Filipino Martial Arts

From The Martial Arts Encyclopedia
Filipino Martial Arts

In a classic over-reach we are now going to discuss the common themes found within the martial arts from this Archipelago nation. In the United States you will most frequently hear such arts described as Arnis, Kali, or Escrima. While Mark Wiley’s book Filipino Martial Culture lists over seventy distinct arts from this nation, (1) FMA are most famous for their stick and knife work. Yes, there are Filipino arts known for spectacular kicking. (Sikaran and Yaw Yan), and wrestling arts (of which Dumog is the most well known) but if you go to a local FMA school you are by far, the most likely, to find an art with stick and knife work.

Weapons and Training

The most common variations appear to be espada y daga (sword and dagger), single stick, double stick, and single knife. The sticks are typically between twenty and thirty inches long, depending upon the particular art. FMA arts are typically known for their two-man flow drills as versus solitary forms. For example in Remy Presas’s Modern Arnis the student are first taught how to execute and defend against twelve angles of attack. Students then alternate executing and defending against these strikes with another single stick as a way to learn these techniques. Similarly students learn Sinawali which is a pattern of strikes using two sticks of equal length.

Some schools and teachers such as the Dog Brothers teach stick work using minimal protective equipment and full contact. Others use padded sticks and much more protection. Generally stick work is more frequently taught then knife work though it is sometimes pointed out that a machete or other chopping instruments can be easily used in place of a stick. An exception to this is Sayoc kali which appears to be exclusively a blade art.


No one has come up with a good methodology for classifying the various Filipino Martial Arts. The first methodology was popularized by Dan Inosanto in his book The Filipino Martial Arts which was published in 1978. According to Inosanto, Kali was the mother art from which other Filipino arts evolved. Others like the controversial Mark V. Wiley have since argued that there is no such common ancestor based on the following arguments.

  • There are at least thirteen Filipino Arts which are separate ethnic and tribal grappling arts which cannot be characterized as one art.
  • Some Filipino arts such as Chinese kun-tao are transplants from other countries.
  • “With regard to the term Kali as being the name of a pre-Hispanic Filipino martial art, it is not. There is no historical, anthropological, or literary evidence to support the contention that an art by this name existed during or prior to the sixteenth century.” (2)

Current FMA arts adopt and use the names Kali, Arnis, or Eskrima based on the preference of the founder rather than a specific historic lineage. It should also be noted that the term Kali may come from the word Kalis which supposedly implies a large bladed weapon in the Tagalog language. (3)

Wiley, then attempts to substitute his own system in which there are three divisions, “ancient, classical, and modern” which immediately gets fouled up by the existence of many composite arts. Ancient arts would be those that existed before the Spanish arrived, Classical Arts would have been created after the Spanish took over and banned such arts, (1565 until 1898). Modern arts would be those which were created after the Americans arrived, and until the present day. (4)

Most Filipinos would prefer to say that their art was pre-Spanish so that it could have been used against Spanish invaders. With the lack of documentation concerning these arts, (the first book devoted to FMA was only published in 1957)(5) it is very difficult, and usually impossible, to prove that certain, specific FMA art predated the Spanish. The evidence that is typically offered to establish such antiquity would be properly described as folklore and not history (6). For the record FMAs make various cameo appearances in various historical texts, but such mentions are usually made in passing and are not particularly revealing. For example it appears from Antonio Pigafeta’s eyewitness account, that the Portuguese explorer Magellan was killed in 1521 near Cebu Island while in battle with a lance or javelin. (7) The identity of this art or combat method has been lost to history, and you will certainly not learn it at your local FMA school. (8)

It is true however, that there are various sword designs that pre-date the Spanish Occupation and which appear to be traceable to the Moros, who arrived in the Philippines from Malaysia, immigrating to the islands of Mindanao and the Sulu Archipelago in the largest numbers between the beginning of the fourteenth century and the middle of the 15th century. They were, and are of the Islamic faith. (9) The Barong, (leaf shape, 16-18 inches long) Kris, (a wavy blade) and Kampilan, (a 44 inch blade used for slash and thrust work) all trace back to the Moros or the islands they inhabited. (10) Similarly the spear (karasaik) and shield are also attributed to the Moros. (11) By contrast the Bolo is an agricultural working tool from the Spanish colonal era, and the balisong or "butterfly knife" which was first created in 1905 in Batangas, by one Perfecto de Leon. (12)

