Filipino Martial Arts
Home Karate History Filipino Martial Arts Sensei Craig Radcliffe Master Rafael Reston Gallery Training Gladiator Night 1994 Master Remy A. Presas Guro Rodel Dagooc Guro Roland Dantes Contact Details


  Filipino Martial Arts History 


The nation of the Philippines is an archipelago of islands in the Western Pacific Ocean nestled between China, Japan, Malaysia and Indonesia. The people of almost 70 million consist mainly of Malay stock with a dialect of over 70.

The fighting arts of the Philippines has always been an integral part of their culture and racially diversified society. These arts include empty hand, sticks, projectiles and bladed weapon techniques. The most important weapon is the bladed, wavy kris which comes in different size and shape and is similar to ones found in Indonesia and Malaysia. The naturally graceful and harmoniously circular movements used in the Philippine fighting arts are also characteristic of methods found on the Asian mainland.

Primitive Negritos coming from Central Asia by land were the first settlers bringing with them their reflex bows and arrows and later adopting to the long bows. Around 200 B.C. the Malays from Southeast Asia came to the Philippines bringing with them the long knife which have since took on many different forms as well as names.

They were also expert fighters with the daggers, swords, spears, as well as the bows and arrows of both designs. Later from the beginning of the Christian era to the thirteenth century came a second migration of Malays brought other bladed weapons. A third migration of Malays began in the fourteenth to the middle of the fifteenth century. These peoples are the ancestors of the present day Muslim Filipinos of Mindanao and Sulu. It was the Muslim Filipinos who were the only ones that were not subjected by the Spaniards and the Americans due the heavy resistance put up by them. They favoured the bladed weapons but were also skilled with sticks, bows and arrows as well as projectile weapons.

In the ninth century extensive trade relations with China T'ang dynasty martial arts skills. The Sung and Ming dynasty soon followed and large Chinese colonies were established in coastal areas. In the fifteenth century the Malaccan Empire was established and Mohammedanism began to spread to the Southern Philippines. The Chinese and Indo-Chines fought resisted but were pushed back. When the Spaniards came to the northern Philippines in 1570 they found Muslim Filipinos settled in communities with Chinese and Indo-Chinese. As a result of these racial mixtures the fighting arts were even more efficient than before.


The first known Filipino hero, Lapulapu, was believed to be one of the foremost masters of arnis, kali, eskrima, which was known during that time in the native dialect as pangamut. In fact, Lapulapu had vigorously trained and prepared his men for "Showdown" fights against his enemies long before his historic battle with Ferdinand Magellan on April 27, 1521, in Mactan Island. It was no surprise then, that when the first circumnavigator of the world tried to subdue the recalcitrant Lapulapu, who refused to come and meet him in Cebu, Magellan and his men were met not with a hail of bullets but with wooden instruments, spears, and bolos. It was ironic that when the smoke of that epic battle cleared, the Spanish conquistadors more "modern" weapons were no match for the crude wooden arms of Lapulapu and his warriors. Magellan lost his life in that battle.

Lapulapu, even before his momentous meeting with Magellan, had been training his men because of his bitter rivalry with Rajah Humabon, whom he accused of having grabbed a portion of his father's land, particularly the sea area between the Mactan Island and Cebu. The feud between these two local chieftains contributed significantly to the early development of the 'old' arnis. The showdown between Lapulapu and Humabon, however, was never realised. Rather, it was in the battle of Mactan where the native martial art was put to a real test against the modern weapons of the foreign invaders.

In the 16th and 17th century Spanish colonization was marred by revolts. The fighting skills of the natives were highly developed by this time and were respected by the Spanish. While most of the Philippines were colonize by the Spaniards the Moros of Mindanao were not and it is they that must be credited with the greatest experimentation, systematization, and martial use of the bladed weapon. And as systematization developed, it was necessary to preserve the systems in some form which would permit daily practice without actually engaging in serious combat with an enemy, so native dance rhythms supplied the form. Ancient native rhythmic movements employing bladed weapons were abundant which today can be seen in ritual dancing like the Sinulog which consist of fast tempo movements of parry and counter thrust. The Binabayani, a dance from Zambales, requires two groups of men mocking a fierce battle using the bolo which is a heavy bladed long knife. In the Sulu Archipelago a dance called Silat uses a kris which is bladed wavy knife.

