Those of you familiar with the Filipino martial arts are likely to have heard of the late, great Antonio ‘Tatang’ Ilustrisimo, the most feared and respected practitioner of Eskrima, Arnis or Kalis in the 20th century. His art, Kalis Ilustrisimo retains the cachet and aura of lethality to this day, which is perhaps why there are very few true Ilustrisimo stylists world-wide. A small digression here: although many American Filipinos refer to the art as ‘Kali’, to the point where it has become an accepted term among most cross-training martial artists, the correct usage is ‘Kalis’, which refers to the sword, probably derived from ‘Keris’, the wavy edged, snake-like blade beloved of Silat practitioners, which term itself is a mutation of the Turkish word for sword, ‘Khalidg’.
I had the privilege of travelling to the Philippines in April 2010 with my teacher, Guro Shamim Haque, (who is the head of the official association of the style for the U.K. and Ireland), in order to train with ‘Tatang’ Ilustrisimo’s closest student and his successor, Master Tony Diego. Due to the Icelandic volcanic eruptions a two-week trip turned into just under a month, but that just meant more training.
Master Tony and Guro Shamim are each fond of saying that Ilustrisimo is a very simple art, though when you have struggled with it for as many years as I have, it is difficult to see it that way. Of course, they are right; the art is direct, pragmatic and eschews unnecessary or fancy moves – it has to, unlike many Filipino arts it truly remains primarily a bladed art. That may seem like an odd thing to say, as most Eskrima or Arnis systems insist that they are all about the blade, and that they only use the stick for training out of safety considerations. This is the case in KIRO also, though we spend as much time with wooden or blunted metal, training weapons and later, ‘live’ blades.
The most fundamental effect of this emphasis on the use of the blade lies in the basic mechanics of the strokes, both offensive and defensive, as performed in practice. Although Ilustrisimo does have some relatively large frame strokes, it doesn’t contain the mainstream labtik, or follow-through stroke common to stick systems and used to ‘wind-up’ or ‘cock’ the weapon for the next move. This is because once the cutting edge of the blade is out of contact with the opponent, continuation of the stroke is deemed redundant. Additionally, Ilustrisimo practitioners avoid a degree of follow-through which might cause the arms to cross, leaving the exponent open to trapping.
Another good example is the defensive stroke we call estrella, or ‘star’, which practitioners of other styles will generally call a sweep, as in inside or outside sweep, a common defensive response to either a downward forehand or backhand high-line attack. In most stick-oriented systems this defence begins as a mirror-image of the attack, with the baston rolling on impact with the attacker’s weapon in order to help shed the force of the attack.
In contrast, Ilustrisimo stylists have already turned their weapon, even when using the baston, so that the palm of the defender’s hand is rotated to bring the ‘flat’ of the blade into contact with the incoming attack. This is because when using the sword – our most basic training weapon is called a pinute, similar to a machete or bolo, but very definitely a sword as opposed to an agricultural tool – you don’t want to make contact blade edge to blade edge. There are two reasons for this: firstly, you are likely to damage the cutting edge of your sword; and secondly the blade edge makes for a less secure defence, as it is likely to slide, risking injury, whereas the purpose of the defence is to brush the opponent’s stroke inside, opening them up to an immediate counter. Additionally, the rotation of the wrist prior to meeting the incoming attack has primed the counter-rotation for the counter-attack – a useful mechanical advantage as Ilustrisimo favours economy of motion.
Ready position: Counter 1: (Correct hand position)
Counter 2: Counter follow through cut... Final cut to neck:
This preference for economical use of body mechanics is apparent in the system as a whole. The basic ready stance is a good illustration. Standing square on to the opponent, with centre-lines aligned, the Ilustrisimo stylist has his or her feet shoulder-width apart, with the heel of the rear foot raised and the ball of the foot in line with the heel of the lead, resembling a standing sprint-start.
Ready Position (basic fighting stance)
Both hands are raised shoulder-high, the lead hand has the tip of the weapon pointing slightly behind the exponent to prevent it being grabbed by the opponent, but not so much that it would slow its forward motion. The elbows are held relaxed but close to the ribs so as not to offer any obvious body target openings, and the ‘live’ or guard hand angles outward with the fingers and thumb extended and bent backward to push the palm of the hand forward should it be necessary to slap the opponent’s incoming blade and avoid the fingers being cut.
From this guard position the Ilustrisimo practitioner can perform any number of aggressive or defensive strokes using the advantage of gravitational acceleration and without the need to ‘cock’ the weapon further to add force. Salto, assault or attack in English, is one of the signature Ilustrisimo techniques from the guard and demonstrates its concern with economical motion. Essentially a jab, it is a combination of the dropping motion from the guard and a small amount of forward thrust, resulting in an extremely fast technique, non-telegraphic and difficult to counter. As such it is an example of the principle – also a category of technique in Ilustrisimo – known as recta, or ‘direct’ attacks. A JKD stylist, for example, would recognise the technique as a form of Jeet Kune or ‘intercepting fist’.
Ready position (Serrada): “Recta” counter to body (Altabes) Follow through cut...
Key to the Ilustrisimo style is the control of range and here again the system throws up idiosyncratic technical elements. Most of the techniques of the style can be used at all three major ranges, though Ilustrisimo stylists tend to maintain the medio – or medium – distance where possible. Salto, in its basic form, is generally delivered from the medium range, and even where not being used to ‘beat the opponent to the punch’, it can be delivered as a counter to a mid-level cut or strike through the judicious use of lutang, or ‘floating’ step. In lutang the lead leg is swung or lifted backwards momentarily, then replaced, allowing a lead-hand swing of the opponent at the defender’s mid or lower section to pass harmlessly by, while the salto is delivered as the counter simultaneously. (Guro, I suggest we photograph this sequence also for the article?)
The focus is upon correct positioning to evade or control incoming attacks, while allowing the defender to offer an aggressive defence or counter attack at the same time. This controlled aggression is expressed again by the relative dearth of disarming techniques; unlike most Eskrima/Arnis/Kalis systems, Ilustrisimo has few of these. In a non stick-oriented system, this is only natural, as many fewer opportunities for disarming techniques present themselves when facing a blade as opposed to a baston. ‘Tatang’ Ilustrisimo rarely used disarms on the many occasions on which he defended himself using his art – indeed these mostly occur in the few instances when he simply removed the thumb of the attacker’s weapon-bearing hand in the first moments of the fight, rendering his assailant’s preferred hand useless, whereupon they usually surrendered or fled.
In the next article, I’ll focus on some of the other elements that help define Kalis Ilustrisimo as a blade-oriented art and that make it so efficient.