The Cutting Edge Martial Art of Kalis Ilustrisimo – Part 1
A small, slightly built young Asian man stands in front of his training partner, each of them with the characteristic square on stance and the threatening high guard of Kalis Ilustrisimo. He is smiling – he usually is – yet very focussed on the threat his ‘opponent’ represents. As his training partner attacks, he moves fluidly aside, avoiding the weapon and countering smoothly.
I wouldn’t like to be hit by him, but he is much too respectful a young man to take advantage of one of his old teachers. His name is Shamim Haque and it is my belief that he will be recognised as an exceptional martial arts exponent of his generation. In the time that I have known him he has continued to develop as both a performer and teacher. We share an attitude that I believe marks out the best students of the martial arts; that is, ‘the moment you think you’ve really got it, is the moment you just lost it’. Right now he is a fine example of fighter and instructor and will bring further honour to what is already one of the most respected, if least known, styles of Filipino martial arts.
Those of you who are familiar with the arts of the Philippines are likely to have heard of Kalis Ilustrisimo, the art of the late Grandmaster Antonio ‘Tatang’ Ilustrisimo, undefeated in combat and rarely, if ever, equalled in skill. When Tatang died in 1997 he left behind a handful of enormously talented senior students, among whom Grandmaster Tony Diego is the acknowledged successor to the founder as Tatang’s longest serving student and the most experienced by a considerable margin.
I have known Shamim for about 17 years now – he was part of a small group of Eskrimadors who decided to augment their training with some instruction in Silat, and who were gathered together by a long-term student of mine. Several of these young martial artists who I introduced to the art went on to specialise in the Indonesian arts. I was immediately struck by the quality of Shamim’s movement, technical insight and commitment. Although physically small, like myself, Shamim moves fluidly, economically and he is technically very precise.
At the age of sixteen he saw an article in a magazine featuring Bob Breen doing Eskrima and soon after joined Bob’s Academy. Incidentally, Bob was amongst the first 5 people practicing the art in the U.K. back in the late 1970’s – the others were Bill Newman, Jay Dobrin and Phil Chenery, and me, though they had different teachers to myself.
Shamim received his early training in JKD and Eskrima from Bob, his senior instructors, Terry Barnett and Pat O’Malley and visiting teachers such as John Harvey and Simon Wells. While Shamim has always enjoyed JKD, it was the Eskrima training that really inspired him to begin studying the arts. He is quick to give credit to the quality of his early training with Bob and his colleagues, establishing his basic skills and understanding.
Back in 2000, when I last wrote about Shamim, with around 13 years of experience, I judged him a major talent – now at 40, with 24 years of intensive training behind him, I would rate him as even more exceptional. On that last occasion, as a personal student of Master Tony Diego, he had just returned from a long training trip to the Philippines, and I asked him about the experience of training with the Grandmaster and the nature of Kalis Ilustrisimo. On that particular trip, he had taken part in the 5th WEKAF (World Eskrima Kalis Arnis Federation) World Championships where he became the World Champion in the men’s flyweight division, though he is quick to discourage any great significance being laid on the tournament success.
The majority style of Eskrima in the U.K. is Doce Pares; this formed the basis of Shamim’s stick skills until John Harvey and Pat O’Malley developed the art of Rapid Arnis in 1993. The new style was a mix of various styles of Arnis/Eskrima, namely Doce Pares, Lapunti Arnis de Abanico and Modern Arnis. Shamim was the first student of Rapid Arnis, the first to gain the equivalent of dan rank within the system, and the most senior student under John and Pat until he left in 1996.
Shamim explained that he first came across Kalis Ilustrisimo in 1993 when John Chow, another student of Tatang and Tony Diego, visited The Academy in London. Shamim became aware of John watching the class, smiling and nodding as he analysed and evaluated technique and players alike. There was something about John Chow and the way he observed the class that convinced Shamim he really knew what he was looking at.
After the class, John Chow introduced himself to Shamim and Reza-ur-Rahman (his training partner – now a Silat teacher) and began to chat about their training and his own master, Tatang Ilustrisimo. Nowadays, Shamim laughs at his own ignorance – at the time he had not even heard of the style – as John pointed out a photograph of Bob Breen with the Grandmaster hanging on the wall of the academy. This didn’t mean a great deal to Shamim – at the age of 20 all he saw was a very elderly Filipino man with his own instructor.
Master Chow told them many stories of the Grandmaster, which fascinated both young men, and they readily accepted an invitation to train with John the next evening at his hotel. I was a little taken aback when he told me the next part of the story. It seems that he dreamed of meeting Tatang that same night. The next day he couldn’t remember much of the dream, just that he had met him, talked with him and possibly trained with him.
