Everybody knows Bruce Lee for his Kung Fu films, for popularizing Chinese Martial Arts in the West, and for creating his own martial art system, Jeet Kune Do. But did you know that he also has an inseparable connection to Filipino Martial Arts?
Bruce Lee and Filipino Martial Arts
In the unfinished 1978 movie, Game of Death, Lee fights various martial arts masters. One of them is a Filipino-American. His real life student and close friend, Dan Inosanto, fights him using Kali, a weapons-based style of fighting from the Philippines.
Game of Death was one of the first movies to catapult Filipino Martial Arts (FMA) into the Hollywood spotlight.
In more recent times, Matt Damon’s character in the Bourne series of movies makes heavy use of the fighting style of Kali.
In the movie 300, Kali was used to distinguish the fighting style of Leonidas’ army, since the real fighting arts of the Spartans has been lost to history.
In the Bourne films, Jeff Imada, the fight stunt coordinator, was a close friend of Bruce Lee’s son, Brandon, with whom he studied Jeet Kune Do under the tutelage of Dan Inosanto.
In 300, the head stunt coordinator and fight choreographer, Damon Caro, is also a student of Inosanto.
Filipino Martial Arts: A Quick History
But before Filipino Martial Arts became a go-to martial art style for realistic fight choreography, it was used by the Pintados – tattooed warriors that the Spanish encountered when they first landed on the Philippine Islands.
Each family group had their own fighting system which they used against rival tribes during the precolonial times. When the Philippines was under Spanish rule, native Filipinos, or indios as they were labelled, were prohibited from studying martial arts.
But they preserved and practiced their skills in the form of Moro-Moro plays, which depicted Filipinos fighting with sticks against their sword-wielding Spanish conquerors.
During the Japanese occupation, stories of Filipinos going head to head against Japanese soldiers wielding nothing but rattan or bahi sticks or bolos became the stuff of legend.
Filipino Martial Arts were traditionally never written in a book. Instead, they were passed down from generation to generation through mentoring from a father to his son. As Filipinos were finally allowed to start teaching martial arts openly, it became necessary to assign words and names to the once secret fighting techniques and forms.
Our past, under Spanish rule, is still evident in terminologies used to describe our martial arts. For instance, the technique of hitting an opponent with the side of the blade (or stick) with a whipping motion of the wrist is called “abanico” in some systems and “witik” in others.
The words Arnis and Escrima are rooted in Spanish — a remnant of a time when Filipinos were required to be polyglots — fluent in Filipino, in Castilian Spanish, and even in English, in addition to the native language of their province! Arnis comes from arnes, Old Spanish for armor. Escrima (also spelled Eskrima) is derived from the Spanish term Esgrima that is the term for fencing.
The word Kali, meanwhile, has many theorized origins. It is said to be derived from words in several Filipino languages which referred to martial arts in different regions such as kaliradman in Visayas and kalirongan in Pangasinan. It could also have been derived from the kalis sword (aka kris sword), or from the word kalis which means, “to scrape” in some Filipino languages.
Depending on who you ask, the word “escrima” is sometimes used interchangeably with the term “arnis.” When escrima techniques are used with bladed weapons (instead of rattan sticks), the art becomes known as kali. Others say the difference in the names either implied the region from which the art originated or the time period when the art was developed.
Regardless of the exact etymology, it was Dan Inosanto who popularized the word “Kali” to refer to the indigenous Filipino Martial Arts of blade and stick fighting.
Escrima and Arnis are the names commonly used in the Philippines. The name Kali is seldom used locally because the term is more recognized outside the Philippines than the other two.
Nowadays, all three terms (kali, arnis, escrima) are simply known under the umbrella of “Filipino Martial Arts” or “FMA.”
Filipino Martial Arts in America
In the past, Filipino Martial Arts (FMA) were taught to direct blood relations and fellow tribe members only. Changes began when the Philippines gained independence after World War II. The first group to formalize FMA as an institution were the founders of the Doce Pares Association in 1930’s who were based in Cebu City.
FMA spread to the States due to the efforts of Max Sarmiento. The story goes that in the mid 1960’s, Max worked in the Defense Depot near Stockton, CA. A few of the workers were practicing karate and one jokingly attacked Max. Max quickly and effectively defended himself with his own FMA, Kadena de Mano (Chain of Hands).
The karate students were impressed and asked Max to start teaching them his style of FMA. Max didn’t want to, but did ask other local FMA Masters around Stockton, a city full of Filipino immigrants.
Max was able to convince Angel Cabales to openly teach his style of Escrima, Serrada Escrima, to all those who wanted to learn. The school was the first example of FMA being openly taught in the USA. Angel Cabales is famously known as the “Father of Escrima in the US.”
Another man who helped change the closed-door mindset is Leo T. Gaje Jr. of the Pekiti Tirsia Kali System. In 1972, he migrated to New York and, inspired by the efforts started by Bruce Lee to break from the mold and teach Kung Fu to non-Chinese, saw the potential of teaching Kali to students outside his own family for the first time ever. Not only as a sport, but as a reality-based combat system, as it was taught to him by his grandfather. His first students, whom he fondly calls his “Originals,” were eager young men from all over the United States and Canada.
The efforts of Dan Inosanto, the original Doce Pares Association, Angel Cabales, Gaje, and other Filipino Martial Arts masters, allowed FMA to shine and be appreciated by the worldwide martial arts community. Another huge step forward in the Philippines was when Arnis / Kali / Escrima was declared the National Sport in 2009 and became a required Physical Education subject in schools.
FMA Training in the Real World
FMA is distinct from other martial arts in that a weapon (training stick) is placed in a student’s hands from day one. Most martial arts withhold weapons training until the higher ranks are reached. With FMA, empty hand techniques are taught when proficiency with the stick/sword and knife has been mastered. FMA is particularly well-liked among fight enthusiasts because it allows flexibility with using either long or short blades, blunt weapons, empty hands, or even improvised weapons.
The system of Leo Gaje Jr., Pekiti Tirsia Kali, is concerned with real life street and combat fighting where “ring rules” don’t apply. They adopt fighting stances that trade off some power for speed and agility against multiple opponents. But the combination of power, timing, speed, precision and accuracy is stressed by Gaje to all who study the PTK system in order to truly master the techniques.
The Philippine Recon Marines train in PTK for when they fight against rebels where proficiency in hand-to-hand combat is essential to survival. In the United States, Gaje and Inosanto are featured as knife fighting experts in the critically acclaimed video Surviving Edged Weapons (1988) used for law enforcement training. One of the highest ranking teachers in the Pekiti Tirsia System, Tuhon Jared Wihongi, currently trains military and SWAT teams in Tactical PTK in Utah, Singapore, Germany, Latin America, and other cities around the world.
One FMA club, Pekiti Tirsia Kali Global City, that is primarily based in Bonifacio Global City is dedicated to teaching classical PTK to preserve the teachings of Grandtuhon Gaje to his “Originals” in the 70’s and 80’s. Pekiti Global City also teaches PTK as a reality-based tactical system that is well-suited to urban street survival, as well as warfare.
Head teacher, Guro Christophe Verdot also conduct seminars in France and other parts of Europe to promote FMA. At the first PTK Convention in France in May 2014, he was hailed as an expert in Pekiti Tirsia Kali history and methods. PTK Global City is growing a worldwide network with a branch in Bordeaux, France and will also be offering PTK classes at Ninja Academy – the Philippines’ first indoor Parkour facility. All in an effort to maintain the high standard of training that PTK is known for all over the world.
Just like Bruce Lee was able to popularize Kung Fu in Hollywood, Kali is the martial art of choice for many cinematic fight choreographers for its rapid, fluid, and brutal yet graceful movements. Most recently, the movie I, Frankenstein (2014) featured a new kind of monster who was adept at using Kali sticks to fight demons. That film was choreographed by husband and wife team Ron Balicki and Diana Lee Inosanto – the daughter of Dan Inosanto and named after her godfather, Bruce Lee.
No longer a martial art taught in secret through stage plays, or in back-alleys by goons, or in far-off provinces by ageing masters to their proteges, FMA now represents the Philippines in numerous blockbuster action movies and used to train law enforcement and even military special forces like the U.S. Navy SEALs.
This last video demonstrates how much FMA has become so popular that it’s now taught around the world, not just by Filipinos, but by people of all backgrounds.