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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Missing Pieces of Modern Eskrima Practice, pt II

I am the world’s biggest procrastinator, I swear…

So I’m doing a little maintenance to the site, which I haven’t done in a few year actually, and I come across my folder of unfinished “articles”. I put articles in quotation marks because it’s really just the titles that I put up with a small note I left for myself three years ago to write out the entire idea. (This is how I organize future articles while I’m thinking about it–I start the article, then leave it to be finished later. In this case, just a title)  This is meant to be a series from the original article, which you can find here. Like I said, I’m a huge procrastinator. My long time readers will attest to that.

And the note?

create, then seize the moment to kill

I often joke that my mother is a drama queen. Well, I happen to have inherited that trait as well. Anyone who knows me and my approach to the martial arts–whether we are discussing Eskrima or Kung Fu or anything else–will tell you that I see this arts not as something fun or technical, but serious business.

See, the modern Eskrimador has come to see the FMAs as anything from highly technical skills of reflexes, to the fanciest ways to take a stick, to weapon complements to other skills like kicking or grappling. Sometimes, you’ll witness FMA guys so eager to show how Eskrima does everything from fighting with a scarf to a whip to grappling to throwing axes and blowdarts–that they forget it all began with a stick. Yes, the stick can be used to choke, and the abaniko strike can be used to set up an arm lock. But how about breaking some bones with that stick? You know, like the masters use to do? When I look at the old masters move, I can see in their choice of play as old men that they once use to break things with those sticks–not play patty cake or rolling around on the ground humping each other with their baston. It’s a stick. Learn all that other stuff if you like, but if you can’t crush an eye socket or break a clavicle with that thing, you ain’t doing Eskrima. I’m just saying…

We’ve all heard Eskrima in its rawest form referred to as “Cave-Man” style. Don’t laugh; there is a lot of truth to it. Eskrima/Arnis, in its purest form, is a very rudimentary, brutish art designed to smash whatever is in its path. <— At its core. However, there are many skills, advanced skills, if you will–that make this elementary-but-effective art as sophisticated and advanced as any other art out there. Those things aren’t easily identified by casual onlookers. Not even obvious to casual, self-proclaimed “enthusiasts”. This installment’s missing piece, the skill of creating then exploiting the kill, is a forgotten, but vital, piece of the pie.

I could explain this skill in a few sentences, but it would take me years to teach it to you in person. This is why this missing piece is a dying art. Students don’t hang around their teachers long enough to get those lessons, and too many teachers out here have trained in a way that they never learned the skill themselves. If you believe that experience is the best teacher, this missing piece is the antithesis to that saying. For experience is not the best teacher–pondered, studied, evaluated experience is the best teacher. And it must be the right type of experience. “Experience” is not time spent studying or training solo. Experience is referring to time that the art has been learned, trained and developed, then put to the test against opponents who are seeking to challenge everything you’ve done. The skill of creating opportunities to use finishing techniques, and then the ability to employ those techniques in the blink of an eye–which is what we are describing here–cannot be taught in a seminar, book, or DVD. In Eskrima, what means the difference between life and death is not how well your left hand can twirl as good as your right, nor how closely your blade techniques look like your hand techniques, nor how many disarmings you know. What does matter are things like if you possess the power to kill a man with your stick or to cripple him, if your eyes are quick enough to recognize a flaw in your opponent’s movement or if your hands are quick enough to strike, or if your footwork is complex enough you can stay one step ahead of your opponent that he is always off balance and you are always ready to pounce. These skills are a combination of knowing tactics, knowing the responses to those tactics, knowing the appropriate responses to those responses, and the ability to finish the fight when you decide the fight should end. It is a combination of psychology, physics, anatomy, power mechanics, mastery of movement, and mastery of the ability to control the opponent’s actions.

Allow me to give you some tips on how you can explore this skill on your own. Rather than spending time learning the newest drills and grappling moves with stick, I would highly recommend returning to the days when you sparred regularly–and then seeing if you can apply these ideas:

