If you’ve been around for a while on the non-seminar side of the FMAs, you may be familiar with this term, the “Personal Combat” style. Other terms you may hear are something like “Combat Arnis”, “Combat Judo”, “Filipino Karate/Filipino Kung Fu”, etc. My old friend and for a short time, mentor, Carlito Lañada, who is the founder of Kuntaw ng Pilipinas/IKF is often smeared on the internet for a similar thing. I would like to explain a little background on the origin of this term, as told to me by my grandfather. It may not explain all of the origins of the terms, but it will definitely shed some light on it. So for those whom this does not apply–don’t take offense. I’m merely passing on what I was taught.
So here goes.
Understand that the Philippines is a melting pot for Asian culture, and as a result–our language, our food, our superstitions, and even our martial arts have influence from outside sources. I know that people like to search for purely Filipino arts and techniques, but if anyone ever passed up an FMA simply because it had some elements of non-Filipino arts involved in it… I got news for you. Having mixed origins is very Filipino. Being newly created by the teacher is very Filipino. Being only one generation old, very Filipino. Being obscure and unorthodox, very Filipino. In GM Lito’s case, his Kuntaw ng Pilipinas has Shorin Ryu origins. The forms themselves are personalized touches on Okinawan forms. Master Lañada himself, prior to his new art, was a member of the Happy Eagles Shorin Ryu club. But he adopted this style for himself, came up with a practical and Filipino-ized version of the art, adding Arnis, angles, and structure. Regardless of what people may say about his art having non-Filipino origins–that art is Filipino. “Filipino” Kuntaw/Kuntao of Mindanao itself has non-Filipino origins.
But this article isn’t about what makes an art “Filipino” other than the nationality of its founder, its about the personlization of arts. So let’s go back to that discussion.
I believe that the whole idea of styles outlasting their creators is a new thing. Every person who learns an art, at one time, personalized his art. Very few fighters had only one teacher, in fact, and not all techniques were learned from a teacher or an expert. If you look at the histories of most of our older masters, you will hear them refer more to training partners, sparring partners, and past opponents more than they will refer to their teachers. It is a very non-Filipino institution to think that martial arts that came from a source other than a bonafide “master” was illegitimate. Most of our manong learned from a family member or family friend. Sometimes, a local teacher had only minimal training himself. However, what stands out for the customary martial arts source and the modern martial arts “teacher” is that the Filipino uncle, father, or family friend who taught the Eskrima is not pointing to a scrap of paper, an organization, or past teacher’s reputation for validation. The truly Filipino litmus test for credibility is strictly whether or not that person had fighting experience, and if he still possessed the ability to fight. As a boy I remember seeing men who worked as farmers, construction workers, working on base (at Clark AB, Angeles City) winding down their day, eating food and sparring with each other. Some were better than others, some were stronger than others, but all could fight. Our family was one of the few families with a lifelong Eskrimador, so anyone who knew how to fight hung out with us. I heard the stories, and few spoke much about who they learned from and instead talked more about who they trained with to develop the skills they had. As a young adult, I have hung in groups of other young fighters who have done the same with boxing and karate. Some had formal training, many did not, but everyone trained hard and fought hard. I consider these fighters to be just as credible as anyone paying his dues in a dojo. According to our culture, there is little difference. We are a practical people.
And I said all that ^^ to say this: In the older model of passing along martial arts, you learned from whomever you came in contact with. You practiced, and then you tested yourself out on other guys just like you. Sometimes you will have a passion for the stuff and train a lot; sometimes, you only practiced sometimes, and whipped out your skills at social gatherings or actual fights. But credibility and validation in the western sense did not exist. All that menered was if you could use the art you had. And I am proud to report that because of the culture of the Filipino, nearly everyone could. Now there were many exceptions to this, but I wasn’t raised around large organizations and formal schools. Training was conducted about 100 feet from our home. And I would argue that it was more useful, more valid, than 90% of those who came from schools with histories.
