Daniel Arola is among the handful of martial artists who have experienced pressure-testing their arts in actual fights. In an interview with FIGHT Times, Arola shares his personal evolution as a martial artist and what techniques work in the ring and in the streets.
FIGHT Times: You’ve studied other martial arts but made the Filipino martial arts (FMA) your primary system; can you tell us your personal journey into the martial arts?
Daniel Arola: My personal journey consisted of the many angles of conflict that tested my will to keep me driven passionately since I was a kid growing up in an “urbanized” neighborhood among lower middle-class/blue-collar demographics. To become good at what I enjoy learning and to love every second of it. My first exposure to fighting came from being the “new kid” in American neighborhoods where the kids first notice our differences before our similarities, so naturally fights came out from it. Moving to the Philippines as a kid was the same. I was singled-out often as the “American kid.” and conflicts didn’t seem to have any language barrier in order to initiate itself. Just be someone different from them externally, and prejudice happens. The first person to have taught me anything about fighting was no formal instructor, but I did spend almost every day at his home to learn from him. Most of the time, he had me doing chores beginning with learning how to cut bamboo and wood with the bolo. Typical “Karate Kid” work but I knew its purpose. Like most kids my age then, I was interested in learning kung fu or some kid of karate style with the neat uniform. I was told that from enough experience, I could learn to do any martial art that I want to learn.
I’ve even been a witness to a challenge match or two issued by outsiders against the same uncle whom I spent my summers with by trying to “steal” a lesson or two from. Those fights went by quick. They usually finished by submission (including KO) or first blood. In the province, it’s not really cool to let everyone else know that you train because the mentality in the area will draw challengers. Those don’t always end well. Most especially after the match because egos used to be so sensitive that the vanquished plotting revenge is commonplace. From him, I learned more about the mental states of fighting and how fast we learn about someone when you’re in a fight with them.
In 1985, when me and my brother John moved back to Texas for good, I enrolled in various karate and tae kwon do dojos throughout the city of Houston. I’ve met my fair share of phonies that had the nerve to call themselves master and even put up with a few just to get the day rolling-onward. Long-story-short, my karate years resulted in a 1st dan black belt in tang soo do and 1st dan hapkido under Master Chris Yaeger in Deer Park, Texas. I also received a promotion to 3rd dan black belt in hapkido under GM Larry Ordonio, a Filipino Hawaiian who heads a school in the far-east end of Houston, Texas. On my own I still maintained what I remembered about arnis and kept the practice to myself until in 1992, I met the instructor I’ve been waiting to learn from whose credentials include instructorship under Guro Dan Inosanto in Jun Fan Martial Arts (Jeet Kune Do Concepts) and kali and also in Thai boxing under Ajarn Chai Sirisute among related associations. His name is Tim Mousel. As a student at Tim’s academy up to when I became an instructor under him, I have attended several clinics and seminars as taught by the legends and greats like Guro Inosanto, Ajarn Chai, Larry Hartsell, Rick Faye, Erik Paulson and so on along with other trips which required my presence as Tim’s demo partner at a few events throughout the city from school programs to public street demonstrations. In grappling I learned the most from Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ) world champ, Eric Williams at a time before he went into BJJ full-time. Eric was a wrestler with a perfect wrestler’s base and modified his base to synch with the flow of submission attacks and escapes from the bulk of the Shooto Wrestling material that we were studying in the early 1990’s. I’ve even competed in numerous submission grappling tournaments in 1995 when the sport was just barely born and was undefeated. Around that same time, I also won a tournament with ground fighting rules and striking and kicks without gloves or pads and fought against three men (one at a time) that day to earn a healthy cash prize purse. In early 1997, a head-on car collision, which led me nearly three weeks comatose with temporary amnesia and brain-tissue damage that required laser surgery had forced me into retiring from active competition. Fortunately, the car wreck did not incapacitate me from practicing. Naturally, I was bummed that I had to quit competing at that time but I moved-on because martial arts never runs out of options to practice on. From there I went back to focusing on kali more and invested in sparring gear like, hockey gloves and fencing masks, started my own full-time kali classes at the parks and many outdoors to indoor settings to train from. In 2005 when I moved to North Carolina for a couple of years, I had founded DAMAG-INC which is an acronym for Daniel Arola Martial Arts Group-Inc. and spent much time working with US soldiers from Ft. Bragg in a dojo located just down the street from the Yadkin road post gate. I had a lot of fun training with those guys since most of the students come from one Special Forces division or another and our sparring sessions were never dull. Them boys went hard! I was digging-it the most! In November 2006, I moved back to Houston, Texas to continue my kali group and since then, I’m still at it.
FT: You’ve worked as a bouncer and were into numerous street fights, in your opinion what aspects of the FMA (or the martial arts in general) are most useful in real life confrontations?
DA: In my times as a bouncer, I have found that the hubud and pananjakman (kicking) techniques to work like a charm in closer quarters including lots of footwork and “spatial-domination” to effectively deal with even more than one assailant at the same time. Headbutts, knees and elbows including open-hand strikes all prove themselves beyond doubt to be worthy arsenal in getting the job done just right with less time than usual.
FT: In your opinion, should a martial arts teacher experience a real fight to be an effective instructor?
DA: I really do know that to qualify as an instructor of value, one must have (and know) the experience of being in real fights. The martial arts is not the dominion of cookie-cutter processed masters and guros. Unfortunately there are many who come from that stencil of influence today acting for profit.
FT: What is the role of the mind in the development of functional fighting skills?
DA: The role of the mind has everything to do with functional performance. It is a major part of the integration of effective delivery in attack and counter and the grooming of mental quickness in making the right decision at the right time where and when it matters most. The state of one’s mentality sets the pace and the energy of the moment in order to “stay on top” of the moment-to-moment exchange of blow-for-blow and toe-to-toe combative activity. Attitude is what makes the fight in the dude.