“Secrets” of the Filipino Fighting Arts
Words from a Modern-Day Warrior

Ninth Degree Eskrima Masters

I never really understood this one.

Let’s just say up front that I never liked the Black Belt ranking structure for the Filipino arts. I don’t have a problem with that structure being used for students as a way to designate the various levels of learning and accomplishment. We even tried it twice in my own school. It wasn’t for me, but I do understand why it is used and how it may be useful. Personal preference, to be honest.

For the expert (Black Belt) level, however, I totally dislike it. Here’s why.

In the Filipino arts, unlike in Karate, Kung Fu, Judo, Jujutsu, Aikido, and the like–we do not have the number of skills and techniques that they do. Our curriculum is more like boxing, with a small number of actual techniques, and a focus on skill-in-technique and strategy. Honestly, one could learn all the basics of boxing in a few months, just like you could in the FMAs. There are those who have more than others, but overall, we have fewer items to learn in our systems than in other mainstream arts. This is why so many of us feel we can impart the Filipino art through DVD, the internet and in seminars. It sounds normal doesn’t it? You can teach your whole curriculum by DVD so why not?

Question. Can you teach all the basics of, say Baseball, on a DVD? Of course. Now could a man who learned how to catch, hit, throw and run by DVD play baseball at the college level and be formidable?

If you answer “yes”, I’ll pause while one of your colleagues slaps you.

Of course he can’t. You can learn how to hit, throw, catch and run by DVD, but you sure as hell can’t play with any level of skill unless you got out there and played several seasons worth of games with actual teammates, a coach and rival teams. If you believe you can, no wonder the Filipino art is one of the most bastardized arts in the world–we are in BIG trouble. The truth is, this art is too complex if you’re dealing with more than just slapping hands together and playing pattycake with sticks to have a crash course and think you can defend yourself against determined, ruthless attackers on the street.

Back to the subject of rank, students have skills that have to be taught on a schedule. They must be learned in a specific order, and one skill builds the capacity to learn those of the next level. If you can’t perform or execute the lower skills with any proficiency, the skills at the higher level will be even weaker because they are standing on weak skills as a foundation. At the same time, belts may be necessary to define what point a student has achieved in his learning. I get that.

At the Expert level, however, in the Filipino arts most of your learning should be over. I can’t imagine what else a student has left to learn new once he has been studying for 4 or 5 years. Once your student arrives to this point, that you have given him the Black Belt or expert rating, he should represent the best you can put out. You should feel totally confident that any caller who knocks on your door for a match should be the victor if he fought on your behalf. If you do not have that kind of confidence in him, then perhaps you may be awarding Black belts to students before they are ready.

The question is, which Black Belt/Expert philosophy you believe in. Some believe the Black Belt is “the beginning”, which would make it an extension of the students ranks. Some believe it is the end of the long, arduous road to expertise. I liken the Black Belt status with the college degree; either you are qualified as a manager, accountant, school teacher, etc., or not. Now there are certainly levels–the Master’s and the PhD–but they have very specific skills to learn in order to earn those titles, and they have a number of years of study assigned to them. Unlike in the martial arts, the skill and knowledge difference between a 2nd degree Black Belter and a 3rd are completely arbitrary. In some systems, that is not true:  I have heard of systems that have curriculums all the way up to the third or fourth degree Black belt. There are forms to learn, techniques to learn, and physical/strength feats that must be accomplished for those levels. Do we have them in the Filipino arts? I think not.

And this is why I am against the idea of Black Belt levels in the Filipino arts. At most, we should have three: the expert, the teacher and the master. Experts know the curriculum all the way through and have excelled at it. Teachers have the additional skill of knowing how to to teach the material. Masters have mastered the technique as well as the art of teaching. Anything more than that opens your art up to rivalries and conflicts due to politics, disagreements and ego. Look at your own systems, am I right?

Either you know the material or you don’t. Nothing to argue about that, if you test your students properly. Anyone who doubts that student is qualified is welcome to come and *test* his knowledge personally. Either you can teach the art or you can’t. This test is not taken by the teacher, but his student. If you doubt that I know how to teach the art, send your best guy to try out my best guy. No need for a ten year internet war, you can settle this disagreement in an hour. Lastly, on the subject of mastery, if you do not have at least two generations of students under you, you are no master. At its most basic level, “Master” is another word for “grand-teacher”. Your students have students? You’re a master. There are other definitions of the word, but let’s save that for another article.

One last thought:  Testing. Test your students on other students, or test them yourself. Do not rely on streetfights to “prove” your student” ability. In my opinion, teachers who talk about their students beating up men on the streets are either lying, or they are encouraging their TRAINED students to attack UNTRAINED men on the street who neither are physically their equal or unaware that they are fighting a trained fighter. That is both dishonest and unethical. You want to see how tough your guys are? Then don’t pick on some unwitting thug on the street; call another gym who has tough guys, and get them together. Then make sure they show each other gratitude and respect when the fight is over, regardless of who wins. Then you and the other teacher, regardless of who won the most matches, do not brag about who beat who or mistreat the reputation of the losing school. This is how real teachers conduct themselves. One of the secrets of the masters. If you ever meet a man who brags about how many men he’s left in the dust and naming names, know full well, that you are not speaking with a mature master. He can brag without belittling the men who have helped him build his skill, knowledge and reputation–thus, earning his rank. And the real teachers will ensure that their expert students follow the same path he followed himself. Trust me, very few 9th degree masters have a teacher who is a tenth. Because a man who has earned his way all the way through rarely puts himself above his teachers. When a man  or woman becomes a Black Belt, he or she deserves to simply be among those of us who came before him. Hierarchy isn’t necessary; he’s earned his place.

Thank you for visiting my blog.

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7 Responses to “Ninth Degree Eskrima Masters”

  1. Well you did it again. A great article and ery true.

  2. Interesting read. Insightfull , informative and wise.

  3. belt ranking usually goes to martial arts that focus everything on unarmed that uses upper body striking and lower body striking (why you don’t see any belts in boxing). But because FMA focuses mostly on weapons, it wouldn’t make sense for it to have a belt system unless it was doing something unarmed like muay thai, karate and the likes.

  4. Training Modern Arnis , I soon realized that the Arnis part of the curriculum could be learned in a short period of time. Not mastered but learned so as to practice. The mantra is that Arnis is deep, and techniques never stop. Finger lock flows that I later found out are Small circle Jujitsu seem to be the bread and butter of our system ordained sacred by our founder. I never thought about how boxing is not on a belt system. Imagine what boxing would be like if there was no sparring in the ring.

  5. Savate (Boxe Francaise) uses colored gloves in a manner similar to belt ranks. They also have very interesting (and athletic) stick work (la canne).

  6. Your points are excellent. How can I purchase your DVDs?


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