Grandmaster Tony Diego often teases Shamim Haque with typically relaxed good humour, “Go home, you know it already, no need to train anymore!” But Shamim insists he has only scratched the surface of what the art, and Master Tony, have to teach him.
He is equally clear on his debt to John Chow for teaching him the fundamentals and for his continued mentoring, and senior masters Yuli Romo and Chris ‘Topher’ Ricketts – the latter of whom sadly passed away in 2010. They all continued to give Shamim valuable instruction and advice. He was concerned to emphasise that ‘Tatang’ gave all the senior students the same technical material. Each combines and re-combines the techniques differently but consistently, according to the principles of the system. As individuals they each have a different way of organising that mass of material and then structuring and presenting that teaching to their own students. Thus, the system allows for and encourages individuality driven by a recipe of technical proficiency and personal attributes.
In Ilustrisimo the stick and the blade are both trained, but when the stick is substituted for a blade, it is used as a blade. There is a convention in the Filipino arts that the stick and the blade can be used interchangeably – with the stick merely representing a safer training method for practising the blade – but not so in Ilustrisimo. In this style the distinction and the adaptation necessary are clearly held in mind at all times. The greater flexibility of application of the stick is utilised fully; however the two are never confused. Shamim sums up, “You can usually substitute a blade technique for a stick technique, but not always vice versa.”
Early on, most techniques are performed on the retreat for safety, or ‘riterada’. This involves using the footwork to fade back to what is called ‘de campo’ (literally ‘in the field’, or ‘in the countryside’) or long range. Once comfortable with a technique, it is applied moving forward wherever possible for the sake of speed and directness. At this point, stylists begin to ‘break in’ and ‘break out’ and this is the beginning of learning ‘broken rhythm’. Once a student is able to do this, Master Tony will practise with them ‘one for one’, which eskrimadors of other styles generically refer to as ‘sombrada’ – the principle of ‘counter for counter’, rather than the eponymous drill.
Mr. Diego has devised a number of drills of this kind, but the preference is for training the student in a free-play flow of technique instead of any set response. This is particularly effective for developing reaction speed and the ability to analyse and choose options under pressure. “Believe me” says Shamim, “you’re motivated to get out of the way of the counter coming in!” All out sparring is used to develop both timing and hitting power, which is generated by dropping body mass through the cut or hit – typified by the ‘drop-stick’ or ‘Baksat’ cut. Mass under acceleration (in this case, acceleration due to gravity) is the very essence of power. Rotation of the shoulders, rib-case, waist, hips, knees and feet provide a continual source of power to parries and counter-cuts also.
The ranges trained are as follows: De Campo; De Medio; and De Salon. De Campo is the equivalent of Largo Mano or Long Range; De Medio is the Medium Range; and De Salon, literally ‘in the room or bar’, referring to close-quarter work. There are three standard grips for the baston within Ilustrisimo: Standard; Central; and Susi. Standard is the natural grip – though Ilustrisimo stylists, unlike most, hold the stick right at the base, adjusting the grip as they work if they wish to utilise the ‘puno’ or butt of the stick. Central is exactly what it sounds like, the stylist holds the stick in the centre, and is a common way to hold your training weapon indicating non-aggression. Out of the three basic grips, this is the only one that doesn’t relate to the blade. Susi, or key grip, is the reverse grip, with the stick (or blade) held against the underside of the forearm and the fingers formed as if inserting a key in a lock, and also indicates that the eskrimador is not looking for a fight.
Though challenges are less common these days, Ilustrisimo stylists train to use the stick in any of the three grips, just in case. The significance of the grip also has a deeper meaning within the culture. It is not that you are holding a stick in one of several ways, but that anyone known to be a skilled eskrimador has to be careful in public to give clear signals when holding any object that could serve as a weapon. Such conventions tell you as much about the sophisticated culture that generated them, as they do about the style that uses them.
The basis of Ilustrisimo empty-hand lies within the dagger training, where the fundamental tactics are ‘Sugu’ and ‘War-wok’. The first refers to the practice of simultaneous parry and counter. Hands are held open in the standard ‘live-hand’ position, and striking is generally with the fingertips and edge of the hand, leading to the second tactic against a blade-wielding attacker. Here the student learns ‘war-wok’, to capture and feed the dagger back to the attacker, rather than focusing on disarming from the start. It is considered more efficient to use the opponent’s own weapon to disable them. This is entirely logical as the attacker begins with the advantage of having a blade and the defender seeks not to equalize the struggle but to win.
