On the road to the championship, Eduard “Landslide” Folayang feels the stars have aligned.

Despite all the rigors of the fight camp necessary to prep for capturing MMA gold, there’s a certain enjoyment, finality and clarity in being the underdog, going up against jiu-jitsu legend and grappling icon Shinya Aoki.

“Our preparation for the title bout is tough yet it is exciting,” Folayang wrote to ROUGH. “There are a lot of things we are anticipating, and it makes the training camp tolerable.”

You can almost hear the laughter following this; “tolerable” because the kind of work required for a title fight is notches above your ordinary fight camp, but also because after a certain point, all the conditioning work, the tactical drills, the piling on of bad situations to get you used to worst-case scenarios becomes mere background noise.

At a certain point you must sweep all such planning behind you and assess conditions in the moment, in the cage. The moment between prep work and execution is over. And Folayang feels he’s almost there.

Folayang, a 32-year-old Baguio City native, is set to fight for the lightweight title against reigning Japanese kingpin Aoki in ONE Championship’s “Defending Honor” card on 11 November in Singapore.

“We balance our training, though we put more effort in the areas of ground game and wrestling,” explains Folayang, who, like other Team Lakay fighters train at an elevation of 4,300 feet above sea level in Baguio. “Though we don’t disregard our striking training in that we mix it up. We train in the morning and at night, and we rest in the middle of the week. Sunday is for family day.”

Folayang held down a day job as a teacher in his early days training MMA and being a Wushu competitor. He started looking forward to fighting in the cage while he was still cornering his friend Mark Sangiao, now his coach and the head instructor at Team Lakay, in the earlier days of the Philippine URCC promo where he was a champion around 2003 to 2006. It was in 2007 that he started competing in that same league, before transferring to Martial Combat in 2010, and then to ONE Championship in 2011.

He’s of the opinion that had MMA not come his way, he would’ve gone down a different path. “Perhaps I would be an educator or a police officer? But that will be good to look forward to, to be like Dan Henderson fighting ‘til he’s in his 40s. It really depends on how I manage my career.”

A title shot has eluded Folayang since joining the Asian promotion five years ago. But now, after a decision win against Adrian Pang at ONE’s Heroes of the World in Macau last August, his record has improved to 16-5. His wrestling, on display that night, has also much improved.

Eduard Folayang defeats Adrian Pang in Macau.

Eduard Folayang defeats Adrian Pang in Macau.

THERE ARE A LOT OF THINGS WE ARE ANTICIPATING AND IT MAKES THE TRAINING CAMP TOLERABLE.

Improved wrestling or not, fighting against the 33-year-old Shinya Aoki is still going to be like going up against the grappling Goliath. For one thing Aoki’s fight moniker is “Tobikan Judan,” which roughly translates to “The Grandmaster of Flying Submissions” and none of it is hype.

His record is an impressive 39-6-1. And 25 of those 39 career wins are by submission. He has made pretzels of his opponents on multiple occasions, sometimes in literal, very brutal fashion. Aoki is also on a nine-fight win streak going way back to 2012, across three weight classes. The last time he lost was in that same year, against Eddie Alvarez—now the current lightweight champ of the UFC.

Speaking of which, if Folayang and his coaches have done their homework, there are four main tapes to watch and carefully study in disrupting the Aoki fight style and forcing an upset for the championship win.

The first one is that fight against Alvarez in Bellator 66 on April 2012. It was actually a rematch (they first met in December 2008 fight at K1-DYNAMITE! where Alvarez got caught in a nasty kneebar) and Alvarez was way better prepared after his loss. It opened the playbook to defeating a grappling wizard like Aoki, just like Chael Sonnen did by taking the striking game out of Anderson Silva. Not only did Alvarez demonstrate, quite succinctly, that you can indeed put Aoki in a corner and frustrate him until he’s telegraphing takedowns, but that you could do it with two simple (conceptually easy) things: very elusive footwork and early striking aggression.

There’s also Hayato Sakurai vs Aoki in Dream 8’s Welterweight Grand Prix in April 2009 and the Joachim Hansen vs Aoki bout in DREAM 5 Lightweight Grand Prix in July 2008. Both sudden moments of KO glory where Aoki got flattened in a corner or pinned on the mat by huge strikes.

Finally, the fourth and last is the Melendez vs. Aoki fight in the Strikeforce Nashville lightweight title defense in 2010. Gilbert Melendez figured out the same thing as Eddie Alvarez did, (frustrate the takedowns, use footwork, avoid getting baited into the ground game) and executed the game plan with much less precision, but with exactly the same level of effectiveness. A slightly iterated approach that still forced a UD win.

Folayanag agrees: the best defense is to hit ‘em in the head, over and over: “Well that’s right [that my kicks and striking are my advantage] but for me it depends on how comfortable I am throwing kicks when we meet. Perhaps I can throw a lot of them? Or, either way with punches. Of course, there are some specific areas where a jiu-jitsu icon is really good. The way we approach it is to avoid, as much as possible, the areas of his strength and capitalize on his mistakes.”

Still, honing those BJJ defenses shouldn’t be neglected and the Filipino Team Lakay fighters, mostly Wushu specialists, have also been seen training at Philippine judo and BJJ pioneer John Baylon’s Clube De Jiu-Jitsu academy in Pasay City. “Most of the training partners that I prefer are the bigger guys,” Folayang adds.

If Folayang takes the lessons of Aoki’s past defeats to heart and sticks to his game plan, implementing the triple aspects of distance control, takedown defense, and sporadic striking aggression, we may yet see a huge upset on November 11; the Filipino “Landslide” slaying the Japanese Goliath and coming out of Singapore with ONE Championship gold around his waist.

“The most rewarding aspect of MMA for me,” explains Folayang, “is learning a lot of lessons, not only in the results of every fight but also in the way we manage our time with everything.”