Each line of her face seems to tell a tale. Mercedes Folayang wears the weathered look of a mother wary of the cruelest fate: losing a child. Maybe it is why she was always extra watchful each time her son, Eduard, would cough. Maybe it explains why she would hold a vigil over him as he slept, curling his little hand inside of hers while assuring herself his tiny chest was moving. Maybe it is why every time Eduard got sick or looked fatigued, she was right there next to him, swaying him back and forth with her eyes shut, mumbling prayers and hoping the ailment that afflicted her five other children would not invade him. Maybe it is why, until very recently, the proud, strong Filipino woman did not want to attend any of her son’s fights, always fearful something would harm him.
One look at Eduard Folayang and it becomes hard to imagine anything penetrating his veneer. How can one pierce oak -- honed and polished in the hilly, rugged terrain of Baguio City in the northern Philippines, where his Cordilleran tribe roots stem?
Folayang, 33, pulled off what many mixed martial arts experts call one of the greatest upsets in Asian MMA history in November when he defeated Shinya Aoki to win the One Championship lightweight title at Singapore Indoor Stadium in Kallang, Singapore. He will defend that championship against Ev Ting on Friday at the Mall of Asia Arena in Manila, Philippines.
There is something deeper here that Ting, like all of Folayang’s opponents, needs to face: a core that does not crack. The champion is one of nine children born to Peter and Mercedes Folayang but one of only four that survived beyond the age of 18 months. Measles claimed the lives of his other five siblings. When Folayang was a child, he was too young to understand the anguish that wrinkled the corners of his parents’ eyes. They were too poor to afford medication, so they endured as each child was born, hoping the illness that afflicted their other children would skip over the rest.
Through time, Folayang has come to know. Maybe it is why he strikes the way he does, like a madman fighting for his life. Maybe it is why he lives his life with the attitude of a survivor, an attitude he has cultivated and embraced. Now he is aware of just how fortunate he is to be one of four living children of the nine born to his parents. Their first child did not survive. Neither did their third, fourth, fifth and seventh. Losing one child is enough to torment a parent for a lifetime. The Folayangs lost five.
“I was too young to realize what was happening, and my mother and father are strong people,” said Folayang, the eighth child of the nine children. “I do remember seeing how my mother was when I was growing up, that there was sadness there, and I used to wonder why. I didn’t know, but I get a lot of strength from my mother because she never gave up. She kept living and she kept working and she kept food on the table for us. They were difficult times for my parents, very difficult times. When my parents were living in the mountain areas where my siblings died, they came here to Baguio City, where I live now, but where I grew up and how I grew up was very tough, because we were very poor.
“I think my strength definitely comes from my parents, what they both faced and how they wouldn’t let anything harm us,” he added. “Who I am today as a fighter and the success that I’ve had in mixed martial arts, it’s from my mother and father. I just became a father, and my daughter is the most important part of my life, with my wife. I could not imagine losing my daughter and the strength my mother needed to keep going forward with her life. I think about the pain my parents went through, especially when I was growing up. It’s what has helped me today. I wouldn’t be where I am today without my parents.”
When he was 16, Folayang went with his father and visited the cemetery where his siblings -- three girls and two boys -- are buried in one plot in the Luzon Province. Many in the area do not know how to read or write, so the site where they are buried is marked by a paper sign. Mark Sangiao, who coaches Folayang, has known the One Championship titleholder since he was a teenager.
“Eduard has a very strong personality and has the strongest mental toughness of everyone we have on our Team Lakay,” Sangiao told Sherdog.com. “We’re in a high-altitude, mountainous area, and it’s where Eduard grew up. His family was very poor, but his mother is the one who really worked for them and made sure the children were fed. His mother used to come to the gym and collect plastics to sell.
“I know his brother and sister, and they all have very strong personalities,” he added. “Maybe losing their brothers and sisters is the reason why they’re all like that. I can’t imagine what it must be like to lose a child, but there is a lot that has gone into Eduard’s story. The first time I saw him was when he was 16, and what attracted me to him was the way he worked. He had a very good spirit. Even in sparring, he never gave up. He was born to be a fighter.”
Where Folayang is from, specifically, is more like a small village cut out of the jungle, filled by open cinderblock dwellings with corrugated, rusted tin roofs and no indoor plumbing. Foliage is interspersed everywhere, with dirt paths he used to run. To this day, “Landslide” will pound away through those skinny, muddy trails to condition himself for a fight. Clotheslines connecting the tiny homes dot the congested region. Life in the area was not easy. Everything is a hill, meaning you are constantly walking up one or rolling down another.
