The Igorots, an ethnic group living in the mountains of Cordillera, north of the Philippines, are known for possessing the “warrior spirit” that helped them overcome life’s adversities.
Mark Sangiao, the patriarch and head coach of the famed Benguet stable Team Lakay, is the epitome of that unique Igorot trait.
From his classic rags to riches journey to becoming one of the most decorated combat sports athletes and arguably the best martial arts mentor in the Philippines, the lionhearted Sangiao always believed in the heroics of his bloodline.
“Base dito sa history, ang mga Igorots merong ‘yung warrior spirit. Kaya ‘di rin nila na-conquer dito kasi lalaban talaga ‘yung mga Igorots sa time na mga dumating ‘yung mga nag-colonize dati,” Sangiao, a former wushu gold medalist in the Southeast Asian Games, told the Manila Bulletin.
“Kung titingnan ‘yung mga pangalan ng mga lugar rito, meron ‘yung mga talagang native na native. Aside from that, siempre masisipag ‘yung mga Igorots physically,” added the Team Lakay coach, who, himself, began as a farmer at a young age to help his parents.
As a kid, Sangiao grew up playing traditional games called kinugtaran (kicking), bultong (Ifugao wrestling) and ginabu (grappling) which involved the basics of combat sports. Not to mention that he was exposed early to daily physical work with the instant high-altitude training.
Little did Sangiao know that his childhood had fueled his passion more when he transitioned into kickboxing, the first combat sports discipline he learned.
At that time, holding tournaments were very popular in the age of fight clubs and dojos and Sangiao instantly fell in love not only with the idea of clashing with fellow athletes but also with the teachings and philosophy he had absorbed until today.
Sangiao himself used to be a part of the Red Lion Kickboxing Club, one of the most renowned kickboxing stables in the region, under the tutelage of his very first coach, the late Master Felix Agayas.
“Hanggang high school ko, uso rito ‘yung tournament ng kickboxing dito sa Cordillera. Kaya ‘yun ‘yung naaalala ko kung bakit siguro magagaling din [ang mga Igorots] when it comes to martial arts,” recalled the 42-year-old Sangiao.
As martial arts continue to evolve, the arrival of wushu, muay thai, and grappling followed suit in the mountainous region. Martial arts, however, faced a stumbling block when the club and dojo members were being recruited to become national team members as part of the nationwide development for combat sports in general.
While it was for the greater good, Sangiao was just one of the many athletes who witnessed the huge decline in the traditional martial arts tournaments in his beloved homeland.
Many years have passed and Sangiao, who had a 7-2 MMA record, decided to hang up his gloves for good after suffering defeat in his swan song as a professional athlete in November 2009. He focused on molding the next generation of athletes, which eventually became world champions namely Eduard Folayang, Joshua Pacio, Honorio Banario, Geje Eustaquio, and Stephen Loman.
Going back to his roots, the soft-spoken mentor used his vast knowledge and experience to hold tournaments himself namely the Team Lakay Championship and the Team Lakay Grappler’s Cup in the hopes of slowly reviving the tradition he had embraced to inspire aspiring athletes.
Sangiao, a former champion in the country’s very own Universal Reality Combat Championship, is confident that martial arts in the region is in good hands: “Kung makikita mo halos dito lahat nanggagaling ang mga athletes na nagre-represent sa atin… dito rin maraming nangggaling dito nagkakamedalya.”
In the years to come, Sangiao says he has two goals before retiring: make Cordillera the center of combat sports in the country, and build a gym for Team Lakay.
The Igorot’s undying warrior spirit will be at work for the fulfillment of both.