The Science of ‘Tapungulay’: The Rise (and Possible Future) of Ilonggo MMA

By spencer ravago

Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) as a sport has come a long way in the past few years. What started off as a gimmicky pay-per-view attraction pitting different martial arts practitioners against each other has evolved into one of the fastest-rising sports spearheaded by the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) promotion. What started off as a bit of a freak show—with scenes like a fighter wearing a single boxing glove inthe cage and legal groin shots, among other crazy things that were done in the early days of UFC—has now evolved into a more “complete” combat sport where the MMA fighters of today are expected to be adept at both striking and grappling.

The local MMA scene in Iloilo has also made great strides over the years with more gyms offering MMA classes and more MMA events being held in and around the city. In a scenario that draws parallels from how UFC started back then, MMA in Iloilo was started in large part by enthusiasts with traditional martial arts backgrounds—think boxing, taekwondo, karate, and wushu—trying to repurpose their knowledge of martial arts in the sped-up world of modern MMA.

One of the first groups to start experimenting with MMA in the city is Iloilo Combat Sports (ICS). Along with traditional martial arts gyms like Iloilo Tinagan School of Martial Arts—an institution that also produced many MMA fighters by way of their wushu program—ICS pioneered the MMA scene as we now know it in Iloilo.

Bale sang nag-start ko, laban guid lang ako sa boxing, kay damo amo guid ina ang (background) namon. Si Sir Bodie (Galotera, ICS head trainer), nakaagi sa boxing. Ako, kaagi man ako taekwondo, kaagi man ako mga lain-lain man, Muay Thai man. So, bale nag-join-join lang kami kag guin-combine-combine lang kamidaw old-school nga UFC guid sang una,” states Archie Vargas, a pioneer member of ICS.

[When I started, all I knew was only boxing because that was mostly what our fighting background was. Sir Bodie also had boxing experience. I also trained in taekwondo and other disciplines like Muay Thai. So, we eventually decided to join up and combine our expertise—it’s like old-school UFC.]

URCC Iloilo Juan Fight League - Project Iloilo
Photos by Xtian Lozañes

With not much material and knowledge available at the time they formed, they had no choice but to learn their techniques based on—you guessed it—watching videos on YouTube. As if that was not DIY enough for them, their training facility was also very—to call it kindly—“spartan”.

Bale sa Calumpang, may old dira siya nga resort. Tapos (naglisensya) lang kami sa security guard kung puwede dira ka-practice. Guinlimpyohan lang namon. Tapos amo ato nga time, wala guid to ya kami mats; as in semento guid lang. Amo na kada tapos training, lap-ok,” adds Vargas with a laugh.

[There was an old resort at Calumpang back then. We asked permission from the security guard if we could practice there. We just cleaned the place up. During that time, we didn’t have mats; as in it’s just cement. That’s why we got blisters every time we finish training.]

But bit-by-bit, the Ilonggo MMA scene started gaining a presence here. From gyms and fighters to events and supporters, they’ve come a long way from their backyard training programs of old. It was no coincidence that ICS was also undergoing a similar growth of its own; they have moved places, improved their training methods, and were even training fighters who have performed well in MMA events both here and in Bacolod. But it wasn’t until they moved to their current home that they were able to make a significant step as an organization.

It was in 2014 when ICS found itself on the verge of losing their training venue. Their facility at the time was loaned to them by one of their members, Kenneth Woo, and it needed to be renovated. As luck would have it, someone else was already looking to give them a home.

URCC Iloilo Juan Fight League - Project Iloilo
Photos by Xtian Lozañes

While the ICS team was scouting for possible venues in odd places like the rooftop of a mall, Zony Zaldarriaga was looking for MMA trainers. The gym he opened during that time was originally catering to people who are into bodybuilding. However, Zaldarriaga—who also turned out to be a big MMA enthusiast—was looking to have an MMA program for his gym. He then reached out to Galotera to inquire about experienced fighters interested in handling the program; as luck would have it, ICS was already scrambling to look for a venue during that same time period. Zaldarriaga offered his facilities,and a match was already made.

