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

Thoughts on FMA Empty Hand, pt II: “Translating”

This article is a continuation of yesterday’s article, answering a reader’s question about the effectiveness of FMA empty hand. If you haven’t read it, please do, because you will need to understand where I am coming from in order to fully grasp what I am saying here.

One part of Mike’s question is that he wanted to transition from weapons to empty hand, and this is a conversation that I believe is sorely needed in the Filipino arts. My articles on this blog, which I’ve got several that address this idea, are almost always met with anger and opposition and even a few challenges here and there. Unfortunately, the only two who had ever shown up to follow through have been non-FMA guys who had limited exposure to the FMAs. Both, in fact, became students of mine. So let’s just give the short answer first, then I will give the longer answer afterwards.

In short, weapons translations to empty hand is a waste of time if your interest is combat and self defense.

And here’s why.

I have yet to meet, spar/fight, or see spar/fight a martial artist who subscribes to this philosophy who could spar or fight well. Are there Eskrimadors who can fight empty handed? Of course, there are many. But I have never met a man who can fight empty handed using skills called “Empty Handed Eskrima”. Where I’ve met Eskrimadors who can fight empty handed, he is using Muay Thai, boxing, BJJ, or something else. Trust me, I’ve tried! But I gave up in the 1990s on finding FMA guys who could use this stuff, and then I just changed my focus on developing what I do into something that is hard to beat. I doubt there are many men reading this article who have been challenged as often as I have, so good luck finding such a fighter. Now, for those who wondered if I believe that FMA empty hand is ineffective… No I don’t. I understand and teach many of the things taught in seminars and DVDs and certification courses, but as I say in my articles–they don’t work the way most people teach them. This is what is ineffective. Ideas like “catching a jab”, gunting, and other FMA empty hand staples are in fact effective, but the way most people teach them will get students clobbered on the street. The test of it all is if these skills can be used effectively and with dominance against a non-FMA man who is both an adversary as well as unfriendly and combative. In the rare occasions I have seen FMA folks use their empty hand skills against myself, my students, or a non-FMA fighter the skills were ineffective. So if someone would like to demonstrate these skills used effectively, I’d welcome the opportunity.

This is not to suggest that weaponed movement is not similar to empty hand movement. Doesn’t take advanced science; of course the movements may be related. But it is NOT true that if you study stick fighting, “you can pick up a stick, a knife, a broom, a sword, a common household object, blah blah blah, quack quack quack…”  We need to stop spreading that nonsense. A fist is a fist, a stick is a stick, a small blade is a small blade, a staff is a staff, and a nightstick is a nightstick. Each of these are very different from the other, and must be learned and trained separately. So an Eskrima #1 to the temple may come at the same angle as a right hook, an Eskrima #1 with a knife, and an Eskrima #1 with a staff–but the distance is completely different, the damage caused is not the same, power is generated completely differently, the TARGETS on the opponent will be different, and the method of defending each is not even closely related to the other. For example, let’s create a small matrix below:

  1. Eskrima #1 with rattan stick–distance of about 3-4 feet away/designed to break or shatter bones/power generated mostly with arm/striking the temple, neck or eye socket/defend by leaning out, stopping striking arm with either hand or blocking stick itself close to the opponent’s hand
  2. Hook Punch with fist–distance of 2-3 feet away/intended to lacerate eye or rended opponent unconscious/power generated from waist/targets are eye socket, jaw, cheekbone/defend by raising elbow to meet punch, ducking, shooting punch straight at opponent’s face while protecting jaw with punching arm’s shoulder
  3. Eskrima #1 with knife–distance less than 3 feet/intended to cut flesh/power originates from attacker’s grip, arm movement, and how much of blade makes contact with skin/targets are primarily neck, face, arms–but any available exposed skin (may not damage if opponent is wearing jacket, sweater or blade is serrated)/defended by blocking followed by grappling, intercepting, or evading
  4. Eskrima #1 with staff–distance greater than 4 feet/used to break bones or maintain range/power generated by momentum of the strike/targets are head and limbs/defended by intercepting opponent’s range of motion at close range

Throw in speed (each of these are used at different speed and tempos), ability to attack in combination (some weapons are likely used in combination, others will be single strikes), and either fighter’s familiarity with the weapons–you will see that you cannot simply “translate” one to the other without any serious study. Each is so different from the other–they are completely different arts and skill sets. So while they all come at a similar angle, once cannot just make a blanket claim to proficiency or ability at each weapons just because you know Eskrima. It is impractical, dishonest, irresponsible, and foolish. Try a stick defense against a knife, and you’ll be in big trouble. Use a hook defense against a staff, and prepare to be thrashed. The footwork is different for these weapons, the timing is different, and the distance and likelihood of a counter attack varies, depending on which weapon is being used. To think that one can translate a staff to a hand, a knife to and elbow, a chair to a rattan stick is naive and foolish. Shame on the teachers out here teaching that stuff.

In order to be an effective empty hands fighter, you must simply train and investigate empty hands fully. Eskrima Empty Hands can be highly effective, but one cannot just devote 15 minutes of class time to it, playing patty cake and hitting focus mitts and think you’re preparing for the streets. The nuances and intricasies of fighting without a weapon must be dissected, studied, trained, and tested–then studied some more. Much more than what the average FMA guy is doing, and darned sure not in the same way you would practice stick and knife. If I could ever fault our pioneering Grandmasters in the western FMA world for anything (besides promoting this as an art one could “add-on” to other arts in seminars and video), it would be this one fallacy, that learning weapons means your empty hands improves. It simply is not true. They are separate schools and separate specialties. Students will suffer a great disservice by teachers who teach and promote classes without fully investigating these skills and subarts. It would be better to drop those weapons from one’s curriculum and inform students that we have not specialized in those arts, than to lie to them and say we know it all because we know how to swing a stick. If you want to become proficient at small blades, you must train primarily with small blades. If you want to become an expert at the rattan stick (as opposed to the hard wood stick; I consider these different weapons and skill sets), you will need to choose it as a specialty. If you want to specialize with the staff, empty hands, the bolo, yo yo, or other weapons–you must undertake it like a college major. The Filipino martial arts are indeed one of the great combat arts. Our arts are practical, simple, and deadly. We are most effective at fighting with weapons, rivaled only by Japanese Kendo/sword related arts. Our masters are walking libraries of information because unlike most other stylists–they have actually fought with the weapons they teach. But they are not all-inclusive. Just as a libary is a place of learning for nearly all subjects, you cannot possibly know everything just because you walk in one–not even just because you work in one. You cannot absorb knowledge through osmosis. The information is there, but most of it must be explored, deciphered, and developed. Sticks and knifes can indeed enhance empty hand skill–but this is not automatic, and it is not 100% relatedable. Please remember this. We are, at our core–weapons fighters.

I should also add that it is not necessary to go to other arts to supplement FMAs as well. There is enough in the Filipino arts to gain this knowledge; but it must be studied, trained, and tested. In tomorrow’s segment, we will discuss how to do so even further. Thank you for visiting my blog.

And if you haven’t read my book, How to Build a Dominant Fighter, make sure you get it. It is an easy, quick read; my training philosophy is summed up in its pages. It’s a great place to start!

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2 Responses to “Thoughts on FMA Empty Hand, pt II: “Translating””

  1. great article. i agree BLACK TIGER KUNTAW

  2. Good article Guru. I hope you’re doing well.


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