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Year in Review 2018: Mark Sangiao and Team Lakay fight their way to the top

Editor's note: the ESPN5.com team looks back at 2018's top stories in local sports with our Year in Review series.

There's no denying that 2018 was truly a memorable and successful year for Team Lakay coach Mark Sangiao and his fighters.

After a rough end to 2017, Team Lakay was able to bounce back strong. The Benguet stable now owns four of the 11 world MMA titles in ONE Championship: Eduard Folayang (Lightweight), Kevin Belingon (Bantamweight), Geje Estaquio (Flyweight) and Joshia Pacio (Strawweight).

"(The year) 2018 was the most pivotal year for us, champion belt-wise, and all the recognitions we received from different organizations, both local and international. It was beyond fulfilling," Sangiao shares.

"It was the golden year for the team, winning titles and performing well despite the odds," added Folayang.

Eustaquio kicked off Team Lakay's impressive run with a unanimous decision win over Kazakhstan's Kairat Akhmetov in January to claim the ONE Interim Flyweight belt. Eustaquio then became the undisputed champion when he defeated Adriano Moraes in a unification title fight five months later.

Belingon, known as the "The Silencer", then followed with another unanimous decision victory over Martin Nguyen to win the ONE Interim Bantamweight title. In November, Belingon scored a split decision win over longtime title-holder Bibiano Fernandes to become the undisputed champ. Pacio also scored a unanimous decision win to dethrone Yoshitaka Naito for the Strawweight World Championship in September.

Capping the successful year for Team Lakay was Folayang, who reclaimed the ONE Lightweight World Championship by beating Amir Khan in front of the Manila crowd, becoming the fourth title-holder from Team Lakay. He was also hailed as Martial Arts Hero of the Year at the 2018 Global Martial Arts Awards for his efforts not only in the ring but outside as well.

But none of that success would have been achieved it it weren't for Sangiao who paved the way and guided his fighters along the way.

"Coach should also have a belt," Folayang said after his recent fight. "We have a good team, a good coach, and brilliant people who support us."

"When I see these belts, I know that my sacrifice was worth it. I feel that I'm also a champion," said Sangiao.

True enough, Sangiao is the motor that keeps the Team Lakay machine running smoothly. In the 2018 Global Martial Arts Awards, Sangiao was recognized as Coach of the Year after steering his camp to impressive wins throughout 2018. Team Lakay, meanwhile, took home Gym of the Year honors, which is proof that Sangiao's decision to hang up his gloves and start a gym paid off. Since then, he has done and continues to do wonders for not only his ONE Championship fighters, but also for other fighters up north who have yet to reach their full potential.

"Foremost, we follow the core values of martial arts which are discipline, respect, humility, courage and compassion. Then we couple it with hard work and by being smart. Another essential factor here is strong teamwork and bonding... We never cease to learn and try to improve. We study and then apply, study and then apply. We don't stop," said Sangiao.

"(Winning Gym of the Year) is the result of all our sacrifices and hard work. We never thought that one day, we would be the best stable," he added. "When I started this group in 2003, I did not even think that it would get to this. All I thought at the time was that I liked what I was doing. I am happy with the outcome of my passion."

The year 2018 was indeed a memorable and successful year for Sangiao and his fighters. They savored the wins and awards, but they're already preparing for what's in store for them next year. Whether it's defending a belt or gunning for a new title, it's all the same for Team Lakay.

"If you don't put in the effort and passion and if you're not working with the right people, it's going to be tough," said Sangiao. "But then again, with great power comes great responsibility. It means whatever back-breaking preparations you did to get the belts, you have to exert double or triple the effort to retain them."

"It's only the beginning. There is more to come. We look forward to defending our belts and prevailing as champions for a long time."

It's going to be an interesting 2019 for Team Lakay.