  • learn to use light, energy-saving strikes to create openings. whether you are engaged in a weapons vs weapon or empty hand vs weapon fight, your ordeal may rely heavily on conditioning. one cannot go into a fight moving at 100% speed and power because regardless of your fitness level, exhaustion can come very quickly. even if your opponent moved at top speed as well, the timing difference between the fastest guy and the slowest guy can be as slight as a fraction of a second. purposely move slower to throw off your opponent’s timing and set him up for the kill. you move slow, he moves fast, the chances of him overshooting a block or move are great. the recovery time of a missed full power blow is dangerously longer than a half-hearted strike that is really just a wind up to a killing blow. by the way, if you click the link a few sentences back, it will explain much better than I am now, and here is part II of that article
  • make use of feinting and faking. I’m sure everyone is familiar with the benefits of feinting and faking, but very few people practice them. in fact, the only guys I see utilizing feinting and faking regularly are those who are actively fighting competitively-yet very few people actually train them and come up with strategies using them! they are a vital tool in point fighting, but since most FMA guys hate point fighting, they never develop this skill. well I’ve got news for you. boxers, fencers, and knife fighters on the street engaged in KvK fights use them–and Bruce Lee admired boxers and fencers and use to be a street fighter. will you listen now? develop your ff skill until you can make your opponent drop his hand, raise his hand, disrupt his guard, move his feet, etc., at will–and you will be able to determine when the point the fight ends and you get to go home. this ain’t just for trophies and medals, this is life and death
  • grapple. huh? wasn’t I just complaining about people grappling with a stick in their hands? yes. but that’s not what I meant. I’m not talking BJJ with a stick:  I’m saying learn to use that non-weapon hand for something other than slapping and disarming. your free hand at close quarters can be used to push the opponent. when the opponent readjusts himself from being pushed–you finish him. or pull him, and when he attempts to move back, finish him. or knock his hand down, grab his hand, and so forth. slap him, scratch him, distract him, and while he’s dealing with that pesky free hand of yours–crack his cranium.

I’m going to stop here. But hopefully you get the idea. There is a lot you can do to learn to fight with weapons besides how many ways you make music with your sticks. Sinawali music, that’s cute. Well, take this tip from the old school guys and learn to create opportunities to strike and develop the ability to exploit them before the opponent realizes what happened. You’ll go far.

Stay tuned for part III!! Thank you for visiting my blog. If you like our articles, please subscribe and share them with your friends!

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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The Devastation of Eskrima’s #1 Strike

Most styles of Eskrima have as their #1 strike an out to in strike to the temple or a downward strike to the crown, nose or collarbone. Both of these strikes, in my opinion are underrated and can be your best weapon if you treat your Eskrima with respect.

“With Respect”?

Yes, with respect. See, most FMA people (and this includes most teachers) do not respect the Eskrima Day Number one basic skill enough to practice it. Let me explain:

You pay your money, buy your school T shirt, buy a stick. You’re taught to salute, learn a few Tagalog terms–“Handa, Galang, Magpugay, Suntok, Guro, Isa, Dalawa, Tatlo…”, how to hold the stance, learn a little history, the stick is a machete is a knife, is a hand, blah blah blah… Now here’s strike #1, strike #2, strike #3, strike #4. Now here are a few drills…

Several months later:  Here’s drill #15….

Teacher teaches the first strike on the first day of class, and never teaches more than the same basic description unless another new guy joins. There is no in-depth study of the strike. No return to hone, fine-tune, or perfecting. It’s almost as if the #1 was only taught so that you can do the sinawali without getting your hands crossed up… oh wait–you need to practice more sinawali drills before you’re good enough to learn the next one.

And this is why I say your Eskrima was not treated with respect. First of all, two questions:

Can you kill with your #1 strike?

Can you throw a #1 strike that can neither be blocked, evaded, or survived?

They sound like silly questions to someone who neither understands the devastating effects of a fully developed, fully trained and respected #1 strike. First, the #1 strike, depending on how your systems uses it, is a throat slashing, cranium splitting, hand-dismembering weapon. You can cripple a man, end his life, kill a group of men within seconds with that strike your Guro “taught” you in about 2 minutes on your first day of Eskrima practice. Maybe some teachers may have students practice the #1 for a few minutes before teaching the next move. Most often, I have witnessed teachers teach their entire basic striking series within 5 minutes of a students first day! This is clearly someone who doesn’t think very highly of that strike, and those two strikes are often the most practical (or only practical) skills in that teacher’s entire arsenal.  Don’t laugh, I’ve seen it, and I know it’s true.

The basic strike must:

  • be pack bone-shattering power, whether executed at close quarters or long distance
  • be completed in the blink of an eye, whether the fighter is in a fighting stance or in a neutral position
  • be accompanied by footwork that is so fast, so accurate, and so explosive–that the opponent can not escape it once you have locked into a target, nor can he be able to counter it
  • be capable of breaking the opponent’s arm or stick if he attempts a block
  • be delivered from any variety of positions and foot maneuvers
  • *be delivered from any hand position*