Transmission and Politics

The first FMA was openly taught in mainland America by Angel Caballes in Stockton, California in 1964. Many American martial artists first learned of FMA through Dan Inosanto who opened the Filipino Kali Academy in Torrance, California after Bruce Lee’s death in the early 1970s. A whole clutch of talented FMA artists including the Dog brothers trace their art at least partially back to Inosanto who used FMA to teach the concepts of JKD. However, With all the cross training that various JKD students have carried out with other FMA masters, it would probably be an error to indicate that there is a standard JKD FMA method.

In the 1970s Remy Presas arrived in the United States where he taught what he called “Modern Arnis”. Leo T. Gaje who taught Pekiti-Tirsia Kali had founded the Arnis America Organization in New York City in 1972 (13) Since Gaje has worked closely with Dan Inosanto, his influence upon stick and knife fighting extends beyond his own art to the JKD groups affiliated with his friend, Dan.

There was a rivalry between Gaje and Presas while the Presas was still alive, that lead to various allegations that the other was turning out students who sucked. Were these men right or wrong? We don’t know, but it was a major fault line in FMA in this country which was relevant because before his death in 2001, Remy probably had the largest number of FMA schools in America. These have since splintered into many different little organizations.

Positives and Negatives of FMA


  • Effective Stick and knife defense can be learned more quickly then empty handed arts.

Instruction tends to be more “alive” then purely form based arts.

  • FMA often features full contact instruction.
  • A stick or knife will work against a much larger person when an empty hand attack will not.


  • Most FMA schools do not integrate their techniques with grappling. The Dog Brothers are an important exception.
  • There have been a number of schools that have attempted to “bolt on” FMA instruction to another martial art, (like TKD) without fully mastering FMA). Poor results often follow.
  • In many locations in the U.S. carrying around knives and sticks will get you into serious legal trouble.


1) Mark V. Wiley, Filipino Martial Culture, (Charles E. Tuttle Company, Inc, North Clarendon, Vt, 1996), p. 348

2) Mark V. Wiley, Filipino Martial Culture, (Charles E. Tuttle Company, Inc, North Clarendon, Vt, 1996), p. 310. The rest of Wiley’s argument is contained on pages 309-311.

3) Donn F. Draeger and Robert W. Smith, Comprehensive Asian Fighting Arts, (New York, Kodansha International, 1969, 1980), p. 186.

4) Wiley, See pages 313-341, for this argument.

5) Ibid, p. 23

6) For example, proper historical methodology would require establishing an unbroken chronological list of the masters who transmitted this art from pre-Spanish times complete with their birth and death dates and supporting documentation establishing their existence. Folklore is "my master's teacher told him".

7) Ibid, pp. 39-41. To be more precise, Magellan died while fighting on Mactan Island, a tiny island off the eastern coast of Cebu Island.

8) At [1] You can find a Wikipedia article asserting that this art is decended from the combat method used by Maharaja Lapulapu to kill Magellan's conquistadors, No support is provided for this assertion. Descriptions by others of this combat methodology are similarly suspect. One allegedly comes from a book by on Don Baltazar Gonzales titled De Los Delitos which, if it existed, has not been seen in public in at least forty years. (Wiley, p. 24)

9) Donn F. Draeger and Robert W. Smith, Comprehensive Asian Fighting Arts, (New York, Kodansha International, 1969, 1980), p. 185.

10) Wiley, pp 118-122.

11) Draeger and Smith, p. 186.

12) Wiley, pp. 122-123.

13) Wiley, pp. 62.

Note: I also consulted John Corcoran and Emil Farkas, The Original Martial Arts Encyclopedia (Pro-Action Publishing, Los Angeles, CA, 1993). pp. 11-13. when writing this style profile.


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