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A Little History of the Martial Arts part 5

Welcome back to our ongoing journey through the history of the martial arts. In part 4 we finished of looking at some of the early Chinese arts and its development, and like all the arts how they were heavily tied in to the religion and spirituality of the times and still are.

In part 5, I thought we would start to take a look at some of the South East Asian martial arts.

There are a huge variety of arts from this area from the Philippines to India, all having one thing in common they were born out of adversity…

The collection of tiny islands in the South China Sea are called the Philippines. Being on the main trading routes they came into constant contact with other nations, and absorbed different influences into their own Martial Art called KALI.

In most martial arts, weaponry is learned last and considered the advanced portion of the art. But not so in KALI and the Filipinos have a good reason for their seemingly peculiar type of progression.

To understand it, we must first delve into the history, we discover they were always fighting invaders; the English, Dutch, Portuguese, Chinese, Spanish and even rival tribes of their own people.

Everyone carried weapons during these times, the sword and dagger being the most common. One’s life literally depended on one’s martial skill because a deadly confrontation was always an immediate possibility, any place, any time. Since everyone bore arms, weaponry was taught right away. Only when a weapon could not be reached would a Kali/escrima practitioner use his empty hand skills.

Although Kali and its off-shoot escrima, are always shown as either blade arts or stick arts it is really a complete martial art in itself. A master in the art is termed a Guru.

Traditionally, the old masters taught Kali in 12 stages or categories, beginning with the long and short stick. However, twin knives can easily be substituted causing no problems since the techniques remain the same. In addition kali argues that a fighter cannot go into combat with a predetermined idea of how he is going to react when attacking or defending. The student has to be able to flow from one technique to another, retaining his effectiveness no matter what range he is fighting from.

This does not mean that he has to be well versed in thousands of different techniques merely that he must understand the principles of motion. Such understanding yields excellent results, for the only reason that kali has survived so long is that it is an extremely effective art.

The Muslim Filipinos, known as Moro’s were such superb fighters that they were never subdued, even when they had to contend with the Americans in 1898.

The Moro’s, armed with bolos (similar to a machete) harassed the US marines very successfully during the occupation and is the reason that American marines are called Leathernecks to this day. The marines took to wearing leather protection collars around their necks in battle to protect against the throat being cut by the Moro’s. It seems quite amazing that invaders of these islands were always being shown up by the relatively unsophisticated natives using their indigenous martial art.

Amercian marines in combat against Filipino warriors,
Amercian marines in combat against Filipino warriors

The great explorer Ferdinand Magellan in 1521 landed on the island of Cebu, 700 miles south of Manila, and was met on the beach by Filipino warriors. The invaders had all the latest weaponry of the day, yet they could not beat these fierce warriors. The ensuing battle resulted in the death of Magellan.

Lapu lapu in combat against Magellan and the Spanish conquistadors
Lapu lapu in combat against Magellan and the Spanish conquistadors

Another example of Kali prowess occurred in World War 2 when the Japanese invaded the Philippines. Many Filipinos joined the US forces but found great difficulty in using modern rifles and automatics weapons. After much petitioning and some incredible demonstrations by the Filipinos in the use of Kali, the US army issued them with their favourite weapon, the bolo. From then until the end of the war these brave warriors waged a particularly vicious guerrilla campaign against the Japanese.

Filipino infantry ww2
Filipino infantry ww2

After World War 2 many Filipinos settled in southern California, around the Stockton area, merging their own kali into the American martial arts scene.

Much of the instruction at martial art concepts is based on the Inosanto/Lacoste and Largusa Villabrille systems of kali. Guro Dan Inosanto, protégé of Bruce Lee in JKD and one of the leading exponents of Kali and escrima in the world, considers Lacoste the Bruce Lee of the Filipino styles. (Lacoste died in 1978 at the age of eight nine).

He was like Lee because he absorbed what was useful from many systems of Kali and escrima in the northern, central, and southern regions of the Philippines. Like Lee, Lacoste could explain, in totality, the arts of kali and escrima, often mistake as just stick or Blade systems.

