Three Paths Up the FMA Mountain (for Jason Spotts)

I’ve recently relocated back to the Philippines; so good to be back! Aside from getting reacquainted with long-seen family–some cousins I hadn’t seen since childhood–and seeing how the many towns and barrios have changed, I find myself often talking shop with FMA practitioners. This may sound like a stereotype, but unlike in the US one does not have to travel far or go on social media to find other Arnis practitioners. Especially here in this province, where my mother grew up, Arnis is practiced among many families and is a skill passed down like a favorite family recipe.

I am in Jalajala, Rizal, the site of a brutal battle between the Japanese and local guerrillas, of which many members of my family had fought, including my grandfather. I frequently hear of families who once had Japanese uniforms, the contents of wallets, swords, firearms, rank insignia, and even fingers–taken as trophies but sold to collectors, as my barangay is a poor one. In the Battle of Jalajala, 20,000 Japanese soldiers were killed in a literal bloodbath against my countrymen who were armed with farming tools: Machetes mostly, and made-to-order blades and bamboo spears. Few of these fighting men considered themselves martial arts “experts”. At a local gathering I encountered a group of young men sparring with sticks, and when I asked where they learned Arnis, most said they didn’t know Arnis, they just knew how to fight. Imagine that, LOL. Much can be learned from this example, that art and actual deployment of the art in combat are not always the same thing. Many people around the world have learned from teachers who have never fought matches, even teachers who argue against fighting matches. While all around me are young men who have learned from grandparents and great-grandparents who have killed men. Living with me right now is a cousin whose husband learned from my own grandfather, and lost his life defending a woman whose husband was beating her. My cousin seriously injured the man, but he incurred an injury that was infected and died from it. Arnis is like those family heirloom quilts you might have been given by grandma: beautiful, treasured, probably worth lots of money–but used on a daily basis. Arnis in this town is serious business, even if there are few self-proclaimed experts among us.

This area is also the birthplace of some serious martial arts experts as well. Over the years I have read accounts of masters whose teachers fought in the Battle of Jalajala. Without a doubt, the experience if you survived was most likely life-changing. My grandfather made many references to this battle, as his experience influenced how he taught the martial arts. My older cousins tell me that a Sikaran master had come to our town to fight my grandfather on several occasions. They had become friends, and my grandfather had developed many methods to defeating a kicker, as our style utilizes primarily low kicks. My cousin, who eventually relocated to Kenya, told me he had learned Tae Kwon Do while in Africa, and Papa taught him Sikaran when he returned, and told him to replace his TKD with it. But I digress…

One thing I noticed while talking with the various neighbors and family, no one studied for long. I have several cousins and uncles who took work outside the area as police officers and tanod (private security guards), who have great skill even in their older age despite only studying martial arts for a year or less. One Karate-Arnis teacher I met on the way to Angeles City told my mother and I that he learned Arnis from a friend’s father, only a few months worth of lessons, and learned Karate from books. But he is a long-time teacher with plenty of fighting experience and built his own system out of that tiny sliver of education. And this is not strange. There is no shame in admitting that one is an autodidact, nor is there shame in never having received formal rank in any art. There is no shame in creating one’s own style out of pieces of arts picked up along the way, nor do these men embellish grand stories about where they learned. What does matter to them, however, is that they have tested their skills on other fighters, and that their students skill speak for itself. God, I love the Philippines.

So I write this for all the martial artists I’ve met along the way, all those who have written me letters and emails, who have approached me in tournaments and open mats, who have visited my school–and expressed disappointment that they cannot have the ideal learning experience in the art, but do not wish to self-educated on DVDs and seminars. There are many ways up the top of the FMA mountain. I am positive that if modern-day media existed in the 1950s, our masters and grandmasters would have used them. My grandfather use to brag that he had been beaten by men, then returned several times to challenge (and often get beaten again) in order to decipher, figure out, “steal” the opponent’s techniques. This ain’t the rap game, folks, you are welcome to steal another guy’s lyrics. LMAO.

I still recommend traveling to meet and train with teachers. It’s a wonderful experience, and eating crow, suffering for an art is a very healthy, yet small price to pay for the experience. Sleeping on your master’s floor and eating what little bit of food you can buy in order to have enough money for transportation home is worth the wonderful knowledge your teachers will impart if you strive to go and visit them. But if circumstances cannot allow you to do such a thing, do not be ashamed to self-educate. I had a student from Canada for a few years, who would work for six months and save up the money to come and see me in my school in California with just enough money to train for two or three days, then he’d be off to Canada until I saw him six months later. This student was extremely diligent, had a very high tolerance for pain, very, very humble, and if I were to hear that he was teaching, although he never made it past my third beginner level, I would be confident that his students were in good hands. You see, because in the martial arts, we should be valuing quality, not quantity. Even your local boxing gym might be led by a man who did not have a professional career. We must let go of the notion that expertise requires years and years of study. If you are looking to learn to defend yourself, or learn the arts well enough to teach others to defend themselves, you pull knowledge from wherever you can find it. You don’t need a lot, but what you get, you must develop to a high degree. What is more important than a teacher, is a mentor. What I’ve realized from the descendants of the Jalajala guerrillas is that you don’t need much knowledge to kill a man and stay alive. What you do need is grit, toughness, and diligence–and of course, reliable skills to develop.

