While the principles and techniques of the Filipino martial arts (FMA) are efficient and practical, they may not work in actual combat unless the fighter possessed the necessary physical and mental attributes to apply them. The FMA have many aspects but for the purpose of this discourse, let’s just focus on stick and sword fighting.

The very first technique taught to most students of the FMA is the counter strike to the opponent’s weapon hand. The principle behind this technique is sound and simple – you take away your enemy’s ability to wield a weapon and you render him harmless.

But this technique – better known as “defanging the snake” – is easier said than done. Scoring a solid hit on the weapon hand is easy if you’re practicing against a lifeless dummy but not when you’re fighting a live opponent who’s also trying to hit you.

The ability to score a hit on anatomical targets within striking distance requires highly developed combat attributes like speed, reflex, spatial judgement, accuracy, power and fighting spirit.

A target may present itself but with slow hand and footwork you will miss it. Same thing could happen if you miscalculate the distance between you and your target.

If you lack power, your opponent can ignore your hits and press on with his attacks. And then you may have speed, power, good spatial judgement and a mousetrap reflex but if you lack courage or the heart to fight you may freeze in the middle of combat.

It is because of highly developed combat attributes that old-school masters can fight so well with so few techniques. Take for example the cinco teros (literally five strikes) style endemic in Luzon, anybody can learn those five strikes in one session but use them in a fight like a master does?

No. At this point, it is good to compare FMA to western boxing. Western boxing has a small arsenal of techniques: the jab, the cross, the hook and the uppercut. Again, anybody can mimic the basic movements of these techniques but to apply them in a real boxing match like Manny Pacquiao does is an entirely different story.

I’m not saying that techniques are not important. They are important – in fact, proper and frequent practice of techniques will develop certain attributes. In the end, one would realize that it is not the number of techniques one knows but how well you can use the ones you know that matter.

There is nothing wrong with learning or developing many techniques so long as the practitioner knows the difference between practice and reality. The goal to strive for is to become functional not fancy. Needless to say, perfection of basics should precede experimentation.

Regardless of what kind of martial art one practices, chances are you would revert back to your perfected basics when fighting for real. On this, I want to quote Aldo Nadi (1899-1965), who ranks among the greatest fencers of all time, “In a duel, the fencer is compelled to execute an ultra-careful form of fencing which, indeed, is an almost unworthy expression of the vast science he knows. No matter how courageous and great, the all-out movements with which he nearly always scores in a bout would be unthinkable in a duel, because far too risky (On Fencing, 1943).”

Physical attributes are easier to develop than mental and spiritual attributes. In the former, all you have to do is subject the body to progressive drills and the desired results would come without fail. Not so with the latter.

The development of fighting spirit is linked to deep spirituality, which is the reason why traditional FMA masters who have experienced mortal combat are often very religious. For in those days when dueling with swords and sticks were still legal, a fighter must regularly confront the possibility of taking another person’s life as well as his eventual demise.

This is particularly true in knife fights when only one of the combatants would get out of the encounter alive. It is for this reason that I consider fighting with the blade the highest expression of the FMA and something that is not for mass consumption. To me, teaching knife fighting without spirituality is creating potential criminals.

In comparison with other martial arts traditions in Asia that employ sophisticated systems of meditation to train the mind cope with fear, the Filipino fighters of yore were taught to achieve the same in a sink-or-swim manner. A part of an article on the late FMA legend Leo Giron, published in Dan Inosanto’s book “The Filipino Martial Arts” reads, “Giron recalls one of his training sessions with the sergeant, following a near fatal incident in a Japanese ambush.

‘When he saw I was nervous he said, ‘Take your bolo knife and we’ll do some training. Don’t worry about hurting me because I’ve been fighting for a long time. Cut me anytime you can. If you touch me, you’ll get a month’s pay.’ That’s the way you learned in those days.”