Reluctantly he told his training partner, Reza when they met to train at John’s hotel the next evening. Just as reluctantly, Reza admitted he’d had much the same dream, though he too couldn’t recall much in the way of detail. When they told John Chow, he simply smiled and said it was a very common experience among Ilustrisimo’s students; many of them reported similar dreams, often featuring Tatang demonstrating techniques they had never seen in class. “He was a very powerful man”, John said.
Shamim carefully avoids placing any particular significance on this event, other than it helped to convince him that he should take the opportunity to study an unfamiliar style. John Chow generously shared his knowledge for 4-5 hours every night after work for weeks with the two young men. At the time, Mr. Chow travelled around the world working in the I.T. world – he is an acknowledged guru in the Oracle software system – and so Shamim and Reza were able to receive further tuition in 1995 when he returned to London on another assignment. Not only is John Chow an accomplished eskrimador, but also a master in a family version of Yang style Tai Chi Ch’uan too. His brother is also a Tai Chi adept, though in the Wu style, and they are both expert Chinese herbalists in addition.
John Chow is a meticulous man and a stickler for good form, so the repetition of basic drilling was his initial priority with his two new students, for which Shamim is particularly grateful. Shamim emphasises that the art of Ilustrisimo lies in its adherence to principles, rather than particular preferred techniques. Its development owes much to Tatang’s senior students. It seems that when the Grandmaster began to teach, he refused to use the kind of practise drills familiar to most of us. Instead he would simply say, “Attack me” and then simply respond.
The difficulty for his original students was that he didn’t appear to respond the same way twice. After a while, Tony Diego, Yuli Romo, Christopher ‘Topher’ Ricketts (sadly Master Ricketts passed away suddenly in late 2010), Romi Macapagal and Edgar G. Sulite (the founder of Lameco Eskrima) hit on an alternative strategy. They would bring Tatang other students and watch closely when they were asked to attack him. Then they would question the Grandmaster, challenging his changed responses to what appeared to be the same attack.
Tatang however, would insist that they were wrong; the student had not fed the same attack. It had been slower, or faster, or from a slightly different angle or range, or telegraphed, and this was why he had adjusted his response. Piece by piece, the senior students were able to identify and articulate the underlying principles of the highly effective Ilustrisimo method.
All of our teachers leave their mark, but because Kalis Ilustrisimo is so much a principle-based art rather than a rigid system, the personal style of all the advanced students and teachers is pronounced and individual. Having been screened by John Chow over a six-year period, Shamim was finally given a recommendation to train with Grandmaster Tony Diego. He immediately travelled to Manila, taking with him his friend and training partner, Abjol Miah.
Shamim told me that as Tom Dy Tang (a long time personal student of Tony Diego and his named successor, he recently re-located to Canada) led him up the stairs to the gym in Manila’s Chinatown, he was both very excited and nervous. But from the very moment that the door swung open and he saw Master Tony for the first time, he felt at ease and an inexplicable connection to him. What struck Shamim most was his warm smile and friendly nature – for which I can personally vouch, having had the privilege of accompanying Shamim on a month-long trip to Manila to train for the first time with Mang Tony in April 2010. At this first meeting he was typically relaxed and was dressed casually in tracksuit bottoms and a t-shirt, in contrast to most of the teachers Shamim had met in the Philippines, who invariably wore a uniform and club or association insignia.
After Abjol and he were introduced, they were asked to show their Arnis skills to him. The Grandmaster watched carefully for half an hour, then said, “I can tell you’re John Chow’s student”, which of course, was a compliment. The training began that same night. For the next intensive three weeks all they did was train, train, then train some more. Being Westerners, they hadn’t thought to get so much attention, but on the contrary, “Master Tony went out of his way to help us, to show us around, spend time talking to us”, said Shamim. “When we went to buy refreshments or take a Jeepney (local bus), he would always pay before we had a chance to do so.”
Shamim explained, “I think we came from a similar culture (Shamim, Reza and Abjol are all British of Bangladeshi extraction) and system of values to Master Tony and that’s why we were able to feel so much at home. Master Tony is a very humble man with great personality and integrity and he refuses to treat the art in a commercial manner.”
I’ve had the honour to be closely associated with some of the real greats in martial arts, and the very best of them invariably have the humility and openness that Grandmaster Tony Diego has – he doesn’t like to be called any title, by the way, he simply asks people to call him Tony, but out of respect Shamim always calls him either Master Tony or Mang (another Filipino term of respect) Tony, as do all of us trained by Shamim. Shamim had never seen so great a degree of openness and commitment to teaching before.
©John Mellon M.A., and The Martial Arts University, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to John Mellon M.A. and The Martial Arts University with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.
(Part 2 of this article will appear soon – please sign up to my email list and make sure you don’t miss it! And if this inspires you, please follow the link to the Kalis Ilustrisimo web-site.)