Master Santiago “Sonny” Umpad was born on June 26, 1948 in Bogo, Cebu, Philippines. As a young man, Sonny was exposed to and mastered the traditional Filipino martial arts of Eskrima; in his region the term “estocada” was also used to describe these arts. Sonny gave full credit to the Balintawak and Doce Pares systems, which made up much of his early training. When he went to the USA, he continued his training with Master Raymond Tobosa in the art of Villabrille Kali.
In the United States
Sonny settled in Northern California where he became acquainted with various masters from Stockton and the San Francisco Bay Area such as Angel Cabales, Leo Giron, Max Pallen and Gilbert Tenio.
Visayan Style Corto Kadena
Sonny created his own style in the late 1970s, called Visayan Style Corto Kadena / Larga Mano Eskrima. The style emphasizes dance-like flowing movements, speed, elusiveness and explosive power. The art is based on the blade, although sticks, empty hands and kicks are also used.
Sonny evolved his style through systematic study and analysis of various aspects of the Filipino martial arts. Thus there are certain phases that track Sonny’s research, which he synthesized into his own unique contribution to the art. Some of this progression can be seen in different generations of students, as Sonny himself was always evolving.
Sonny’s early format focused on doblecada, use of double sticks, where he began to attract attention through his unique innovations. His insights on leverage allowed Sonny, a slight man, to hit with tremendous speed and power from any angle.
He quickly became known for his centerline roll, which incorporated Wing Chun’s straight punch principle into a simple and unique method of double sticks that is “live”, meaning it does not rely on set patterns or left/right hand matchups to be effective. As students progressed, they moved from stick to blade, intensifying their training.
Always the creative investigator, Sonny worked during the late 1980s and early 1990s to define his sikaran, a Filipino style of kicking integrated for use with weaponry.
While his weapon and hand techniques draw strongly on Visayan styles, Sonny’s footwork was heavily influenced by Moros (Moro (ethnic group)) from neighboring Mindanao, using low stances and cross steps to control range and angles.
Low kicks attack and defend in conjunction with the weapon above and aim to cripple by hitting lowline targets such as joints.
During his later years Sonny focused his training and teaching most strongly on the blade, both sword and knife. The evasiveness of bladework refined the larga mano part of the art, which in turn contributed to working with cane and staff. In typical Sonny fashion, any of these can be used to transition fluidly from long to short range and back.
Sonny was a reclusive and humble man who taught small groups of students in his living room in order to devote sufficient attention to each student’s progress. Sonny occasionally taught seminars with his business partner, Sifu Jesse Glover.
Jesse, the first student of Bruce Lee, famously called Sonny Umpad “Bruce Lee with a stick” because of the speed and economy of his movement.
In fact, Sonny was chosen as the model to portray Bruce for making the Bruce Lee video game. Many of Sonny’s students in the Bay Area and Washington state came from backgrounds in Jun Fan/JKD, Kajukenbo and Wing Chun, as well as other Filipino styles.
In his last years Sonny made a couple of trips to Europe to teach at exhibitions in Switzerland and Germany, where he impressed people with his style.
As a result of the exposure he got later in his career, Sonny developed qualified teachers to spread his art into Switzerland and Germany as well as in California and Washington state.
Despite his reclusiveness, Maestro Umpad has been featured in several magazines and periodicals, has been the subject of a feature length documentary, and is a published author. Here is a short bibliography/filmography:
- Filipino Martial Arts Digest, Special Edition 2006 Title: Maestro Sonny Umpad, Visayan Corto Kadena, An endless process of self-development and cultivation, 61pages Publisher is Mr. Steven K. Dowd available at [www.fmadigest.com]
- Full length DVD entitled “The Grandfathers Speak, Volume 2 Maestro Sonny Umpad” Producer is Mr. Marc Denny and Directed/Edited by Mr.Ron Gabriel available at [www.dogbrothers.com]
- Full Contact Magazine, pages 40–45,Volume 1, Number 6, February 1995 Ancient Warrior in Today’s World, Interview with Sonny Umpad
- Balisong The Lethal Art of Filipino Knife Fighting 1986, 184pages, by Sid Campbell, Gary Cagaanan & Sonny Umpad, Paladin Press, Boulder Colorado ISBN 0-87364-354-2. (This book is still in publication)[www.amazon.com]
- Full length DVD entitled “Kelly S. Worden’s Streetwise Self Defense, Cable TV show starring Sonny Umpad, Live in Seminar.” NSI Headquarters,Tacoma Washington.Natural Spirit International Production.
- “The Art of Conversation: Random Flow Training in Visayan Corto Kadena Eskrima.” Maija Soderholm, B.Sc., Journal of Asian Martial Arts, Vol 13, No. 1, 2004.
- “The Visayan Eskrima of Sonny Umpad.” Steven K. Magness and Chris Suboreau, Inside Kung Fu Magazine, January 2009.
In conjunction with his martial art, Sonny was a master craftsman, hand making many artist-grade weapons for students and friends. He was among the first to create light, viable padded sticks for training, coming up with not one but several designs.
Other creations included knives, swords, spears, axes, whips and more, often made from common materials, based on both traditional and street weapons of the Philippines. Some of his students continue this tradition as well, designing and making weapons for use in training.
Finally, Sonny was keen to use modern technology. From early days he videotaped students’ classes, creating an archival history documenting his art. Additionally, he and his students were interviewed and filmed in 2006 for a video produced by the Dog Brothers, The Grandfathers Speak Vol. 2, Maestro Sonny Umpad.
Known for the graceful beauty of his movement, timing, speed and power, Sonny Umpad lost his final battle, passing away at home from cancer on August 24, 2006, at the age of 58.
He was able in his last few months to see different generations of his students come together as a community which is dedicated to propagating his art.