By Krishna K. Godhania

In the past, challenge matches or duels called Juego Todo (literally, “anything goes”) were very common place in the Philippines. No holds barred and without the aid of protective equipment, the winner was determined either by submission or, in rarer cases, death. Anyone claiming to be an expert in eskrima or arnis was fair game and could be challenged to engage in a duel.

However, since the implementation of the revised penal code in 1932, the practice of dueling has been outlawed and over subsequent decades reduced to the point of becoming a rare sight indeed. Fear of being challenged to defend one’s claim of mastery of the arts had in the past protected the art from being overwhelmed by “overnight” experts. Is there still a need for challenges?

However philosophical their effect on individual students, it would be wrong to give the impression that new fighting arts can evolve peacefully. Techniques need to be tested, and that can only be done through genuine combat.
Many of the leading masters of the Filipino martial arts have none of the pacific principles that are common among the masters of the other Asian arts.

Many would not allow a student to represent them if that student refused a challenge. This is the genuine fighting experience that must happen at some time in a fighting art if it is to have true strength.

It was during these unarmored challenge matches that the art had its greatest development, and the es1:nmador realized what was good about his technique and how to advance his art.

Challenges, leading to duels, came in different forms. Some were “officially” sanctioned; others occurred unexpectedly when tempers flared and pride or reputation was at stake; sometimes eskrimadors would go to fiestas to fight the “local” champion.

To help further understand why challenges were so readily made, we need to look at the profile of the old eskrimador. Many old-time eskrimadors were “tough guys,” who liked to drink, gamble, and entertain their vices. They were quite often uneducated, usually due to living in poor slum conditions. In these conditions, finding work at a young age and supporting the family tend to be higUer on the priority list.

Aggressive personalities are generally risk takers, and if you take a lot of risks, sooner or later you pay a price. Many of the more famous eskrimadors became well-known enforcers for local politicians or underworld figures.

Rivalries between clubs and teachers were often resolved via a bahad. This was an open challenge and was sometimes made in the form of a press release. Such an incident occurred in 1954 when the Balintawak group made a public challenge to the Doce Pares group.

The following are some examples of various duels that have occurred in the past, illustrating the diverse nature of the Filipino duel.

In September 1933, an officially sanctioned match between Teodoro “Doring” Saavedra and Pablo Alicante was arranged in Argao (sixty-six kilometers south of Cebu City). By officially sanctioned, I mean that the Mayor and other local officials were aware of the bout.

Prior to the bout the late Eulogio “Yoling” Canete went to “check out” Pablo Alicante’s ability at the request of Lorenzo Saavedra. Alicante was a recluse and sustained a living by catching snakes and monkeys, which he later sold. Upon meeting him, Alicante asked Yoling to look for a ripe banana tree; one was found. The story goes that Alicante delivered one strike to the tree, slowly felling it.

Teodoro Saavedra, however, refused to back out of the fight, and both fighters signed waivers. Alicante was reputed to possess an anting-anting (amulet) that could make his opponents freeze. This is what happened to Saavedra in the first round, which he ended up losing. In the second round, Saavedra was instructed to knock out a stone that was in Alicante’s mouth, which was supposedly his anting-anting. With

the assistance of Filemon “Momoy” Cañete’s orascion (prayer) and his own physical skills, Saavedra was able to do this and go on to win the next two rounds and thus the fight. As a result of this fight, Saavedra became acknowledged as the top eskrimador on the island of Cebu.

The late Antonio “Tatang” Ilustrisimo was well known for offering and accepting any challenge. On one occasion while in Calcutta, he received an invitation to go to Singapore to fight in a special bout against a pencak silat master from Indonesia. The opponent had a regutation and was regarded as a seasoned fighter who enjoyed a good fight. As a result, Ilustrisimo trained hard for the fight. The bout was held in a stadium, and the number of spectators was in the thousands. Upon entering the ring, the Indonesian forced the attack and took the fight to Ilustrisimo. Ilustrisimo responded by moving off at an angle and severely cut his opponent’s arm, thus terminating the bout.

Amador Chavez, a top arnisador from Bacolod City, fought a famous duel with the boxer Pedro Alvarez. The fight occurred in 1961.

This fight was backed by the well-known and respected Serafino family, and also had the support of the local police. As usual in such a fight, both fighters signed waivers and agreements against revenge acts at a later time.

In addition to being a professional boxer, Alvarez had some background in arnis, but was not in the class of Chavez. However, he was reputed to be the favorite in the cash betting. His strategy was to crash in through the long and medium range, after which he would “punch out” Chavez. The fight didn’t last long, in fact only seconds. Two hits to the right arm and one across the left side of the forebead finalized matters. Alvarez, suffering from a deep head wound, decided to give up, rejecting Chavez’ suggestion to rest for a while and then try again later.

Abner Pasa, a leading eskrimador from Cebu City, encountered a situation whereby another eskrimador “visited” him for a test of skills. Pasa tried to talk the man out of it, explaining that somebody could get seriously hurt. The challenger merely smiled and said that was part of the test. He then proceeded to warm up and asked Pasa to do the same. Pasa replied that if he warmed up, he would expend all his energy. The opponent laughed heartily sensing that things could get out of hand, Pasa decided to end the fight quickly. Without squaring up Pasa asked the opponent (who was still warming up) if he was ready upon, the “yes” reply, Pasa hit his opponent in the hand, breaking it. The opponent cried foul; Pasa replied by saying that I asked you if you were ready, and you said “Yes.”

In September 1983, Ciriaco “Cacoy” Canete fought Ising Atillo in the last officially sanctioned duel. The duel, witnessed by many spectators, did not last long. Two strikes to the temple and one to the hand brought matters to a close. A remarch was scheduled for four days later—but Atillo’s heart rate was too high, and he was declared physically unfit.

In recent times, a challenge match between Dionisio “Dioney” Cañete and Dennis Canete was expected to materialize. Dionisio Canete was quoted as saying, “I’ll fight him with bare hands in the first round so he can show his well-publicized pangamut technique. On the second and third rounds, we will do bare hands, takedowns, and then sticks.” However, the match never took place, which came as no surprise.

The eskrima duel is now relegated to the annals of the past, and rightly so. For its proliferation can only assist in restraining the growth and popularity of the great Filipino martial arts.