Mixed Martial Arts has long taken root in the Philippines as much as it has in Japan and South Korea. While the efforts to grow the sport have come through several promotions committed to producing regular events – both amateur and professional – fighting sports just seem to be naturally ingrained in the Filipino culture. The demand as a spectator sport has meant that MMA broadcasts are plentiful, and live events typically sell out.
Boxing, Muay Thai, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and MMA gyms dot the landscape like palm trees. There is a healthy supply of young athletes diligently training from which a bright plethora of stars will be born. And perhaps there is more of a hunger in these young Filipinos, not only from their love of combat sports, but from the opportunities it can afford them which might otherwise be just a dream.
Team Lakay Founder and Head Coach Mark Sangiao is making immeasurable contribution to the development of Filipino MMA fighters. He has made it his life’s work to produce athletes who possess expert tangible qualities such as the famous Lakay kicks and heavy hands. Alongside these, he instills the intangibles: honor, humility, perseverance, and kindness. Where his fighters’ abilities have opened doors, it has been the intangibles that have won them championships.
Coach Mark, as he is widely known, seems to be a quiet man yet he is quick with a hearty smile and a warm greeting. He is at once calm and intense whether he’s in casual situations or cornering a fighter, a consummate professional. Coach Mark has placed his fighters in every Philippines MMA event and his fighters can claim or have claimed titles in all of them. He has gotten the first Philippines born-and-trained MMA fighters into the UFC.
Right now, Coach Mark is standing on the summit of the Filipino MMA mountain which he in large part helped to build. Whatever peaks and valleys that are to come, he will just as skillfully and diligently tackle them. MMA-in-ASIA was able to coax Coach Mark out of his busy schedule on the road for a rare and candid conversation on his life experiences, the driving forces, and how he’s made his team a resounding success story.
MMA-in-ASIA: You have fighters in so many organizations in Asia now, and you are the first coach to have taken a team from the Philippines to the UFC. When you are not on the road, what is a typical day in the life of Coach Mark?
Mark: I get up around 7, have breakfast, and I go to teach from around 9 to 12. We train conditioning in the morning. Then at 12 we break, and I teach again at 6 until about 9 or 9:30pm. With my remaining time, I pick up my son from school, and he comes with me to the gym. We train from 5 to 6:30, with Donorio. That’s Monday to Saturday. I’m with my son every Sunday.
MMA-in-ASIA: What time does your day finish?
Mark: I get to bed around 10:30 or 11. Or sometimes 12, if I have to do paperwork.
MMA-in-ASIA: Is the management part of the gym all you?
Mark: Yes, but I gave the management part to Eduard recently. This year I gave the management of the Baguio City gym to Eduard.
MMA-in-ASIA: How was your first experience taking a fighter to the UFC?
Mark: I am happy Dave and Mark reach their dreams. An MMA athlete’s aim is to go to the top, and the Olympics of MMA is the UFC, so I’m happy.
MMA-in-ASIA: You’re happy for them, but what about yourself? Are you too humble to say you’re proud that you’ve coached guys to this level?
Mark: It’s a big achievement to see my students competing in UFC.
MMA-in-ASIA: Are championship titles important to your team?
Mark: Of course, that’s where our core fighters started, by getting the belts in the URCC. We want to get some belts in international competition.
MMA-in-ASIA: Who’s your next champion prospect?
Mark: In ONE FC we have Kevin Belingon. I want him to get the Bantamweight belt. It’s hard, but I think it’s possible. In PXC, we have Roldan Sangcha-an who will compete for the flyweight belt. Then we’ll take it step by step.
MMA-in-ASIA: You don’t want to say UFC?
MMA-in-ASIA: Mark Eddiva’s first outing went really well, he wasn’t expected to put on such a dominant performance against Jumabieke, who had more riding on him. You know Bieke because you’ve done the China MMA and sanda circuit. Do you think he put on a fight less than he is capable of, or was your strategy for him just perfect?
