23 July 2014

By Antonio Graceffo

A flash of brown, an image blurred by speed, the end of the deadly stick slices through the air. A strike to the head CRACK! The weapon is deflected by the opponent’s stick. A strike to the knee smashes directly into a blocking stick. Two opponents, sticks in both hands, four sticks striking in succession, left right, head shin, head, shin Each one expertly blocked, with perfect timing.

A sinister thrust to the nerves in the pectoral muscles. The thrust is parried with a stick, the hand is pinned and the defenders stick strikes at the crown of the attacker. But the attacker blocks, the hand is released, and the two, two, four, four rhythm of the combat returns.

The Philippine martial art of modern Arnis is composed of stick fighting techniques developed by the Muslim Sultans of the Tausug tribe on the island of Mindanao. Earlier versions of the art were called Kali or escrima, names still used in Mindanao today. Arnis is typically thought of as a sick fighting art, but many Philippine martial arts masters practice Kuntaw, a complete fighting system, including kicks, punches, locks, throws, manipulations, and stick fighting.

“The Muslims never surrendered to the Spanish.” Explains Kyud Dennis Santos, a fourth degree black belt, and the leading teacher of Arnis in Puerto Princesa, Palawan Island. “The Datu chief, Lapu-Lapu, used the ancient art to defeat Magellan at the battle of Mactan.”

“The Muslim masters taught much of the art to the Christians, but they held some back for themselves, just in case.”

In Arnis it is important to call people by respectful titles, such as Kyud (brother), master or maestro. Although Dennis is the teacher, he only requires his students to call him Kyud, brother, to remind them that we are all students.

A new student will first begin his training with a single stick. Later he will learn two sticks, then two blades, and finally, bare hands.

Arnis has forms, like other martial arts, but every single movement in the Arnis form is a viable fighting technique. As you practice forms, so shall you fight in combat. One of the most unique aspects of Arnis is that the movements are the same with sticks, blades, or hands. A practitioner need only to master one set of movements and then practice it with each of his weapons.

If you come from Brooklyn, the first thing you will notice when you pick up an Arnis stick is that it is much smaller than a baseball bat, and not nearly as heavy as a tire iron. In fact, no matter where you are from, this delicate piece of wood which is 22 inches long and the thickness of about two fingers, will appear to be anything but a deadly weapon. But before you write of this unassuming killing machine, talk to a master.

Dennis begins his training routine by twirling his two sticks up, down, sideways, inside, outside, around his head, under his arms. He picks up speed. As the sticks become blurry you will believe he is using nunchuks. But the sticks are independent, each with a mind of its own. Attack him, and one stick will block and trap, while the other counter-strikes.

I showed Dennis photos of one of my Thai teachers demonstrating krabi krabong, the art of two swords. Dennis explained. “Many of the movements and positions look the same to me.” He said. “But here This is the difference between Arnis and Thai sword fighting, in Arnis the two sticks never move the same way.” In Krabi krabong the two swords are often swung at the opponent as a double bladed attack, one high, and one low. “We like to block and cover with one stick, while we strike with the other.”

When striking, you must remember the sick is a blade, not a club. The stick can slice, cut, or stab. Every part of the stick is used. The far end is for stabbing and slashing. The near end, the butt, is used for strikes to the temples, collarbone, nose, throat, or solar plexus. And, don’t forget you can punch with a stick in your hand, the unforgiving wood reinforcing your blow.

The barehanded aspects of Arnis bare some similarities to Hop Kido or Kuk Sul Won. There is a lot of locking, grabbing, twisting, bending and submitting. The same techniques can be done with a stick in your hand. The butt is used for hooking or grabbing the opponent’s wrist. There are numerous techniques where you use your stick to block, then slide your stick down your opponent’s stick, and trap his hand with the butt of your stick. Once the hand is trapped, you follow through with a joint manipulation, submission, choke or throw.

The long end of the stick can be used to throw an opponent off balance by leveraging between his legs or pushing on the backs of his knees. In Arnis grappling, the length of the stick is used as a lever to increase your strength when taking down a bigger opponent. In wrestling with Dennis, he wedges the stick under my right armpit, grabbed the end, and pressed down on my head. My own arm became a fulcrum as the stick crushed my neck.

Dennis is a tricky fighter and utilizes a lot of techniques where he releases his grip on his stick, only to switch hands or switch ends, brining himself into a position of advantage. He is also fond of blocking, then grabbing the ends of both sticks, and squeezing them together until the opponent’s thumb snaps and he releases his grip.