Inosanto believes Lacoste’s system is one of the best to provide an all round explanation of the Filipino arts. Most current systems are fragmented. They contain three, five or at most seven categories of instruction.

Lacoste had twelve categories of instruction, and could relate each category to the other, particularly with empty hand techniques. Lacoste’ empty hand techniques are concise, stripped of excessive motion, and flow well between throwing arts, choking arts, finger, wrist, elbow and shoulder locking arts, as well as ankle, knee and leg locking arts, Inosanto says “He was adept at intermixing punching, kneeing and elbowing, and using these as transition between the throwing, choking and locking arts.” Lacoste knew many ancient categorical systems of kali and escrima.

Kali Filipino Martial Arts Classes
Kali Filipino Martial Arts Classes

To understand what our Filipino Martial Art background is based on. Here are 12 areas of the lacoste/inosanto blend of Kali with some of the terminology that is used in our academies at MAC Blackbelt Academies – in our Kali classes.

1st Area

  • Single Stick (Olisi or Bastone)
  • Single sword
  • Single Axe
  • Single Cane

2nd Area

  • Double Stick (Double Olisi) or ( Dubli Bastone)
  • Double Sword
  • Double Axe

3rd Area

  • Stick and Dagger (olisi-Baraw) or (Bastone y Daga)
  • Cane and Dagger
  • Sword and Dagger (Espada y Daga)
  • Sword and Shield
  • Long and Short stick

4th Area

  • Double Dagger (Baraw-Baraw) or (Dubli Daga)
  • Double Short Sticks


5th Area

  • Single Dagger (Baraw-Kamot)
  • Single Short Stick

6th Area

  • Palm Stick (Olisi-Palad)
  • Double end Dagger

7th Area Pangamut, Kamot-Kamot or Empty Hands

  • Panantukin (Boxing to include use of the elbows) Elbows (sieko)
  • Panajakman or Panatukin and sikaran (Kicking to include use of knees and shin)
  • Dumog, laug, or Buno (Grappling) and Kuntzi (Locking)
  • Ankab-Pagkusi also kini mutai (Bite and Pinch)
  • Sagong labo or Higot-Hubud-Lubud (Tying-untying, and blending the two, including trapping range sensitivity exercises)

8th Area Long Weapons

  • Staff (sibat)
  • Oar (Dula)
  • Paddle (Bugsay)
  • Spear (Bangkaw)
  • Spear and Circular Shield
  • Spear and Rectangular Shield
  • Spear and Sword/Stick
  • Spear and Dagger
  • Two Handed Method (Heavy stick, Olisi Dalawang Kamot)
  • Two Handed Method (Regular Stick)

9th Area Flexible Weapons

  • Sarong ( clothing worn in Southern Philippines and Indonesia)
  • Belt or Sash
  • Whip (Latigo)
  • Rope (Lubid)
  • Chain (Cadena)
  • Scarf, Headband, Handkerchief (Panyo)
  • Flail (commonly known as nunchuk) Olisi Toyok or Tobak Toyok
  • Yo-yo
  • Stingray Tail

10th Area Hand thrown weapons, Tapon-Tapon

  • Spear
  • Dagger
  • Wooden splinter
  • Spikes
  • Coins, Washers
  • Stones, Rocks
  • Sand, mud, Dirt
  • Pepper, Powder
  • Any object that can be thrown

11th Area

  • Bow and Arrow (Pana)
  • Blowgun (Sumpit)
  • Slingshot(Pana Palad)
  • Lantanka (Portable cannon)

12th Area Mental, Emotional, Spiritual training

  • Healing Arts
  • Health Skills
  • Rhythm and Dance
  • History, Philosophy and Ethics

As evidenced by the preceding list, a kali practioner has to have a well rounded education. Lacoste and Guro Dan liked to start students with the Olisi-barraw (long and short sticks), derived from sword and dagger (espada y daga) method.

With a complete comprehension of the long and short weapons the student will understand the application of the other areas. In fact, he already has skills in the other areas because each becomes a direct translation or variation of the principles of the long and short sticks.

