Filipino mixed martial arts legend Eduard Folayang was the overwhelming underdog entering his championship bot against multi-time world champion Shinya Aoki. But he was unfazed entering and during the biggest bout of his life.
Folayang’s long-journey to the top of the mountain started back in 2007. He built his name in the local circuit, going up against the likes of iron man Caloy Baduria and now-UFC fighter Jon Tuck.
From there, he became one of the first fighters signed by ONE Championship back in 2012. With the topflight promotion, the Benguet-native has experienced a roller-coaster ride. He awed the crowd in classic, slug out affairs while leaving the crowd in tears after a devastating knockout loss against Timofey Natyukhin back in 2014.
After a year-long hiatus, he rebuilt himself. And at 31 years of age, he needed to do so to keep up with the times. Friday evening was the culmination of his blood, sweat, and tears.
The three-time SEA Games gold medalist in the sport of Wushu already sensed fear in the eyes of Aoki. And when he did, he used it to his advantage.
“Hindi naman factor (yung home crowd) nakikita ko na na nag-papanic na siya nung nasa hotel pa lang kami, papunta palang kami para sa photoshoot, ishe-shake hands ko, ayaw, ginanyan ko nalang (hand signs to save himself from embarrassment).
“Pero nakita nung manager niya, nag-sorry naman yung manager niya,” he shared.
“Nung face-off na, parang nang-iintimidate siya pero nung tinitignan mo siya parang siya yung natutunaw sa intimidation e. Kailangan mo talagang laruin lahat ng factor, mixed martial arts talaga e,” Folayang furthered.
Once the bell sounded, the only thing he could think about was how he would not disappoint the nation that has been longing for another world champion.
“So nung disadvantage talaga ako nung first round. Pumunta ako sa championship fight na milyon-milyon na tao ang nag-eexpect na matatalo ka na lang first round pa,” he reflected.
“Iniisip ko talaga hindi, pupunta ako hanggang sa anong kaya ko at kung matatalo ako, yung siguradong nakatulog na ako.”
As he sat on his stool during the round break, he saw another weakness in the Brazilian Jiujitsu black belt.
“Nung natapos yung first round, nakita ko nag-violet na yung labi so nakita ko na nag-full blast na siya.
“Kanina nasa presence of mind lang ako, pati naman siya, naramdaman ko kanina, sinasabi niya ‘finger finger’ so sinabi ko pagtapos ‘sorry.’ Gusto ko rin laruin yung mental toughness niya sa laban. Hindi lang yung parang nanggigil ako. Alam ko mauubos ako pag sinabayan ko siya sa gigil,” he narrated.
Once he found his timing, the Filipino warrior blasted a huge knee to a shooting Aoki. The force of that knee, packed with years worth of frustration, stunned the champion.
“Nakita ko very open talaga, kasi magkaiba kami ng stance so nakita ko nung una talaga open na.”
Folayang landed at least 20 unanswered shots before the referee called a stop to the match-up. The face of Philippine MMA became the face of Asia’s 155ers.
And the journey became worth it.
“Sobrang tuwa, sobrang saya, di ko alam parang kanina tumingala nalang ako sa taas sabi ko, yung promise talaga ni God ibibigay niya,” he said moments after winning the ONE Lightweight world championship.
“Minsan talaga nagmamadali tayo, minsan may mga upset sa buhay natin, umaatras na tayo, di pala ganun, so I learned my lesson in a different way.”
But now, with gold in his waist, a new journey and new responsibilities lies in front of Folayang. And he plans to face it heads on, with God on his side.
“Mas sweeter pa sa honey in the fact na kung saan, alam ko, people don’t believe that I can make it, especially since I’m facing a legend siguro they can be able to encourage you na kaya mo yan, pero deep inside alam nila na disadvantage ka sa kalaban mo,” the world champion said.
“Pero you should just keep on believing in yourself, keep believing that God is there to strengthen you. “