Arnis: Failure or mediocrity?
Arnis has been in a state of limbo for years. Despite the passing of the Arnis Law recognizing it as the official sport and martial art of the Philippines, Filipino stick fighting (known overseas as FMA or Filipino Martial Arts), is a mess. Regardless of what may appear in the papers, it is still fractured, tribal, feudal. Practically every region has its own style. In the southern Philippines, competitors use live sticks and are fully covered, making them look like they’re competing in kendo. In Luzon, competitors wear protective vests, head gear and groin guards and use padded sticks. There is no true set of unified rules. And it doesn’t appear that anyone will give way to anyone else any time soon.
How did this happen? When Arnis Philippines (ARPI) was first formed in the mid-1980’s, it was a partnership between Raymond Velayo and the late Roland Dantes. Dantes was a runner-up to Arnold Schwarzenegger in the 1969 Mr. Universe, then appeared in the film “Durugin si Totoy Bato” as the antagonist boxer threatening Fernando Poe, Jr. a decade later. However, as Roland told this writer, he had a huge disagreement with Velayo regarding how to run ARPI. Roland wanted to share his knowledge with everyone, and as future events would show, he did. In disgust (his own words), Dantes left the Philippines in the late 1980’s, and taught arnis overseas out of his new home base in Australia. He taught police forces in California, serious practitioners in Europe, and anyone who wanted to learn. Roland Dantes was one of only a handful of people who, like prophets away from their motherland, spread the word of arnis everywhere they went. He and the likes of Trovador Ramos are credited with introducing FMA to the world.
Meanwhile, in the Philippines, despite the presence of a supposedly active national sports association, most arnis masters went their merry own ways. Many claimed authority in the face of ARPI, and the further from Metromanila, the greater autonomy they claimed. Fortunately, one group with credibility and moral ascendancy stayed true to the values and history of the sport, and guided its growth in close to three dozen countries. Cacoy Doce Pares, founded by the late Supreme Grandmaster Cacoy Cañete in 1949, held regular events and conventions, recognized contributors to the sport, and formed important partnerships. Lolo Cacoy himself traveled to teach constantly, well into his 90’s, even when already confined to a wheelchair. His legacy is in good hands, as his grandson and world champion Chuck has taken over the reins of their humble gym in Cebu upon his passing.
What about Luzon? Let’s take a look at the facts. Arnis has only been part of the Southeast Asian Games when the Philippines has hosted. Therefore, the last SEA Games medals in arnis were given out in 2005. After the 2009 SEA Games, then-Philippine Sports Commission chairman Harry Angping suspended ARPI from receiving any more funding from the agency, citing a policy that any sport not included in two successive SEA Games be sanctioned in that manner. The following year (after nine years of bouncing around both houses of Congress), the Arnis Law or Republic Act 9850 is passed, albeit without any implementing rules and regulations. Two of the unfulfilled conditions of the law are that it be taught in all schools, and that the PSC logo be changed to reflect the sport. The former is obviously much more critical than the latter.
But first, Roland Dantes had quietly returned to the country in 2006, and gathered all the old masters to form the Philippine Council of Kali, Escrima and Arnis Masters (PCKEAM). Kali and Eskrima are the two indigenous, pre-colonial bladed-weapon martial arts that inspired arnis, the stick-using version. Dantes, ever inclusive, invited everyone, and with almost unanimous agreement, it was decided that PCKEAM would welcome all styles, but have a uniform set of rules for competition purposes. This writer was invited to those formative meetings. Unfortunately, Roland died soon after that, from complications brought about by gout.
Soon after, in honor of Grandmaster Roland’s memory, this writer and grandmaster Rey Dominguez formed the World Arnis Organization (WAO), with a memorandum of agreement signed by SGM Cacoy Cañete. WAO organized a national youth open, and two world championships, the last in 2011. Of course, there was opposition from ARPI, as reported by our technical officials who were also ARPI members. They were threatened with expulsion and/or banishment. But as they derived no income from ARPI which had, at best, one major event a year according to them, they ignored the threat. WAO has been conducting smaller-scale efforts since then.
Now comes Miguel Zubiri, father of the Arnis Law, with the Philippine Eskrima Kali Arnis Federation, supported by the current PSC board. Velayo, Philippine Olympic Committee associate member since 1987 and head of ARPI for even longer, is crying foul and claiming sovereignty over the sport. Frankly, POC membership – at least in this case – means very little because, unlike muay thai, arnis is not up for consideration as an Olympic sport. As a non-Olympic sport, ARPI cannot even vote, and isn’t even a regular SEA Games event, as earlier stated. Secondly, is ARPI the de facto world body for arnis? No. In terms of membership, WAO and Cacoy Doce Pares could challenge that, if it were really important at this point, which it isn’t. Even magazine is run by Americans, for goodness’ sake.
So that is the state of arnis, a muddled mess. On one hand, you have Arnis Philippines, a fiefdom which has kept the sport in the impound yard of suspended animation for three decades and barks at anyone else who tries to organize the sport without paying homage or arbitrary fees. On the other, you have PEKAF which, at this point, holds much promise, but does not include everyone, either. And you have dozens of masters and sons of masters and students of masters wallpapering their gyms (rightly or wrongly) with certificates often of their own making.
The fighting art of our forefathers deserves far more than to be stranded between mediocrity and failure.