I met Maestro Romy Macapagal, one of the original students of the legendary Antonio “Tatang” Ilustrisimo, in 1998, at a party organized by Daniel Go publisher and editor of the now defunct Rapid Journal. It was a meeting of martial arts writers and researchers and I remember Maestro Macapagal, looking scholarly and dignified, discussing the relationships of the fighting arts of Southeast Asia. I consider Maestro Macapagal a master of both the sword and the pen.
He is among the few Filipino martial arts (FMA) masters who, besides being adept in physical techniques can also articulate intelligently and eloquently the underlying principles of martial arts. In an interview with FIGHT Times, Maestro Macapagal tells of his relationship with the late “Tatang” Ilustrisimo as well as his understanding of the way of the blade.
FIGHT Times: Please tell us your personal background and your relationship with the late Antonio “Tatang” Ilustrisimo.
Romy Macapagal: I grew up in a squatter, refugee barrio in Tondo. World War 2 had just ended; the Hukbalahaps were sowing terror in Pampanga and my folks escaped to this community. My grandfather taught me arnis at an age where I had to stand on a stool. His movements were very similar to those I saw in Tatang as I took a paseo in Luneta one morning. I asked to be taught. Tatang graciously said yes and that started a very long and warm friendship with this Grand Old Man of the sword. He had no airs, he was one of the boys, and he shared unstintingly of what he had, whether it was food that he had gotten on credit from the sari-sari store or his extensive knowledge of life in general and fighting in particular. My gratitude is best expressed to this Great Filipino by preserving his system as part of our living national heritage. It is historical anthropology.
FT: How would you differentiate the martial art you’ve learned from Tatang Ilustrisimo from other FMA styles?
RM: Tatang Ilustrisimo’s system was typically lauded as scientific, technical, efficient, elegantly brutal, and sophisticated. It has an intelligent approach to combat.
His system appears to be heavily influenced by Spanish and other European sword work. Tatang’s system has a strategy that follows more closely the philosophy of Spanish fencing which has a focus on applications of geometry and physics for efficiency. There are very distinct derivations from Florete y Sable Español in the same way Garrote Venezolano has especially in the footwork which is not found in other FMA. Ilustrisimo also contains movements which have a strong similarity to the historical, now revived Italian cut-and-thrust sword fencing.
While the other FMA have retained Spanish terms such as songkite and crusada or redonda, they are applied to single techniques and not to the general strategy of fighting. In these, the closer to the main towns the more Hispanized the terms and movements; the further away the more indigenous the movements become where a lot of athleticism, agility, and speed are prominent.
Close-in work, especially with that of the knife, shows simplified silat movements including grappling and joint dislocation techniques. Except for the simplification, Ilustrisimo is not much different from the bare hand of other FMA.
The strong European flavor may have come from the Spanish garrisons on Bantayan Island, Tatang’s birthplace, being a main bastion of the Spaniards against marauding Moro pirates. Historically, Spanish garrison officers commanded the local Christianized Filipinos utilizing these bantayans and churches constructed as forts. The friars also appear to have been responsible for military training of Christianized Indios (Filipino was reserved for the Spaniards). Thus, a set of techniques known as media fraile or semifriar.
The other FMA appear to be movements of direct blocks against strikes with emphasis on speed and craftiness. In Ilustrisimo, the emphasis is on deflections and evasions to reduce edge-on-edge contact and a reduction of the number of preliminary movements required to deliver multiple strikes. Its techniques are quite simple and straightforward.
FT: Blade fighting is both an art and a science; can you describe its underlying fundamental principles?
RM: The objective of battle is to disable the opponent, to end the fight without injury to oneself in the safest way and in the shortest time possible. This is very true especially in swordsmanship.
In battle, there are three possible outcomes: (a) you get hit; (b) you hit; (c) both of you are hit. Thus, you only have one-third chance of victory. You must ensure to get two-thirds chance of victory. This is achieved by the use of efficient strategies and tactics.
