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The stunning footwork of today’s greatest fighters, including Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson, may have been the product of Filipino fighting principles honed on the island of Hawaii.
Over the years, there have been many valiant attempts to link Asian fighting arts to modem spoils and/or forms of combat. Most of these can be charitably described as “reaches” or pure speculation. However, in one case, there is strong historical evidence that a Southeast Asian fighting system may have had a profound effect on Western boxing specifically the Filipino martial arts, known variously as kali escrima and arnis.
Despite the aura of mysticism an “ancient” lineage gives a fighting art, Western boxing predates most Asian martial arts. Pugilism was practiced in a refined art form in ancient Greece several hundred years before the birth of Christ, whereas most classical Asian systems evolved after the birth of Christ. Many arts, such as karate, are products of the 20th century.
Although there has been some speculation that the Greek arts were the origins of refined Asian combative principles, the stronger evidence suggests that India was their place of origin. Spreading northward into China across the Himalayas, the Indian miartial arts evolved into what we now know as chuan fa (fist way).
At the same time, sailors, merchants, and traders carried their knowledge of fighting arts south, throughout the Mahajapayit empire, a vast chain of islands consisting of modern-day Indonesia, Thailand, Burma, and the Philippines. Western pugilism evolved in a similar fashion.
The Greek culture had a profound influence on the Romans, who conquered the known world. Hand-to-hand fighting was regularly practiced by soldiers and gladiators, who required a knowledge of how to stay in combat when disarmed. This evolved into the sport of boxing.
East Meets West
By the beginning of the 20th century, Western boxing was both a sport and an art form. Fighters would generally chamber their hands in a straight-up position; fists pointed upward covering the face, elbows tucked into the body, the fighter would drive his blows in an “uppercut” into the body of his opponent Old pictures of such greats as John L. Sullivan depict this fighting stance.
Fights consisted mainly of “exchanging blows.” One fighter would strike the other, then the other would hit back, and this process would go until one fighter lost consciousness or was too hurt to continue.
As anyone who has ever seen even an amateur boxing match knows, the boxing of today is radically different. Boxers generally employ a 45-degree angle positioning of the hands, and jabs and crosses are driven to the target. Sophisticated footwork patterns often save the day, and, rather than exchange blows, a defensive strategy of drawing and countering and blocking and countering is used.
“Gentlemen” Jim Corbett is generally regarded as the first scientific boxer. Not a powerful puncher, he defeated Sullivan using footwork, evasions and timing. Corbett’s successes caused boxers to approach their art with a new respect for strategy over power. This created fertile soil for the most significant event in the history of Western pugilism.
Boxing changed drastically in a cultural exchange during the early 1900s in one of the greatest ethnic melting pots in history — Hawaii — a relatively lawless territory. Fights frequently occurred, and one’s survival often depended on one’s toughness. Asian immigrants passed on their knowledge of martial arts to their sons, hoping it would ensure their survival.
Since fighting skills were so highly valued, Hawaii produced many fine fighters. One such fighter was Lucky Lucaylucay, amateur boxing champion of Kaui and Honolulu, son of Buenaventura Lucaylucay, a Filipino immigrant who had become the professional boxing champion of Kaui and Honolulu.
Lucky Lucaylucay saw the melding of Filipino martial arts and Western boxing firsthand. “I remember, there were two types of boxers in Hawaii in the `20s,” he recounts. `There were the Americans, who held their fists at an angle, used footwork, bobbing and weaving, and used continuous motion in their techniques instead of just `trading hits.’
“The English style of boxing would almost always lose to the Filipino style. It was just vastly more sophisticated.”
Lucky maintains that the Filipino style of boxing is a direct derivative of Filipino pananh-kan (pugilism). “Filipino arts start training with weapons because it’s more likely you’d be attacked with weapons. The empty-hand motions come from weapons moves. In the case of boxing, the hand moves come from the moves of the dagger.