“Always attack the thumb.” Said Dennis. “Then the whole hand will go.”

Dennis’ number one student, Israel, who is studying psychology at the local university, demonstrates the intricate Ocho Redondo, the ever returning figure eight. The two sticks are circling, crisscrossing, as the speed picks up, Israel looks like the Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

“The striking patterns of Arnis come from the weaving patterns used to weave the walls of traditional houses in the Philippines.” Explains Dennis.

Watching Israel’s skilful practice it was easy to imagine he was weaving an impregnable wall of defense.

His two hands were flowing like a machine, slicing the air like a rotary blade “It dices. It slices. It makes Giulianne fries.” I wanted to throw a carrot at him just to see it come out diced on the other side.

“Can you box him?” asked Dennis.

“Not unless I want my hands pureed.” I answered.

The weaving techniques are, of course, even more deadly with a blade.

The traditional Philippine knife is the bolo, a long, heavy machete with a weighted end. The art is sometimes practiced with bolos, but the most traditional method is with the Muslim knife, the kris. A kris is a long, serpentine knife, about 22 inches in length, which tapers to a point. The kris originated in Indonesia and Malaysia and is a symbol of royalty or high status.

“In Mindanao today you see important men wearing their Kris.” Explained Dennis.

“In Arnis we use different knives of varying lengths.”

Two of Dennis’ students were training with small slicing knives. Every strike was met with a block and slice. The defender would carve up the forearm of the attacker. It was actually a little spooky to see these otherwise nice children pretending to filet each other.

“This isn’t boxing.” Dennis reminded me. “You can’t afford to get hit even once.”

There goes my strategy of trying to win on points.

To reinforce the effectiveness of close quarters combat, Arnis practitioners learn to fight with a dulo-dulo, a small wooden cylinder, the size of a roll of quarters. They wrap their hand around the dulo-dulo to add more wallop to their punches. The dulo-dulo also has a one and half inch projection which sticks out on either side of the hand. This projection can be used for the locking and trapping techniques. It can also be used for the nerve-ending and pressure point strikes which are common to Arnis.

Modern Arnis is now a regular event in the South East Asian Games and will be a demonstration sport in the 2008. Beijing Olympics.

“But in the international competitions there is just stick fighting, no kicking, punching or grappling.” Explained Dennis. “There are also no butt strikes. The sticks are padded, and the opponents wear body armor,” similar to Tae Kwan Do. “Athletes earn points for clean strikes, blocks, disarming, or counter striking.”

For some practitioners it must be a disappointment to see so many restrictions put on their beloved art. But Arnis is such a fierce fighting system that it has often been limited by the colonial powers. Under the Spanish rule of the Philippines, (1521-1898) Arnis was completely banned. In order to maintain their art, the Muslims developed a type of dance, which incorporated traditional music with the martial arts and knives. The art was again banned under the Japanese occupation 1941-1945. Arnis was, however, used by resistance fighters who plagued the Japanese soldiers until the end of the war.

My first Arnis teacher, a Filipino I met in Hong Kong several years ago, told me. “Arnis is the best martial art. When we have a riot or a protest all we have to do is grab a stick and we are ready to go.”

The Midenao tribes were the most warlike of all the Philippine tribes. As a result they were never conquered and they were able to maintain their religion, resisting forced conversion to Catholicism. Other Philippine tribes, like the Batak tribe of Palawan, are extremely peaceful. The Batak still perform a war dance with two wooden bolos today. The movements and positions are clearly derived from Arnis. But for the Batak, the dance is only a dance, ceremony. They possess no martial art at all. There principal means of defense is to run deeper into the forest.

“In Mindanao the art is different.” Explained Dennis. “They skip the first step and begin their training with knives right away. They even fight and spar with knives. For this reason, the Muslims don’t start training till they are teenagers.”

Deserved or not, Mindanao has a reputation for being a tough place, where men fight at the drop of a hat. My boxing coach in Palawan was from Mindanao. He told me that he had been fighting for money, in the street, for years. It is widely believed among Philippine people and martial artists around the world that there are actually knife fights to the death in Mindanao and that it is a spectator sport which people bet money on. As of yet, I have been unable to verify this rumor, but it is clear that the people who developed this art really enjoy a good fight.

Dennis said. “There are many fight clubs in the Philippines where people fight for money. And, there are many Filipinos fighting for money in fight clubs in the USA and France.” Dennis went on to say that one of the leading, young Arnis practitioners was kicked out of the federation after he killed two men in a street fight. “Now he is trying to get into the UFC but he just doesn’t have enough grappling.”