1. The strategy to achieve this objective is contained in the principle of the gap.
2. A gap can be exploited or created in the opponent.
– A gap is an opening through which an attack can enter
– A gap can be mental or physical (awareness, reaction time, and three dimensional physical deployment) vis-à-vis the opponent
– A gap is closed or denied to the opponent by centering one’s guard to ensure the shortest travel for any parry while ensuring the shortest travel for a strike into the opponent’s gap
3. Measure is the distance between combatants. It controls the gap. It also determines the time for a movement. The shorter the distance, the less time required to execute a technique.
– Physical gaps can be imposed on an opponent, denying him measure, destroying his measure, and appropriating measure for one’s self
4. Time is the period for the execution of a technique
– Time-ingis when to execute a technique. This is determined by the measure into the gap.
5. Beats are discrete, separate moments of movements composing a technique
6. Time/Technique equals the number of beats requiring its completion (less beats defeat more beats which occupy more time and distance).
7. Speed can be physical speed (actual movement) and reaction speed which is the pick-up and response to a threat or opportunity).
8. Strength/Flexibility can create a gap on one’s self or on an opponent depending on mechanics/physics.
– Too much strength causes an over-reach and loss of flexibility requiring an extra beat to recover and redeploy
– Too much flexibility can cause loss of control over one’s sword and arm, costing a beat
– Sword-control in terms of strength, speed, depth of strike, recovery from a displacement strike by an opponent is critical in closing or opening a gap
9. Sword-on-sword—when necessary, intends to create or close a gap. Otherwise, fence without steel (without touching the opponent’s sword or allowing it to touch one’s sword). This is to deny the opponent a feedback (the sword is an antenna) or the ability to control or displace your sword.
10. Mechanics/Physics, geometry are disciplines/principles used to maximize efficiency of deploying sword against sword. Thus, sword-work is applied engineering (mechanics, resolution of forces, encounters, angles of incidence, ricochet, rebound, etc.)
– Slide, spill off opposing sword so its tip or edge are 2-3x distance from one’s body as against own point/edge to opponent’s anatomy to gain a beat
– Avoid head-on opposing blocks which reset the fight, giving equal chances to both (exception – rebounding blocks which gain a beat on the opponent)
– Bind, control opposing sword to gain 1 or 2 beats over the opponent (momentarily stifle deployment of opposing sword)
– Cause a disarm or loss of control by the opponent over his sword to gain a beat
– Continuous flowing movement of techniques (no discrete, identifiable beats from contact to deflection, to bind, to control, to domination flowing into strike)
FT: What is the key to understanding the various facets of
FMA—bladed weapons— impact weapons—empty hands?
RM: The FMA practitioner will use his weapons, empty hands included, to protect himself efficiently with the least number of movements and continue to a counterstrike in order to stop the fight by disabling his opponent.
In swordsmanship, measure is of paramount importance because one’s distance from the opponent’s body determines whether one can strike a disabling hit or not. It is the ability to get to a specific distance from the opponent so that you can strike him or move away from his strike. Or you can stay at that distance where you can still parry and strike.
The height of martial craft is the ability to strike in-between the gaps of the opponent’s movements, in attack and defense, without opening one’s self to any gaps. The second aspect therefore is time. The least time expended in delivering a strike or parrying a strike and delivering a counterstrike determines efficiency. This time is dependent on distance. The shortest time to achieve your objective requires the least number of movements and the least distance of travel to the target whether it is to the opponent’s anatomy or his weapon.
FT: The masters know that there is more beyond the stick and blade; how do you apply the principles and philosophy of martial arts to life’s challenges?
RM: I learned from Tatang to be clear, objective and practical in dealing with life. Personally, I view the very technical and efficient procedures of Tatang’s system as examples of superior management. I have been a manager all my life, either for others or for my own enterprises. Management requires efficiency, an objective point-of-view, and pragmatism. I use the efficiency principles of Tatang’s swordsmanship as my guide/basis for management and my outlook on life.