Now if your goal is to master the martial arts or develop your skills to a dominant elite level, we are talking about a whole ‘nother subject.

There are three basic ways up the mountain for aspiring FMA teachers:

    1. Find a teacher, and study with him full time until you have completed his curriculum and requirements for rank
    2. Find a teacher(s), and study with him when you can, until you have completed his curriculum and requirements for rank
    3. Find a teacher(s), study with him/them when you can, then supplement with as much information as you can gather, then follow the advice of a mentor while you navigate the martial arts experience to test, explore, and modify the knowledge you have acquired. Then declare your own rank when others see you as having arrived

You might be surprised if you are a long-time reader of my blogs. In the past, I have contended that one must stay under a master for guidance, but I realize that while that is the ideal method of learning, it is not the only path to advancement in the arts. We will peel back the layers of this philosophy–self-directed learning in the martial arts–in upcoming articles. By the way, make sure you pick up a copy of my newest book, Techniques and Fighting Strategy, found on the Offerings page of the site. And if you are on Facebook, make sure to look for our like page by under the same name as the blog and follow us! I post related memes and thoughts that may not appear on this site. Soon we will be adding a YouTube channel as well, so keep an eye for it! If you haven’t subscribed yet, go to the main page and subscribe so you don’t miss a single post! Thank you for visiting my blog.

FMA Practitioners vs Eskrimadors & Arnisadors

The best of us can learn something new, regardless of how advance or knowledgeable we believe we are. For growth in the martial arts, it is important to be highly competent, highly competitive, highly confident, and extremely humble. I could write a book on how humility is vital to the combat warrior, despite how much we might consider confidence and cockiness as virtues. To sum up my reason for saying this–humility allows us to learn and develop, and prevents us from becoming arrogant, overconfident, and underestimating the danger we face when engaging in combat.

That said, today’s topic is understanding the difference between the FMA practitioner and the Eskrimador/Arnisador. This is where my statement about humility comes in. See, many of my disagreements with the FMA community stem from my own misunderstanding about who are casual practitioners versus serious stickfighters. At the same time, my rants were actually to protect the casual practitioners who believe that they are Arnisadors as well as protect the purity of the art. I am well aware that this may offend many, but things need to be said, and brutal truths must be realize so that everyone may know where they stand in the art.

For years, many of my rants have been claiming that one cannot be a serious FMA man if you work a 40 hour job and practice Eskrima a few times a week. Of course, years ago I had to let that belief go when I relocated to California and met the acquaintance of the Stockton FMA men–who are unlike the Eskrimadors found anywhere on the planet. I had been accustomed to the casual practitioners of the East Coast, who had no masters to learn from nearby, and could only learn FMAs from teachers who traveled and taught through seminars–or teachers who learned from traveling masters. The FMA men I knew on the East Coast were basically Karate men or Kung Fu men who discovered FMAs late in life, and had only a few seminars per year of learning for their FMA education. I lived with my FMA teacher, so Eskrima and Arnis were things I did every day after school and weekend mornings before I left to attend one of the martial arts schools I belonged to as a teen. When I went back to the Philippines as a young man, for the first time, I noticed full-time Arnis masters who only taught FMAs for a living. The skill difference was like night and day between those teachers and the ones I encountered in America. This is the source of my arrogance as a young man. Like many young Filipino teachers, I walked away with two foolish ideas in my head:

      • No one is better at Arnis & Eskrima than a Filipino
      • The best FMAs are only found in the Philippines

Once I opened my school, I was fortunate enough to be able to make a living with my martial arts without having to work a full-time job, so this enabled me to train every day for hours. Some of the fellow teachers I befriended lived a similar lifestyle I led–training every day, finding creative ways to put food on the table using my school and my skill. I considered my martial arts skill as my bread and butter, so training was always my priority and an important part of my work day. This reinforced the bias I had towards my philosophy, and gave me some logic to my notion about the arts. I added a third idea: That the only way to truly be an FMA man was to be a full-time teacher. Some of you who have known me for a couple of decades have heard me say this many times.