If a Kali/escrima stylist truly understands the use of long and short weapons as flowing between and into disarming, choking, locking, throwing, pinning and hitting techniques, he will understand how to employ these manoeuvres with anything in his hands- single stick, double stick, double dagger, single dagger, flexible weapons – or with nothing but his hands.

The long and short sticks produce an understanding of the principles of the other areas including empty hands. By learning this area thoroughly, the student could easily relate and understand the other areas, the principles being interchangeable among the various weapons. This is why the long and short sticks area is often referred to as the ‘Backbone’ of kali and escrima.

One of the principles of kali is zoning, which is positioning yourself in relation to your opponent so you are only fighting one side of his body at a time. Historically, zoning, along with the element of surprise, was responsible for much of the success of kali/escrima.

The Spanish conquistadors were often baffled after arriving at an outpost to view the remains of a battle, between fifteen and eighteen Spanish soldiers would be scattered about dead or fatally wounded, with one or two Filipino warriors lying dead amongst them. Zoning allowed each warrior to position himself so that he was fighting one Spanish soldier at a time, when in reality, he was fighting three or four.

Zoning also allowed him to simultaneously destroy his enemy’s other hand or support weapon. The same principles apply in empty hand fighting. The attacker’s limb is destroyed while simultaneously zoning away from the opponents other hand. If fighting more than one person, the kali/escrima practitioner again uses each opponent as a shield against the others.

Thus training with weaponry teaches the agility, balance, co-ordination and footwork needed for zoning, and the practitioner can easily assimilate the techniques to empty hand application.

Another major theme of kali/escrima is the destruction of the opponent’s limbs. Picture Mike Tyson without any arms… Can he harm you? Now picture Mike Tyson without any legs… Can he kick you?

Anyone would now be unafraid to step into a boxing ring with Tyson, a mere stump hopping about trying to get to you. This clearly illustrates that if you take away an attackers limbs, you render him harmless. His limbs are your greatest danger! Perhaps the best and most graphic example of this principle is in knife fighting.

If you slash the arms, it eliminates those limbs completely, or at least renders them at a disadvantage. Depending on depth and placement of the injury, death or unconsciousness will occur within seconds.

Knife fighting in kali/escrima is more highly developed than in almost any other art. It requires precision movements, raw guts and highly developed sensitivity and technique. The complex and intricate trapping moves of kali are derived from the knife.

Sophisticated slashing and thrusting motions are supported with trapping, punching and elbowing from the ‘alive’ or supporting hand. Kneeing and kicking are also considered vital supporting parts of knife fighting. Depending on how the knife is held, whether in yuta (ice pick grip) blade down or lansit (hammer grip) blade up, an elbow or empty hand can be substituted accordingly.

Economy of motion is already built into your empty hand trapping, because trapping with a knife against a knife requires the most efficient technique possible. Perhaps you can survive the hit of a stick and still come out on top in a fight, but a blow from a knife could be fatal. Knife training improves hand-eye-co-ordination and sharpens reflexes, promoting a heightened sense of distance and timing. Action patterns and neuromuscular pathways formed in knife training are reproduced in the empty hand translation automatically and unconsciously. Your hands and body seem to know what to do and how to move.

Training with weapons gives the kali practitioner the qualities necessary for empty hand fighting. It gives him certain body mechanics of torquing and pivoting for powerful explosive empty hand striking. It gives him cat like timing and sensitivity for fast, deceptive trapping.

The understanding of weaponry leads to the knowledge of leverage, evasiveness, and motions to be used for the locking, choking and throwing segments of empty hand training. MAC Blackbelt Academies students today do not have to train the weapon first before they learn the empty hands, like in ancient times. Weaponry and empty hands are taught together with relationships being pointed out immediately.

The young man in the popular film the karate kid did not recognise that he was honing his karate techniques as he was sanding floors, washing cars and painting fences.

Although the film was recognised as a fantasy by trained martial artists, practice in one skill often ends up developing another which is seemingly unrelated. Similarly, the Filipino martial arts of kali provide a true example of one skill directly building another.

Join me in part 5 and we will continue to look a little further into the history and spirituality of Kali.