And let me elaborate on this last item (be delivered from any hand position). It doesn’t matter what you were attempting to do or where your hands are when it is time to deploy this weapon. The Eskrimador, before he should bother with disarms, take downs or tricks–should have thrown his system’s basic strike more than 10,000 full power blows just to achieve adequate skills to move on. I am amazed by how many Eskrimadors are doing “advanced” Eskrima whose wrists and forearms are not strong enough to strike 500 blows without getting blisters. Boxers who are training for competition often will throw 5,000 or more punches in a day’s training, for a fight where he will only be expected to throw 50 – 80 punches per round. In the few seminars I’ve taught, I notice that many Arnisadors find it difficult to throw 100 full power strikes with a basic, first-day, number one strike. Back to my point, once you have developed your Arnis skill to the point that you can deliver 500 strikes with full speed and power, you will be able to accomplish this simple use of the basic strike. And just as I wrote it, a fighter should be able to change positions, stop his motion in an instant and deliver a deadly, wig-splitting, juglar rupturing, neck-breaking basic Arnis strike as soon as he needs it.

I must make this point:  Too often, Arnis is practiced as a coordination skill rather than as a destructive power that can cripple or maim–even kill–a man. Too many people value the “drill” or the fanciest disarms, rather than how much damage one can inflict with that little stick of yours. I have noticed the new trend in the Filipino arts is to use your stick to whip up a man, and then forget about the stick to resort to Brazilian Jujitsu when the potential Arnis victim closes the gap and turns it into a wrestling match. Excuse my rudeness, but if you need grappling for your FMA, you have forgotten what these weapons were made for. Develop a strike that hurts, injures and sends men to the hospital, then you won’t have to add other arts to back your Arnis up. Train those stick strikes until you can break bricks with them. And, yes, an Arnis stick can break bricks.

Back to the conversation–we need our strikes to be mastered and perfected so that you can pull the trigger when you need it. The reason a grappler can get past a 28″ stick is because your reflexes and strikes are not developed and accurate enough to stop any man you encounter. Don’t worry if you spar and it get beat; it just means you have more developing to do–not that Eskrima is insufficient. Every old master I’ve met in the Philippines didn’t have fancy drills and disarms. Most didn’t even have names for their techniques and styles. They offer the most simplistic of instructions for Arnis: Develop your hands to be like a hair trigger to a mobile sledge hammer. Develop your feet to become lightning quick so that no man can catch you, and no man can escape you. Be capable of covering 4-5 feet in a split second. Be capable of popping a coconut with your strike.

Then as your opponent is trying to figure you out, and you are trying to figure out your opponent–your eyes are searching for a chink in his armor. The momentary loss of balance, eyes pan down to obstacles on the ground. a quick distraction, a missed attack, a reaction to a successful strike… And then end that fight before your opponent blinks next.

^^ And this is one of the secrets of the masters. Modernize, develop new theories, come up with great ways to showcase the Philippines and our arts. But do not do so at the expense of forgetting the age old wisdom of our great masters who created this arts. I want you to commit that last two paragraphs to memory, because if you only learn your style’s first strike and then follow the advice of these two short paragraphs–it will be all the martial arts you will ever need. Develop your attack to a high, lethal degree–and then develop your reflexes and awareness to know the right time to strike… and no opponent can defeat you.

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Time for an FMA Revolution, Part II

This is a continuation of an article I wrote last year introducing a few suggestions about an “FMA Revolution” I thought should take place. If you hadn’t read it, follow this link and take a look. I think you might see some things that will help you bring your martial arts up to modern times. Times change, along with the needs of the average student of those times. Everything from the needs of the martial arts student, to how the art is imparted, to who the art is used against–all change. 100 years ago, Arnis fighters used these arts against foreign invaders. During times of peace, Arnis fighters use the arts for self defense needs as well as for duels to settle disputes. In recent times, Arnisadors have contests which allow them to preserve the art in safe conditions using safety equipment. With introduction of safety equipment, the attributes needed to be a so-called “skilled” Eskrimador changed–which in turn will change the way the art is changed. In old times, power, accuracy and pain tolerance were the focus of an Arnis student’s training. Teachers used a smaller arsenal of techniques while spending more time developing those skills and attributes. Today, which safety equipment and two/three round fights, students have larger arsenals with more techniques as well as an emphasis on endurance and fitness that fighters of old could care less about. One may argue that arts that do not change with the time are keeping to tradition, but they may not necessarily be relevant to the needs of the modern student. Therefore those arts often die out, save for a handful of those with nostalgic leanings. At the same time, an FMA purist (such as the  younger version of myself) will argue that arts that keep up with the times are diluted and therefore illegitimate. If an old dog like myself can admit that perhaps I was mistaken about past criticisms of the Filipino arts, maybe there is a chance for you young guys. 😉

