By Krishna K. Godhania
Having made several trips to the Philippines in order to research the Filipino Martial Arts – I have been fortunate to meet, learn from and befriend some phenomenal martial artists. I regard Romy Macapagal as being amongst the best. As one of the top students of the late great Grandmaster Antonio “Tatang” Ilustrisimo, he has preserved a great art and is willing to share it with dedicated and sincere individuals. In this interview he talks about his beginnings, the exploits of his famous teacher and explains why the Ilustrisimo system is rated so highly.
1. At what age did you first become interested in the Martial Arts?
I cannot really recall, but I had to stand on a stool for my grandfather to show me arnis moves, and grandfather barely cleared five feet. Incidentally, the techniques were what I would later learn from Antonio “Tatang” Ilustrisimo as the Pluma and Cruzada series
I also recall that childhood games were very warlike and fierce, and involved a lot of fencing with bamboo sticks, albeit strongly influenced by American movies of pirates, Ivanhoe, Galahad, etc. We even fenced with bare hands. I was born right after World War II and the atmosphere in Manila was still very combative during those childhood years and beyond.
2. Which styles did you study?
Well, aside from grandfather’s Arnis, father, who was a collegiate boxer, taught me a little Boxing.
Then he engaged a so called Jujitsu instructor for me who taught what I now recognize as a mix of American Jujitsu and the barehanded forms of Arnis.
Then Karate became popular due to a movie titled “This is Karate” and we learned from books until some Filipinos, notably the Gonzales family opened a Karate school. Judo became popular about the same time, (this was the late 50’s and early 60’s) and again we scrounged around for instruction, generally watching Master Hirose teach at the National Bureau of Investigation.
Chinese kung-fu then became popular and I joined a spin-off Filipino group from a Choy Lee Fut school. This was the Red Lightning, and the Cantonese Club was called the Hong Sing Athletic Association. In the mean time, I continued to seek out arnis players from among the older generation and ask for instruction. Notable among them was Mang Luis, formerly of Bataan, Mang Pedro, originally from Laguna, Mang Pidiong, from Samar, and Mang Selo, from Navotas, and a Mr. Bondok, from Papanga who was referred to as an “Anak-Bitin”. (Anak means child, Bitin is a boa constrictor, and the term was applied to professional fighters in the “enforcement” business.)
Then of course, I met Antonio “Tatang” Ilustrisimo in January of 1986 of whom enough cannot be said, he had to be seen.
3. Under whom did you first learn Arnis?
As said previously, my grandfather. But in the serious sense of the term “learn first,” in spite of my previous instructors named above, it would be Grandmaster Antonio “Tatang” Ilustrisimo.
4. What was your training like under this Master?
Highly enjoyable, light and easy, with only a few light injuries. (The broken fingers, blackened fingernails, hematomas, etc. came from sparring with fellow students). Tatang had such precise control that he could cut at someone with a blade, at full speed, and leave only a thin red welt. His approach was very relaxed, not at all the fierce and furious attitude normally encountered with martial arts instructors. It was, truly, playing. (In tagalog, the term used when taking instruction or sparring even without armor is “Laro” or play. The word fight “Laban” is reserved for when serious injury or death is intended).
This has to be made clear: Tatang was not a teacher in the commonly understood sense. There was no program of instruction, no progressive sequence, not even correction of wrong moves. One had to ask, analyze, clarify, and model, otherwise you got only an impression of grace, power, ease, and efficiency. Nothing else. You see, Tatang did not look at himself as a teacher, until much later, when the only way to support himself was by instructing, but he still did not have a system.
5. Was it difficult to obtain tuition from Tatang in the early days?
When Antonio Diego, present head of the Ilustrisimo system first learned about Tatang, he went to ask for instruction, and was refused. Tatang’s reply was that his art was for his own use. It took months for Tony Diego to convince Tatang. I was luckier. I was at the Luneta, saw Tatang make a move with one of the students that gathered around him, and asked to be taught. He said yes, and that was the start of a long and fruitful relationship with a man whom I regarded as friend, father, teacher, and comrade.
6. Can you explain what it was like to train with Tatang and identify any physical/esoteric rites of passage?
As I said, it was light and easy. For four years I trained everyday with Tatang from 7:30 am to 3:30 pm. There would be breaks for tea and lunch and discussions and story telling in between learning the techniques and applying them. I believe I averaged 340 days a year with Tatang for those first four years from 1986 to 1990. The sparring sessions were beautiful. We went fast and hard with rattan and then faster and harder when padded sticks and gloves, and headgear came into use. There were injuries of course, but these were ignored. We used to go around with black and blue forearms and hands. Cristopher Ricketts, another senior student, once got poked playfully in the eye by Tatang, but did not lose his sight. The sparring was the physical rite of passage but there was also an esoteric procedure. Let me describe it further.
Tatang was well known for his psychic powers. He had anting-anting and oracion and was telepathic to a very high degree. But knowing this did not prepare students for Tatang”s graduation rites which came about when he thought a student had learned enough of the Ilustrisimo system and was serious about the art.