Mark: We always watch his fight videos and we have studied his fights. Mark was really prepared. When I first saw Bieke he was not on weight check. So he was overpowered and controlled by Mark. I think he was not that well prepared for that fight.
MMA-in-ASIA: Was Mark working on wrestling for that fight?
Mark: Maybe only one and a half months.
MMA-in-ASIA: Religion is not something generally discussed in the MMA world, but in Southeast Asia, it is a very central part of everyday life. For instance, we’re in Malaysia at the time of this interview, and people are commenting that they will catch the fights after Friday prayers. Does religion play a part in your life and team?
Mark: Yes, it’s what my mother and father taught me to do when I was young. Most of our fighters are Christians, almost all of them. They go to church every Sunday and pray before training and fights. It’s a source of strength and of course for safety.
MMA-in-ASIA: Your fighters respect you and you have developed a bond with them that is very much like family. How has that changed as your fighters have made more money and gained more fame?
Mark: Of course some of them are like kids, when they grow up they go out on their own. But I am confident that they know what they are doing. I’m ready for it.
MMA-in-ASIA: Some coaches are very fearful of losing students they’ve developed, like once they get into the UFC and they jump camp.
Mark: No, not for me. It’s okay. They know what they are doing. When someone wants to talk with them regarding their career, I always ask them to talk with me first.
MMA-in-ASIA: What gives your team the edge to be able to raise fighters to higher and higher levels?
Mark: Maybe because I can see a fighter’s weaknesses and I can slowly develop these weak areas so they become stronger and stronger. Planning the hard way. That’s the good thing, when a person starts with you, you know his weaknesses, and you can learn from his mistakes when he fights. You can shape him.
MMA-in-ASIA: As a coach, you have evolved quite a lot. Two instances come to mind: when Matt Hume put all your fighters against top international guys, and then when you decided to bring on a wrestling coach. Even though your guys fell short in that event, it was a triumph to see their capability of playing at that level. Was it a catalyst in changing your coaching?
Mark: Yes, definitely. We saw that we needed to learn the “real” wrestling, American wrestling, Greco. We have wrestling in our wushu but you’re not allowed to use your knee in takedowns, you just use your base. So at that time I saw we had to learn the Greco and the ground, put more time on them.
MMA-in-ASIA: Is there any point in the last year you thought there were other areas that you needed to bring other coaches in for?
Mark: Slowly I’m bringing them in. Our Iranian wrestling coach comes up twice a month for two days. I’m repeating the drills and techniques he teaches. Before we were concentrating on striking. Now we changed the training program, we mix it all more, and spend equal time on every area – 40 minutes for wrestling, 40 minutes for grappling, and 40 minutes for striking.
MMA-in-ASIA: How about what everyone calls your “Baguio Jiu Jitsu”?
Mark: [Laughs] BJJ! We’re not that new in jiu jitsu, but now we are putting more time on Baguio Jiu Jitsu. And Baguio wrestling!
MMA-in-ASIA: You have a constant fight schedule. Previously, you said you keep a heavy continuous training schedule – your guys are always ‘fight ready’. As the level of your fighters gets higher and there is more at stake, have you changed this format?
Mark: If they have competitions, we do focus on them for 6 to 8 weeks. But all of us are training as a team so their teammates are coming in to help them, so at the same time they are training also.
MMA-in-ASIA: So it’s like “This week we kill Joe”.
Mark: [Laughs] Yeah, “This is the problem for Joe, like this, like that.”
MMA-in-ASIA: Is it difficult to have such a heavy fight schedule?
Mark: I think no. I think it’s not difficult because I’ve been doing it for so many years already.
MMA-in-ASIA: Do you still enjoy it?
Mark: Yes, I still enjoy it, but it becomes more difficult as we get busier. I have to get people to assist at the gym while I’m away. We have some retired champions in wushu who are helping. I give them a program while we’re away.
MMA-in-ASIA: How many guys are at your camp now?
