Filipino Martial Arts are known by many names throughout its storied history; the most common being Arnis, Eskrima, and Kali. For the ease of this article, I will use the name that I first learned this art with (Kali). This is the national sport of the Philippines and is recognized throughout the world for its usage of weapons, primarily sticks and blades. Though it is considered a weapons-based martial art, there are plenty of unarmed training through both grappling and strikes. There are very few martial arts that can compare to the mastery and fluidity of the one.
A Brief History
While the true origins of the Filipino fighting styles is lost to history, there are numerous accounts that have found their way through oral lessons. There are a plethora of theories and explanations as to how Kali was started with the most prominent being the heavy influences of Spanish fencers as well as the Chinese and Indian martial arts that hold very similar pedagogies and training methodologies. Again, while the true history is lost in time, there is without a doubt quite a bit of influence from the Spanish based on the rather heavy usage of Spanish words for Kali terminology. Also, there are a lot of misconceptions about the fact that Kali and the Malaysian martial art of Silat are the same; though they are incredibly similar.
It is up to the system of what is true or not but the most reasonable truth is that Kali is a fighting style the emphasizes fluid adaptability and the most effective form of defense against an art is to use it. So it stands to reason that Kali was once faced with both European influence as well as mainland Asian influence that has led to a powerful combination of both. Though it can be said with a bit of confidence that with the Spaniards, Kali was able to evolve to a more systematic and structured style with a written history; albeit more than likely tainted to a degree.
In modern times, Kali does have a lot more structure but there is still no formal ranking system nor is there a universally accepted sport variation. In fact, while there are such organizations as the World Eskrima Kali Arnis Federation (WEKAF), there is no real way that Kali can truly be used as a complete sport because of the fact that much of the damage the can be applied by this art requires a certain amount of mortality. Also, to cater to a more global audience, some systems have begun incorporating more locks and submissions to their training in an effort to increase self defense techniques while more traditional systems live by the “a good defense is a good offense” mentality that Kali was built upon.
What Sets Kali Apart
While some other martial arts utilize weapons in their training, Kali is one of the very few that uses weaponry to this extent. Not only is armed combat a major focus, but the disarming of an opponent is a very important aspect. There is a constant flow that is involved in Kali that many other martial arts lack. A major emphasis is on the economy of movement, where no motion of neither your body nor your opponent’s is wasted. While other martial arts require a certain mastery of hand-to-hand combat, Kali typically begins with weapons. This is done because there is a mentality that once one masters the art of armed combat, unarmed combat becomes that much easier. Weapons as a prime training system began because of the fact that many of the Filipino fighters were originally farmers who had only their tools and their wits to fight with.
With the economy of movement, motion is key in being effective with this fighting style. It is often asserted that kalistas must not only be able to use as well as stop each weapon but to be able to do so with either hand. The most basic tool of Kali is the stick, or baston, which is seen as the most fluid and effective. This is due to the fact that traditional baston were made from rattan, a hardwood that was lightweight yet durable. However, blades and other blunt objects are also used extensively not as a weapon, but as an extension of the body. This is why armed combat is the first step, it places more demand on understanding range than traditional hand-to-hand training does. Simply put, it is easier for long range can be shortened than it is for short range to be elongated, especially in the heat of battle.
Kali for Self Defense
There are few martial arts like Kali out in the world today. Those that are similar, often have taken bits and pieces from the pedagogy of this art. Filipino martial arts began as systems of war and to this day they remain that way. While other martial arts place emphasis on control of the body and the understanding of armed combat, this art focuses near entirely on the use of weapons as a part of the body, and a valuable part at that. Training in this art not only aids in the principle of self defense but also lends itself to how one can live a more fluid and functional life.
The economy of movement creates such a strong sense of awareness not only for you and your immediately surroundings but also to all that is around you. It is hard to imagine not being able to improve your analytical or tactical abilities even just slightly from this training. While much of Kali is based around constant flow and muscle memory, the methodology can also be used to create a stronger flow between other arts as well. This sort of unity allows kalistas to utilize other arts that can shore up the weaknesses in their arsenal. Kalistas more often than not train in other arts on top of Kali that allow for complete, unhindered flow such as Brazilian jiujitsu for ground combat, muay Thai for more powerful striking or Jeet Kune Do for more diversity.
Unlike other traditional martial arts that required strict adherence to the original styles, Kali is a fluid machine. Kalistas must be free of blocks that stop their movement and this is just as important for their techniques as it is for their mentality. A true master kalista wouldn’t shy away from learning some jiujitsu or boxing or wrestling so long as it further improves their current roster of moves. Other martial arts can be limited on where they can be effective, the only limit to Kali is one’s own creativity.
The fact of the matter is that Kali is exceptional for self defense as well as being a top-notch martial art. The only perceivable weakness is the weakness in one’s own heart and mind. There are components for grappling, components for weapons, components for the streets as well as sanctioned fights. Not many martial arts cover that many areas on top of insisting on the maximization of movement and energy as effectively as Kali. Even if there are pieces missing, there is nothing stopping anyone from simply placing pieces from other arts to fill the void. This is often seen as a sort blasphemy in other martial arts especially traditional ones, but not for Kali.
No matter what you call it, the system of the Filipino fighting arts are incredible for self defense. Not just for the usage of weapons but also for the pedagogy that they emphasize. While a unified history is lost, there is no fault in picking up and training this art if not for the heritage but for the efficient flow and unhindered economy of movement.