It came about in my second year of training that I had to stay away from Tatang for about a week. During that week I went through what seemed like six or seven hour nightmares from Sunday to Saturday. The first night I dreamed I was in a blade fight against strong opponents, armed with two swords. However, every opponent I downed would spring right back and fight me again one after another. The next night I lost one sword and snatched a dagger so that I fought with espada y daga, with immortal opponents who came at me in two’s. Third night I lost the dagger and the fights became more intense. Forth night I lost the sword but replaced it with an additional dagger so I fought daga y daga. Fifth night it was only one dagger. Sixth night I kept on losing and snatching for my use, various weapons from opponents – long swords, spears, sticks, sickles, etc. Saturday night I was completely bare handed. Needless to say I woke up mornings covered in sweat and exhausted.
Sunday I went to Tatang and reported the nightmares, at which he laughed, and said, So you have dreamnt. You have finished.
Later on I learned that Tony Diego and Yuli Romo had both gone through the same experience. The only other I know of was Atty. Llariza, another serious student but who unfortunately suffered a stroke and became comatose for years.
7. Can you please highlight some of the distinguishing characteristics of the Ilustrisimo system?
The major distinguishing characteristic of the Ilustrisimo system is efficiency. It has a very pragmatic and practical application of physics and psychology.
For instance Tatang said:
A. Don’t go against the force. (No edge to edge contact) Parry beside or behind the plane of the cut.
B. Use the force of the cut to deliver the counter.
C. Spill off the attack to the side and counter at the same time.
D. Attack the closest target.
E. Parry from the closest distance.
F. Cut, Cut, Cut until the opponent can no longer threaten your safety.
G. Use your empty hand to parry, use your weapon as a shield in defense which is also an offense.
H. The attack is a parry, the parry is an attack.
I. No hand movement without a corresponding foot movement.
J. Don’t waste moves, be flexible. A parry which does not incorporate an attack is wasteful movement.
8. Ilustrisimo lived a unique and colorful life – could you describe some aspects of it?
This is an issue on which I have some strong opinions. Before proceeding to relate some stories, let us look at the particular setting of Antonio Ilustrisimo’s life.
Tatang was born at the turn of this century, July 16,1900. Compared to the West today, conditions then in the Philippines were somewhat like what are shown in some anthropological documentaries. I believe that in Europe, although outlawed, sword duels were still fought in private during that time. These preliminary statements are necessary for the present martial artist to have perspectives in the right relationship to present conditions. It would be unfortunate for those affected by these stories to go and want to have the same experiences.
Tatang had his first fight when he was seventeen in Jolo, Sulu. He was then the adopted son of a Tausug Hadji (a moslem who had been to Mecca) since the age of nine, and was named Montesali. Tatang, or Montasali was drinking beer at a store and was reprimanded by another Moslem since Islam forbids the consumption of intoxicating or mind altering substances. In Philippine culture, hard words lead to physical violence after two of three exchanges. The other man drew his barong, (the national sword of the Tausug which is about 16-20 inches long, 2-3 inches wide, leaf shaped, hook handled, with a wonderful balance and prodigious cutting power).
Tatang drew his own barong and with a technique called “tumbada” which simultaneously parries and cuts horizontally at neck level, beheaded the man. Because this was considered a gentleman’s fight, the hostilities did not escalate, Montesalis’s adopted father paid blood money, and to ensure his safety, Montesali (Tatang) was put in the custody of the American led authorities. Being a minor both in American-Philippine and Moslem law, Tatang was exiled out from Jolo, Sulu to Cebu, close to his birthplace of Sta. Fe, Bantayan Island. (a note about the Tausug-The Sultanate of Jolo had once covered present day Sabah, parts of Sulawesi, and various islands all the way to Flores in the Indonesian Archipelago aside from Tawi-Tawi, Basilan, and Zamboanga in the Philippines by virtue of armed conquest. They are still viewed in much the same way as the Gurkas are by Britons, in the Philippines today.)
The last known kill was in the late 1940’s and involved the dispatch of a notorious bully and protection racketeer at Manila’s local port. One of Tatang’s friends came to him for help against this bully who was very good with the knife and who had come close to killing the friend. The agreement was for the friend to go against the bully, with Tatang standing by. In case the friend lost, Tatang was to finish off the bully.
Tatang wore a long sleeved shirt, stuck an 18 inch length of 3/4″ iron pipe up the left sleeve and went with his friend to get the bully. Tatang’s friend lost his knife at the first encounter, fortunately unwounded, drew back and gave way to Tatang who slid out the pipe, transferred it to his right, hands extended both arms out to the sides to appear very vulnerable and invited a thrust from the bully. As the thrust was made, Tatang used his left hand to parry the blade to his right and with a classic “atracada cerrada” delivered three rapid blows to the back of the neck of the bully who collapsed. Tatangs friend then urged Tatang to walk away so that he could then take the rap for Tatang. Tatang walked to the edge of the piers threw the pipe into the sea sand walked back. His friend in the meantime had cut the bully’s neck and was still drinking the man’s blood when the police arrived.