Then I hit my 30s. At 30 years old I had moved to Sacramento, CA, 45 minutes from Stockton. A few weeks after I arrived, my uncle took me to Stockton and introduced me to several of the Stockton FMA groups. It was then that I had met Manong Leo Giron, who was a friend of my uncle’s, and his students, and several members of GM Angel Cabales’ Serrada Eskrima. This city’s FMA has a culture and history very unique and should be studied by any serious aficionado of the Filipino arts for several reasons. First, in 1999, Stockton was a city on the verge of bankruptcy, where decades earlier it had been very prosperous as both a farming town and a blue collar town. You have men who grew up working hard and eating crow and that toughness is something they bring to their Eskrima. Secondly, Stockton is a city where the White Guy is a minority. The ethnic isolation of American culture leads to a competitiveness–even rivalry among racial groups, but in Stockton you have Black men, Mexicans, Filipinos, and poor Whites living next door to each other. Stockton does not have Black communities on one side of town and Mexican on the other side; the ethnic groups live together and the divides are more along economic lines than anything else. This allowed the Eskrima groups of Stockton to have mixed membership and the brotherhood within those schools have the tough love that Latinos and African Americans are known for. I recall being told by Sacramento martial artists that Stockton Eskrima clubs operate like gangs. From their perspective I’m sure it looked that way because the Eskrimadors there pump iron, are covered in tats, and will fight if you come at them the wrong way. Judge if you’d like, but this cultural element gives Stockton FMA its own flavor and makes for a very street-ready FMA. The guys who came out these schools are pretty much street dudes, but they are every bit of martial artist. But unlike your average seminar attendee and DVD collector, most of the Guros there have used their FMA for something other than a YouTube demo. They live in a town where there is gang activity in every corner, and perhaps some of that environment had made its way into the FMA, but this is out of necessity and not for marketing purposes. Thirdly, Stockton’s economy requires even the most serious students to work full-time. There is no professional sports team there. There is almost no club & bar scene. This is a blue collar town, so most of the Eskrimadors leave their full-time jobs, and rather than hang out a sports bar or going to a night club–they are training. You will find guys who are cops, warehouse workers, school teachers, State employees, cooks–who have the same level of skill that full-time teachers of the FMA possess. Martial arts is serious business there, and it’s much more than an idle pastime. Lesson learned.

So we arrive at the point of today’s post. There is a difference between the casual practitioner and the Eskrimador. The main difference is what role your martial arts plays in your life. For some, Eskrima has no role in their lives besides a form of income or a casual hobby. For others, Eskrima has fully integrated into someone’s daily routine and the culture they live in. FMAs can be a block in one’s schedule, or it can be on the brain every day, all day long, and can be a part of one’s life. When you are a casual practitioner, you have classmates, and you may have had several teachers you learned from over the years. To an Eskrimador/Arnisador, your training mates are your brothers, your teacher like a father (how many of you have many fathers?), and you are stuck with these people for the rest of your lives. You name your children after them. You’ve attended each other’s weddings and funerals. You bicker like siblings, but guess what–they are still your brothers. This is more than a school you attend or a business you patronize; it is a brotherhood, and once you’re in, you’re in for life. You might as well be in a gang, because it’s that serious. And decades after you’re gone, what you left behind continues to go on as if you were there, in your name, sort of like a grandfather who has passed on, the system continuing to splinter off and grow branches bearing the same name like a family. The Eskrima you inherited from your teacher is not certified and promoted like some license that can be taken away–but bequeathed to the next generation like a family heirloom, a favorite watch willed to a son, or a physical, genetic feature passed to your offspring.

I still have some of my bias. Eskrima should not be treated like a business, and I hate to say it but the main people I see treating FMAs like a business and selling it to casual practitioners are my own countrymen. FMAs are a culture, and our schools and systems are families. There are technical differences, and we will address that in part II of this article.

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The Wayward Branch

“Listen 10 times, ponder 1,000 times–speak once.”

–Turkish proverb

One recurring theme you will see repeated on this blog is the idea that martial artists too often fail to think for themselves. Over the last half-century, you will notice that the tides of martial arts philosophy sways with the coming and going of “new” arts and training methods. Everyone, it seems, has had their day. Those who have dedicated their entire lives to an art will suddenly, after decades of training and learning (even teaching)–then drop what they are doing to get certified in and claim expertise in the “soup du jour”:  Ninjitsu, Muay Thai, Jeet Kune Do, FMA, MMA, Krav Maga, et al. Look back in the Filipino Fighting Secrets Live archives, you will see that I have often predicted correctly the “new” martial arts fad. I have notice in recent years, Datus, Tuans, Grandmasters of Southeast Asian styles, MMA wannabes once again don the traditional gi that they’ve tossed aside like a pregnant girlfriend and once again claim that they have always loved the Japanese/Okinawan/Korean martial arts styles that gave them their start in the arts.

So what happened? I’ll tell you. Somebody got out there in the fighting arena and showed that no, grappling does not beat traditional stand up arts every time, and that theses arts are valid as fighting styles… even in the octagon. Even in the streets. You would think that after 30, 40, 50 years of martial arts training, some of these guys would know that. Well, my observation that most martial artists–even you masters and grandmasters–have not done their own research. They hear once, they ponder once, then a thousand times–strap on the “expert” label and blab what they’ve been told as if this knowledge came from firsthand experience. Many will argue that there’s nothing wrong with this. After all, the masters who came before us were wise men and did the research for us and presented us the most valuable martial arts they could find. Right? Who are we to negate what they’ve done and reinvent the wheel?

