Onassis Parungao: the first Filipino MMA fighter

Nissi Icasiano
Onassis Parungao: the first Filipino MMA fighter
Lear more about Onassis Parungao, a Filipino MMA fighter who made his successful debut in the UFC in 1995


MANILA, Philippines – Records hold vitally important roles in sports. No matter how far apart they are, these records link generations of fans and competitors alike and are a way by which hooligans compare athletes from completely different eras.

God’s competitive creatures have tried to defy odds throughout generations with records established and written in sports history books. To wit, there were Michael Phelps’ unparalleled feat for the most first-place finishes at any single Olympic event, John Stockton proving that basketball is not merely about shooting hoops with his 15,806 career assists, and Pelé’s unprecedented football accomplishment of 1281 goals in 1363 games, to name a few.

Sports records are not only determined by how many points were amassed or how many trophies were gleaned. Best performances also include the many firsts that challenged norms and broke traditions. St. Louis Hawks’ Bob Pettit was the first recipient of the NBA Most Valuable Player award, while Michael Schumacher is the only driver in Formula One history to finish in the top three for every race in a season. Not far behind were the Green Bay Packers that won the first Super Bowl in 1967.

Truly, everything that bears fruit has its roots, and a tree is known by its fruits. But do we know the first Filipino who ventured into mixed martial arts (MMA)? Many will allude to Ole Laursen, who already had an amateur contest as early as 1999. Some will cite Brandon Vera, who has professionally competed since 2002.

Before Mark Muñoz and Eduard Folayang made their marks on MMA, there was a man who hauled his guts into joining the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) in 1995. A Kung Fu practitioner in the name of Onassis Parungao proudly donned a white shirt which announced where he was from – the Philippines.

Entering the Octagon

Nearly two years after the UFC debuted on pay-per-view, the world’s premier MMA organization made its first and only trip to the state of New York on September 8, 1995 to stage UFC 7: Brawl in Buffalo at the 14,337-capacity Buffalo Memorial Auditorium.

The event was significant in the sport’s history, not only because Marco Ruas became the first Brazilian not named Royce Gracie to win a UFC tournament, but it also featured the first Filipino MMA fighter on the 11-bout card.

“I was 24 years old back then when I got a call from the UFC, and I thought it looks like a good idea,” Parungao tells Rappler.

The 44-year-old Parungao confided that he was personally handpicked by UFC co-founder Art Davie from among hundreds of candidates because of his martial arts background and nationality.

“In 1995, I submitted my entry into UFC 7 as a Filipino Kung Fu fighter. I was told specifically by Arthur Davie that I was selected out of hundreds of applicants because they never had a Filipino fighter to represent in the Octagon,” he disclosed.

During this period, the UFC did not have the Unified MMA rules yet, and the company stood pat on its maxim “There are no rules!” Only eye gouging and biting were forbidden. All bouts neither had weight classes nor used gloves.

Parungao had his MMA and promotional debut at UFC 7: Brawl in Buffalo and was matched with a street brawler in Francesco “Fang” Maturi, whom he compelled to wave the white flag by hammering vicious strikes on the head.

“It felt great to stand in the Buffalo Sabres’ hockey stadium with so many people and have famous announcer Michael Buffer say a Tagalog name,” Parungao said of his successful Octagon appearance.

After his UFC stint, Parungao competed in Absolute Fighting Championship’s one-night tourney, submitting Pavel Byshiv with punches before yielding to Ricardo Morais.

Martial arts in the life of Onassis Parungao

Parungao was born in Rota, Spain and grew up in the United States. However, his father Juanito never hid his Filipino roots, except that he was more inclined to martial arts.

At the tender age of eight, his father introduced him to Arnis de Mano and the now-uncommon combat form of Tung Kung Kalan.

“My father saw that I wanted to learn. I was in pain and being thrown through some old wooden furniture of our home. I was in shock as a little boy, but I never thought learning would be painful. Filipino martial arts are very serious in the fighting department,” he recalled.

Parungao said that his father, who served in the United States Navy during World War II, influenced his total acceptance of being Filipino in the field of martial arts.

“I’m incredibly proud to be Filipino, but more so because my father was there with me all the way,” he maintained.

Having turned their home into a mini dojo, he found that traditional Filipino martial arts left him wanting and hence progressed into wrestling and Judo.

After winning the state championship in wrestling and garnering a brown-belt degree in Judo, Parungao then transitioned to Kung Fu where he imbibed Gu Ru Zhang, Hung Gar and Taiji styles.

“There was a huge difference compared to what I was doing with my father. My dad was all about fighting, but Kung Fu was more than that. It was a complete art form,” he pointed out.

Armed with a growing résumé in combat, Parungao strutted his wares by participating in Chinese kickboxing competitions known as San Shou, winning the 85-kilogram Ohio U.S. Invitational in 1997 and the first International Eagle Cup tourney in 1998.

Even if he has undertaken several disciplines to become a well-rounded fighter, Parungao stressed the importance of a good foundation as a martial artist.

“Since I come from a traditional foundation, it’s important to have a good base first.  As I think back on wrestling, I can remember dudes who could just beat every one with the same move. It didn’t matter that everyone knew it was coming. If your basics were good in setting it up, nobody could stop it,” he asserted.

Life after MMA

Despite having a lucrative offer to fight under the Japanese-based organization Pancrase, Parungao decided to turn it down and leave MMA for good to start a family.

“One reason was I had just gotten married. My UFC fight was just a few days before my wedding. I can still remember my mother saying don’t get beat up before the fight. Luckily, I came out okay,” he revealed.

Parungao has no regrets over his decision not to pursue his MMA career even if its popularity is presently at an all-time high, selling out arenas weekly and making tours across the globe.

“I’m a loyal and devoted person. When I stick to something, it’s usually with passion. I was still more in love with Kung Fu than I was with MMA. I didn’t feel the need to try and prove myself anymore,” he revealed.

After his departure, the 5-foot-11 fighter continued his training under the tutelage of Lam Kwong Wing to become a Sifu, which would qualify him to teach Kung Fu.

Now a headmaster of Cheng Yee Kung Fu School in Ledyard, Connecticut, Parungao affirmed that he has no ill feelings over not being able to get the recognition of being the first Filipino to break into the world of MMA.

“No tinge of heartache at all. There are a lot of really good Filipino talents out there right now and they are doing some amazing things,” he quipped.

When asked for a message to Filipino MMA competitors, he replied, “I have nothing but love for the Pinoy fighters. I hope they continue to grow and gain respect. Do it because you love it and not for the money.” – Rappler.com

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