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Eskrima: Evolution and Re-invention *

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This article was published in Black Belt Magazine in October, 1999, and again in the FMA Digest in the Spring, '07 Special Issue. This version may differ from the published versions, due to editing.

A key word in the development of a martial system is evolution. For many systems, we have only legends as to the beginnings of the system. We cant pin down the actual dates or places or in some cases, even who the original practitioners were. For other systems, we have a complete lineage. For all systems, though, the term evolution has meaning. No system in existence today was created exactly as is and then maintained down through the years. Not one. The reality is that something was created and then added to over the years by the following generations.
When a style of fighting becomes standardized, like most kungfu or karate styles, it is learned on the basis of that standardization, i.e. the forms, the one-step sparring, the three-step sparring, etc. One only progresses through the system if one learns the standards. It is true, of course, that people at the high end, after mastering all the forms, have added innovations, but these were added to the existing structure; therefore the term evolution.
This evolution has not been only in the physical side of these systems, but in the philosophical side as well. One theory of the creation of tai ji quan was that a collection of all the deadliest strikes was assembled, then the form was built around them to conceal them from the average person. Shotokan was used on prisoners-of-war during WW II to test the actual damage to the body by the various strikes. All of the various jutsu arts originated on the battlefield. What at one time were warrior arts training people to kill have evolved into arts which stress peace, physical fitness and defensive techniques. It can safely be said that the creators of most of the systems around today would not recognize a great deal of what is taught.
What about eskrima? Has it evolved along these same lines? In the past, eskrima was an Art which did not evolve, but rather was re-invented by each succeeding generation of fighters. Until recently, there were no stances, no forms, no standardized routines at all. In the past, eskrima was always taught one-to-one, or to a very small group with a great deal of individual instruction. There was almost never a style or a name to the method. It was just something a father taught his son. Each generation just learned some effective techniques from the preceding generation and then went on to modify, adjust, adapt what they had learned to their own body type, personality, fighting spirit, etc. In fact, most of the great eskrimadors of the past learned only a very basic fighting framework from their teachers.
Eskrima in the past did not include all the drills and exercises which seem to make up the bulk of the training today. The learning of all these drills, exercises and techniques doesnt make the student a fighter. The majority of the old masters fighting skill was developed afterwards, when they left the classroom and went out in the street to practice. They fought with each other, or with other students in the area, they fought with travelers, they fought with anyone who was willing. The most motivated ones, the ones who had discovered that they had a talent for the Art, went around looking for people to fight. If these experts then began to teach their hard-earned skills to others, what could they teach? Most of what made them great was the fighting experience, not the drills they might have seen. Within one or two generations, the style the students ended up with no longer resembled that of the great fighter, but was whatever the current practitioners did, thus the term re-invention instead of evolution.
Eskrima is an Art that is still used in the old way. There exist people outside the cities who still train in the old ways and have maintained the old skills. Unfortunately, these people are passing and not so many are stepping up to take their places, and now the term evolution has raised its ugly head in regards to eskrima. Since eskrima has become known in the West, people have been changing it to make it suitable for mass-based training. It is now evolving, with standardized drills and exercises constantly being added. This evolution has now made eskrima an art like kungfu or karate, one potentially on the decline.
In our modern world, with our legal system being what it is, we cannot travel around the country challenging other eskrimadors, as much as we might like to. Since we cant gain true fighting skill that way, the only other way is serious sparring with someone who is much better than you, like your instructor or a senior, over a long period of time. Serious sparring means there will be pain, because the only way to learn how to avoid being hit is to be hit regularly until you learn how to stop it. It is easy to hit someone else. The skill in eskrima is in hitting your opponent while avoiding being hit in return. The only way to truly develop this skill is to play with no padding at all, and trust the senior to have control of his weapon so the damage is limited. This method had an extra benefit in the past, because it quickly exposed those individuals who did not have the heart for serious fighting. As any experienced fighter (from any style or system) will tell you, it is not always what you know ( the techniques of fighting) which wins the fight, but how much heart or guts you have, how much pain can you stand.
In todays eskrima, sadly, it seems like the teacher who knows the most drills, and who can perform them in the smoothest manner is considered the most accomplished. Real fighting is not pretty, and the people who are capable of it arent always so slick in their presentation of the Art. The first thing a fighter needs is not skill in fighting or fancy techniques or even a strong body. The first thing a fighter needs is the willingness to fight, the attitude. Being able to do drills doesnt have anything to do with real fighting. This is the greatest difference in eskrimadors today. The attitude is no longer a prerequisite for learning the Art. Since training no longer forces the weak or shy ones out, we now have people who have never been in a real fight teaching others how to fight!
There has been almost an exponential growth in drills and exercises within the Art in the recent past. Learning to fight takes very little time in the actual learning of techniques, and a long time in actually mastering those techniques for fighting. In the past, eskrima was mostly practice sparring; today, however, if a school wants to maintain student numbers, there must be a curriculum to teach, therefore the drills and exercises. In the past, sparring and actual fighting taught the Art, but today, training in drills and exercises has taken that position.
It is important to remember that there is training, and then there is fighting. Fighting means knocking out, maiming or killing your opponent, with no concern for pulling the blow, tapping out, or good sportsmanship. Training means developing the body to be able to fight, developing endurance, honing reflexes, learning techniques and then practicing what has been learned. There is very little common ground between the two. Even in boxing, a fighter who only did roadwork, skipped rope, hit the heavy bag and shadowboxed would stand very little chance in the ring with an opponent who did no training but who had had twenty or thirty fights already.
Today, the old type of training rarely happens. Instead, people train for tournaments, such as the WEKAF world championships, which are very interesting and fun, but have nothing to do with real eskrima. Here the fighters try to hit each other , but because of the armor they wear, they ignore being hit! There is no defense at all. While it may be considered a sport, it certainly isnt eskrima. At the other end of the spectrum, we also have people training to fight each other full-contact, but then defeating the purpose by wearing padding on their heads, elbows and hands, the main targets in eskrima. They are trying to simulate real fighting as best they can, but when you cant hurt your opponent with a strike (through the padding), then the obvious result is that you end up in a clinch and start grappling. Again, not really eskrima, because the Philippines is a blade-oriented culture. Even small children are skilled in using blades for all kinds of purposes. When everyone carries a blade, grappling just is not an option.
Eskrima was, and still is for a few practitioners, one of the most effective martial systems. This was due mainly to the lack of an evolved structure. Each player developed the Art to its highest level for him. The Art maintained a consistently high level of skill over the generations because people were still using it to fight. Survival meant your art needed to be the best it could be. Today, this constant re-invention has been replaced by evolution, where standardization is steadily replacing innovation and inspiration. Eskrima is going (has gone) the way of most other martial systems, and if the practitioners dont recognize what is happening, very soon there wont be any real eskrima left. All that will remain will be the sport, and that will be a great loss.

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