That’s the thing, though. They did the research, and they presented the art that they found. I’m sorry to tell you this, my friends, but you have to get your own. Each generation that an art is not stripped down, crucified on the doubter’s cross, reexamined, tested, fortified, strengthened, and rebuilt/repackaged/repurposed–it becomes stale and diluted. Imagine two generations ago, your great grandpa died and left your grandfather his lifetime’s savings that he worked so hard to obtain. A whopping $25,000. Which would have been worth a whole lot more today, btw. Then your grandfather took that money, did nothing with it, then willed it to your father. Who in turn did nothing but save it, and then willed it to you. Bearing in mind that as interest rates stay the same and will add to money at a much slower rate than inflation decreases it’s value–how valuable do you think Great Grandpa’s $25K would be worth today? Not much. But if your grandfather used the money to start a business, multiplied it to say $50K, then your dad invested it and doubled that to $100K, and so on… do you see where I’m going with this?

If someone tells you something good, don’t just take it at face value and pass it on. Scrutinize it. Dissect it. Understand it. Find ways to diminish it and see if you could fortify it so that it cannot be diminished. See if you can fully understand it, test it, improve it, then pass it on. That’s the thing about “respecting” your master’s art. Every art had a previous form. Jeet Kune Do was once Wing Chun. Jow Ga was once Hung Gar and Choy Gar. Brazilian Jujitsu was once Judo. Judo was once Jujitsu. Even the sweet science had humble beginnings as a rudimentary form of fighting under the Queensbury rules. Everything can be improved. Everything should be improved. And each of us who learned from our teachers owe it to our masters before us to take the knowledge they’ve given, their life’s work–and continue the development. Each of us will run out of time one day, and leave unfinished martial arts for our students. If you ever find a master who said his art is perfected and therefore cannot be evolved or improved, I can assure you that your teacher is a foolish old man who is no master. For martial arts mastery is an action word. A martial art is not a “master”; one masters the martial arts. Mastery of an art is not something you do once and then it becomes a state. It is a process. The perfection of the art is an ever-changing, ever-evolving, evolution process that occurs over several lifetimes. Perhaps your teacher’s teacher began it, your teacher continued it, and today–the torch has been passed to you to carry on. Carry ON, not hold still. Capisci? When you are given an art, don’t become a follower of that art–become a student of it. Learn it, study it, especially after you have been granted teaching credentials. You may be an expert to the students and the general public, but to your masters and seniors–you will always be a student. And you should. Keep researching and understanding and developing.

So you do not want to just take art as-is and pass it on without a personal stamp on it, otherwise your martial arts system has wasted a generation on you. Give your students the best version of what you learned, because you didn’t follow your teacher–you were a student of your teacher’s teachings. Don’t give that art as it is because your teacher’s teachings; give it because of your own conclusions. Do it because you tested it, discovered that it works, and it makes sense.

This is why one mighty grand tree doesn’t just grow in one direction. It may have a big and strong trunk, but what gives that tree life are the many branches that shoot in many directions and feed the single trunk they all share in common. This is how arts benefit from having many views and variations and specialties within its family tree.

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Mastery and Innovation

In the path to mastery of the martial arts, including especially fighting arts such as Eskrima and Arnis–one must have a certain degree of innovativeness. While not absolutely necessary, for most martial artists perfection and a mastery-level degree of knowledge and skill is impossible without being at least somewhat innovative.

Before I begin, let me summarize the opposite approach to mastery. That is, mastery without developing new ideas and skills within the arts:

A rarely found type of master in the arts is one who has achieved pure perfection in the art–one who has taken an art as it was taught to him and execute this art with unmatched speed, power, precision, understanding, and timing. In calling this martial artists “perfect”, he is one who seemingly cannot be beaten. He is physically unrivaled by all opponents, and no equal or superior can be found.

If the above seems to be idealistic and impossible, that’s because it seems to be. Most of you reading this article have never encountered such a man and probably never will. I have met a few men like him, so I know this type of fighter exists. One would call him a Master because “good martial artist” is not strong enough a phrase to describe him. Just the idea of a man you cannot touch and have never seen lose is peculiar enough. There are such few martial artists out there who have reached this level of skill that most of us will never meet nor fight this type of man. I’m not talking about the Masters you see frequently on the internet and in books, DVDs and seminars. I’m not talking about the old man who moves “pretty good for his age”. I’m not talking about the beloved teacher of your teacher to whom you give respect because you love and admire him. I’m talking about literally the best martial artists you have ever seen. One who is stronger, faster, more agile, totally unbeatable than anyone you have ever seen. You do not need to imagine how good he was in his prime because you can see it. The guy in the magazines you would love to bring to your city to teach? Shit, I’m talking about the men HE talks about in his stories. Keeping this level of skill in mind, hopefull you can understand why I contend that the term/title “Master” is a highly overused, prematurely claimed, almost arbitrary, meaningless term today. Not only will 99.9% of those reading this article never meet such a man–99.9% of you will never reach this level.

So let’s move along.

Because pure physical perfection is such a difficult level of skill to reach, most dedicated FMA fanatics may be happy to discover there is another way to achieve mastery without undeservedly slapping on the title or paying a GM or organization for a piece of paper. It is still a skill-based method of mastering the art without having to isolate oneself from the world for five years and live the life of a celibate fighting monk. And this is to find shortcuts in the art.

