http://www.straitstimes.com/sport/fight ... eal-battleMixed Martial Arts: Fighting for Asian pride in UFC
Jenel Lausa used to be a pall-bearer, an embalmer's assistant and a farmer in the Philippines.
From earning less than $10 for winning his first fight when he was 16 and having to supplement his income by working in odd jobs, to the point of getting a five-figure pay cheque, life has changed dramatically for the 28-year-old Iloilo native since he made it to the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) last year.
The Filipino served notice of his combat skills last year when he captured the flyweight title at Pacific Xtreme Combat, a mixed martial arts (MMA) promotion based in Guam and the Philippines, before also becoming the national boxing champion.
But the life-changing moment Lausa had waited for finally arrived last September, when he relinquished his titles to sign a two-year, four-fight UFC deal.
He said: "Life has definitely changed since I joined UFC. Since I started MMA in 2009, it has always been my goal to get into UFC. My family was very proud to know that I had achieved my goal."
His rise to the world's biggest MMA promotion even caught the attention of his idol, boxing superstar Manny Pacquiao, who met Lausa just before his UFC debut last November to congratulate him on becoming the third homegrown Filipino UFC flyweight fighter.
STATEMENT OF INTENT
I am OK with being the underdog and proving people wrong about Asians. And Filipinos ... we just do not know how to give up.
JENEL LAUSA, Philippines mixed martial arts exponent, on what inspires him.
On the feeling of entering the Octagon, Lausa said: "It was exciting. It was not difficult to transition to a bigger promotion.
"There is definitely a difference (compared to a smaller promotion) with how UFC works, and the degree of professionalism involved with it - like I have to deal with contracts, strict requirements and camp timelines."
A steep learning curve confronts the 22 Asian fighters (10 Koreans, six Japanese, three Chinese, three Filipinos) among the 515 fighters in the international stable of the Las Vegas-based promotion.
Lausa said: "The biggest challenge that I face is that I am typically considered the underdog, since Asians who train locally are considered to not be as athletic, explosive, or as strong as fighters who train in the United States.
"I am okay with being the underdog and proving people wrong about Asians. And Filipinos, who are known for their 'puso' - which means heart - we just do not know how to give up."
While he has a strong desire to succeed, a win and a loss so far puts him in a precarious position in relation to his contract.
Lausa beat Yao Zhikui of China in his UFC debut last November in Melbourne. But in his next bout, he was overpowered by Russian newcomer Magomed Bibulatov at April's UFC 210 event in Buffalo, New York.
There were other Filipinos who got their big break with UFC, only to be dropped. Dave Galera, the first homegrown Filipino UFC fighter, was cut in 2014 after appearing in just one fight, while Mark Eddiva won his first fight then lost three and had his contract terminated by UFC last year.
But Lausa is eager to avoid the same fate. He said: "As a fighter, my discipline and mindset when it comes to my training have matured. I'm more focused and motivated to represent the country at UFC events."
While MMA is a big sport in the Philippines, the Chinese market is still emerging.
UFC's newest Chinese signing, Wang Guan, said his parents had never heard about the promotion until he joined the organisation in February.
He said: "When I told my parents about it in March, they didn't know what it was. Now they know that it's the most prestigious organisation and they're happy for me."
Only three years after he was among the crowd while cheering on his countrymen Ning Guangyou and Yang Jianping at UFC’s Macau event, Wang was supposed to enter the Octagon for the first time on Saturday at the Singapore Indoor Stadium, but he pulled out due to an injury last week.
The 30-year-old featherweight said: "I'm now training harder professionally and I've become more motivated. I'm training with foreign coaches, from countries like Russia, who are teaching me new techniques which I can use inside the Octagon.
"I'm happy to reach this level, and more people recognise me now. But the challenge is that I know that I've got to work even harder every day during my training sessions."
While a win is crucial to Wang and Lausa in order to justify their signings, South Korea's Choi Doo Ho is eyeing greater glory instead.
After registering first-round victories in his first three UFC fights, he made headlines for his battling display during his loss to Cub Swanson last December at UFC 206 in Toronto.
Choi, 26, told The Straits Times in a telephone interview: "Perhaps there is a perception that Asian fighters, compared to Westerners, are expected to struggle in every weight class.
"But I think I am competent and I'm not at all inferior."
He is confident that he will go all the way, becoming the first UFC Asian champion, having already proven initial detractors wrong.
He said: "When I told people that I had got this contract, there were those who congratulated me, but some of them were doubtful and said 'maybe you won't even get one win'.
"The reason why I can succeed, compared to the rest of the Asians who failed to do so, is because I've got power which they might not have, and I am always improving.
"In order for Asian fighters to be successful, we need to prove ourselves inside the Octagon.
"I am proud that I can be on the same stage as the world's best fighters."