Filipino Martial Arts History

The Philippines is an island nation in the Western Pacific of almost 70 million people where more than 70 dialects are spoken. Over the centuries the Philippines has been a crossroad for various cultures trading and fighting.

Records from the Malay Sri-Vishaya empire dating to the 8th century A.D. refer to Kali as the art of the Philippines.1 According to historians, the Ten Datus of Borneo brought their fighting methods to the island of Panay. Here, basic reading, writing and Kali were taught in the schools.

On April 27, 1521, the explorer Magellan died on Mactan Island at the hands of Chief Lapu-Lapu--a Kali practitioner. Due to the loss of written records, the exact techniques of Kali remain a mystery today although elements of Kali remain alive in the foundation of today's Filipino Martial Arts.

The Spanish began a 400 year occupation of the islands late in the 16th century. To suppress opposition to their rule, the Spanish banned the teaching of Kali. Elements of the art were hidden in folk plays and native dance. However, over time, Spanish fencing methods were blended into the indigenous fighting framework. Under Spanish influence, the native art became known as eskrima, estocada, arnis de mano or arnis.

The Filipino Martial Arts assume different names in different regions. In the Manila area, the art is known as Arnis or Pananandata, in Pangasinan as Kalirongan, in the Ilocos region of Luzon as Kabaro-an, and in the Visayas as Eskrima.

Arnis historians have cited as many as 200 systems or styles of Arnis-Eskrima-Kali. Names describing the range of fighting include Largo (long-distance), Medio (medium-range) and Corto or Serrada (close, in-fighting). Names based on movement include Abanyko (fanning), Palis-Palis (go with the force) Sungkiti (flicking), Ocho-Ocho (figure eight) and Lastico (snapping). Systems can be called by the choice of weapon, e.g., solo baston (single cane), double baston or sinawali (double cane), espada y daga (sword and dagger), mano-mano or de kadina (empty-hands).

Some of the most well-known styles of Arnis-Eskrima-Kali are Illustrisimo Kali, Pekiti Tirsia, Doce pares Eskrima, Marinas Pananandata, Balintawak, Cabales Serrada, Villabrille Eskrima, Presas Modern Arnis, and Kombatan.

Kombatan was developed by Grandmaster Ernesto Presas of Negros Oriental Province in the Visayas. Ernesto Amador Presas was born in the coastal village of Hinigaran, Negros Occidental, Philippines on May 20, 1945. He began his training in the Filipino martial arts at the age of eight under his father, Jose Presas, a well-known stick fighter of his generation.

Grandmaster Ernesto Presas is a multi-talented athlete. He was a collegiate athlete in track and field, football and basketball. His training in the martial arts is eclectic. He holds the rank of Lakan Sampu (10th Dan) in Arnis, Lakan Sampu (10th Dan) in Mano-Mano (hand to hand combat) and 8th Dan in Filipino Weaponry. He is recognized as a ranking expert in Judo, Jujutsu, Bo Jitsu, Kendo, Tonfa, Sai, Chaku, Balisong, and Karate.

A turning point came in 1970 for Grandmaster Presas. To renew the art that was dying in the Philippines, he began teaching the Filipino martial arts at the University of the Philippines and the Lyceum of the Philippines. In the same year, he was invited to Japan to demonstrate the art of Arnis at "Expo 70." Challenged to compare Arnis to the well-know sword styles of Japan, he quickly earned the respect of the Japanese masters who called his art Filipino Kendo. After returning to Manila, he established his first dojo with the help of his compadre, Modern Arnis grandmaster, Frederico Lazo. Later that year, Grandmaster Presas founded the Modern Arnis Association of the Philippines International and ARJUKEN (Arnis-Jujutsu-Kendo) Karate Association International to formally propagate the native art within the Philippines.

Grandmaster Presas' art of Kombatan is a composite of various classical and modern fighting systems used in the Philippines. The student of Kombatan is introduced to the various systems described above in the full range of fighting. An emphasis is placed on drills to train the student to react instinctively. Students are encouraged to develop their own "style" of techniques within the Kombatan framework.

In contrast to many other oriental martial arts, the Arnis student first learns how to handle and defend against weapons. This philosophy is to a large degree culturally bound, but also has a practical application. The Philippines has traditionally been a blade-oriented society. Even today, in many rural areas both men and women use swords and knives in their daily work. Self-defense using a blade is the preferred method. In a practical sense, the rationale for training a student with weapons first and then later with hands and feet is (1) training cane to cane is safer than taking punches and kicks to the body, and (2) if you can defend against a weapon then fighting against punches and kicks will come easily because training with canes conditions one to avoid errors in judgment.

--Biography courtesy of Jose Paman