If you are a long time follower of this blog, you might want to shake me and insist, “But you said there ARE no shortcuts in the arts!!”  Yes, I have said something similar to that many times. I never said there are shortcuts in the art, however–I said there are not shortcuts to proficiency in the art. One must still pay his dues, train diligently, study intensely, test frequently. Some may be able to shorten the length of time it takes to master an art by training more frequently and finding more or better opponents. Yet the path to mastering the art is the same: Learn, develop, train, test, revise, develop based on the results, and train with the outcome–then wash, rinse, repeat until no new discoveries are made. That process will never go away. Too often, in the martial arts, we want to take arts intact from our teacher’s curriculums to our students without dissecting his knowledge and revising it based on our tastes, fancies, failures and successes–then do this for a few years and then call ourselves a “master”. This is not the path to mastery. Mastery, my friends, is not a level or title people call you when you are popular or old. Mastery is a level of skill you achieve after treating “master” as a verb for many years until, as I stated a second ago, no new information can be discovered through testing (ahem, sparring and pressured use) and practice.

So where do shortcuts enter this process? Let’s take a scenario to serve as an example. You have an opponent who is greatly advantaged over you. He is faster than you are. He may be stronger than you. He may be more agile and evasive. Perhaps he has a sixth sense and can read what you are about to do–and blocks your strikes before your attacks even arrive. For all intents and purposes, he is a superior fighter. He has trained longer, he is more physically gifted, perhaps he has spent more time in the gym or the ring than you have. He is the better man than you and you say to yourself that perhaps you should just be realistic and accept that this opponent is the better man than you and you are about to lose. This situation seems hopeless, and all of us have seen outclassed fighters in the ring with the best fighter in the world, and you know from Round 1… He’s about to get his ass whipped. Well, now is the time for the shortcut. Your opponent has a gun, you have a knife. Find a way to beat him. All the chips are stacked against you, and anyone who isn’t a fool would bet the bank that you are too disadvantaged to be the victor.

Opponent is bigger, stronger, more athletic, faster, more gifted, has a sharper weapon than you. How can you beat him? Well, when you figure that out, then you have discovered the shortcut I am referring to, and you are approaching mastery of the art. Yes, the art should turn you into a human weapon. YOU should be the one who is faster, stronger, more agile and have more pain tolerance and better tactics in the fight. But we all know there are always better fighters out there. The true master is one who knows how to win a gunfight with a knife. He can touch the faster opponent on the chin and block his punches. He can knockdown the bigger, stronger fighter. He can make the sharper fighter look like a bozo. He can make the younger man look old. Every fighter has a thumbscrew, but it takes a true master of the art to know how to uncover and then exploit it. This is the difference between average martial artists who can only beat opponents when he has the upper hand, when he is faster, stronger, “better” than the opponent. The true master of the art may be outclassed, but he is never outsmarted. So yes, you don’t have to be the most fit. You don’t have to be the most powerful. You don’t have to be the superior opponent. But you find a way to be the victor anyway.

Does that sound impossible? Well remember… Buster Douglas beat Tyson. Ali knocked out George Foreman. Hopkins beat De La Hoya AND Trinidad. Tarver beat Roy Jones Jr. Randall beat Chavez. Many lower skilled, physically disadvantaged fighters have found a way to be victorious over superior fighters. Being innovative and finding ways to be the exception to the rule will help you maintain superiority even as an out of shape, aging master. Now… Go forth and make it happen.

Last article, I was told that my ideas were idealistic and that this level of skill does not exist. Well, my answer to that can be summed up in two maxims I was taught as a child:

  1. If you think you can, you are probably right. If you think you can’t, you are CERTAINLY right
  2. Those who believe secrets do not exist in the martial arts, simply have not learned any

This level of skill does exist. But it will never exist to you if you never pursue it–and you won’t pursue it if you don’t believe it can be achieved. That’s all I will say about this until later.

One last piece of advice, concerning shortcuts and innovation:  You must develop something unique. You must research. You must doubt what you know of the martial arts, try to disprove it or try to be disproved. You must test what you know and can do. You must seek out those who can beat you. You must gravitate towards your “haters”–those who don’t believe in your art and skills–not flee from them. You must find new ways to view and apply your craft. You must deconstruct the art your teachers gave you and put them against the question, “If I had to build this art from scratch, what are the most effective and efficient ways for me to do it?” See if your master actually did give you the best fighting art he could, and be prepared to admit if you find that he didn’t. Check to see if perhaps the skills he gave you are no longer relevent for today’s application, or if it should be tweaked. Find alternative ways to use the skills you already possess. Look for the weaknesses in what you do. Answer the question, “How would I beat someone using my art?”–and then find a way to counter the counters for your art. Step outside the box and break free of the same old way everyone before you trained these arts, and I guarantee that you will master the arts. You may not be carrying a warrior’s DNA in your veins, but it does not mean that the higher levels of the art are off limits to you.

And “Mastery” will no longer have to be a political or self-applied term for you.

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Personal Combat Styles

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

Thank you for visiting my blog.

