KARL R. DE MESA looks into the secretive world of this popular Philippine martial art as he examines the first book of Ireneo Olavides, one of its most celebrated masters.
I f the song is great, the one who sings it should be equally as great. This is according to martial artist Prof. Ireneo “Eric” Olavides, a man better known to his students and colleagues as Manong Eric.
When he said this, he was talking about eskrima, a locally made method of self-defense which specializes in the use of impact weapons like sticks. In this context, he explained that the quality of the person wielding the stick should also match his martial prowess.
“Nowadays, with martial artists,” said Manong Eric, “when they become good, the spirituality disappears, the peace disappears.” And he aims to create a culture that avoids this eventuality through the release of his first book, “Out of the Shadows.”
Launched earlier this year, “Out of the Shadows” is not just an introductory manual on the foundations of Eskrima De Campo JDC-IO, the system of eskrima practice Manong Eric had a hand in founding. It is also a revealing collection of essays from its practitioners, commenting on the modules of the system’s curriculum, tips for self-defense awareness, and even a treatise on the “cultish” and secretive reputation of the style. Co-written with veteran editor Aimee Morales, she wrote in the introduction that “Manong Eric wanted to leave a legacy, to have a part of his life’s work documented for his family and for lovers of Filipino Martial Arts all over the world.”
“Why is Manong Eric keeping so many secrets?” the writing inquires. “Why is he unwilling to share what he knows? Is Eskrima de Campo JDC-IO a cult? What secret techniques are you talking about? Why won’t you take part in friendly competitions and demos?”
What’s unique in the book isn’t just its collection of essays from Eskrima De Campo JDC-IO adepts and students; it also has video links in the pages that present the foundational structure of the system, what they call the Basic Defensive Strike Forms.
Video links in a printed book? But how? “We put in QR codes for video clips that the reader can see,” replied Morales.
“I was surprised and delighted that we could use this new technology for better teaching and learning,” Manong Eric doubled down.
T here’s a prevalent consensus in the highlights of the history of Filipino martial arts (or just FMA) that what we call modern arnis or eskrima—the often interchangeable terms for our native stick-fighting—developed the most between in 1941 and 1946, smack dab between World War II and Philippine independence.
While commercial FMA clubs had already started operating as far back as the 1920s—when Lorenzo “Ensong” Saavedra put up the Labangon Fencing Club of Cebu as the first commercial FMA school that year—and Pinoy migrant workers eventually brought FMA to Hawaii and California during the same decade, its quantum leap in development in WW2 and beyond was likely because of how heavily it was used during the US occupation.
During that period, both sticks and the original machete and bolo-weapons (where the stick techniques were patterned from) were employed against the Americans. It was used at events like the Balangiga Massacre in Samar, and against the Japanese occupiers by guerilla fighters and military units like the famous Bolo Battalion.
Out of that wartime soup of stories emerged Grandmaster Jose D. Caballero, who’d eventually become one of the tall luminaries of the FMA world.
Caballero was a master of the largo stick style, where a 30-inches long stick (considerably longer than most FMA sticks) was used in conjunction with long-range fighting and elusive footwork to avoid stick-to-stick contact against other arnisadors (practitioners of arnis) and weapon-wielders. In fact, the term “De Campo” in Eskrima De Campo is derived from the Spanish system that favors the use of distance and space. Hence, De Campo fighters were effusively effective in both precision and impact, targeting vital areas with speed and explosiveness
Grandmaster Caballero was said to have used this style to become a feared champion in juego todo, the no-holds-barred, no-armor fight that was a carryover from the dueling culture of the Spanish.
Juego todo matches were said to be duels done in public, during fiestas or at community gatherings, with pre-arranged terms. They weren’t just a formalized competition to work out bad blood and friction between individuals as arnis schools multiplied, but also as a way to establish hierarchy and win social credit in martial circles.
While many matches were simply agreed on as “first blood” or “first to disarm” juego todo combatants would still sign waivers in front of a lawyer with witnesses, especially if the rules dictated that the match would be, “to the death.” Remember how, in old Chinese and Hong Kong kung-fu movies, fighters would say “My kung-fu is better than yours!” and then fight? That’s juego todo for arnisadors and eskrimadors (or practitioners of eskrima.) Winners got to promote their styles as “the best” and losers went home to lick their wounds and think up of ways to mitigate their defeat with tall tales of how the other side was cheating or they’d been feeling sick that day.