Mark: I have 25 to 30 professional fighters. And I have many many up and coming young amateur athletes.
MMA-in-ASIA: How have the gym-organized Lakay Challenge competitions been going?
Mark: The next was supposed to be in April but we’re going to move it to June because of so many MMA competitions we have coming.
MMA-in-ASIA: What drives you to keep going?
Mark: It’s my passion. I’ve done this for a long time. I started training MMA when I was a teenager.
MMA-in-ASIA: What do you enjoy the most about it?
Mark: When we are winning! [Laughs] When you see a kid becoming successful in their career, when they are on top, it’s an achievement also for me. In Baguio, there are some kids who are not rich, and we can also help them.
MMA-in-ASIA: So you take in a lot of kids?
MMA-in-ASIA: So, in Baguio are you like a superhero now?
MMA-in-ASIA: Oh come on, I know the mayor has given you awards!
Mark: Every year they give sports awards. For me, I finished my studies through sports, so I want to give back. I want kids to finish their studies through sports.
MMA-in-ASIA: Is their anything else you do besides MMA? Like, when you go back after a fight and it’s Sunday, what do you do?
Mark: On my day off, with my son, I’ll go around with him.
MMA-in-ASIA: Like fishing?
Mark: No, the mall. [Laughs] He’s a kid, he wants to play. Sometimes we go to the park and play on the rides.
MMA-in-ASIA: How old is your son?
Mark: He’s 11.
MMA-in-ASIA: Is he passionate about martial arts?
Mark: Yes, he loves playing jiujitsu, he competes already. He stopped for one and a half years when he went to see his mother in Canada.
MMA-in-ASIA: So his mother and you are separated? It has been spoken about that you’ve lost a relationship because of your dedication to MMA. Was it intimidating schedule and lifestyle?
Mark: Yes, my wife and I. We’re not divorced on paper. A woman wants a man to be with her all the time. When someone commits so much of their time to their passion, well maybe that’s one problem. Actually, she left, I think maybe to find her own happiness.
MMA-in-ASIA: Aside from going to the mall with your son, do you do anything for Mark? Read, play music?
Mark: I listen to music, country and disco, I’m flexible. I used to play guitar.
MMA-in-ASIA: What’s the hardest part of your job?
Mark: The hardest part is when the guys don’t follow your programs and schedules. That’s one of the problems.
MMA-in-ASIA: How do you handle it?
Mark: I ask them to come here, sit down. Because you also have to know the reasons for it. I think that’s a problem, it’s not so big though. When they are lazy, it’s a big problem. There are many challenges.
MMA-in-ASIA: Many of the gyms in the Philippines have asked for donations in the past because getting the needed equipment is costly, and difficult to obtain. Even with your success, do you find money is still a problem?
Mark: Yes. We cannot earn money in the gym business. The gym is for the development of the fighters. Yes we have some fitness programs, but it is not enough.
MMA-in-ASIA: What equipment are you lacking that you wish you could have?
Mark: Maybe like heavy duty treadmills. In June to November, it’s rainy, so we cannot train outdoors. We need cardio equipment they can use indoors. We have to get these things slowly.
MMA-in-ASIA: How many years have you been putting guys in fights?
Mark: Since 2007.
MMA-in-ASIA: So that’s about 7 years to develop UFC-level fighters. And the guys you have fighting now are definitely at a world level, their quality is quite good. Do you feel pressure to maintain this level?
Mark: Yes, especially now, with Kevin being a co-main event in ONE FC and Roldan in a PXC title fight. Working up to title fights puts a lot more pressure on me.
MMA-in-ASIA: Team Lakay has gained fame, but with success also come the haters. How do you handle them?
Mark: People want you to be on top. First they will support you. Like in the case of GSP. Everyone likes GSP, but then when he keeps holding the title, he always wins, later after several years they want GSP to go down. We think positive, this is our job, this is what we want. If we lose, it’s part of it. If we win, we win.