To Master or Not to Master

What type of Filipino martial artist are you? How far do you want to take this thing? What are your goals in the arts? Is it necessary to complete curriculums, teach the art, fight in matches, cross train, or aim for mastery?

And that, today my friends, is the question. This question is not one that you need to answer aloud, but is one you should be answering to yourself so that you can navigate the martial artist lifestyle. “That” being the why of your martial arts journey–not so much the eight questions I posed.

You see, we tend to filter everything we see in the arts through our own eyes–and our eyes tend to be discriminating eyes. If I have an insecurity about my actual fighting ability, I have been traumatized after becoming the victim of a crime, or perhaps I am a natural scrappy guy who likes to fight, I might be guilty of seeing all study in the martial arts through the eyes of a fighter. If I aspire to be called some lofty martial arts title, or maybe grew up feeling pushed around or held back, I may see the martial arts as a journey that begins with a low rank and ends in a high rank. If I am a community oriented man, have an infatuation with Filipino culture, or an interest in Filipino history, I might look at the Filipino martial arts as a way of preserving, practicing, promoting, or rediscovering Filipino culture. There are many reasons for studying the art, and we must consider why we undertake this lifestyle as well as decide what we would like to do with our knowledge once we have it. Even if your purpose is undeveloped or as simple as you simply thought it was “cool”–each reason to study is valid and has its nuances. Your journey won’t be the same as someone in the same art with a different reason for study and a different plan for his acquired knowledge. Because of this, the question does not have a simple answer. Rather than try and answer for everyone, I will answer when I believe mastery of the art is necessary. You can then decide if you fit this category, and if this path is for you.

Studying by Seminar, Distance Learning, and Long Term Discipleship

The first part of answering this question is to state emphatically that mastery of the art can only occur after one has committed himself/herself to long term discipleship under a true master of the art. If you wanted to learn to become a master mechanic, you will not be able to achieve this goal under a man who has never worked on cars for a living. You will not learn it from a book. You will not achieve mastery of automechanics from YouTube clips. You will not be able to find a weeklong workshop anywhere that will give you the tools, I don’t care if the seminar was taught by Henry Ford himself. You can tinker around in the backyard and learn a few things on your own about cars, but that is nothing compared to the guy who spent ten years under the tutelage of the master mechanics at a car dealership. There are many lessons that, while may be revealed to you through trial and error–are not going to be learned like you will learn after repairing thousands of vehicles with all types of problems 40-60 hours a week for a decade. There simply is no comparison.

Yet, the Filipino martial arts community is heavily populated by men who have absolutely no actual combat experience, no sparring experience, have 20+ teachers (and fewer than 10 actual lessons with 19 of them), and learned from the same source as hundreds of thousands of other FMA students… who consider themselves a “master” of the arts. Preposterous.

If one is a “dabbler” or wishes an introduction into the FMA, then distance learning, seminars/workshops, and extracurricular classes in a school specializing in another art will suffice. These environments, whether the intensity is casual or whether the training is difficult, can do little more than introduce concepts and give moderate explanations about techniques and theories. However, for building an actual foundation in an art, a consistent and regular, regimented and ongoing program is needed. Just as you cannot expect to take 5-6 “seminars” in learning to speak a foreign language fluently, what the average FMA man is doing very similar to the old retired Navy veteran who can say “Please”, “Hello”, and “Thank you” in 10 different languages–but can’t hold even a basic conversation in any of them. Even most “veteran” FMA seminar jocks, who can ramble off Tagalog and Cebuanu terminology as a regular part of his speaking vocabulary and transition from drill to drill, showing a plethora of escapes, disarms, takedowns, and other wonderful demonstrations–cannot hold a “conversation” (i.e., sparring match) using 90% of his knowledge without a feeder or otherwise cooperative partner. Keeping the analogy of language going, a martial artist who can “flow” his techniques through demonstration but cannot fight with those same techniques has the fluency of a 6 year old child. That 6 year old can speak as fluently as the Eskrimador moves–just as quickly, just as clearly–but is no “master” of the English language. Bottom line, dabbling for 20-plus years does not a master make.

Defining Mastery

I’m glad you asked. In conversations like this, a common question is brought up. It goes like this:

To each his own. Who are you to decide what a ‘master’ is to me? We create our own path. We look at things our own way. My definition of ‘mastery’ may not necessarily be your definition. Who do you think you are? Master So-n-So has been in these arts XX years, and has taught hundreds–maybe thousands–of guys. He has world champions/Dog Brother members under him, I guess they’re wrong, huh? Blah blah blah, quack quack quack…

Rather than engage in this debate for the umpteenth time, let me throw out my very simple, short answer. And then expound on that short answer.

Plainly put, A Master is one who has left no stone unturned in his study and development of his art, and anyone in his presence dare not challenge his worthiness of the title.

Is that easy enough to understand? Notice that this definition has two parts:

  1. A Master is one who has fully studied and developed his art, and
  2. His skill is visible enough that no one would argue that he has, in fact, mastered the art.

