Supplied

When you've overcome the kind of adversity in life that ONE lightweight champion Eduard Folayang has, you can understand how the prospect of doing battle against another human inside a cage isn’t quite so daunting a prospect.

Raised in the mountains outside the Philippines' Baguio City amid the most abject poverty, Folayang was born into a family of nine children. He was one of only who four survived past the age of past 18 months, as measles claimed the lives of five of his siblings.

"My childhood was very tough," Folayang told Newshub. "But the good thing about when you're a kids is you're not thinking a lot about the bad things that are going on. It's all you know."

His illiterate parents scraped and scrounged to ensure that, while they lacked so much materially, there was always food on the table and an abundance of love and encouragement.

As unimaginable as they may sound, those experiences laid the foundation for Folayang's lifetime of martial arts success, providing a mental fortitude that would set him apart from his peers.

"You know that you may not have some things that others have, but it pushes you to use your brain and hands to be able to get the things that you want out of life."

Inspired by Bruce Lee and Jean Claude Van Damme kung-fu flicks, Folayang began practicing Wu Shu - an ancient Chinese art that mixes striking with grappling. He quickly earned national honours, and went on to represent the Philippines at the highest level for almost 11 years.

His senior on that team, Mark Sangaio, had successfully made the transition to MMA, and the move piqued Folayang's interest enough to follow suit.

Nine years later, Sangaio is now Folayang's head coach at the Team Lakay gym in Baguio City, which has become a breeding ground for the country's elite fighters. He now has a total of four ONE Championship world title holders on his roster, with "younger brother" Folayang at the forefront of the gym's success.

"His metal toughness is incredible," Sangaio told Newshub. "He's inspired his teammates to become champions because he's proved that it's possible that - even if you do come from the mountains - you can rise to the top.

"At home he's a big star, a hero. He inspires a lot of our youth."

Folayang's exploits as a two-time ONE champion recently saw him named the Philippines' Athlete of the Year - the first time in 10 years the award wasn't won by boxing great and national deity, Manny Pacquio.

On Sunday, "The Landslide" will look to add to his legend when he defends his title against Shinya Aoki at ONE: A New Era in Tokyo.

The 34-year-old already boasts a TKO win over the Japanese submission genius and will be searching for a repeat of that performance at the Ryogoku Kokugikan Arena, where his next challenge may well be laying in wait in former UFC and Bellator lightweight champion, Eddie Alvarez.

The American will be making his highly anticipated promotional debut in the quarter-final of ONE's Lightweight Grand Prix, the winner of which will become the number one contender to the belt.

Folayang can't help but take a sneaky peek ahead.

"The best thing to motivate yourself is to challenge yourself against the best, and he's definitely one of them. We're looking at our own match ups now, but in the future our paths will cross."

Should that bout eventuate, Alvarez would likely be considered the favourite. But then, Folayang wears the underdog tag better than most.


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