The Americans occupying the Philippines at the beginning of the 20th century acquired the sophisticated evasion and defensive tactics associated with modern boxing from the Filipinos. When the Filipinos began to take part in professional boxing they brought with them all the tactics of knife fighting, particularly the evasion. It is impractical to solidly block a knife-thrust or slash from a skilled fighter; it simply happens too fast and no attack is so committed that it cannot be swiftly retracted. Constant movement to make yourself a more difficult target, combined with re-directive parrying, slipping, bobbing and weaving are much more viable responses.
In Kalis Ilustrisimo the truism that, when unarmed, Filipino stylists will simply use the weapon tactic empty-handed really is followed. Naturally, a few techniques have to be slightly adapted but generally speaking, nothing is done differently – essentially even the hand forms simulate blade use. Like ‘Tatang’ before him, Tony Diego is very accepting of techniques derived from elsewhere – the criteria for acceptance are combative practicality and consistency with the underlying concepts of the system. Shamim has, on occasion, demonstrated Silat techniques to Master Tony for evaluation and has always received a very positive response – the one restriction is that it should always be clear what is the derivation of the technique is.
I asked Shamim what he most enjoyed about training in the Philippines, what he least liked and what surprised him. Just training and spending time with the legitimate Grandmaster of an authentic and proven system was the most important element for him. He particularly enjoyed the ‘anecdotal’ training – the opportunity to really soak up the history and cultural lineage underlying the art made all the difference.
Shamim had only seen ‘Tatang’ Ilustrisimo in 1994 when he was already very ill, so he didn’t have an opportunity to train with the founder. But training with Master Tony and the other master teachers under ‘Tatang’, is an enormous privilege. As first generation students under one of the most revered and respected Eskrimadors ever, they all have much to offer and he credits their freely given advice and coaching with his rapid development.
Spending time with Tony Diego is, in a sense, always training. He will illustrate a tactical discussion with an anecdote from ‘Tatang’s life, then break off and say, “Let’s move” – that is, “let’s train and I’ll show you”. When the current head of the family speaks of his late master, his voice will often thicken. ‘Tatang’ Ilustrisimo was a remarkable man and the affection and respect he engendered in his students is plainly observable.
Shamim particularly enjoyed hearing how ‘Tatang’ developed techniques directly through combat experience. Master Tony recalled often sitting with his teacher, having wide-ranging discussions on techniques and strategies and trying to catch his teach out with a sudden attack. ‘Tatang’ never once seemed surprised – he simply countered everything calmly and carried on talking.
Shamim’s least favourite memory of the first trip he made to train with Master Tony was having to demonstrate in front of the senior masters of the system – and assorted bystanders – a number of times in Lunete Park, where eskrimadors gather each Sunday morning. Nonetheless he recognises this was a useful experience, as the other first generation students were very positive and always had helpful coaching and training tips to offer.
Masters Chris Ricketts (now sadly deceased and much missed) and Yuli Romo, in particular, contributed additional training and they each have enormous experience of other arts. Master Chris had an extensive background in various styles of karate and in Judo and Aikido prior to studying Arnis. He then added boxing training and was the co-founder of the art of Sagasa – a highly effective empty hand art – and of Bakbakan – a successful organisation promoting Filipino arts.
Master Yuli Romo is truly a unique character, quiet with a humble demeanour. He has a very different style of movement to both Master Ricketts and Master Tony, but you can tell the principles are the same. He has trained with many Arnis masters all over the Philippines. He has a reputation for disappearing for months on end, only to return with much new material he has acquired on his travels. When it comes to Arnis, Ilustrisimo is the art he chooses over all the arts he has studied. Like Master Tony, he says “no-one can move quite like the old man (‘Tatang’), no matter how hard they train…no-one can replace him.”
From Shamim’s perspective the most surprising aspect of that first trip, and which goes on surprising him every time, is just how few of the local students trained as often as they could have.
If you’re in the London area, I recommend that you get in touch with Shamim (just follow the link to the KIRO website) and experience an authentic and devastatingly effective weapons art, delivered by an intelligent and devoted teacher who knows that there will always be more to learn.
©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.