The off shoot of the incident was that the ship operators were so happy at the demise of the bully, they fixed Tatang’s papers so he could go to sea as a boatswain on foreign vessels. (Tatangs was a licensed captain for coastal navigation). This is sea going job lasted until Tatang was in his early eighties, some thirty plus years all around the world. Everytime Tatang got home he would visit his friend at the National Penitentiary with money, food, beer, etc..
In between the first and the last were various incidents and lest readers judge Tatang harshly he did operate against the Japanese during the war, hunting them down in the streets of Manila. He was also part of the famous Col. Yay Marquing’s Guerillas and appears to be the same man mentioned in a magazine article written in the 1950’s after the war as the “Executioner”. Tatang and some friends mentioned exactly the same incidents reported in the article.
Tatang’s exploits were generated out of necessity. In the Philippines of his time practically every man had to learn to use the blade for fighting. Conditions were harsh and survival for the less privileged depend on fighting ability, as it still is partially today. That his survival art led to a level of spiritual development gives a lot of credit to a man who was mostly self-educated. This was the man I came to love and respect. A gentle, generous, humorous lover of life who admonished us that if we have to kill, it should be those who are hurting/damaging society. (This sounds so much like the sword that gives life concept of Bushido. Perhaps the way of the sword not only evolves similar techniques but also philosophies).
9. Tatang Ilustrisimo was reputed to possess both anting anting and orascion, did you witness any demonstations of his powers?
I have seen both anting-anting and oracion in operations. Many do not seem to work but those that do evoke wonder in even among avid researchers into the paranormal. Let me cite a few instances.
Before Tatang’s health deteriorated in 1992 his mind was very sharp and focused, his will power tremendous. On good Fridays we would go to empty lots to tests his powers. On a sheet of bond paper, Tatang would scribble a few orascions and have it set up for a target. Now, I and my two elder sons are competent shots but at a distance of five meters we were only shooting around that 8′ x 11′ sheet of paper, knicking its edges only at 3 meters. Good sight pictures, good squeeze, good ammo, but could not hit the target. Whatever the mechanism, it worked.
After the dreams mentioned earlier, Tatang got a small pocket notebook and a lead pencil, brought me to a far corner of Luneta and told me to write oracions as he dedicated them including the instances for their use. Now, I am quite sceptical but acquiesced out of respect for Tatang’s good intentions. After that, for a period of two years I did not get cut. Now this is not unusual for most people but in my case I am a part time blade smith and in that period was prolific, polishing and sharpening blades by hand. Unconsciously I was handling blades without respect, grabbing at dropped blades etc, and did not receive a cut when previously, I was the corner stores main buyer of band-aids.
Only Tatang could cut me in practice or demonstrations, thin scratches which bled well. I was also doing very poorly financially during this time, a fact noted by an uncle, who asked me if I had or “wore” “armadura”-armor. I said no but commented that I was not getting wounded when I should. The uncle advised me to get rid of the armadura put on me by Tatang which I did. Right after my finances improved and I could get wounded in playing or when working on blades.
10. What your experiences with Arnis tournaments?
There was a time when I was quite active in the formal Philippine and International Arnis Organizations. I was at one time both a Director of Naraphil and WEKAF, acting as tournament director. This was a time of idealism and the hope that Arnis/Eskrima could be seen and recognized for the very efficient martial art which it is. There were attempts to rationalize tournament rules and give a wider exposure of some forms and styles. The realities of the market place overwhelmed reason. Habits developed on the tournament floor which would get champions hurt on the street, and I wanted no part of that. Stories were evolving about masters and Philippine culture to suit the demands for fantasy and adventure of a growing market. Anyone who got his photo taken with a master became a master or a certified instructor and an instant expert on Philippine culture. Symbols, such as medals, became more important than true capability. I got out.
11. Are you selective about teaching?
Today I am more selective concerning who I share with what I learnt from Tatang. I still show to sincere, dedicated and decent people examples of Ilustrisimo’s art, and why it had acquired so much fame.
Questions on Philippine culture are examined for intent, since there is so much wish fulfillment on the part of some, that specifics could be taken out of context. Which is why I get long winded.
12. Have ever had to use Arnis in life threatening situations?
I should rather beg off from his question. To say no would be to lie and to say yes and mention instances would make my life unpleasant. Let us say that I have worked on security related matters for some time but no longer do so.
I would like to air some views though. If I may. Arnis Ilustrisimo or any equivalent, is a good martial art. One of the best, but not the best, for one needs to know other arts as well, to round out fighting skills.
Unless involved with the police, military, or private security organizations (legal or illegal) today’s martial artist will find very little use of his/her art on the street level. It is possible that even such a remote instance can be avoided if we do not mistake our egos for ourselves or at least remain aware.
This development of awareness is one of the true values to be found in martial arts practiced seriously. Nothing provides as good a reality check as a good, hard and fast sparring session. Illusions are laid to waste and mistakes hurt. To be competent (not undefeated champion) one has to be honest with ones’ self. This leads to psychological maturation and to becoming a better person.
Martial Arts practice is good and enjoyable. There is no need to prove manhood in a real fight, which is avoidable. Be competent, be ready, be aware, very aware of many things.