Today, Filipino martial arts is sophisticated and much more developed than it was 30 years ago. In fact, it is too sophisticated. With the amount of information and cross-pollination influencing today’s martial arts curriculum, if you factor how much time and interest the average student has to develop and process this information–today’s student is receiving more than he needs. Arnis students today are little more than collectors of drills and techniques, very few even devote enough time to obtain the physique yesterday’s FMA man possessed. About ten years after I began my martial arts training, I was old enough to travel alone and began to meet and train in some well-known, established FMA schools. I found that in many of the cases, I was stronger and more combat-ready than even many of the teachers I encountered. Today at 47 years old, I no longer attribute this fact to the superiority of my family art. I realize now that a student must have sufficient time and drive to process the amount of information learned. I had the same techniques and strategy that many of my counterparts had–except my curriculum consisted of much less than theirs. But unlike them, I did not work a regular job or attend school and was able to spend entire days training where students of larger schools only attended two hour classes a few days a week. In addition to that fact, my grandfather was part of the old guard who judged martial ability by only two factors: one’s effectiveness in combat and one’s destructive power. The two things I did most through my training were sparring and breaking things with my hands and sticks, and these two things were done by my counterparts the least.
I have mentioned several times that I had a teacher whose name I’ve forgotten in Angeles City, Pampanga. I quit his school in order to devote more time to Bogs Lao’s rigorous training. Before I left, I had a sparring session with the teacher’s son, and after the fight, he told me that the Eskrima I had learned was “combat eskrima”, where his was “classical eskrima”. I would encounter this term over and over throughout my life. Most of the time it was used, there were essentially two definitions:
- The martial artist who adopted the term had learned a “full art”–meaning a full curriculum–but chose to specialize and streamline a highly concentrated, potent version of the full art for fighting. Not wanting to use his name, a student of late Grandmaster Ernesto Presas, had such a term for his arnis. He had a Black Belt in Arjuken, which consisted of learning Judo, Shotokan, Kendo, and Arnis. But his “Combat Arnis-Karate” only contained favorite fighting techniques that he used for fighting–and he was extremely effective in fighting. No drills, no forms, no give and take, no disarming. Just attacks and defenses. He kept the original curriculum intact, but created a sub-art for himself, which he canonized for himself for fighting.
- The martial artist who took what he had learned of an art (if he formally studied it at all) and forged it into a combat-ready fighting style. I met a man who called his art ComJuKa Arnis, not associated with Grandmaster Ruby, who learned local Arnis from several people, and studied Karate and Judo from books. My cousin was one of his sparring partners and brought me to him to fight. Prior to meeting him I had studied Judo but only learned one skill, which was randori (throwing and sweeping), but had done enough with bigger opponents that I could easily beat most guys my size–plus I was well-experienced in fighting. This man, whose only formal training had been in stick and knife fighting, was one of the toughest fighters I’d faced in my youth. I don’t remember his name, but I would argue against anyone who claims he was unqualified to claim Karate and Judo. And there are many like him. May have only observed Judo, Kendo, and/or Karate–but trained with what they knew or came up with, and used it so often against opponents that they were extremely effective.
I would like to say something about these two definitions. Yes, it is true, that many of us who learned Karate or Judo from our FMA teachers may not have a clear lineage of who taught them. I was fortunate enough to meet men who were unapologetic about not having teachers or about how they learned, because it saved me from the foolishness of worrying about lineage and formalities. For our culture, rank and title and lineage are not as important as actual, developed, provable skill. As long as the person wielding that art can use it and back up the claims he makes about his creation–we don’t have a problem at all. But there is a third definition, which I don’t think needed to be added–but let’s add it anyway:
3. Those who wish to differentiate their art from others like it as “strictly made for the purpose of fighting”. This is sort of the reason I named my personal Eskrima style “Gatdula Fighting Eskrima”, as not all Eskrima styles are appropriate for fighting. Our old men understood this, that some arts were merely art forms, and others were created for actual life-and-death combat. This shouldn’t require any further explanation.
So when a master tells you he can teach you either Arnis or if you’d like, “Combat Arnis”, you should know exactly what he is talking about.
When they say that the old Filipino masters took techniques and arts from wherever they could find it–don’t think for a minute that “wherever” always meant formal training. Just remember that the only thing that matters is whether or not those techniques will allow you to walk home or be carried home.
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