The Birth of Filipino Boxing

The sport of boxing was brought to the Philippines by the Americans. It was initially practiced within American military camps in the country with the aim of promoting health and fighting resolve among servicemen.  Being natural fighters, the Filipinos quickly took boxing like ducks to water.

A remark by Frank Churchill, one of the earliest boxing promoters in the Philippines published in the article “The Origins of Philippine Boxing, 1899-1929” By Joseph R. Svinth (Journal of Combative Sport, July 2001), reads, “There were a great many ambitious Filipino lads who craved ring glory, even at the expense of a broken beezer or a vegetable ear. These boys would storm the club on Wednesday night, begging for a chance to go on.

Many of them didn’t have money enough to buy an outfit of ring togs, so we always kept a supply of trunks, shoes, etc., available for them. Lots of ‘em wouldn’t use shoes. They were accustomed to going barefoot and shoes cramped their style.”

Shortly thereafter, the unique way of Filipino boxing was born.

Fusion of Filipino Martial Arts and Western Boxing

Proponents of arnis-escrima during this period fully absorbed the fundamental arsenal of sport boxing as taught by the Americans namely jab, cross, hook and uppercut then grafted it in the framework of weapons fighting.

One Filipino fighter who had tested this hybrid method in actual competition was Lucky Lucaylucay, featured in the controversial article “Did the Filipino Martial Arts Revolutionize Boxing?” by Lilia Inosanto-Howe published in Inside Kung Fu Magazine.

The following are excerpts from Howe’s article: “Lucky Lucaylucay amateur boxing champion of Kauai and Honolulu, son of Buenaventura Lucaylucay, a Filipino immigrant who had become the professional boxing champion of Kauai and Honolulu. Lucky Lucaylucay saw the melding of Filipino martial arts and Western boxing firsthand. “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 Influence of Blade Culture on Filipino Boxing

It is good to note that the Philippines during the turn of the 20th century was primarily an agricultural country with a proud blade culture. Whether as a farm implement or a weapon of war, Filipinos during this period depended on the blade for survival.

It is not surprising then that the Filipinos’ affinity for the blade carried on as they embraced and excelled in the new sport of boxing.

A good case in point is the bolo punch whose invention was attributed to Filipino world boxing champion Ceferino Garcia, a native of Naval, Biliran who won the world middleweight title in 1939.

A cover of the September 1939 issue of The Ring Magazine features the Filipino fighter with the following caption: “Ceferino Garcia, Filipino Middleweight Contender and Master of the Bolo Punch.”

Garcia, who in his youth cut sugarcane in his native province, employed the same upward diagonal cutting motion of the bolo in creating the bolo punch.

Unique Characteristics of Filipino Boxing

Filipino boxing, which is a fusion of western boxing and Filipino martial arts (FMA) fighting concepts displays unique characteristics that differentiate it from standard sport boxing.

Many techniques of Filipino boxing resemble that of dirty or illegal boxing and therefore cannot be used in regular boxing competitions. However, they could be of potent use in street fighting or mixed martial arts competition.

The foremost distinguishing characteristic of Filipino boxing is that it considers the upper limbs (the length of the arms to the fists) as legitimate targets in addition to the legal targets in sports boxing. This is of course borrowed from Filipino blade fighting that treats the veins and arteries that run along the length of the arms as main targets.

Fighting with empty hands, limb destruction is accomplished by doing elbow wrenches as well as fist and elbow hits on nerve-rich areas.

One staple technique of Filipino boxing is to let your opponent’s fist collide with the tip of your elbow.

Another distinct attribute of Filipino boxing is the use downward blows and the sneaky employment of additional striking surfaces besides the fist and elbows like the forearms, biceps and shoulders. Headbutting is also extensively used.

All of the above techniques are also used in the dirty or illegal version of western boxing.

Mark Hatmaker, an author and an authority in western pugilistic and wrestling arts mentioned in his instructional video “Extreme Boxing” some similarity of tactics between western illegal boxing and Filipino boxing.  One technique that Hatmaker mentioned is the “popper” wherein the boxer from the clinch position pops a simulated punch behind his opponent’s head in an attempt to strike him on the side of the face either with his bicep or forearm. Poppers are used for distraction or as a transition for delivering a heavier blow.

Panuntukan: The Filipino Art of Boxing

Within FMA circles, Filipino boxing is known as “panuntukan”, whose etymology was derived from the word “suntok,” which is a Tagalog word for punch – “suntukan” means to trade punches.

I find it an amazing coincidence that the Filipinos’ initial acceptance of the sport of boxing done through the perspective of weapons fighting display strong parallels with how boxing was reintroduced in England after a long hiatus since the time of gladiatorial combat.

In “The Saga of the Fist” John V. Grombach wrote, “When fencing did come back in England, it was introduced by fencing masters. As a result, the boxing stance was made to approximate the fencing stance and to good effect. By that time, fencing had advanced to the point where the small sword or thrusting weapon was preferred to the broadsword or sabre.

The use of the straight thrust or lunge against any side sweep or slash had been developed. The principles of advancing, retreating, much of our modern boxing footwork and our straight punching came from fencing.”