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Filipino Martial Arts and the Use of Empty Hands

The Filipino methods of empty handed fighting are inextricably linked to the use of weapons.

In the FMA, we make the concepts of movement abstract. In other words, instead of classifying everything separately, we focus on the common parts of the movement. For instance, a straight thrust with a stick (angle #5) is pretty much the same as a straight punch to the stomach. A #3 strike is almost identical to a hook punch, and a #4 is like a backfist. Sure, they aren’t exactly the same, but eskrimadors don’t feel it is necessary to quibble. In a fight, one automatically adjusts for opponents of different heights or reaches, and weapons with different capabilities, so it follows that one would also adjust an empty handed strike appropriately.

The same method applies to incoming strikes. A high backfist, backhanded weapon strike or hook punch can all come in on Angle #2, and therefore are dealt with in the same manner. Again we take allowances for reach of the weapon and other factors, but fundamentally, the basis of what we do doesn't change. We use the same defensive footwork, the strike is jammed, passed, or hit with limb destruction (gunting, see below), and the limb is trapped to prevent further strikes – pretty much standard procedure, armed or not.

Therefore, anything we do with a weapon is reflected in the empty-handed phase of the FMA. Rather than concentrating on the specifics of something, and instead using the generalities and commonalities of strikes both incoming and outgoing, it is hard to be caught without an answer.

Gunting: In English, the word means ‘scissors.’ In the context of Filipino Martial Arts, we use it to refer to a group of techniques used to injure the limbs of an opponent.  A typical gunting might consist of one arm parrying a punch, guiding the opponent’s knuckles into the elbow of the other arm. The result is smashed knuckles and a severely dissuaded opponent. In essence, the more fragile parts of an opponent’s limbs are made to impact against the stronger portions of your limbs.

Empty-handed, this relates to the weapons phase of the FMA in that we often try to disable the attacker’s arms, a concept referred to as ‘defanging the snake.’ If the snake loses his fangs, he isn’t nearly as much of a threat, likewise an attacker who can’t hold his knife. The only difference in approach is whether we use a machete or our elbows to do the job.


In this picture, the fighter on the left is standing in an defensive triangle, the fighter on the right in the offensive triangle.

Using the triangle as a basis for footwork training is very common in the Filipino Martial Arts.

(also note that they are both looking to deal out a gunting on the back of each other's fists)

Footwork: In a fight, it is common sense that one would do everything possible to avoid being hit by an attacker - even an untrained schmoe can land a shot that might end the fight for you. The same footwork that protects us from being hit by a weapon possessing range, mass, speed and possibly an edge is equally suited to avoiding a punch or kick.  

Again, we keep coming back to the commonality of the movements in FMA, whether using a long or short weapon, or no weapon at all.  So, in terms of footwork we apply the male (or attacking/offensive) triangle, and female (or defending/defensive) triangle.

With the attacking triangle, the FMA’er is standing at the base of the triangle, and his or her opponent is at the vertex as in the above picture.

To apply the footwork, one shifts a foot to one of the nearby corners, and then advances on the opponent along the side of the triangle. Although it is a simple concept (and easily applied), it works very well. The initial side movement gives the opponent a false impression of which way you are moving, as well as torqueing the body for a stronger strike on the unwind.

The defensive triangle is the obvious counterpart. Again referring to the above picture, the FMA’er stands at the vertex, and the opponent is at the middle of the base of the triangle. While parrying an incoming strike, one takes a step along either of the sides of the triangle, diffusing the force of the blow, and setting up a better position for the counterattack, which is delivered from the corner of the triangle to the opponent’s position on the base.

We want to incorporate footwork into any action because it either moves us away from that focused moment where the opponent’s weapon is at maximum velocity, or it moves us into the motion, to intercept it before it is up to full speed. Attacking or defending while standing directly in front of your opponent is just a sure-fire way of getting hit – better to angle off from centre.

There is a theory held by some that the Filipino empty-handed methods developed directly from double-dagger work. Held in an icepick/pikal grip, stabbing with a dagger is very similar to straight punching methods, and an inward slashing move across the face or belly translates very well to a hook punch. By no means is this a universally accepted theory, but it is indicative of FMA thinking – the hand is an impact weapon, just a very short, not terribly efficient one, and whatever you do with one weapon, you can usually do with a different weapon.

So what does the empty-handed phase of the Filipino martial arts look like? Mostly like a well-rounded form of kickboxing. You will see the same jab, cross, hook and uppercut, similar elusive footwork, and kicks. The latter, however, are delivered much lower than one is likely to see in a kickboxing match. In addition are throws, grappling, trapping, hammer fists, elbows and knee strikes to round things out. A common tactic is to throw an opponent to the ground, and then drop into a kneeling position on top of him, rise a few inches, and then drop with the knees again. These body-weight assisted knee strikes make the accompanying joint lock that much easier.

The kickboxing feel of it is more evident in the longer ranges. When things close up a bit, methods change as elbows and knees come into play, as well as attempts to control the opponent’s limbs.

Training for the empty hands parallels the weapon phases of FMA. Since, as the theory goes, there are common elements to the movements, working with weapons reinforces the empty hand work. The same drills get worked with sticks, knives, swords, hands and combinations thereof.  

One of the most common drills among the various different FMA systems is higot hubud lubud - typically thought of as a sensitivity exercise, but used in Siling Labuyo Arnis as a 'possibility generator'

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