Dennis spoke of a fight venue on the southern part of Luzon Island, the island where Manila is located. He referred to it as Bicol Sacred Fight Club. “Fighters sign wavers before the fight.” So that no one will be sued or arrested. “They fight with live sticks (unpadded). They strike the knees and elbows. They also strike the biceps to wear you down and make you defenseless.”

“We also have open invitational fights where you can use hands and feet. You can grapple and fight on the ground. Hooking and sweeping are also allowed. We wear fighting gloves not boxing gloves.”

Philippine culture is a mix of Spanish and Asian, as a result, losing face and preserving ones honor are important aspects to personal interactions.

“One of the best techniques in the competition is to steal the patch off the opponent’s uniform.”

Dennis has some unique opinions on fight training. “We avoid training on a bag or makiwara. They are harder than human flesh, so it is unnecessary. Also, pounding them frequently can cause injuries to the fighters, including bruising or even cancer of the knuckles. We prefer focus mitts and sparring.”

“We don’t kick with the shins. We use the heel, knife edge, or ball of the foot. Our motto is, take an opponent’s balance and take his head.”

Dennis had this to say about self-defense. “The best thing to do is runaway. But, if you are attacked by three people, give them a lesson. You have to fight to win.”

“Girls also fight in competition.” In fact, Dennis’ two daughters were two of his oldest students. I wouldn’t have wanted to fight either of them when they had a stick in their hand.

Back in Catholic school, the nuns used to really beat on us with the yard stick. And my own grandmother came after me with a rolling pin or a broom handle more than once. Now I know where they learned it. Like Bodhidharma bringing Buddhism and Kung Fu to China. There must have been a visiting priest from the Philippines who brought stick fighting and Catholicism to Brooklyn.

“We teach all the students that if you punch with your knuckles you can get hurt. The best is to use a hammer strike, hitting with the side of your fist. For a woman, this can be a very powerful weapon.”

“The Kuntaw logo represents both hard and soft elements. We teach movement in a circular motion. We have the saying, go with the flow. When parrying your opponent’s thrust, you strike his stick in the same direction as his force. You move your arm in a long, circular motion, and come right around and counterstrike him, in one fluid movement, Your force will be doubled.”

“Go with the flow.” Use your opponent’s force to double your own force.

Much of the Arnis training deals with striking drills, like those had I witnessed when I first arrived. First, Dennis taught me the five basic strikes. Next, I learned the twelve strikes. After that, I began working with a partner, striking and blocking in set patterns, faster and faster. We also practiced striking, blocking, and disarming or striking, blocking, and grappling. Each time we mastered a pattern, Dennis introduced a new pattern, and another, and another. Getting off beat or out of rhythm resulted in getting hit with a stick. Each time I became frustrated, Dennis just reminded me. “Go with the flow.”

After just a few weeks of training I was surprised at how natural the drills became.

“If you learn the forms and drills then your movements will be instinctive in a fight.” Explained Dennis summing up the entire training routine. “But, it makes no sense to study the form but lack the practice fighting.” Dennis said they generally only promoted black belts who had mastered fighting as well as the art. Dennis believed the best place to test a black belt’s skills is on the street. “When people in the Philippines hear you are studying martial they will attack you to test you out. And they may be my former students or black belts.”

I had visions of a gang of toughs waiting for me outside my hotel. In horribly dubbed English they would shout. “Your boxing style is no good. I will use my sticks to teach you respect. Now you must die!”

“Ah, but can your dragon beat my praying mantis?” I would counter.

In the Philippines, martial art is a living, breathing creature. Boxing is the most popular spectator sport and fighters like Manny Pacquiao are heralded as Gods. Don’t forget, the Philippines was the venue for the “Thrilla in Manila,” the third fight between arch rivals Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. Kuntaw, Arnis, Kali, escrima…whatever name you want to give it, these martial arts come from a long, proud tradition of practical application in wars as well as street fights and prize fights. The Philippines is the place to train or to fight and compete. As a foreigner it is easy to get a visa in the Philippines and you could train and live comfortably for $800 a month, including room, board, and tuition. That would give you several hours of private martial arts lessons everyday.

But don’t be surprised if someone jumps you in an alley to test your skills, just “Go with the flow.”


Antonio Graceffo is an adventure and martial arts author living in Asia. He is a professional fighter and the author of four books available on amazon.com. Contact him Antonio@speakingadventure.com see his website www.speakingadventure.com 

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