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He came from an era when challenges were a norm among escrimadores and disputes were settled with bloody bolo fights. At 69, Grandmaster Roberto Labaniego still actively teaches, “I still instructs multiple students at a time.I can still conduct long classes, I don’t get tired easily but I have to stop when my students were already exhausted,” he narrated with pride.
Labaniego looks deceptively frail but moves with explosive vigor and power. The strength of his legs evident in his deep stances would be an envy of many men half his age. He said he doesn’t indulge in any vices, which explains his robust health.
Labaniego started training in escrima at the age 12 under the tutelage of his father. “I first learned the largo mano style, which was the style of my father,” he said, continuing, “In the olden days the styles that were commonly taught were largo mano, cinco teros and espada y daga. The other styles like de cuerdas came in a bit later.” He later on decided to focus on espada y daga.
Labaniego’s organization is now known as Eskrima Labaniego, “It was formerly known as Top Labaniego Arnis Club,” he said.
Labaniego is also a friend and former student of the late Grandmaster Benjamin Luna Lema, the founder of Lightning Scientific Arnis. Both masters are natives of Capiz, Panay Island. It was through Lema that he refined his espada y daga techniques.
Like other styles of escrima, Labaniego explained that his system has its own fundamentals. He said that the core of Eskrima Labaniego is its 14 strikes and 12 methods. “The essence of the system is in those 12 methods.
Though there may be slight variations, all the advance techniques will emanate from those 12 methods,” Labaniego emphasized.
He said that a thorough understanding and solid grounding on the basics are essential to teach the art effectively. “If, for example you say you know method no.1, then you’ve got to be able to know how to explain it in terms of attack and defense and how it would apply against the tactics of other styles.
Labaniego said that he met some foreign practitioners of escrima who were at a lost when their styles were fitted against the tactics of other systems. He opined that if that’s the case, then your study of escrima is useless.
While the mode of his escrima practice is espada y daga, Labaniego said that he favors no particular weapon when fighting for real. He encourage escrima practitioners to “walk the talk,” saying, “If you profess that you’re style is espada y daga, then you better be really good at it.”
He has fond recollections of Lema, the man from whom he learned espada y daga. Pertaining to deadly encounters they’ve experienced, he narrated, “We sometimes found ourselves in tight spots but we never left each other. He even stayed in my house for a time. We were really good friends.”
Despite his close association with Lema, Labaniego said he refused to receive any rank from Lightning Scientific Arnis. In his system, he opted to follow the traditional way where a practitioner is either an instructor or a student.
“In our province in the old days, when an escrimador began teach, he was merely addressed as “maestro,” he said.
Labaniego opined that he doesn’t believe in adapting a ranking system in escrima reasoning that it is something borrowed from foreign martial arts like karate.
He also laments the fact that some practitioners were not worthy of the rank they’re holding, “I can tell it just by looking at the way they’re holding their weapons,” he said.
Labaniego has used his martial art several times for real. “I had several fights against bladed weapons when I was in the province but I was never once wounded,” he attested.
In one incident, a fight broke out after a neighbor’s stray carabao ruined his family’s ricefield, “We were the offended party but it was our neighbor who got angry,” Labaniego narrated, adding, “A fight with bolos followed and it ended after I disarmed my opponent.” He said that he didn’t kill the guy because his mother and sister began crying.
In the city, Labaniego once disarmed a man with a gun and an ice pick-wielding attacker.
“The man didn’t know how to point a gun correctly so I have no trouble disarming him,” he said. The second encounter occurred after a thug attacked his uncle with an ice pick.
The account indicates that Labaniego possesses tremendous hand strength, an attribute common to escrimadores, “The ice pick was bent because of the force of my disarming technique,” he related.
Though renowned for his fighting prowess, Labaniego attested that he didn’t possess an anting-anting, an object of magical powers that was part of study of escrima in the olden days.
He said that he witnessed the power of oracion in bolo hacking rituals and was invited several times to join anting-anting groups but he firmly declined.
Pertaining to the rituals and taboos associated with the ownership of an anting-anting, he said, “I don’t want anything restricting my life, I want to go freely to whatever place I want to go.”
Labaniego is happy that the Arnis Bill is now a law. He is among the masters accredited in the consultation process being done by the government to create a unified version of arnis to be taught in Philippine schools.
He encourages all Filipino escrimadors to unite for the endeavor and to just respect each other’s styles.
He bemoans the fact that many of his countrymen are still not aware that the Philippines has an indigenous system of self-defense, “I hope that they would eventually patronize our very own martial art,” he concluded.