“In the Philippines, the preferred method for knife fighting is with the blade pointed downward. If your practice is based only on empty bands, you can take punches, so your strategy is sometimes based on taking a punch. On the other hand, if your practice is based on knife fighting, you have to become much more sophisticated with your footwork, evasions and delivery because one wrong move could mean death.
“Filipino boxing is exactly like knife fighting, except instead of cutting with a blade, we strike with a closed fist. There have to be some modifications. For example, you need more power in striking with the fist, so we stand close and use a whip like motion to deliver power.”
As the saying goes, “You can’t argue with success.” Thus, as servicemen and visiting boxers experienced the Filipino boxing strategy, they were quick to adopt the techniques. What once was a static “toughest guy” contest, soon incorporated such concepts as combinations, follow-ups, angling and flowing _concepts familiar to any practitioner of Filipino martial arts.
“If you look at the old English way of boxing, there was no blocking,” says Lucky. “There’s no control. I used to watch my dad and Kid Moro (a Filipino boxing champion) fight, and their control was so superb they used to spar without gloves, use full-power blows, and they could stop a fraction of an inch before a blow made contact. There was never an injury.”
The JKD Connection
Lucky’s son, Ted Lucaylucay, is well-known in martial arts circles as one of the most knowledgeable exponents of not only Filipino martial arts, but Bruce Lee’s fighting concept of Jeet Kune Do. Ted points out that many of Lee’s theories on boxing were later found to apply to Filipino martial arts.
“In Filipino martial arts, there is no rigidity,” according to Ted. `The individual adapts. The techniques are Just the ladders that take you upward in your training. You develop your own style after a while. This is why the Filipino arts lent themselves to boxing so well. They already existed as a process of adapting, so a Filipino martial artist could just shift his training to the requirements of boxing.
“I have had the opportunity to experience many different martial arts, and my Filipino background helped me with boxing, silat, muay Thai ,JKD, and so on. I could see the angles of attack, body positioning, and balance.”
Float Like an Ali-bangbang, Sting Like a Bubuyug?
The Philippines have produced many famous boxers, such as Kid Moro and Pancho Villa, but without question, the greatest fighter ever to come out of the islands was the late “Flash” Ellorde, former world lightweight champion. Ellorde was the first to use the “dancing” style of footwork later made famous by Muhammad Ali.
“I can’t say for certain whether Flash taught Muhammad his footwork,” says Ellorde’s sister, Jacinta Perez. “I know they were close and when Muhammad came to the Philippines he stayed with my brother. What I do know is that that particular style of footwork is from escrima, and it originated with Flash.
So he either taught it to Muhammad, or Muhammad picked it up after others started imitating Flash’s style.”
Ellorde came from an impoverished childhood in the Visayan Islands region of the Philippines. His schooling was neglected, so he had to start school later in life. Because he was older than the other children. they made fun of him, and he soon dropped out of school.
“Flash was very self-conscious about his illiteracy,” according to Jacinta. `lie knew that he had absolutely no chance m this world unless he made it as a boxer. So from a very early age, he was determined to make is as a boxer.
“He practiced night and day, and became very good. However, our father had been the escrima champion of Cebu, and he refused to teach Flash. In the Phillippines, fathers usually didn’t pass the art on to their sons.
“One day I said to Flash. `If you want to learn from dad, give him a couple of glasses of wine and get him happy. Then tease him; push him around a little. You’ll learn what he knows.
“So Flash would sit and talk with our father and serve him wine then he’d start teasing him. Our father would get up and defend himself and come at Flash using his escrima, and Flash noticed his intricate footwork, the way he’d angle his body’ how he’d seem to just float gently, then explode with power.
`This was the style Flash used in the ring. Quite often, other fighters couldn’t lay a glove on him. Of course, all of the great fighters came to watch each other fight, and pretty soon others were using Flash’s footwork. But no one was better at it than Muhammad Ali.”
Therefore, East truly did meet West in one of the most unlikely places, the boxing ring. It just might be that even today, when Holyfleld lays a challenger flat, whether or not he knows it, most of his technical skill originated in the rice fields of the Philippines.
Originally published in Inside Karate.