The History of Kali: Filipino Stick Fighting

Wazzup Pilipinas!?

Filipino Kali is a form of martial arts which uses sticks or batons to help the participants outwit each other before bare hand-to-hand combat occurs.

Filipino stick fighting’s history goes way back to the 15th century and the Spanish invasion of the Philippines. It’s likely that, initially, Kali was a blend of martial arts and traditional fighting techniques such as fencing and sword fighting, which were brought to the Philippines via Europe, Malaysia, China, and India.

Although some Filipinos dispute that FMA is a blend of disciplines, it's likely true that centuries of immigration, invasions, and occupation have likely left their mark.

Where Did the Name Kali Come From?

The name Kali is used to describe stick fighting. This combat sport or martial art derives from the Spanish word ‘Calis,’ meaning sword or knife, and refers to the Spanish style of sword fighting or fencing. As time passed, people dropped the S and the C replaced it with K, interlinking changing times with mythology.

What’s in a name, you might ask? Kali is a Hindu goddess. The all-powerful Kali rules over creation, time, destruction, and power. The name became associated with the sport as travelers, and European traders passed through Malaysia to the Philippines.

Many Filipino Martial Arts (FMA) forms are related to Kali but with different names. Kali is known as Arnis, Eskrima, or Escrima. The principles of Kali are the same, but there are regional differences, including the use of swords and knives instead of sticks or batons.

It’s suggested that similar Pangasinensium words such as Kalirongan, Pagkalikali, and Kaliradman (Pangasinense is one of the eight dialects of Tagalog, the first language of the Philippines) are also persuasive indicators for the use of the term as they mean within the ‘Wisdom of Kali.’

So some experts say that Kali was the obvious choice, but this is no more than an educated guess. However, no matter the derivative of the word, there’s no getting away from the fact Kali is a competitive and dangerous combat sport that is almost a religion in itself.

Kali is a Unisex Martial Art

Kali is taught and practiced by both men and women. The Philippines has a long and proud history of women fighting in tribal wars and combat, so it’s not unusual for female trainers to teach at all levels.

Women who practice FMA have a following all of their own. In Japan, there’s an entire Anime fan club dedicated to strong female FMA fighters. At the same time, these characters are fictional. We understand why Kali and FMA have been elevated to comic book status.

In the wider world, FMA is being taught to women and girls as a form of self-defense as the routines require small, decisive movements that concentrate on the angles of attack rather than specific attacks or the use of strength to overcome an attacker.

Kali Characteristics

To be a Kali practitioner, you must be able to transition from style to style effortlessly. The fluidity of movement must always be present no matter what the fighter is doing. There are many different styles of Kali in use today, combining elements of grappling, fighting with weapons, striking, and throwing. Aggressive techniques like throwdowns and biting are encouraged.

Teaching methods reinforce the belief that hand-to-hand combat and fighting with weapons are the same things. Your arm, hand, and elbow are all weapons, so the movement is taught simultaneously.

Particular weapon combinations are used depending on where you are and who is teaching. Expect to see single stick combat called Solo Baston and Double Baston (double length stick), then Espada, a sword-stick, and a dagger.

Ultimately FMA practitioners are famous for their super fast but fluid feet and body movements. These characteristics set Kali advocates apart from regular martial artists.

You want to inflict as much physical harm as possible on your opponent, either with weapons or without them.

Kali is a dangerous discipline that often causes fatal damage. Therefore those who compete take their sport very seriously, and spectators are expected to do the same.

Sub-Styles of FMA/Kali

● Balintawak Eskrima - on stick technique focusing on fluidity

● Doce Pares Eskrima - also single stick but with sword or dagger

● Garimot Arnis - the combination of ten different techniques

● San Miguel Eskrima - blade-based martial art, no use of sticks

As with most martial arts, mainly mixed martial arts, the fighter can decide which technique to use, and often a combination of training techniques produces the final style. While the basic formula may be the same, Kali differs from fighter to fighter and region to region.

Famous Kali Fighters

Angel Cabales - In the US, Cabales is primarily regarded as the father of Eskrima or Kali. Born in 1917 in Manila, he moved to America in 1939. Once in the US, Cabales opened a Filipino and non-Filipino martial art school in California and developed his version of Kali called Serrada Escrima.

Cabales died in 1991, leaving behind a legacy that advocates of Kali and the Serrada Escrima system credited for keeping FMA alive and kicking.

Leo Gaje - Gaje is the sole heir and founding practitioner of the Pekiti-Tirsia Kali System in Pekiti, Tanzania. Pekiti-Tirsia Kali is purely for combat and is not a sport at any level.

An emphasis is placed on using edged, impact, and improvised weapons in this combat style. Combative training units throughout the world have chosen Pekiti-Tirsia Kali as their primary confrontational training method. As a self-defense strategy, it is said to be highly deadly and effective.

Gaj is a member of the Martial Arts Hall of Fame and the Karate Hall of Fame. He is the only non-Karate member.

Dan Arca Inosanto - Inosanto is arguably the most famous Kali instructor, having studied Jeet Kune Do under Bruce Lee. Inosanto was the only person Lee instructed, and because of this, Inosanto is a force to be reckoned with.

He’s proficient in a variety of other martial arts, primarily FMA. He has been instrumental in preserving some of the Filipino styles. Now aged 85 Inosanto, this ex-paratrooper has no intention of taking it easy.

Founder of the Inosanto Academy of Martial Arts in California, the legend of Bruce and Brandon Lee lives on.

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