FMA Seminars: Faked or Fact?
Above : Group photo featuring Magtutudlo Ramon Rubia (Upper row, 2nd from left), Engr. Devaney 'Van' Tupas Fuentes (Upper row, 3rd from left) of Karay-a Uno-Blanco Eskrima, and Haku Brad Namahoe (Upper row, center) and Eskrima Combatives FMA students after the lecture given by Van.
Below: Slides of photos taken during a recent lecture by Van Tupas Fuentes with an introduction by Magtutudlo Ramon hosted by Haku Brad at CSW Training Center in Fullerton, CA.
It’s been a few months since I published a weblog. My dad got sick from cancer and suddenly died from complications in May. So, I made a personal promise to lay low for a specific period of time, and eventually I started to train and later started writing again. Even though my dad didn’t train, he supported my passion to train, and I will never forget that.
FMA Seminars: Faked or Fact?
Throughout the year, I have been attending local FMA seminars for various reasons like curiosity, respect for certain elders, and confirmation of ideas about certain methods of training and their usefulness. Some seminars were good, while others were just okay, or not so good, all for various reasons. The content at some of the seminars was a glimpse into the training of some of the groups, while other seminars were an orchestration to keep the phony legends and deception going to keep the attention and money flowing to their headquarters. To me, there is a clear difference with what I see as typical FMA seminars, where we are expected to just follow along and go-through-the-motions, and the fruitful ones that leave a lasting impression and promote growth through thinking.
In my observation, those typical seminars are basically the same old story, where some master is selling a generic package of their techniques. While they tend to be more organized with their instruction, they tap into that market of people who just want to see the self-made master, or authentic master or grandmaster demonstrate the moves that can easily be taught and in turn, expect to be able to copy it. They paid good money, after all - they wanna see results!
One seminar that I attended was led by a self-made master with a box of training blades. He started off by dumping a box of aluminum training blades in the middle of the floor and went straight into doing techniques. To me, there wasn’t any explanation of the weapon - we were just told to grab an unsheathed trainer sword and start slashing with a partner and try to follow the blocking. In my observation, the self-made master was claiming a bladed-movement with the trainer blades, but was unable to differentiate his movement from that of a blunt stick.
In this seminar training situation, the stick movement did not transcend to the blade. I personally wouldn't violate the ranges of combat against someone holding a live blade like what I saw - that's dumb - I pictured that I would get cut. Again, the self-made master or grandmaster just demos what can be done with an already unsheathed sword, and carelessly expects others to just follow along. The perfect or ideal target audience in this situation is the person new to FMA or those only interested in drills outside of their usual repertoire. Furthermore, the self-made master used typical “big-words” terminology without any historical reference or analogous Filipino-based concepts as they relate to fighting.
Another seminar FMA group I observed has a really intense demonstration. This group also doesn't use Filipino terms, just words to describe their system as a construct. They execute their drills and hitting with speed and power. Using their generic "V" footwork, they make the drills look good, and there’s even a flow to it all. But at a certain point, one carefully starts to realize that they always end up in the same spot even when they continuously use the same lines of their “V” footwork. What happens when the other guy realizes this and moves off the straight line, beyond the range of what was demonstrated? Truth be told, I had previously seen them spar in tournaments and witnessed their art suddenly disappear, meaning there was no longer a connection between what is “the actual” for them versus their supposed “instinctive” movement as seen in their rehearsed drills or energetic forms. It made me question point of training that way if they don’t fight that way in the end.
Another variable in those typical FMA seminars is the occasional entourage of masters and grandmasters visiting from the Old Country. They fly in, get off the plane, and ready their fancy patches, colorful uniforms and belts. They might show many forms or many drills that kinda look like something trying to be combative, but not really, again with no explanation, nor any real connection to actual fighting. It’s all a big show, a phony presentation meant to disguise a circus full of social media whores selling tournament medals, selling trophies, selling certifications and selling affiliations and associations to their group. Once again, this group of predatory seminar-peddlers is highly dependent on new people with real no clue about FMA.
A good example of this exploitive behavior is when an FMA group manages to get a famous name, somebody notable in eskrima, to train them exclusively until their visa runs out. Their students are mesmerized by that visiting master or grandmaster, but they don’t think beyond that because they’re starstruck on training with a living relic who represents the bygone era of eskrima. The student-victims don’t realize that the real motivation to host the master or grandmaster was for their instructors to be recognized by them, pay for their instructor’s monetary tribute, and become legitimized on social media. Seems legit, right?
Another type of seminar that I attended had a hidden agenda, where these local organizers were trying to make names for themselves and look good to their students, by somehow being recognized as an authority by the head of their own system. In reality, their students, who travelled about 90 minutes one-way, don’t even know any better because they were all starry-eyed while in the presence of grandmasters flown in from the Old Country to propagate their “style.” These organizers are straight-up scammers, trying to promote their agenda of making themselves look good, but in the end it backfired. Nobody could even properly explain the content being taught by the visiting grandmasters - this is a fact. The true skill and the knowledge at this seminar shined through when the true authority in the room - someone outside of their own organization - grabbed the mic and clearly explained and demonstrated the methods - it was Magtutudlo Ramon Rubia!
One major obstacle in training with these visiting grandmasters is that they don’t really speak English. To say that they were able to transfer the knowledge of all the little nuances of their respective systems that day is not plausible. They couldn’t verbalize or articulate the little things, each only showing one technique, and demonstrated their stick play in the very short time they were allotted. In fact, the grandmasters they were trying to headline were actually sidelined during the 5+ hour seminar to only about 30 minutes of instruction from each. I feel bad for those visiting grandmasters, because they were forced to look silly by forsaking their own superior methods of eskrima in order to keep everything status quo, and reluctantly taught the fake eskrima as directed. The use of the visiting grandmasters’ likeness on the flyers using hashtags was nothing more than a vehicle to promote the business-side of tournament sparring and tournament forms, certificates, trophies and medals, as is the case with this style.
When we take a look at the character and background of those unscrupulous organizers, you have to remember that they come from the thinking that being given an honorary rank makes them an authority in FMA - this is false. It’s all about the knowledge, which is something beyond their grasp, especially in the methods with which they claim. They’re still at the elementary level of copying drills and forms from other people and repeating the process. It doesn’t matter how many videos they put up, or how many tournaments they win, or how many sticks and blades they collect, the skill and knowledge still doesn’t shine through. In fact, one of them isn’t even a real master, albeit, a part of the bloodline and surname. During my era of training, they were too busy selling sticks, raising a family and taking care of babies. As a matter of fact, they weren’t even recognized on the Headquarters black belt listing until more recent years - I know because I used to check the list regularly until I stopped giving a crap. Even their own people know this phony master, but they don’t say anything.
In contrast to those “typical” seminars, are the kind of seminars that make you think. The true grandmasters and masters are able to transcend the physical movement with their words. These instructors use historical references to make their point both by building on the attendees’ prior knowledge, and by using facts like geography and written accounts. They educate those attendees beyond the superficial, generally accepted view about FMA with what can be described as true FMA from their own personal experiences. Furthermore, the masters and grandmasters who traveled around the Philippines and have immersed themselves in aspects of the various local cultures, are able to dispel the superficial, generally accepted ideas about the training and the people in Philippines as written online and in certain books over the decades.
This past August, our instructor, Magtutudlo Ramon Rubia, introduced Engr. Van Tupas Fuentes, of Karay-a Uno Blanco Eskrima from Panay, who gave a lecture to the group of attendees in the subjects of Pilipino warrior arts and sciences, hosted by GM Brad Namahoe at Erik Paulson's Combat Submission Wrestling World Headquarters in Fullerton, CA. Topics included an introduction on the language and geographical location of the Philippine island of Panay and how it relates to eskrima, further conclusions about the existence of kali based on his travels to deep, remote areas of the Visayas and Mindanao, and comparing and contrasting the traditional mindset of blade versus training in stick. He later explained, in detail, the anatomy and symbolism of a particular talibong with scabbard, given as a gift to his friend and our instructor, Magtutudlo Ramon Rubia.
Van also briefly discussed sportive and survival dumog from Panay and took questions from the group. Learning about eskrima from outside of Cebu was an eye-opening experience, as it directly correlates to the philosophy and approach to how we learn in Eskrima Combatives FMA. I admired the lecture for many reasons, including hearing of his own experiences in seeking the truth about eskrima. While Van could have easily showed us drills, which is common, what he described showed that he’s into the art for more than just teaching drills - it’s about the blade culture.
What I’ve learned so far is that there are those who want to get a good sweat and do FMA drills, and there are those who dedicate themselves to seeking the truth about eskrima. Filipino Martial Arts or Filipino Fighting Arts or Pilipino Warrior Arts and Sciences is more than just collecting drills. It’s a never-ending process that involves the most dedicated individuals continually striving to take themselves to another level. They search for meaning from the movement. If an individual is properly trained, they might come and attend these out-of-the-ordinary seminars to get an idea to propel their view. If they see something unique, some special nuance or attribute, it will either confirm or force them to reject their existing ideas. They will question if what they are doing outside of the seminar will lead to the same thing, or if it can only be accomplished in a way different from their own process.
I was able to meet up with Van and Ramon initially for a dinner and some coffee with Alan and Leo, two of my brothers-in-training at Eskrima Combatives FMA. We got a second dose of Van's insight a week later while listening to his lecture at CSW, and even a third later that same night while sharing another meal with him and Ramon and Leo again. The lasting impression I got from Van is that he is a very deep and knowledgeable individual, and I can see why he and Ramon are friends. It’s about the mindset, which Van and Ramon plainly emphasized to us and in my estimation, is becoming a rare trait among those in pursuit of revealing the truth about FMA, and they both share it.
This is my blog, a collection of thoughts on my journey in eskrima.