Veteran Filipino martial arts (FMA) teacher Nate Defensor is in a position to offer a unique perspective on the growth of kali, escrima and arnis having experienced learning and teaching these arts in its country of origin and in America. In an interview with FIGHT Times, Defensor talks about the uniqueness of his Defensor Method, the common thread among Southeast Asian fighting systems, the growth of the FMA in the United States and the potential of the Internet in teaching martial arts.
FIGHT Times: Please tell us about your life journey; how did you start in the martial arts?
Nate Defensor: I grew up in Bacolod City, Negros Occidental, Philippines with five brothers. My father saw to it that all the five boys learn boxing, so he bought boxing gloves and our backyard, at times, became a “fight club” for our neighbors, cousins and classmates after school hours and on some Saturdays.
My eldest brother Dennis started learning Okinawan karate and Shotokan karate under JKA (Japan Karate Association) affiliate All Philippine Karate Federation under Mike Vazquez. He passed on some of the rudimentary basics of Shorin-Ryu and eventually all the other brothers besides the youngest one, became members of All Philippine Karate Federation in Bacolod City. Head instructor Mike Vazquez also taught baston to his students. He eventually incorporated Tapado, the long stick style from Negros, in his system in later years. Within the family, I learned from my uncle, a World War 2 veteran, Herson Ramos, Ilongo Style of baston.
When we migrated to Chicago, Illinois in 1972 I joined and practiced with several martial arts schools in Chicagoland. Through the years, I got exposed to and learned other martial arts systems of karate, kung fu, judo, Chinese internal martial arts, Degerberg Blend, muay thai, Modern Arnis, Serrada Escrima, Inayan Eskrima, Pekiti-Tirsia, Balintawak, Doce Pares, Inosanto Blend, Tobosa-Villabrille System of Kali, Pusaka-Dwipantara Pencak-Silat, Jalur-Putih Pentjak-Silat, Kuntao, etc. Under the Filipino Martial Arts (FMA), I got permissions and certifications from Grand Tuhon Leo T. Gaje of Pekiti-Tirsia, Master Raymund Tobosa of Tobosa-Villabrille system of Kali, and an apprentice instructor under Guro Dan Inosanto.
FT: You are teaching a unique style, which is heavily influenced by Southeast Asian martial arts, can you explain to us the connection between kali and silat in terms of movement dynamics, philosophy, geography and history?
ND: In 1984, I formed a Club and started incorporating the knowledge into what is now the Defensor Method of Filipino-Indonesian Martial Arts.
In terms of movement of kali and silat, similarities abound. In Tobosa-Villabrille Kali, there are several ranges (12) of weapons and empty hand deployment. In Pentjak-Silat’s Harimau System, albeit adept in stand-up fighting, ground fighting is their bread and butter. The cross step or the sempok/dempok is the same in both kali and silat. The djurus (also spelled jurus, djuroes), pentjak-silat version of forms is akin to FMA’s sayaw, anyos, and seguidas. A djuru can have many interpretations or can have a common theme. A seguida can also have a common theme like solo baston or single stick patterns that isolates certain angles or positions. Movement-wise, one can easily tie them together in most cases. Commonalities exist in drills; example is sambut or sambutan, which is similar or akin to sumbrada in kali-escrima. It is a form of counter for counter. Silat’s concepts of buah and bunga is similar to escrima’s countering drills as in lock and block in serrada, numerado/numerada in kali, lock flow in dumog/buno, batalyas in Moro-Moro and pakgang/grouping as practiced in Balintawak. Within these drills in both kali and silat, similar principles are highly emphasized.
In terms of philosophy this depends on the style, village, and era. Generally, some of the core philosophies display similarities regardless of what period it came from. Meaning, this is a warrior art, a combat art, and a martial art. When attacked, it is instinctive to fight back and defend one’s self, family, village, island, and country.
In silat for example, it is common to exchange ideas or showcase one’s silat proficiency by doing a demo at a community gathering. Silat is also showcased in some rituals as in weddings and festivals.
Grand Tuhon Leo T. Gaje Jr. of Pekiti-Tirsia expresses his philosophy eloquently by stating he values life over death. Respect is key, if one practices kali and if one becomes skilful, then one learns to respect the blade. Mutual respect thus exists amongst those who carry the blade.