We must demand more from ourselves besides simply learning techniques, drills, and new arts. I could learn all the mathematical equations in the world–but if I cannot apply those formulas in the real world and use them, that knowledge is of no use at all. Too often, FMA practitioners can demonstrate the art beautifully. They can look as deadly and impressive as ever. But if they cannot use this knowledge to stop a simple aggressive, unfriendly attacker, his demonstration was nothing more than slick choreography. At the same time, we have men who can fight. They can crack a skull, they have the pain tolerance to endure all types of stinging slaps from the stick, broken fingers, etc., but most of the techniques in their arsenal is not used in those fights because he has only developed 10% of what he knows–he is nothing more than a good fighter, not a master. He could be friends with the guy from Ong Bok, he could have hundreds of pictures with GMs and celebrities, he could have certified tens of thousands of students. But if his art has not been fully developed, investigated, absorbed into his reflexes, and can be/has been used against hundreds of opponents, he has not mastered the art.

And once all that research has been done, the sparring partners have been trained with and beaten, the art has been revised and reduced and concentrated and renamed–he should have developed his skill to such a high degree that most people who encounter him cannot name ten men with the same level of skill… or he is no master. You cannot call yourself a master when most people know plenty of people with better skill. Age is irrelevant here. If you’ve ever encountered a master musician (and I have) a master artist, a master mechanic, a master physician, a master of academics, a master chef–then you would know exactly what I mean. Many of us just don’t know what a true master is, so it is easy to call a likeable, older fellow with mediocre or above average skills as “Master”. I get that. But once in a while, you encounter a true master of the arts–any art. One who seemingly has no peer. One with nearly perfect technique. One who can answer every question, not from his opinion file–but his been there, done that file. To bring it home, at a bare minimum, and this is not mastery but the first step towards achieving mastery–you should have developed every strike in your arsenal to the level that you can shatter bones with it. I have met many so-called masters who tell me that they don’t do backhand strikes and abaniko strikes “because they aren’t destructive enough”. Telling that to a guy who can break objects with every technique in my curriculum is actually telling on yourself. Let’s be blunt here; very few men in these arts have full investigated their art. And very few have developed their physical skills to a destructive level, and this is just the ground floor of the uphill climb to mastery.

But of course, there are men who feel that fighting with blunt weapons and blades do not require physical fitness and therefore knowledge is sufficient to combat effectiveness. If that were true, I could put a razor-sharp blade in the hands of a determined 16 year old and none of these “combat experts” will fuck with him while empty handed. There is a higher level to this martial arts thing, and that path is not for everyone. Most guys don’t even know that the path exists. Let me drop a few tips that will help you get started on your path towards mastery:

  • perform every technique in your system–attack as well as defense–at least 5,000 times
  • face and fight 100 opponents
  • develop and train at least 3-4 defenses for every attack 1,000 times
  • regularly work with 500 repetitions in training
  • impact training and testing; you should be able to break wood, bricks, coconut, baseball bats with your skills
  • have a specialty, that if you used that skill, weapons or technique–you know you will defeat 90% of your opponents
  • you can actually BEAT 90% of your opponents and have done it regularly
  • accomplish and then revisit a technique that you have used 10,000 times–and do this regularly

To most people reading this blog, this section ^^ above will sound unrealistic. However, if any of you know my personal students, anyone who has studied with me more than 4 years has already done this. Plus I know several other martial artists who train this way and these numbers do not sound unreachable or unreasonable to them. If you truly want to explore the possibility of achieving mastery, give it a shot. It is a simple, but difficult goal to achieve. Anyone with the will, and anyone with the guidance and motivations can do it.

Depending on your goals in the martial arts, this may inspire you. Others may thing it’s overkill. Plenty of folks have ridiculed me for saying these things. But only those who have been to the summit of this climb know how real and lonely this journey is. This is not for the dabbler, and it is not for the guy who lacks the vision and stomach to make it happen. Achieve it and you will have few peers, but you will understand how silly awarding a “Master” certificate in a weekend seminar actually is. Yes, this is a physical goal and we did not touch on the nonphysical benefits of such a training regimen. Perhaps next time. Either way, there are many benefits to fully developing an art as far as your body will allow you to–and during this training you will find that your brain’s creativity will come up with much more material than even your teacher gave you. Understand that there is another dimension beyond simply knowing a martial arts, and another past being good at that arts. Few will understand, but take the nonconventional road to proficiency and that other dimension will be revealed to you. I hope this article sparks your curiosity to digging deeper than most of your peers will.

Before I let you go, I would like to introduce you to a FMA Vlog I recently came across:

His name is John, and he just started making videos such as this. Make sure you go over to YouTube and subscribe and support his channel. I suspect that there will be some great topics being discussed over there! Thank you for visiting my blog!

Why the “Perpetual Student” Is Misguided (10 Steps to Expert)

There is a concept often thrown around in the FMA/SEAMA circles (mainly, seminar circles) that I must challenge.

