Philippines' martial artists fight to qualify for SEA Games spot in pioneer kickboxing team

Philippines' martial artists fight to qualify for SEA Games spot in pioneer kickboxing team

Filipino martial arts fighter
A Wushu World Championships medalist battles it out with an MMA knockout and submission artist

TAGAYTAY CITY, Philippines: To the untrained eye, the lanky fighter in red with seemingly poor posture is the obvious underdog.

He is up against a grim-faced and heavily built muscular guy who looked more than ready to go for a knockout.

What the slender contender lacked in shock value - what Filipinos call "sindak" - he more than made up for with spirited supporters.

"More kicks, maintain your distance (Nayunam pay, distansya)," shouted one.

"Kick him (Kugtam)!" roared another.

"Points, focus on points (Puntos, puntos)," reminded another. 

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The supporters who travelled six hours from the high-altitude northern Philippine city of Baguio were speaking in their mother tongue Ilokano. It is the country's third most spoken native language, but largely incomprehensible to those who do not come from Ilokano-speaking areas.

Their cheers were apt.

After all, they were boosting the morale of a Universiade (University Olympics) silver medalist in the Chinese kickboxing style of Wushu Sanda. His powerful kicks, long legs and familiarity with the kickboxing point system were his advantage over the shorter, but harder-hitting puncher from his opposite corner.

close up of ring
A fighter is coached during a 30-second break in his championship match.

Used to different combat styles, the two kickboxers are competing to claim a gold medal in a Men's 54kg to 56kg low-kick championship bout.

They are part of the Philippines' gruelling two-day screening that determines qualifiers to the country's pioneer national kickboxing team for the 2019 Southeast Asian Games (SEA Games). The qualifying matches use a different weight classification.

In this ring, the 21-year-old student is battling it out with a former International Federation of Muay Thai Amateur world champion from Central Philippines, who later turned into a feared and respected professional mixed martial artist.

The latter's record inside mixed martial arts' (MMA) action-packed cyclone wire-fenced cages is nine wins and five losses, an online database showed. It was easy to be intimidated.

But a kick to the head, a kick to the sides and a series of kicks to both legs from the student-fighter ended up slowing the opponent down.

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Kickboxing makes its maiden entry this year to the biennial SEA Games with eight weight divisions, adding to the reported record-high 57 sports in the SEA Games' 30-year history. The Philippines is host to the 2019 SEA Games.

"Kickboxing hasn't had the benefit of the Olympic spotlight that boxing has had, which means fewer opportunities to gain attention and build stars outside of that niche community," explained long-time combat sports journalist Ryan Songalia, a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America.

"The market for those looking for a combat sport more versatile than boxing is dominated by MMA, leaving kickboxing little room to work," he added.

mma filipino fighter victory
A Filipino kickboxer does his pre-game stretching just beside his corner of the ring.

Unlike boxing and MMA, the contact sport of kickboxing is relatively neglected in terms of sponsorship in the Philippines.

Songalia points to "a lack of television exposure" as part of why it "has been unable to become a hit with sponsors".

"Boxing has had a foothold in commercialised sports since the beginning of TV, and MMA had a long fight with commissions and pay-per-view providers before gaining acceptance," he explained.


The Philippines' kickboxing eliminations saw swift exchanges of kicks increasing in intensity from the pre-finals matches towards the seven championship bouts, with all eyes glued to the non-stop leg-to-torso contact inside the ring.

Audience members chanted praises for their bets in varying native languages, as a display of the athletes' stamina as well as power punches and kicks emerged from the blue and red corners of the rope-bordered stage.

"The apprehensions are normal. But when you step in the ring and land a punch, they will go away. All you can think about is your motivation to win," said the 21-year-old Ilocano student-fighter, who eventually won his championship match.

"I know that I can win, because I trained hard," he told CNA.

A kickboxing alliance in his region was created in late 2018.

"Train hard. Fight easy," shirts of the coaches from the alliance read.

Fighters from 45 gyms in different parts of the Philippines engaged in 57 total matches in the picturesque city of Tagaytay, north of capital Manila, a rare national meet for a diverse spectrum of strikers with strong kickboxing background.

"I was training for jujitsu, working on my ground fighting even during the week leading up to the eliminations ... so I had to adjust to kickboxing rules in the ring," said a Wushu World Championships medalist who qualified in the selection process.

Organisers said they prefer not to disclose the qualifiers' names yet.

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Strikers from across combat styles engaged in matches with three two-minute kickboxing rounds and one-minute breaks in between, as coaches pushed fighters to land the needed combination of strikes and kicks within the limited time to gain as many points.

mma fighters training
Kickboxers practice before their matches at the Tagaytay International Convention Center.

Rounds for the SEA Games, however, are expected to last three minutes each.

"I only won by points," quipped one kickboxer in between gasps right after his match.

"I was above my fighting weight ... I didn't have enough air," added the Filipino mixed martial artist, whose seven MMA wins include an arresting knockout by head kick at the Philippines-based Universal Reality Combat Championship. He also qualified but said he would do better with more training and weight-cutting ahead of the SEA Games.

The participating strikers were scored based on a point system for landed and connected strikes. A minimum of six attempted kicks are required per round. Wins could be by knockouts, technical knockouts or points.

During the two-day tryouts, those who will represent Philippines at the 2019 SEA Games will be selected from the pool of medalists.

For the slender student-fighter from the north, being seen as the underdog is not an issue.

One of his supporters' cheer serves as encouragement for every bout: "You can beat him. Just do well. (Kayam dayta. Anusam)." 

Source: CNA/aa(gs)