ILLICITUS
HEROES: THE PRIDE OF A NATION
      
It was a sunny Wednesday morning when I found myself in the 41st floor of Discovery Suites, Ortigas. I fix my collar in an attempt to look as presentable as I can be while I try my best to emulate my impression of a respectable journalist. I was fortunate to be given an opportunity to attend a press conference for an event promoted by One Fighting Championships, a mixed martial arts promotion widely considered to be Asia’s biggest.

I’ll be the first to admit that I am a faithful follower of the sport. Before the press conference—first one I’ve ever attended—I spent the previous night observing highlights upon highlights of the fighters involved hoping to come up with my own version of a fight breakdown the way sports writers do it.

Who had the advantage in the stand-up game? Who was the better grappler? Can fighter A defend fighter B’s explosive takedowns? How does fighter C’s technical precision match-up with Fighter D’s knockout power? And so on. In the depths of my mind, I scramble to piece the ideas together in a concise, educated manner.

Excited is an understatement considering what I was feeling as I paced back and forth, waiting in anticipation for what was about to transpire. My grip tightens on my notebook and pen as I ready myself to take note of every notable quote I am about to hear. One by one, the superstars take center stage as they each share their thoughts on what it means to be part of the most stacked MMA card to ever be assembled on Philippine soil.      

With the use of a translator, one fighter comments on what a pleasure it has been for him to be in the Philippines. He was a flashy Japanese superstar with a knack for showmanship. A grappling genius who awed me with his slick submission finishes. The very best lightweight from the land of the rising sun was sitting a few feet away from me—He was Shinya Aoki.

Credited for being one of the most accomplished grapplers in Australia, Cage Fighting Championship’s bantamweight titleholder Gustavo Falciroli’s message was short and sweet: To give his best and to put on a good show—all to the delight of the cheering crowd.

Falciroli’s opponent however, has other ideas. DREAM’s first bantamweight and featherweight champion, Bibiano Fernandes, was praised for his exceptional natural talent and his ability to fight through the toughest of adversities. Taking a look at his list of achievements in submission grappling, I found it easy to see why—the list was virtually endless.

The next man who spoke did not really need any introduction at all. A tower of a man who sported a mouthpiece that looked like fangs that resembled that of a pitbull. I’ve watched this man gain countless victories as he was no less than the man who once held the most prestigious title in the world of MMA. The very sight of Andrei Arlovski was something to behold indeed.

 Last on the mic was a man considered to be our country’s best hope for MMA greatness. The crowd applauds him as he notes that this event is a great opportunity to represent the country and show the world the prowess of a Filipino. I, for one, have seen his skill set and in my opinion, his unorthodox yet effective striking arsenal is something to watch out for. I was certainly delighted to see him as he was our very own Filipino champion, Eduard Folayang.         

The press conference concludes and the scene gets chaotic. I move swiftly to try my chances at a quick chat and a picture with each of the fighters.

Luckily, it was not hard to find Mr. Arlovski in a bustling crowd. Seeing my opportunity, I grab a colleague of mine and implore him to take my picture to which the big man from Belarus obliged.

Not too far away, I see Mr. Aoki enjoying a well-deserved meal from the conclusion of his media obligations. I respectfully seek his translator’s permission for a quick picture with the “master of flying submissions”. In a return of respect, his translator declines and asks me to give Mr. Aoki time to finish his meal.

I pause to take a quick meal myself but was quickly halted when informed that Mr. Fernandes and Mr. Falciroli were close by. I bolt towards Mr. Fernandes, determined to take advantage of the opportunity. In a typical fight pose, I have my picture taken with Mr. Fernandes.

I was not about to leave without having a word with the Filipino superstar. I try my best to be patient while waiting in a line of interviewers. My attention is caught by the sight of my colleagues about to have their picture with Mr. Falciroli. With a heavy heart, I was forced to leave my spot in the line in order to have a pictorial with the grappling sensation. That very picture currently serves as my profile picture on Facebook.

An escort arrives to pick up Mr. Folayang but I was quick to stop the Filipino phenom in his tracks. I humbly requested the local champion to spare one more minute for one last question and a quick picture. After our pictorial, I had a quick conversation with Mr. Folayang to which his reply to me was simple yet meaningful: TRAIN HARD.

What a day it was. I was tired and hungry but the moment was priceless: A former UFC champion, two grappling aces, a Japanese sensation and a Filipino hero.     

Heroes. They are people we look up to, people we admire, people we try to be like. They are people who inspire us to push forward, to push harder because we know they have done it as well. They are the ones who dedicate themselves to something they believed in.

On the surface, one might think that these men are savages only out to hurt others in what they do. But I believe they are more than that for I have been a martial artist myself for as long as I can remember. I have been a competitor in Taekwondo for nine years, been training boxing for seven years and been trying out Muay Thai for two years. I just loved the art, plain and simple. But nothing ever came easy.

Four stitches on my face, twelve stitches on my foot, a torn left MCL, a torn right MCL and two torn hamstrings were among the list of unfortunate events that struck me in my participation in these sports. Quitting wasn’t out of the question.
But that’s where our heroes come in. They inspire us to push harder. They encourage us to be better.

Being a fighter meant waking up at dawn to run five or six miles. It meant sprinting up a steep hill, only to come back down and do it nine more times. It meant spending countless hours in the gym. It meant spending less time with the people you love to spend more time training.

Nothing came easy. But these people—Andrei, Bibiano, Shinya, Gustavo, and Eduard—made it this far because they decided to push harder than everyone else.

It is for that reason that made this event extra special for me. As a martial artist myself, it is an absolute honor for me to have an audience with these modern-day gladiators. They are gladiators who wowed me as they conquered in the coliseums of their own weight divisions with unparalleled skill and immeasurable heart. It comes as no surprise as to why they are the very pride of their own nations.
Their presence, to me, was a refreshing reminder of the concept of HARD WORK.
It is men such as these that I consider my heroes—they are disciplined, dedicated and hardworking.

The one thing that brought them here will be the one thing that will ultimately decide whose hand will be raised come August 31st —HARD WORK.

Hard work. They have already done it before me. As I leave the conference hall with a smile on my face, a few pictures and a dozen priceless memories—I will aspire to do the same.
Juancho Mendoza