With a Vengeance: Eustaquio Wins Interim Crown; Pacio and Kelly Impress

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Team Lakay Proves They’re Still on Top of Their Game

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Last year was devastating for Filipino MMA fans as Team Lakay’s leader Eduard ‘Landslide’ Folayang lost his ONE lightweight strap to heavy-handed Martin Nguyen. Coming out of ONE: Global Superheroes, however, Team Lakay showed us that Folayang’s reign was just the tip of the iceberg.

Inheriting the top spot as the face of Team Lakay is Geje ‘Gravity’ Eustaquio, who opened 2018 with a pleasant gift for the Filipino fight nation – the ONE interim flyweight championship.

January 26 was indeed a sweet night for Eustaquio. He snagged the gold after taking the unanimous decision victory over Kairat Akhmetov – a man who, in many people’s opinion, stole one from Eustaquio the last time they met inside the cage in Jakarta, Indonesia.

In that fight, Eustaquio seemingly had Akhmetov beat when the Kazakh was stunned by a series of up kicks. But the fight was inexplicably paused by referee Yuji Shimada, which allowed Akhmetov to recover and escape with a narrow split-decision victory.

During the rematch, Eustaquio made sure to hurt Akhmetov even more by cancelling his date with his long-time rival and current champion, Adriano Moraes.

Eustaquio’s key to victory was his grappling defense. Ironically, ‘Gravity’ needed to avoid getting pulled down by gravity to overcome his opponent. Akhmetov proved once again that he is the superior wrestler as he successfully completed three takedowns. Eustaquio, however, did not allow the Kazakh to inflict damage once the fight shifted to the ground.

After five grueling rounds, Eustquio claimed the right to be called a world champion and be hailed as Team Lakay’s new franchise guy. If we will pay close attention, however, Team Lakay is not defined by franchise guys and breakout stars. They are defined by their culture of winning and excellence.

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Best in the Biz

“I’m proud and I’m happy. The feeling is unexplainable because, one more time, we have [the championship] in the land of the Orient Pearl,” Eustaquio said.

The 28-year-old was quick to acknowledge his team. “You saw me way back six years ago, five years ago, I didn’t even know jiu-jitsu. What I [knew was] takedown defense, and just stay in the corner,” said the new interim champ during the press conference.

“And now you saw me. I do submission attempts. I believe I’m growing because people [at] my back are the best in the business,” Eustaquio further stated.

Asked about his inevitable unification bout with Moraes, the Baguio native confidently said, “If he’s ready, I’m ready! Rock and roll, let’s go. As I said, I got the best in the business at my back. They can prepare me anytime.”

Eustaquio’s stablemates echo his statements about the club’s excellent quality. Edward Kelly believes it’s the difference between him and his brother Eric Kelly – who is suffering from a drought and is currently in a four-fight losing streak. “Iba talaga yung team sinabi ko sa kaniya. Kaya ini-invite ko siya sa Team Lakay kaso siya, simula’t sapul kasi nasanay na sa sarili,” the younger Kelly said.

Kelly also brought home a victory for his team and the country by knocking out Meus Meul of Cambodia just 21 seconds into the first round of their preliminary card bout. Kelly attempted a right body kick, but the docking Meul collided with the Filipino’s knee instead.

The ecstatic Kelly did not know how to describe the feeling of having a highlight reel-worthy knockout. “Hindi ko alam yung pakiramdam. Lipad talaga yung utak ko eh, sa nangyari,” the Filipino featherweight told reporters.

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The 33-year-old then reminded his sibling about the importance of having a club. “Kasi yung MMA pataas na nang pataas yung level,” Kelly said. He followed up with another invitation, “Kaya sana, marinig niya yung payo ko na pumunta siya sa team.”

A Dynasty in the Making

The man with the plan is Mark Sangiao who founded Team Lakay in 2003, initially as a wushu club. Asked about last year’s setbacks, Sangiao answered with a quote, “Success destroys success itself.”

Sangiao believes that the team’s accomplishments distracted them, which led to some losses in 2017. “[Dahil sa] mga panalo namin may mga napabayaan kaming mga bagay. Yun minsan yung pangit sa atin pag nakukuha natin yung gusto natin,” said Sangiao.

Another Team Lakay fighter with a standout performance is young Joshua Pacio who overwhelmed his Chinese foe Ming Qiang Lan by beating him exactly how he said he would. Before the bout, Pacio promised that he would shoot for a takedown, take his opponent’s back, and submit him with a rear-naked choke. Less than a minute is what the 22-year-old needed to do just that.

Pacio is the embodiment of Team Lakay’s future. He is explosive and smart in the ring. He is walking the line of confident and cocky, but still does not forget to be respectful. And he knows to say all the right things that are expected out of a global athlete.

When asked about a possible title bout with current strawweight champ Alex Silva, Pacio’s answer reflected the young fighter’s patience and humility. “Para sa’kin di ko pa iniisip yung title shot. Gusto ko pang mag-collect or lumaban pa ng mas marami para makakuha ng more experience,” Pacio said.

The youngster, however, will not let the opportunity to stick it to the critics slip away. “Sa mga keyboard warriors, nagpapasalamat ako kasi motivation sa’kin yun. Tingnan niyo naman nag-improve yung ground game namin,” said Pacio.

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With the continuously improving roster of Baguio City’s premium fight team, the future looks set for Team Lakay. “You can see our athletes growing. They’re growing ‘cause they want to grow [and] they want to learn,” Coach Sangiao said. “Just give us time to prepare them and the next generation will be good and better fighters. We’ll produce more belts in the future,” promised the Team Lakay godfather.

Rappler contributor Rafael Bandayrel is a self-confessed nerd who happens to love MMA. Yes, nerds watch sports these days. What a time to be alive.

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