The concept of defanging the snake, more popular in FMA is a philosophy that emphasizes destroying the limbs thus eliminating the threat. In silat, a somewhat reverse psychology exists where movements are done to preserve the body. For example, punching in an uppercut/big knuckles facing the targets are highly emphasized to avoid breaking one’s knuckle. Plus deployment of punching as a tool is taught with proper body mechanics to maximize body torque. This makes the punching blows effective and less changes of knuckles breaking and thus preserves one’s bones for hopefully another day to live and save their knuckles from getting destroyed.
One difference between the Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Okinawan varieties of martial arts versus the Southeast Asian arts of silat and kali is that of the spiritual environment. The Chinese arts have the Wu-Dang and the Shaolin deeply entrenched in its philosophies. The Japanese with its Samurai codes, Shintoism, Buddhism and the Korean and Okinawan with its Chinese influences.
Silat and kali in the past were village-based and/or familial-based arts taught and proliferated locally amongst its practitioners. Not to go deeply into details, the Southeast Asian varieties of kali and silat does not have a Shaolin Temple equivalent or a Samurai code. Thus the spiritual environment is different. The Filipinos with the anting-anting, agimat, orasyon and other practices is a form of spirituality. The silat/pentjak-silat connection is more Muslim/Mohameddan in majority of Indonesia, Mindanao and Malaysia with some Hindu spiritual influences in Bali.
In terms of geography, silat/pentjak-silat spread into parts of Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, and parts of Philippines in the beginning. The same with kali-escrima-arnis. The kali taught by Grandmaster Floro Villabrille came from island of Samar and the kali-escrima taught by GM Juanito LaCoste came from Mindanao and Visayas, although among Stockton Filipinos, he was more known by referring to his art as escrima according to some Stockton instructors.
Not to get into a debate over names, regionally, kali-escrima-arnis basically cultivated or experienced growth and development initially in the Philippines. Heavy migration of Filipinos to Hawaii and California resulted in more popular spread of FMA in these areas.
But thanks to Remy Presas, Leo Gaje, Dan Inosanto, Bobby Toboada, Angel Cabales, Mike Inay and many more pioneers. FMA has spread worldwide.
Prior to the late author/martial artist Donn Draeger, silat had a small following compared to nowadays. Pioneers like Pandekar Suryadi Jafri, Heman Suwanda, Rudy Terlinden, Pandekar/Agung Paul de Thouars, Victor de Thoaurs, Bapak Willem de Thouars, and many others help build silat’s popularity. Now both silat and kali are taught worldwide. The Internet boom has widely contributed to this rapid spread of these martial arts.
FT: Besides training your students in an actual school, you also offer online lesson, how effective is this method of teaching in your opinion?
ND: The online lessons, as evidenced by YouTube viewers, can be an eye opener. One can get real creative with the online approach these days. I do have students who learn online, practice among themselves and successfully tested for the material being offered in Defensor Method. Case in point Mexico. We have produced 16 individuals in Mexico that are able to teach the Defensor Method Level 1 curriculum and in the process of finishing Level 2 material. With the online approach, it is a little bit of a challenge since one is relying on video and audio. It is akin to watching film versus actually playing a game in sports. But the combination of online lessons and good training partners can be effective for some folks. But overall, in my opinion the combination of online lessons with hands on lessons can be quite an effective tool for learning.
FT: The FMA has experienced tremendous growth in America, do you see the United States as the second home of arnis, escrima and kali?
ND: Yes. I do not know how many practitioners in America vs. the Philippines, or the world for that matter. But there is definite growth. Recent movies, TV shows, many articles, and groups/individuals showcasing FMA has contributed to this growth. Nowhere is it near the growth proportion of mixed martial arts or even the more popular ones like muay thai, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, boxing, or krav maga. FMA is experiencing some growth and America is starting to like the Filipino flavor.
FT: You’ve been teaching for quite some time, in your opinion what is a good martial arts teacher?
ND: In my own humble opinion, a good teacher is one that can communicates well. Teaching is a skill. It involves communication, proficiency level, understanding, and a lot of encouragement. If one can combine skill, communication, and influence; that is golden. But let me also point out that the best coaches in any sport does not have to be in the prime of their life. So in martial arts, an older person can be a good teacher, albeit diminished skills. Teaching is an art. You can verbally, visually, and guide the body/mind in many ways. Perhaps the best answer is the best teacher is the one available at the moment. One can learn from anybody, generally as in life. But consensus will show that a good combination of good qualities, good material, good communication, good rapport, good standards of excellence, good location, good lineage, good demeanor, good credentials, good reputation are all recipes for success in this business of teaching martial arts.