After all, it was Folayang who put the Cordillera-based stable on the map, and both sides will forever be intertwined in the annals of MMA history.
On September 29, “Landslide” will mark the start of a new era when he returns against familiar foe Amir Khan at ONE Fight Night 14: Stamp vs. Ham on Prime Video. It will be the first time he enters the ONE Circle without donning Team Lakay’s signature bright red trunks.
Before the Filipino legend graces the Singapore Indoor Stadium in U.S. primetime, he wanted to clear the air and revisit the events that led to “The Team Lakay Exodus.”
All Good Things Must Come To An End
All eyes were on Folayang when he entered the Mall of Asia Arena in Manila for his homecoming at ONE Fight Night 5 in December 2022.
However, the Filipino icon suffered a devastating TKO loss to Edson Marques. It was his fifth straight defeat – the worst stretch of his career – and Folayang soon made the difficult decision to leave Team Lakay after a period of “self-assessment.”
The choice was certainly not easy, especially since “Landslide” had considered Team Lakay his second home for the better part of almost two decades.
At the same time, the 39-year-old icon felt that enough was enough. He needed a fresh start, which could only be achieved through a change of scenery.
Folayang told onefc.com:
“I think this was the best time for me [to move on]. Whether I like it or not, I [only] have a few remaining years of fighting in this sport. I need to get out of my comfort zone. It’s very risky to do, but it will be for my improvement for me to grow.
“It’s time for me to be in another environment to unleash whatever potential I still have before I get to call it a career.”
While Folayang’s reasoning appeared straightforward, it quickly became apparent that there was more to tell beneath the surface.
Fans and pundits began to wonder about the supposed cracks in the relationship between Folayang and Team Lakay head coach Mark Sangiao.
But for his part, the former lightweight MMA king denies any bad blood between himself and his former mentor:
“I think we were still good then. Of course, we have different stories to tell. I was focused on that fight [with Edson Marques], and it didn’t go well. It is what it is. But having bad blood with Coach Mark Sangiao was not the issue during this particular time.
“It’s been silent [between us] because we’re focusing on our own endeavors now. I don’t see much of their activities, but we are still in the same place. There are no issues to be raised about our relationship right now.”
The Brotherhood Runs Deep
After biting the bullet, Folayang spread his wings and went gym-hopping in the United States alongside former ONE Strawweight MMA World Champion and longtime Team Lakay stablemate Joshua Pacio.
But despite the allure of staying abroad, the wushu specialist came to the conclusion that the safest hands are still his own.
The mountains of Cordillera will always be home for Folayang, and he opted to take the lessons he learned overseas and bring them back to the province with the intent of reinventing himself and his peers.
With that in mind, he announced the formation of his own stable, Lions Nation MMA, which also houses his fellow former ONE World Champion teammates Pacio, Kevin Belingon, and Honorio Banario, as well as rising stars Jeremy Pacatiw and Jenelyn Olsim.
“Landslide” explained his decision to open the new gym in his home country:
“I think it’s for the betterment of Philippine mixed martial arts, having a team here [instead of abroad]. I can see a lot of talent rising up, and if we can be able to have some teams or avenues where they can be developed, then it will be better.”
While he’s thrilled to be training alongside familiar faces, the Baguio hates the narrative that he “poached” his former Team Lakay stablemates and got them to join the new squad.
Instead, he says those athletes made their own decisions to join their longtime training partners at the Lions Nation MMA facility:
“It’s their decision to join us, and probably, they felt the brotherhood that we had before. So what can we do but accept the fact that they made their choices?
“I don’t want any issues that I am hearing about, about getting all the former teammates that I have. The gym is open. Whoever wants to cross-train with us and train with us, we are open to accommodate them.”
Rebirthing With Lions Nation MMA
Upon starting his own gym, the first order of business for Folayang was finding a name that would aptly represent the sheer ferocity of the newly formed alliance.
And the fact that “The Lion’s Head” is one of Baguio’s most famous landmarks was simply icing on the cake.
“When I was in the U.S. with Joshua Pacio, we were out jogging, and we were talking about what would be the name of our team.
“The lion came up, so we decided to make it Lions Nation because we fight like a lion. We have the heart to fight like a lion.”
The North American trip also opened Folayang’s eyes to a whole new world of mixed martial arts.
He trained with famed coaches Greg Jackson and Mike Winkeljohn at Jackson Wink MMA Academy in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and got a few reps in with MMA legend Cris Cyborg in her personal gym in Huntington Beach, California, among other stops.
“There’s a lot of approach that they do [over there] in the sport. It’s always different because we have different lifestyles here.”
Despite the changes, there was still an air of familiarity for Lions Nation MMA as they settled at the old Team Lakay gym in La Trinidad.
Still, at an age when most fighters have already put down their roots, Folayang admitted having mixed feelings about the uncertainty that comes from his big career move:
“It’s scary and exciting. There are a lot of birthing pains because it’s like starting from nothing again. Luckily, the old [Team Lakay] gym’s contract was already up. So we have an avenue for us to renew the contract, to use it as a facility where we can train.
“I think the thing is that there’s excitement and there’s fear. But at the end of the day, we are happy because it’s an avenue for us to keep growing.”
Living In The Present And Gearing Up For The Future
With just a few months before he turns 40 years old, Folayang is quite aware that he’s in the twilight of his decorated fighting career.
While the Filipino MMA pioneer wants to prove he still has gas left in the tank, he’s also starting to think about the legacy he will eventually leave behind.
Being the selfless leader that he’s always been, Folayang wants to be remembered not only for opening the doors – but also for guiding the new generation.
“It’s about impacting other people to do the same. If we can be able to influence even one person who can make it internationally and become a champion someday.
“It will be something if I’ve been able to pass or mentor some fighters that can be able to follow my path and make a difference.”
For now, Folayang wants to continue the journey and go out on his shield when the time eventually comes to hang up his gloves.
“There is a lot of [doubt] now, especially since I’m on a losing streak. Everybody is saying, ‘Oh, he’s done.’
“I don’t dwell on the failures and successes in the past. What I like to dwell on is the present and the things that I can still do.”