The Way of the Blade
Philippine Knife Fighting
By Antonio Graceffo
Block, slash, stab, block slash stab... This is the rhythm of Philippine knife fighting. When the opponent stabs, you block and slash. Then you follow up with a stab. The slash is generally done on the forearm, to destroy the tendons. If done correctly, the slash will cause the opponent to drop his weapon. The slash may also cause profuse bleeding, which would lead to death. Sometimes, the slash is done on the bicep, the idea hear is to render the entire arm useless.
“It just seems so, you know, violent.” I told my instructor, Dennis Santos, who is a black belt instructor in Modern Arnis, stick and knife fighting, as well as Kuntaw, empty hand fighting. Dennis was employed by Mayor Hagedorn of Puerto Princesa City to teach Philippine children their hereditary martial art. The mayor’s hope is not only to preserve Philippine culture and instill pride and good health in the children, but also to promote Puerto Princesa as a sports center for the Philippines and the world. Puerto Princesa will host its first international martial arts competition in summer, 2008.
He reminded me that knife fights tended to be more violent than other pastimes one might engage in.
“When you get good enough, I will teach you how to twirl the butterfly knives.” Said Dennis.
Butterfly knives are the double sided folding knives invented in the Philippines, which advanced martial artists can whip around like nunchucks.
“I will teach you to throw them up in the air open and catch them closed. You will be able to toss the knife from hand to hand, stab, and have the knife closed before it hits your training partner.”
As impressive as this martial art was, it seemed like something children really shouldn’t try at home. “I’ll stick with the wooden practice knives.” I said, digging a splinter out of my finger.
Knife practice is the second step in the evolution of Philippine martial arts training. The first step is learning the double sticks. Next come the knives, and finally, open hand. The unique aspect of Philippine martial art is that the techniques and the drills learned in stick fighting are the same for knife fighting and the same for empty hand fighting. Stick fighting is practiced with a partner, drilling patterns, over and over again, until the patterns become second nature. Strike to the head, block, counter, reverse, strike to the leg, block, counter, reveres… The rhythm is the key to stick fighting, and the motto is “Go with the flow.” You must always move with the force, reacting in the right way, increasing your speed as you go, maintaining expert timing. Any slipup and you could severely injure yourself or your training partner.
The patterns a student learns at the beginning may have as few as two or three moves. Eventually the patterns will increase in complexity, adding attacks at all manner of angles. Attacks to the head, the legs, slash upward, downward, wrap around your head and hit the opponent, change hands with your stick. Disarm the opponent and strike him with his own stick. The patterns will build up to as many as ten movements, which each partner must perform with perfect timing. Then the drill begins again. After the patterns are mastered, they are further complicated by adding movement. The patterns are done moving forwards, moving backwards, side-to-side, and circling.
Some patterns are done with the classic block, strike, return. Others involve disarming. In these patterns, you block your opponent’s stick, and then take it away from him, usually by using some type of joint manipulation or grappling. These patterns can look very much like wrestling, as they are done at extremely close range and may include sweeps and throws, as well as locks and traps.
“Our two main goals in Philippine fighting are, take away your opponents eyes and take away his balance.” said Dennis. Dennis sets his knife aside and demonstrates a finger strike to the eyes. A finger strike to the throat will instantly paralyze an opponent, for a split second. But a split second is all you need in a knife fight. As painful as it is to get hit in the throat with a finger, I imagine it would be much worse to get hit in the throat with a stick or a knife.
“I don’t like to kick. The economical sweep is the most effective weapon.” Stated Dennis.
We square off in fighting position, each armed with a five-inch blade. Dennis, casually lays his knee against the side of my knee, then twists and leans in. The pain is excruciating. It is clear that if he put his full weight into it, my knee would have been ripped right out of socket. Apparently, the first rule of knife fighting is, fight dirty.
“We can destroy the knee with this technique. But we can also turn it into an economical sweep.” Dennis repeats his lean and twist on my left knee, but this time, he hooks his foot behind my heel and pulls forward. Now, instead of ripping the left knee he attacked, I feel a tear in my right knee, my base knee. Either way, I would have wound up on the ground, and possibly never fought again.
Knowing that I also study Muay Thai (Thai kick boxing), Dennis clinches with me. He sets his leg between my legs and begins striking the inside of both my knee with his knee. The technique is painful, but what he is actually doing is trying to change my balance. The second he feels my weight shift, he executes a sweep and takes me down.
Many of the disarming techniques for the stick feel a lot like hop kido. You begin by blocking, stick to stick, then, with your free hand, you twist the opponent’s wrist outward or upward, attacking the joint, once the join is stressed, you push your opponents stick, toward his fingers, rather than toward his palm. The hand opens, and the stick comes free. The push can be done with your knee, your forearm, your hand or your stick. You can also disarm by grabbing the thumb, which is, of course, a joint, and bending it back toward the wrist. Then, you follow up by pushing the stick out of his hand. In some of the more complicated techniques, you wrap your arm around your opponent’s arm, like a snake, and your arm or shoulder winds up removing the stick as you tighten your grip on him. If you continue to apply pressure the opponent’s arm will break at the elbow. But even in these advanced techniques, the basic premise is the same, attack the joint, then push the stick out of the hand by applying pressure towards the fingers, not the palm.
With the knife, the techniques are the same. The important thing to remember with the knife, however, is that you must always push the dull side of the blade with your hand, forearm or knife. Obviously you don’t want to disarm someone by pressing your forearm against the sharp edge of the blade. A typical knife set works like this. The opponent stabs. You block his strike with your hand, placed on top of or under his wrist or forearm. The opponent’s hand will be immobilized for a split second, which is enough time for you to slash him. The beauty of the slash is that when the opponent sees what you are doing, he will jerk his arm back, which of course will mean he is dragging it along the blade of the knife. His own instincts betray him at that point, and he does your work for you.
In some of the more Stephen Seagal-like techniques, you block the knife, twist the wrist, do a twist and flip and force the opponent to stab himself. Denis calls this one, “return to sender.”
When blocking the knife hand, it is important not to grab the hand or wrist. The second the opponent feels you grapping him, he will break lose. Your natural reaction would be to hold on. This could be bad for you. He could be pulling you off balance, or at least pulling you out of your stance and into a compromised position. But if you just block by putting your hand in the way of his forearm or wrist, he won’t notice for a split second, and that gives you time to slash. If he moves his hand away before you slash, it is no problem because you still have your balance and you are still in position. And remember, every slash is followed by a stab. In this way, if the opponent moves his arm and avoids getting slashed there is a high probability he is not ready to parry your thrust, and you could stab him, ending the fight.
Oh, yeah, and must importantly: Kids, don’t try this at home. Someone could lose an eye.
Antonio Graceffo is an adventure and martial arts author living in Asia. He is a professional fighter and the author of four books available on amazon.com Antonio was the first foreigner to study at the Shaolin Temple and write a book about his experience. “The Monk from Brooklyn” is available on amazon.com See Antonio’s website www.speakingadventure.com Contact him Antonio@speakingadventure.com
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The Monk from Brooklyn
Bikes, Boats, and Boxing Gloves
The Desert of Death on Three Wheels
Adventures in Formosa