Yours truly, putting in "track time" in Moalboal, Cebu, Philippines; Early 2000's.
Credit: Unknown Cebuano photog slangin' action shots courtside
NARAPHIL, or the National Arnis Kali Eskrima Association of the Philippines, was created in 1975, by inviting various schools across the country to share their martial arts through demonstrations and also promote a sporting competition by using the various weapon strikes along with customized, protective body gear and padding in a sporting format with rules. This directly led to an overall decline in the famed death matches, as a series of international padded sparring tournaments were held up through the end of the 1980’s and further led to the eventual development of WEKAF, the World Eskrima Kali Arnis Federation, the blueprint by which so many padded FMA tournaments are modeled after, even in modern times. Subtle changes and variations to helmets and body jackets over the last 40 years are owed to advancements in the design and the use of materials like plastics, metals, and heavier-duty fabrics, could now allow people to take the power of a full power strike and not want to quit FMA training because it hurts. Also, tournament organizers and innovators have had the last four decades to develop their respective marketing angle to attract participants worldwide and build generations of enthusiasts for the sport (2017 FMA summer tour, anyone?). All of these factors are directly responsible for guiding the casual, everyday person, who, upon first mention, associates FMA with either using one or two rattan sticks to hit people, or the modernized, padded competition sparring.
These days, padded competition sparring is somehow becoming synonymous with eskrima, or arnis, as it is formally known according to the Republic of the Philippines National Commission for Culture and the Arts. Declared as the Philippine National Martial Art and Sport on December 11, 2009 through the Republic Act 9850 signed by then-president, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, arnis would be further promoted by inscribing arnis within the official seal of the Philippine Sports Commission. According to the Sun Star News Cebu earlier this month, Doce Pares-Hawaii will host the next WEKAF tournament in 2018, identifying a possible venue in the Waikiki area and tentative booking dates. Last month, it was reported in the Manila Standard that the 2019 Southeast Asian Games will feature arnis as a sport, and will likely try to include 270+ arnis clubs from all over the Philippines.
As the host country, SEA Games policy should allow the Philippines to add any sport as long as three other participating countries will compete in the event. However, at the 1st Arnis Congress in January in Mandaluyong, Philippine Senator Juan Miguel Zubiri, a former competitor in 1991, and a modern-day proponent of including arnis competition in the 2019 SEA Games, had expressed his disappointment that arnis is more respected and appreciated in the United States and Europe, according to Tambuli Media. Senator Zubiri’s statement is so interesting to me, because we do know there is an interest for FMA here in the U.S. regardless of race, ethnicity, and gender, and yet I've met many Filipinos who've moved to the States since my training started with my instructor, and they frown upon FMA, almost like it was for savages and uneducated provincial-types.
While it can be argued that civilizing this Filipino fighting art through the sporting aspect may have helped bring FMA to the masses, somehow the translation gets lost, depending on who delivers the instruction. Like MMA sparring, which adds gloves, rules and a timer, padded stick sparring also adds a helmet, raw rattan stick, and padded body protector for the safety factor to make it accessible and appealing for all to enjoy. Grappling is optional depending on the group, style, etc.. If we look at it from a cultural aspect, we have to beg the question if padded sparring competition is really an aspect of Filipino culture, or is it something else? Yes, arnis or eskrima, the indigenous fighting art of the Philippine Islands is gaining publicity and is becoming more mainstream as seen in movies and the upcoming 2017-2018 international tournament scene. But do we really need sport eskrima to promote the Filipino Martial Arts?
On social media, you can easily find videos, photos, and hashtags of fanatics like that mascot/stalker, calling themselves modern-day eskrimadors, with battle-damaged body protectors, a custom helmet, or even an overpriced toy lightsaber and fencing mask at the park. These asshats on Instagram (IG) or Facebook (FB), promoting supposed abilities in padded sparring and blatantly focusing on winning little tournaments are clearly doing more harm than good for eskrima. As we’ve observed before, all of the real eskrima training goes to the wayside in favor of the sport sparring style and then marketing to the masses around that. For example, there is way too much confidence, as the mascot/stalker puts it, by “staying in the pocket” with that helmet on, whether it be holding a rattan stick, an overpriced toy lightsaber, or “bladed” weapon. Again, we are not seeing anything impressive there, at all, because they only seek glory while donning the padded gear and portraying some perceived degree of knowledge in eskrima through short, forgettable videos that don’t really show any skills. On the other hand, my instructor teaches us that using the padded gear for sparring is useful in teaching a certain set of skills you could not otherwise develop - for it is actually good for something - the development of a live, left hand!