Out of this FMA duel culture, Grandmaster Caballero was claimed to be an undisputed champion. Manong Eric, a professor who taught at Misamis University for 20 years, was his student and today is a direct line and heir to his fearsome system. And now he shares his knowledge through his book.
O ut of the Shadows isn’t just a book for beginners; it’s also a peek at who that old school style of FMA was taught.
The eskrima teachers who today remember the good old, bad old days say that learning FMA back then often didn’t involve money. You courted FMA teachers, paid with loyalty, and there were no trophies after fighting. But techniques were earned in blood, sweat and tears, a far cry from today’s uniforms, tuition fees, ranks, and formal curriculums.
“In old school [FMA] there is no set curriculum,” said Gabay Ricardo Forlales, a mixed martial arts instructor heavily versed in stick-fighting.
“There’s no tuition because none of my teachers then had their own school and you needed to visit most of the teachers at their home,” he continued. “You ask if they can instruct you. You court them and you will actually have to gain their trust. When that’s established, then they will think of something to teach you. While you’re doing what they want, they’ll notice something wrong with how you do it. A misstep, something wrong in the angle in your footwork? Tomorrow what you were doing wrong is your new lesson.”
In that context, an old school style was considered as much a fighting tradition and heirloom where the members the style was passed on to were considered part of a family.
From this point of view, the art being kept under wraps wasn’t just to protect the family treasure but also as a way to be practical and keep under wraps how good their practitioners were—thereby increasing their chances of a win if a duel or juego todo would take place, and also if any challengers wanted to test out their skills outside the sanctioned confines of a public duel.
Chapter 7 in the book is in fact titled “Eskrima de Campo JDC-IO’s culture of secrecy” written by Romino Patricio. It answers why Manong Eric’s system has preferred to keep a low profile.
“This account of secretive behavior and demeanor is an oft-repeated story heard from old FMA practitioners when they reminisce about the good old days,” it says. “When asked why, they would usually answer that challenges would often come their way once one has revealed himself as an eskrimador. News would, by word of mouth, spread and soon challenges would start hounding the eskrimador and often, serious injuries or even death resulted from such encounters. The elderly eskrimadors considered being secretive as a way of avoiding trouble brought about by challenges that can lead to disputes with the law.”
Manong Eric followed this ethos of a near-omerta principle until the publication of “Out of the Shadows.”
He said that “I subscribe to the Sun Tzu saying that you must make yourself ‘appear weak if you are strong’ and vice versa. One of the reminders of my teacher [GM Caballero] was not to let people know what we are capable of. If you do, then what will be your weapon in case you do get challenged or attacked?”
Jay Ignacio, director of popular FMA documentary “The Bladed Hand,” echoed this context of the art as a family treasure.
“In the places that do not have any commercial system, where those who teach only do so in private, some of them consider their martial art as something of an heirloom,” he said.
“They tend to behave in a way where it’s a treasure that it should be passed on only to the right people,” continued Ignacio. “So I can’t tell you all my secrets. But there are also teachers who aren’t really grandmasters in the way we define a grandmaster. That he’s got a certificate. His teacher just gave him a rank, just wacked him in the head, or singed him with a candle to seal the deal.”
A t 74 years old Manong Eric, is now a true luminary of the FMA world. He has taught police and military as well as private individuals the nuances of weapon fighting. With the book, he wishes to dispel many of the fallacies, half-truths, and rumors surrounding his system.
“I want this book to impress the value of the art and the system,” he said, emphasizing that the quality of students is more important than the number.
“From the start, I’ve always wanted quality of students and not quantity. If I had 10 committed students then I’d be happy,” he continued. “If there were hundreds but they didn’t value the art or the teacher, then I wouldn’t be satisfied. Commitment must be first. After some duration, then the faithfulness will reveal itself. The last to be proven is loyalty. And that’s also why it’s hard to get students nowadays who are faithful, loyal, and committed to the system. Students these days seem to be just shopping.”
As the Esrkima De Campo JDC-IO steps out of its own self-imposed silence, Manong Eric and his students shed some of their clandestine ways to embrace the modern with QR codes showing techniques and publicizing their credo and ethos.
The book is a step towards the light that makes Manong Eric glad and optimistic about revealing their art as one of the most beautiful, dangerous, and combat-effective systems in the FMA umbrella.
“I only have a few students that are dedicated and committed but I’m very happy with them,” Manong Eric said. “When I’m gone, I am confident that I can entrust it to them.”
To order a copy of “Out of the Shadows” log on to Manong Eric Olavides’ Facebook Page