Of course, it also helped that the gym’s quirky name made it stand out in the first place: Gym ni Juan.

“Kay amo ato nga tiyempo, indi na gusto sang mother ko nga magbalik empleyo bala sa iban nga tawo. So gapangita ako sang business. Ti, since MMA ang hilig ko­—big fan guid lang ako ya daan—so amo na (guin-ubra) ko. Ti bal-an ko nga indi man na maging successful ang (MMA) gym without some equipments, bodybuilding,“ says Zaldarriaga.

[During that time, my mother did not want me to go back to working for other people. So I was looking for a new business to venture in. Since I like MMA—I’m a big fan of it from the start—so that’s what I did. However, I knew that an (MMA) gym won’t be successful without some equipments, bodybuilding.]

As is usually the case of people with the same interests partnering up, the Gym ni Juan-ICS partnership immediately hit it off.

“Para sa akon, hapos guid ya… Kami kanday Sir Bodie kag ni Archie, daw nag-click guid bala kami dayon. Daw parehos man kami mga hilig,” Zaldarriaga enthuses.

[For me, it was easy… Me and Sir Bodie and Archie, we clicked immediately. It helps that we like the same thing.]

The transition went so smoothly that they were able to hold their first event in December of 2014; a mere few months before ICS was about to lose its facility. The landmark event was Juan Fight League: Battle of Panay, a card that featured fighters from the major gyms in and around Iloilo.

URCC Iloilo Juan Fight League - Project Iloilo
Photos by Xtian Lozañes

The event was successful in its own right, but ICS can’t seem to rest on their laurels yet. Early this 2015, a comment left on the Instagram account of Alvin Aguilar—founder of renowned MMA team, DEFTAC Philippines—ignited interest in a possible DEFTAC branch that may be opened in Iloilo.

“Si Kenneth (Woo), ga-comment-comment siya sa Instagram ni Alvin. Hambal niya, ‘What if mapatindog man kamo diri sang branch sa Iloilo?’ Ti hambal ni Alvin sa iya, ‘Okay, istoryahan ta na,” Zaldarriaga tells Project Iloilo.

[Kenneth was commenting on the Instagram of Alvin. He said, ‘What if you start a branch here in Iloilo?’ Alvin then said, ‘Okay, let’s talk it over.’]

That Instagram conversation led to DEFTAC sending a couple of competitors to participate in a grappling tournament organized by ICS earlier this year. DEFTAC Philippines took a shine to ICS and, as the latter was hoping, they were eventually brought under the DEFTAC umbrella as an affiliate.

Thus, Iloilo Combat Sports formally became DEFTAC Iloilo-ICS. With it came DEFTAC-licensed training modules, exclusive trainings by the ICS coaches to Manila and—in perhaps the most significant development that should benefit the Iloilo MMA scene as a whole—the right to finally use the Universal Reality Combat Championship (URCC) brand.

URCC is the first—and arguably, most popular—MMA promotion based in the Philippines, which was also founded by Aguilar in 2002. With the URCC having held several events in Bacolod in the past, Ilonggo MMA fans would often hear rumors about the URCC coming to Iloilo, although it never even came close to materializing back then. With the involvement of DEFTAC this time around, ICS is finally able to bring the URCC to our part of the country.

The Iloilo MMA scene may still be a niche community, but there’s no doubt it has come a long way from its humble roots. The quality of training available in Iloilo has increased leaps and bounds not just with clubs like ICS, but also Iloilo MMA Club (which is now an official affiliate of Submission Sport Philippines, as of this writing), The Cage and other gyms all over the province.

Many good fighters are being developed here regularly and, with events like the upcoming URCC-Juan Fight League, fighters will have more reason to step their game up.

The second iteration of Juan Fight League will be held on June 27th, Saturday, at Club Zyron’s under the URCC banner with participating fighters hailing from neighboring Boracay and Bacolod competing against the local Iloilo contingent.

Spencer Ravago is the creative director for Project Iloilo.