Bladed weapons abound in the Sulu Archipelago. Each weapon is not used by an organized system of fighting but rather it is used to suit ones taste and requirements. Some of these bladed weapons include: the gunong, kalis, barong, laring, gayang, banjal, punal, pira, utak, panabas, bangkon, banjal, lahot, kampilan, and kris. Pre Spanish Filipinos ad tribal organized training methods in the use of their weapons. The bladed weapon was the core weapons; the  Kris, bolo and balaraw being the standard types. Using the Tagalog term of kalis which implies a large bladed weapon, the term became shortened to kali. Kali became a term to signify different systems that made use of knives. And it was at the bothoan, an ancient school, which the students learned their fighting skills along with their academic skills.

Kali was forced underground by the Spanish and developed secretly within the tribes. But unbeknown to the Spanish the stage mock battles performed by the natives were actually part of Kali movements. Empty hand combat was also developed but was secondary to bladed weapons systems. Most bear resemblance to foreign methods. In the Sulu area an effective art called Kun tao is practiced extensively. Dumog which developed in the northernmost parts of the islands is a grappling type of combat. Opponents encircle each others waist and attempt to unbalance and throw one another to the ground.

At present the best known and the most systematic fighting art in the Philippines is arnis de mano. It has the longest historical development from the kali system and is designed to train the students to defend against armed as well unarmed attacks. Arnis for short has been known by many different native names. For example, the Tagalog’s calls it pananandata, Ilocanos calls it kabaroan, the Pangasinan calls it kalirongan, and in the Visayas they call it kaliradman or pagaradman, the Pampaneguenos sinawali, the Ibanags pagkalikali.

The name Arnis de mano is a misleading Spanish name. The word which means "harnes of the hand" is said to come from the word arnes, referring to the decorative trappings or "harness" of the moro-moro actors, and "de mano" meaning hands. The movements of the hands used to move the trappings around by the actors impressed the Spanish conquistadores. But unknown to them these motions were actually kali fighting skills hidden in dance form. The word "arnes" became corrupted and became arnis. With the word a Spanish expression and techniques described in Spanish many is led to a popular misconception that arnis is combat form brought by the Spanish invaders brought to the Philippines.

With the defeat of the Spanish in 1898, by the United States, the occupation forces were met with a revolution of the Moros of Mindanao. At the time of the revolution, the American garrisons were constantly harassed by the Filipino Jurmentados or "Crazy Hermits". The Jurmentados would wear a red headband symbolizing their intent to fight until their own lifeblood from their bodies and go forth utilizing the art of Kali to slay those who were viewed as their oppressors. The Jurmentados, whose blind rage and utmost commitment made them rather unstoppable led to the development of the 45 Caliber pistol in 1911.

During the Second World War, the Japanese conquered the Philippines. At this time, the art of Combat Judo Kali fighting system was developed. Comjuka Kali utilizes the arts of Silat and Kali had been developed and was handed down from father to son. In order to keep practicing their art, the Comjuka practitioners had to change the Kali part of their system name to karate to make the Japanese believe that they were practicing a Japanese fighting style. The use of rattan sticks took place of the traditional bolos and knives in order to keep the Kali techniques and fighting methods alive. The fighting techniques were incorporated in to the dances of the different tribes and this practice allowed for faster training of fighting techniques, as the dances could be coordinated to resemble a particular fighting technique.

Manchurian Comjuka Kempo was developed by Grandmaster Rafael Reston of Batangas, Philippines while living in the Clark Air Base region of the Philippines. Along with his training in the arts of Balintawak arnis and the art of Japanese Kempo, he combined these arts into a fighting art that was sought out by military members who were stationed at Clark Airbase. With the influences of the military members who were taught other martial arts, Grandmaster Reston incorporated the arts of Chuan-fa from Taiwan and Goju-ryu from Okinawa. This gave both linear and circular motions and applications in the fighting art of Comjuka-Kempo. Grandmaster Reston was one of the most sought out instructors of the Philippines by military personnel assigned to Clark Airbase which resulted in the promotion of dozens of Black belts in the art of Comjuka-Kempo.

The Arnis practitioner employs short range, medium range and long range in their use of attacks, blocks and counters and uses feints to defeat their attackers.  A variety of skills needs to be developed before the student or trainee becomes proficient. The training  of these skills are similar to those developed during the kali days: striking, parrying, offence and defence with a blade/stick  weapon, the use of the leg-hip fulcrum to break the opponent's balance and throw him, and using the stick/blade or free hand to disarm an assailant.


To complement the weapons training many modern instructors have integrated other Filipino arts specifically the kicking arts into their repertoire. Arts such as panuntukman, which is like a kick boxing style, sikaran which is a hand and foot art, pananjakman which are kicks aimed low. As well their is dumog as mentioned earlier which is a grappling art. So while many martial artist equate the Filipino arts as "stick fighting", if one digs deeper it is more than that. It's a whole complete form of self defence applicable to modern times.