By Pepper Marcelo
When it comes to martial arts, there are several styles of fighting which are recognized all over the world. From Asia, these include Japan’s Karate, Korea’s Taekwando, China’s Wushu and Thailand’s Muay Thai.
Filipino martial arts have been growing steadily in popularity in recent years. Starting with a minor, underground cult appeal, it is poised to break out as a sports phenomenon not just in its full-contact incarnation, but as an exhibition and display of Pinoy culture as well.
Known by many names, styles and formats, including eskrima (as its known in Cebu and parts of the Visayas) or the more controversial moniker of kali, its official practitioners have preferred the name arnis, short for “arnis de mano,” which is derived from the Spanish phrase “harness of the hand.” Arnis has become the de facto umbrella term.
Referring, but not limited to stick fighting, arnis consists of weapons training utilizing a rattan stick, also called a baston, which is approximately 28 inches in length. It also encompasses empty-hand self-defense, including punching (suntukan), kicking (sikaran), locks and submissions (dumog). Besides the baston, a variety of impact and bladed weapons are also used, the latter of which Pinoys are considered the best in the world.
A milestone in the fighting style was marked last December when President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo signed into law declaring arnis as the country’s official martial art and sport. Republic Act 9850 requires it to be a Physical Education course in all schools in the country as mandated by the Department of Education (DepEd). Previously, the unofficial sport was sipa or sepak takraw.
“Arnis is one sport which truly originated in our country, a part of our rich culture and tradition,” says Raymond Velayo, president of Arnis Philippines Inc. (ARPI). “First and foremost, I’m very elated at the developments because we’ve worked for so long for this.”
ARPI had persistently lobbied for the bill in both Houses of Congress since 1995, garnering support from a number of politicians, including then Senator Orly Mercado, the late Senator Robert Barbers, and then Congressman and now Senator Miguel Zubiri in 2001.
“We had to stress to lawmakers that the Philippines had not declared a national sport,” adds Velayo. Sipa was unofficial. If you look at the history books, sipa doesn’t exist, but arnis is part of our history.”
Before the Spaniards colonized the country, many indigenous tribes practiced and exhibited some form or variant of the technique, and using it to fend off invaders. With the colonization of the country, first by the Spaniards and then the Americans, Filipino martial arts and arnis slowly diminished in status.
In the 1970s, with the rise in popularity of foreign martial arts, spearheaded by Kung-Fu and ninja movies, there became a renewed interest in arnis and in its history and cultural significance.
In recent years, Filipino martial arts have been appropriated by a number of Hollywood action films. Tom Cruise (Mission Impossible 2), Angelina Jolie (Tomb Raider: Cradle of Life) and Matt Damon (Bourne series) utilized the Pinoy fighting form or one of its many variants.
Considered the greatest martial arts action star of all time, Bruce Lee hinted at the impending greatness of arnis in his last movie before his untimely death. “In Game of Death, he was using two stick against Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, instead of the nunchaku,” notes Velayo.
According to Velayo, one of the significant problems of re-introducing arnis to the general population is that there is not one technique or school in Filipino martial arts. It is as varied as, some observers say, as the archipelago’s 7,100 islands.
“There was resistance from groups that felt threatened that the umbrella group ARPI would change their system,” he says. “Filipinos are clannish. We have different dialects and a ‘mine-is-better-than-yours’ mentality. We don’t want these various styles to disappear, all styles must co-exist and be preserved.”
He emphasizes that ARPI’s goal is to provide strong leadership in order to hold together and consolidate the different schools and to wholly preserve their heritage and culture. Without a strong and consistent hand, he says, the Filipino martial arts’ 400-year-old history will fade away.
Amid the division, bickering and politicking, arnis’ sheer number and variety can be maximized to their fullest. Aside from its inclusion as a distinct event in the annual national amateur sports competition Palarong Pambansa – where before it was only an exhibition event – arnis is also featured in half a dozen local and international events, showcasing the myriad styles, forms and strains from regions and clubs all over the country.
Most significant of these events is the National Encounter, which is divided into two categories – the full contact competition and the exhibition or creative portion.
“The Ano or Kata – it’s so lovely and colorful,” says Velayo. “The natives wear costumes to show off their styles and movements.” There is even a program that caters to those in wheelchairs so the disabled can participate.
ARPI had successfully lobbied for its inclusion in the 1991 and 2005 Southeast Asian (SEA) Games. The goal now is to have arnis included in other major international sporting events, culminating in the Olympics.
There are hurdles and prejudices to overcome before this can become a reality. “Medyo barbaric pa tayo, some people don’t want to think of this as a sport,” Velayo laments. “Remember, the Olympics were formed during a time of peace, because they wanted activities of friendship and camaraderie instead of war. Our approach as well is the same. We want to perpetuate its existence by turning it into a sport.”
Velayo points out that there is already an official arnis handbook of rules and regulations, and a specialized scoring system and scoreboard. Also, safety has been prioritized, with competitors not only donning protective head and body gear, but also using padded sticks that break instantly if excessive force was used, to prevent serious injury.
“Noong araw, they said it would not be played in the Olympics because it’s so deadly. But as a sport, we invented equipment for safety; it’s become one of the safer sports. It’s safer than boxing,” says Velayo.
With arnis now the official sport, there is greater awareness and recognition of its uses and benefits. More importantly, it gives the country ownership of a martial art that is destined to be a popular sport around the world in the near future.
“The new law gives confirmation that it’s ours. Arnis is our very own. If there comes a time when it becomes popular outside the country, people will know it comes from the Philippines. Whatever you say – it’s Filipino. We have to be proud of it and support its propagation around the world. Arnis is yet to come,” asserts Velayo.