So here’s something I’d like to throw out at you…

It’s time to award or create “majors” in the Filipino arts. Majors as in “major” fields of study. Just as it’s true that every art can’t contain or specialize in everything–every expert won’t be an expert in every subart of the FMA. We love to brag about the 12 weapons or fields of study, the 4 subarts of the FMA, blah blah blah… but how often have you seen a so-called Grandmaster teach a seminar over a period of 5-10 years, and teach the same stuff as his knowledge of throwed weapons, flexible weapons, or empty hand skills? This is a conversation I have with this community often, and is the premise of the unpopular “FMA Empty Hand” article. Sure you know some “Empty Hand”. But do not be mistaken my friends:  Many of you are stick guys showing a few translations without the stick. Very few Eskrimadors who claim “the stick is the knife is the long weapons is the empty hand” can really get down with every weapon he knows. There is nothing wrong with having a specialty, and sending your students to another master if they wish to learn something you are unfamiliar with. But it is fashionable to pretend you can use anything as a weapon just because you are knowledgeable with a few weapons–and this just isn’t true. A good test is if you can be competitive with–and beat–a fighter who is only versed in that art.

An inside joke I shared with my FMA friends came from a video we once watched at a friend’s house, where a highly skilled Eskrima master declared to the viewer that “Kali is also ADVANCED Judo, ADVANCED Karate, ADVANCED Kung Fu…” Do we have grappling in the FMAs? Yes we do–some. But we are not grapplers. Do we have boxing in the FMAs? Yes, some. But we are not comparable with boxers who specialize in fist fighting. Do we have knife fighting in the FMAs? YES. And now we are getting somewhere! How would you feel if a Tae Kwon Do guy announced, that he was just as good as an FMA guy with a knife? Like me, you’d probably fall out laughing. But that’s how we look to boxers when we try to pass off “Dirty boxing” as something that can defeat boxing.

And this leads me to the point of the article. You must think outside the box. The Filipino arts has many, many skills within our curriculums. In my opinion, the Filipino arts are the superior fighting art of most of the martial arts world. Give me two years with a student, and in two years, I would bet my life savings on that student, armed with a knife, using his Eskrima against your favorite MMA fighter. This art isn’t perfect, but I believe the Filipino fighting arts are as close to being the most unbeatable art on the planet. And this, without having to cross pollinate with BJJ, Muay Thai, or any other non-Filipino art. Am I being biased? Perhaps. But in my prime, I trained more than anyone I knew, and could take anyone. I am fully confident that you give me a guy for a few years, and he’ll be better than I ever was. But due to the mismatch of the changing times, the unchanging art, and the foolish changes that did occur–we collectively weakened the art by trying to add too much, too easily, and taught them too soon and too fast. The way to reach your potential in the art is to choose a specialty and develop it as fully and completely as possible. One cannot accomplish this while attending seminars and adding new techniques and skills every six months. The goal is development–not learning. That is the flaw of the “always a student” philosophy. You can take classes until you’re blue in the face; but it does you not one lick of good until you develop and hone and perfect those skills.

There are many facets of the martial arts we can certify students in, and when we award blanket “Teaching credentials”, what are we claiming they are experts in? Self-defense? Street fighting? Competition fighting? Armed combat against armed opponents? Unarmed combat against armed opponents? Boxing? Self-defense experts are not ring fighters. Ring fighters are not street fighting specialists. Street fighting specialists are not experts at teaching children’s self-defense against bullies. None of the above can coach an Arnis student to championships in an Arnis competition. And then once you’ve identified what style of fighting or self-defense this student is qualified to do, we must then decide if he is qualified to TEACH. Many of you may have been good fighters, but you never learned the art of teaching. Perhaps it would be more appropriate to distinguish between someone who has learned your curriculum, someone who has exceled at your curriculum, someone who is an expert at combat with your curriculum, and someone who has learned the art of teaching and coaching.

And here’s the big question… Do YOU know all these areas of the martial arts?

Eskrima/Arnis, Kuntaw, Silat, Sikaran, Buno–all have many weapons and skills. Do you simply know these weapons, or have you actually exceled, tested, perfected, or mastered each weapon and skill? Honestly, many people are teaching weapons and skills that they barely know themselves. My cousin who teaches Tapado was once visited by a group of Eskrimadors who witnessed his Tapado skills. A few months later, our students encountered these men teaching a Tapado-like art to their students. I had met a man who claimed to teach “Filipino boxing” and when I offered to box him and bring my students to test their skills, declined the match because his students weren’t ready and he didn’t learn Filipino boxing to actually “box”. I politely suggested that he decided what he was actually an expert in–and stick to teaching that.

Like I said guys–it’s time for an FMA Revolution.

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