Arnis – A Filipino Martial Art

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A Most Practical Martial Art

Most martial arts originate from Asia. The more popular ones, like karate, kung fu, muay thai, and jiu jitsu, come from countries like Japan, China, and Thailand.

However, other Asian countries have their own unique martial arts which are not as popular compared to their more prominent neighbors. The Philippines is an example of one such country.

The Filipino martial art is unique compared to other martial arts because it is taught in an informal manner and emphasizes efficiency and conservation of movement. In as little as six months, a practitioner can become a very formidable fighter unlike kung fu and other martial arts which takes years for a practitioner to become somewhat skilled.

Popular Misconception About Filipino Martial Arts

Most people who have heard of Filipino martial arts generally think that it is only based on weapons, particularly short sticks. Some even think that there is only one “style” and only sticks are used.

Contrary to these beliefs, the Filipino martial art is a complete system, which covers all aspects of combat like unarmed striking and grappling. However, unarmed combat is only taught after a practitioner has achieved a certain level of mastery with weapons ranging from sticks to knives. This characteristic is another example of the Filipino martial art’s uniqueness compared to others.

Brief History

Theories on the origins and influences of Filipino martial arts.

In the Philippines, the Filipino martial art is commonly known as “arnis” which also refers to the stick used in the art itself. In other parts of the archipelago, the term “eskrima” is also used which means “fencing” in Spanish. Outside the Philippines, the work “kali” is very popular. For simplicity, I’ll just use “arnis.”

The history of arnis is somewhat vague. Some historians speculate that the martial art originated in India and brought by people who traveled through Malaysia and Sumatra. The historians note that the Malaysian and Indonesian martial art “silat” bear striking similarities with arnis, especially its unarmed component.

There is also a legend of ten chieftains from Borneo who settled in Panay, an island in the Visayas region of the Philippines, and established a school where they taught martial arts along with academic subjects and agriculture.

The stories are, of course, not considered facts for there are no historical documents to support them as such. The only documentation about arnis dates back to the time when the Philippines was under Spanish rule.

When the Philippines was under the Spaniards, not all areas and islands were controlled by the foreigners. In particular, the southern islands with their fierce Muslim inhabitants continually oppose Spanish dominion. There were stories that the Muslim fighters used arnis to fight off the invaders.

During Spanish occupation, the art flourished in the islands of Visayas and some coastal towns of Luzon in the north. Stories say that the islanders used the art to repel Moro slavers who frequently raid the islands for women and children.

The close proximity of the Visayan islands to Mindanao led to frequent forays between the Visayans and the Moro people. Some historians theorize that this might be the reason why Visayans are mostly the more prominent practitioners of arnis.

In 1636, there was a royal decree from Philip IV, the king of Spain, that ordered the pacification of Mindanao. Accordingly, two large companies composed mostly of Visayan mercenaries led by Governor General Sebastian Hurtado de Corcuera were deployed.

After the Moro campaigns, the veterans is said to have passed on their martial skills with the help of Spanish priests who “systematized” the art by using numbered angles of attack, which are also used in European fencing.

The Master

The Greatest Practitioner Ever

Unquestionably, the greatest practitioner of arnis is Floro Villabrille. He is said to have fought hundreds of matches and never lost. The matches in his days were “to the death.” In his physical prime, he reportedly can punch nails through solid wood with his bare fists… pull the nails out using the same bare fists.

Floro Villabrille claims to have been taught martial arts by a blind princess in Samar, an island in the northeast part of the Visayas region of the Philippines.

There are other great practitioners like Ben Largusa, Ciriaco Canete, the head of the popular Canete family, and Dan Inosanto, but none of them can be called an equal of Floro Villabrille.

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  • jamesdesalvo Jan 23, 2013 @ 4:47 pm
    I had the honor of training with Remy Presas on several occassions. My God, he kicked my butt! I still sore over a decade later. Nice lens!
  • mochimo Dec 27, 2010 @ 4:37 pm
    It is nice to know the other martial art from you. I think adding a video module will be great.
  • Eskrima-Arnis Feb 11, 2010 @ 7:59 pm
    SGM Cacoy not an equal to GM Floro?that's your own opinion...
  • Ayers_heliboy82 Dec 01, 2009 @ 10:29 pm
    Very good resource!