In the hopes of maintaining one’s appearance of humility, many claim to be “always a student” of the art. Some use this perpetual status as an explanation for always investing in their video collection and adding yet another seminar certificate to their walls. Some may use it to avoid claiming to be an expert or skilled, as this preemptively excuses mediocre skill. Then you have the guys who use this title to avoid being challenged in a community of martial artists who frequently challenge each other. And there are always the “Always Learning” guys who still claim to be experts and Masters–but are constantly adding to their knowledge base by attending and “researching” (put into quotation marks for a reason, btw–but more on that later). This last group irritates me the most, because they are (mis)leading others down the same path–when they should be leading students to fighting dominance.

In a nutshell, the Perpetual Student is like that beloved old guy who has been attending the local community college for 40 years and has amassed something like 15 degrees–still lives with his mom, and has never actually held a job although he’s damn near 70. For someone called a martial artist–this is unacceptable behavior.

If you were to visit a war-torn country, or a crime-riddled neighborhood, what would you take with you for protection, a prototype weapon that is still being tested? Or a reliable old 45 caliber that’s been used by hundreds of thousands of men in combat?

If you were a mugging victim who swore to never be a victim again, who would you go study with–the guy who has admittedly never fought in his life (but attends every seminar that comes to town) and is too chicken-shit to call himself an expert around other experts? Or the guy with one Black belt who promises you that after you train with him–no one on the street will be your match?

Some of us really need to think about the message we are putting out there. Often we tell more about ourselves than we think when we come up with clevel stuff like “I’m no expert, just a guy who loves the martial arts!”  You’ve been clearly eating too much tofu, dude… The least you could do is talk like a meat-eater!

There comes a point in a martial artist’s life when he has to put away the check book, take off the “student” label and become a scientist/fighter. We simply cannot avoid it, if we are indeed seeking to teach others to defend themselves. Martial arts technique must go through ten basic stages in its development. Too often, we take techniques from the Learning stage to the Teaching stage so quickly, teachers themselves fumble with them while teaching. I have witnessed GRANDMASTERS who claim to have studied these arts all their lives perform a technique as if they had just learned it themselves months earlier. I have seen two grandmasters get asked in a public forum about how to handle a very basic technique–and they both stuttered and fell over their feet trying to explain as if he asked them to calculate the circumference of the moon. You would think that if you have been doing this art for a lifetime and call yourself an expert–regardless of what age you are–such answers would be delivered as smoothly and straightfaced as you answering what your name is. But apparently, our ideas of what makes a Master or Grandmaster are vastly different.

The transition from Learning to Student must have several stages:

  1. Student learns technique
  2. Student practices technique
  3. Student becomes good at technique (practicing isn’t enough–you must have proficiency)
  4. Student learns to apply technique (because learning and applying are two different things)
  5. Student learns to use technique (applying is a little different than using… “how to throw” vs “how to fight with”)
  6. Student learns to fight with technique, even when opponent is countering (and then, ready?)
  7. Student learns to become dominant* with technique (more on this later)
  8. Student becomes teacher
  9. Teacher alters technique, based on proven experience with technique
  10. Teachers teaches technique to student

Notice, that while the Perpetual Student does get something right–the student status really is the most important part of the learning process–most FMA guys stop at Step II and go directly to 10. There is very little actual research with each technique. Most learn, practice casually, get promoted awfully quickly, and, barring a few concepts and independent ideas (often merely possible variations rehearsed with a friendly partner)–goes directly to the classroom to teach someone else. The learning process is thusly disrespected and taken for granted. No, the learning process is severely disrespected. You have seen, as well as I have, teaching certificates in the FMA community get awarded the same day techniques were taught. This is the reason not a single FMA tournament in America–and I can say this without ever going to every tournament in America–ever pits empty hand versus the stick in a match. Yet, we ALL teach it, don’t we? The reality is that there is a rush to promote those who learn the FMA to instructorship far too soon because most people are unaware how to judge the advancedness and expertness of martial arts skill. The FMA industry is much like the medical industry here–we are not in the business of building teachers, just the appearance of building teachers. Just like the medical industry is more in the business of treating patients than curing them–actually building teachers cannot be done on a mass scale, and requires closer, more individualized attention. A doctor who only has a few minutes with each patient must quickly guess what a patient needs and quickly write a prescription to get to the next guy–your friendly Mainstream Guro needs to hurry and sign certificates to get to the next city. Quantity over Quality.

Bottom line, the Perpetual Student is only interested in learning things that makes him look like a warrior, he does not actually have the stomach to become a warrior. So by calling oneself a “Student” and not a “Fighter”, he can comfortably continue what he had been doing for years–while in his mind BE whatever he envisions he is. The Student is like the 40 year old guy who never moved out his mother’s house; although he looks like a man, may have a job, might even have children, claims to be a man–in reality, he is avoiding actually BEING a man.

The Filipino martial arts cannot survive off of so-called experts who never give their knowledge a full course of study and development, and never feel ready enough to declare himself a true authority and stand on whatever his research and investigation has concluded. Another reason why tournaments, fighting matches, and allowing oneself to be challenged are all very important parts of the Filipino arts… and why those who dislike these pillars should be avoided if you’re serious about your martial arts.

Thank you for visiting my blog.