The Folayang family home is a pale green. His parents kept a sharp, clean house protected by a metal gate that still stands there. Folayang would climb the steep cement stairs each day after work. Now a room is filled with all of his accomplishments, trophies, championship cups and a cluster of medals that hang from a nail. Posters of his fights, featuring a younger version, adorn the home’s walls. He is everywhere in the house, as he is everywhere in the community. He cannot take two steps without being mobbed by children and those who knew him growing up. His One championship belt is proudly displayed on a desk in the center of the house.
When all boys growing up in the Philippines in the early 2000s aspired to be international Filipino boxing star Manny Pacquiao, Folayang wanted to be the next Bruce Lee or Jean-Claude Van Damme. He was taken by their movies, how they flew through the air, how they always seemed to be in control of their situations. Granted, this was a fantasy world, but what child is not influenced a little by that ersatz realm? To make money, Folayang would heave cement and gravel on construction sites as early as 10 years old. That is the furnace that forged his brick body. Every part of him appears toned and carved like a marble sculpture.
“We would carry stone, gravel, anything we could do to make some money,” he said. “We would carry the material from the roads, but when you’re poor, you have to work to help your family. We did it on the weekends when we were off from school. No one in my family could read or write, and getting an education was something my parents made sure we all received.”
Before his fighting career took off, Folayang was an English and physical education teacher in Baguio City, where he graduated from the University of Cordilleras, a small, private institution.
“We didn’t have a lot, but I do remember we were always happy,” he said. “As kids, we would wrestle with each other and see how much more we can carry than the other kids. I started training in mixed martial arts when I was 14, and the strength was there in some ways from working construction as a kid. I saw posters for a kickboxing tournament, and that happened every month.
“I also watched Bruce Lee and Jean-Claude Van Damme movies,” Folayang added. “Manny Pacquiao came along when I was in my late teens. Bruce Lee and Van Damme had more of an influence on me. Another hero of mine growing up in the Philippines was [1996 Olympic silver medalist] Mansueto ‘Onyok’ Velasco Jr. I trained more so in the martial arts. I liked the respect you received from people.”
He won his first major tournament he competed in when he was 15.
“I always wanted to be a martial artist; I knew when I was 8 that I wanted to be a martial artist,” Folayang said. “Martial arts challenge you. There is a rawness that comes with it. It forces you to look deep within yourself to discover who you really are as a person. My family overcame adversity. I learned that at home. Martial arts made me deal with everyday problems in life even better.
“The first time I ever fought I was nervous, but I was also so excited that the nerves went away,” he added. “Martial arts is a connection of the body and the mind. I got a sense of fulfillment if I trained one or two months. Then I would fight and see how that hard work would pay off.”
However, there was more anxiety ahead. By his teens, Folayang was beginning to establish himself nationally. There was just one problem: His parents had no idea.
“When I was in high school, I used to play a sport called sepak takraw (soccer badminton played in Southeast Asian countries). I used to tell my parents I got hurt training,” he said with a laugh. “I would tell them I fell or I accidentally stumbled and those were the reasons why I was bruised up, but they began to hear from the people in our area that I was fighting.
“That’s when I had to admit to them that I was competing in martial arts,” Folayang added. “They told me they liked it, rather than doing something other kids in the area were doing that wasn’t very good, like drugs and drunkenness. Our area had more problems with drunkenness than drugs. My mother never watched me fight live. My parents get too nervous. They don’t want to see me get hurt.”
Folayang has won five of his last six fights, including his third-round technical knockout of Aoki. Widely regarded as one of the top lightweights of all-time, the Japanese submission ace had not lost a fight since 2012, when he succumbed to punches from Eddie Alvarez in the first round of their Bellator 66 rematch. Folayang’s mother was on hand to witness the career-defining moment.
“Beating Aoki was a very emotional moment for me, and I was very grateful my mother was there,” he said. “No one thought I could win, but I knew I would. I wasn’t as known of a fighter as Aoki, but I believed. I believed in myself when not too many did. I’m a new man now. Being a father does that. My daughter, Yeshuareigns, is the greatest thing in my life, and I will never let her down. With [my bother] being there, looking back at her hardship and what she went through, I fought for her. I felt grateful that my mom was there, and it was my biggest victory. That really pushed me to do my very best. I couldn’t let her down. She never let me down.”
Joseph Santoliquito is the president of the Boxing Writer's Association of America and a frequent contributor to Sherdog.com's mixed martial arts and boxing coverage. His archive can be found here.