A few years back, eskrima was featured on cable television shows like Human Weapon and Mind, Body, & Kickass Moves, where padded sparring competition was highlighted, and the latter showing my instructor and his wife control sparring. That’s a great example of two different ways of promoting eskrima training in the “play” of it as my instructor would say. Through controlled sparring, we can see the practical application of concepts and principles with regard to sensitivity, movement, and reaction while using a weapon in a non-static drill. The padded, sport-sparring, also teaches similar concepts, and allows the use of full-contact strikes. Both methods involve safety, control, and following a procedure according to a set of rules and ideas about the training. More importantly, they are simulating some aspect within the training that eventually leads to the real thing, according to my instructor. That is where the separation begins between training and reality.
With regard to promoting eskrima, in my experience, padded sparring tournaments can bring out the worst in people, and also bring the worst people from out of whatever cave they dwell in. Competitors and their trainers will sometimes do whatever it takes to somehow guarantee “the win.” We’ve all seen the dirty fighting tactics in padded sparring, despite everybody knowing that there are rules taking influence from boxing and Tae Kwon Do tournaments. But everybody from the old WEKAF tournament scene has at least one story about that one time, back in the day, that so-and-so did this-and-that. For example, did you hear about that particular world “champion” who defeated everybody in the Seniors 40+ division, while he was still in his mid-30's? Or how about the countless local champs who get a bye (something used to move certain participants into a later round without requiring them to compete in an earlier one) all the way to the very last round instead of fighting through the brackets like everybody else? Then of course there are those tournament organizers who behave like it's okay to bye their own personal students - in the middle of the tournament - all the way to the third round bracket so they don't fatigue sooner and will have enough in the gas tank to last for the championship rounds. They don’t care and they'll do it anyway, even when their own contemporaries shake their heads and argue with them in the middle of a tournament, like my instructor and his wife have protested in years past, telling them they can’t be doing that. These examples are exactly why some people think FMA is shitty - it’s the people like that running the show that are to blame. People will look for reasons to ignore or discredit the fighting art based on lousy experiences just like that.
You gotta ask yourself: Do these councils and so-called self-defense clubs and really need to win these padded fighting tournaments so badly in order to validate themselves? I don’t think it really matters when you know you train with actual champions, like my instructor, his wife and his over two decades of students. But they don’t dwell on being winners, because there are certain skills developed from training with my instructor that got them there. As with anything else, there comes a certain point when martial artists will experience some sort of growth and move onward and upward. You know, there used to be so many competitors and independent competing schools who are now no longer around. Why did they bail and leave? In the end, the tournament is just a vehicle to sell the padded gear, the body jackets, sticks, training daggers, all the officially licensed, authorized merchandise to make some money off of the participants. The bottom line is simple: making money off of the idea that they’re learning a historically named self-defense system when it’s only really one aspect, the sporting-tournament aspect. Dangle a little historical information to make it sound legitimate and official, add a couple of names from the Club days of long ago into the seminar presentation, incorporate a new drill or a long, lost sayaw, and you now have a complete seminar and padded fighting tournament program.
Where is the sincerity of promoting eskrima in that? None of that truthfulness matters when you’re talking about making some money. Practitioners who continue to follow this deception must be in the dark about authentic training experiences in the face of earning a belt promotion, and should reevaluate what they are getting from the training. Unfortunately, this isn’t necessarily the case, with increasingly mediocre instruction and watered-down training styles that lean more towards sport. Preserving the legacy of the martial arts, like traditional eskrima or arnis, is something that requires honesty and integrity from all of the people who dare to carry names and titles within the style. This is especially true of people who claim to be a master or above in the Doce Pares of today.
To be continued in TFOPS(AAOIT), Part II in March, 2017
This is my blog, a collection of thoughts on my journey in eskrima.