Vincent Vicencio is a 44-year-old Baptist pastor who strikes and grapples people to the point of submission, and no one is complaining. This is because he runs a program that turns away hundreds of young people away from dangerous drugs and crime through martial arts.
Vicencio is the founder of Toughguys International Ministry (Toughguys), a youth-oriented church ministry that teaches martial arts to hundreds of children and teenagers, especially to those involved in some form of fraternity, gang, or crime syndicate. It became a life-long mission for the pastor to reach out to these young folks because of his own turbulent past.
“I was the starter of Sigma Lambda Tao in Cubao back when I was 15 years old,” Vicencio said. “At 16, I studied at Jose Rizal College, now Jose Rizal University, where I started Alpha Sigma Omega.” An invitation to a Christian youth camp would later change the life of Vicencio. After accepting the Christian faith, he entered the seminary, leaving the fraternities he established to flourish on their own.
After graduating from the seminary and becoming a full-fledged pastor, he thought of a way to reach out to his lost flock. “A tough program is needed because these are tough kids,” he said.
Vicencio began teaching martial arts in 1998 at the Quezon City Circle. His credentials included a brown belt in Kyokushin karate and a rank of third degree black belt in Shotokan karate. Kyokushin is a “hard style” of karate founded by Korean-Japanese karate master Masutatsu Oyama. Shotokan is a style developed by Gichin Funakoshi and his son Gigo that emphasizes powerful strikes and dynamic footwork.
Vicencio melded the intense training and conditioning regimen of Kyokushin with the foot-catches, sweeps, and takedowns of Shotokan, creating a full contact, stand-up art that became the foundational skill of his pupils.
The popularity of mixed martial arts (MMA) compelled Vicencio to make the system well rounded. Groundwork further developed when some of his students cross-trained with wrestling and Brazilian jiu-jitsu. “We decided to come up with a name that originated within the group: Sentoujutsu,” he said. The name comes from the Japanese term “sentou”, which can be translated to mean “combat”, and “jutsu” that can mean “technique”.
The style eventually spread abroad with the efforts of fellow pastors, who are also black belts in Sentoujutsu. To date, there are 24 Toughguys training centers in the Philippines and five in the United States: two in New Jersey, two in New York, and a recently promoted US-based black-belt enabled the expansion to Los Angeles.
The group is now in talks with a Russian pastor to expand the ministry beyond the United States.
He recalled that the group once encountered resistance from churches owing to its bellicose nature. “It was an eye opener for them when they saw that many lives have been transformed,” he said. Many of his blackbelts, who were former street urchins, are now pastors and professionals. “My greatest argument is our accomplishment.”
Toughguys holds inter-branch tournaments once every two months, but its fighters have tested the discipline and made their mark in local MMA, grappling, and kickboxing tournaments. He said his students fight in amateur promotions like MMA Wars and some had competed in bigger leagues like the now-defunct Fearless Fighting Championship.
“Our students are competitive,” Vicencio said. “Lately, three of them signed contracts for URCC [Universal Reality Combat Championship].” Toughguys now has four professional fighters and eight amateur fighters representing the group.
Try-outs for its official fight team begin every January. “It is open to all Toughguys students. Training is twice a week at the main gym [in Sta. Mesa, Manila],” Vicencio said. Training in Sentoujutsu is offered free of charge across all Toughguys branches, open to children and adults alike.
Apart from the fighting arts, Toughguys gives seminars about love, courtship, and marriage; unmasking the nature of youth gangs; drug prevention, character development, and how to improve school performance. “We offer moral values camps and scholarships to those who are unable to finish college,” Vicencio said, adding that they even adopt orphans in their main gym.
“It’s not just a martial arts ministry,” Vicencio said. “We don’t open a branch if there is no church around.” Christian churches can host a Toughguys instructor in exchange for martial arts classes for their community. “Churches are really our partners because they have programs in place that reach out to the youth.”
Vicencio envisions opening at least 10 to 15 Toughguys branches locally and one abroad every year. “Our goal is to reach out to one million young people every year through evangelism,” he said. “As long as there is a church leader to handle the ministry, we can start.”