Actor Denzel Washington learned it for several months to do his fight scenes in the movie The Book of Eli. Matt Damon and Tom Cruise learned it, too, for their roles in, respectively, The Bourne Identity and Mission Impossible 3. And, its combat techniques are used by comic book superheroes like Nightwing and by video game characters in Mortal Kombat.
Why all the buzz about kali in American pop culture? And why should anyone who already carries a gun want to learn it?
Kali, otherwise known as arnis (from the Spanish word arnes meaning “armor” or “harness” of the hand) or eskrima (from esgrima, Spanish for “fencing”), is an ancient Filipino martial art. The word KA-LI is a combination of the Cebuano words KA-mot meaning “hand” and LI-hok meaning “movement.”
A lot of the credit for the rise in popularity of kali can be given to the late Chinese martial arts icon Bruce Lee, who used it in his movies in the 1970s. Lee was taught kali by his Filipino friend Dan Inosanto, who trained many of the instructors now operating kali schools in the U.S.A. and hired by Hollywood to teach their actors.
Although the recognition of kali in mainstream martial arts only spread in the last few decades, it was used as early as the 12th century in my country, the Philippines. Ethnic tribes and visiting traders from other Asian and Arab regions contributed to its development throughout the ages, so the art evolved into a fusion of ethnic styles that it is today.
Historical accounts say when Spanish conquerors landed on Philippine shores in the 16th century, they were driven back by native warriors armed with just sticks, bolos (cutting tools similar to machetes), daggers and spears. The Spaniards had to retreat to their ships and use firearms to beat the natives. When Filipinos succumbed to Spanish rule, kali came close to extinction. Its use was forbidden by the Spaniards, but my ancestors kept it alive by practicing in secret and incorporating it into their stage plays and religious dances. When the Americans took over in 1898, the ban on kali was lifted and friendly competitions were held in town centers on special occasions. In World War II when it was Japan’s turn to invade us, Filipinos worked alongside Americans in guerrilla units to fend them off during close quarter encounters. Many of our men probably owed their lives to their kali skills and trusty bolos.
Kali as an art and a fighting system survived, and is now the national sport as well as an integral part in the training of our SWAT police and military. Its practicality and combat effectiveness have been tested and proven over centuries of common street skirmishes and all-out military wars. No wonder kali is now used even by the US Army and by the Russian Spetsnaz.
Although kali is largely known for its use of sticks and bladed weapons, it also employs a variety of tactical tools and techniques. Kalistas or eskrimadors are trained to be resourceful, using common items like pens, car keys, a belt, PVC pipe, broken bottle or even a handkerchief as weapons. Methods involve kicking, leg sweeping, foot stomping, head butting and thrusting, and lots of empty-hand combat like blocking, weapon disarming, wrist flicking, striking, hooking, joint locks and take-downs.
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The first and most remarkable thing you’d probably notice about kali is the dynamic flow. Movements are fast, constant, fluid and rhythmic, almost dance-like. This is to give an enemy no opportunity for ensuing attacks. The moment you stop moving, you become prone to further advances.
Because kali relies heavily on speed, timing, accuracy and agility, many of the moves require little or no muscle power at all. Much of kali’s strength and efficiency actually comes from the constant motion and the precision of the strikes. Kalistas have a keen sense of movement, and can anticipate how an enemy’s arms and body lunge and thrust. They’re trained to block these, and quickly decide if, when and where exactly to strike back. They also have a heightened awareness of their surroundings, so they can think quickly and improvise weapons.
Kali is said to be a complete martial art. It maximizes both armed and unarmed defense, unlike others that tend to focus on only one. Kalistas become adept at fighting with or without weapons, and are comfortable at all combat ranges: long range with feet and weapons, medium range with just hands, and close range using elbows and knees.
Another difference of kali from other martial arts is that students are taught sparring right from the beginning, unlike others that prioritize and spend lengths of time on empty hands training, complicated footwork and stances. One of the advantages of learning weaponry early on is that it quickly develops manual dexterity and coordination of both the right and left sides of the body, and improves overall muscle memory. It also trains the student to psychologically face an armed opponent, and to produce rapid, conditioned responses to different kinds of attacks — including those with multiple adversaries.
Kali is probably the cheapest and easiest martial art to learn and practice. No fancy gears and uniform are necessary. What a beginning student only needs are a couple of broomsticks, and of course, a good instructor or guro. And because there is little need for muscle power, practically anyone can learn kali — even an 11-year-old child or an overweight 50-year-old adult.
An added benefit to taking up the sport is the physical fitness that results from the regular cardio-vascular workout. Many schools, in fact, teach the sport outdoors, with shoes on, to give students a semblance of an actual street-fight environment.
When seen in terms of disaster preparedness in the American setting, kali can complement your security preps for protecting your family and property.
Additionally, since you can’t carry a gun with you everywhere all the time, and gun stores are frequently in short supply of ammunition, kali could be your best alternative.
Have you ever learned kali or a different martial art? Do you believe it is a solid alternative to firearms? Share your thoughts in the section below: