Sunday, February 18, 2007

A Circle Of Life

Yesterday was one of those experiences where life seems to complete a cycle and something goes “click”. This was at a seminar in San Leandro, sponsored by GM Max Pallens, featuring Kali Ilustrisimo master Christopher Ricketts and Lameco master Roger Agbulos.

Sometime a person has a live presence that one doesn’t get just from seeing a picture; when Christopher “Topher” Ricketts arrived, I felt I had already met him. Before I could say anything, he remembered me from the fight I had in the finals of the World Invitational Tournament in Manila in 1989, where I fought his student Miguel Zubiri!

It says something about my experience on that trip, being a bit overwhelmed trying to learn so many names and faces in a very short time, and not yet having a good enough frame of reference to know how the different styles and lineages were related. There were a number of people I met in the Philippines who in retrospect undoubtedly connected the dots between my teacher, his teacher, and their lineage. Specifically this is the link from Angel Cabales back to Felicissimo Dizon, who obviously influenced many others who have become famous in their own right.

I wish I’d known more of this at the time; clearly I was operating in the dark, whereas many whom I met grasped this connection immediately. In Cebu, grandmaster Vicente Carin pulled me aside at the inaugural WEKAF tournament to ask about my lineage, saying my style was different from everyone else at the tournament. I remember being impressed that he grasped the distinction, since it takes great depth of experience to appreciate nuances of style.

Later, in Manila, I had a similar conversation with grandmaster José Mena, but the light didn’t go on until a few years later when my Serrada senior Sultan Uddin spoke of his subsequent meeting with Tatang Ilustrisimo, where the grandmaster also recognized the movement of our style and connected the dots between the Cabales lineage and his own.

American culture is young in so many ways. This comparison is often made relative to Europe, but in martial arts, it applies equally well to the Orient. Compared to a lot of folks I meet in FMA, I feel experienced, but in the presence of those who come from the culture, I recognize my own naiveté, and age has nothing to do with it.

One cannot fake the authenticity that comes from growing up as a part of something, particularly when that is a larger culture which spawns the subset of which one is a participant. Skill is relative, and there are very talented FMA practitioners here in American and in Europe, but our underlying values and experience are different.

I wrote of this in the first article I ever wrote about my experience in the Philippines, and every encounter I have with experts who are native to the art only reinforce my sense that we can master the outer game, but the inner resources will always be ephemeral, something just beyond our grasp. It isn’t something we can acquire later in life, because our core values come from the environment in which we’re raised. The best we can do is being true to our own self, whatever path we choose to follow.
Back to my original theme, the “click” of recognition with master Ricketts through my fight in Manila immediately connected me to one of the highlights of my martial experience, bringing me back into the still-vivid memories of that day and warming me to the experience in the moment. This was reinforced as I watched his presentation of Kali Ilustrisimo, seeing live what I’ve gleaned through various media, that there is much in common with that art and Serrada. While the common line in FMA is “we have that too,” some styles give me a stronger sense of familiarity and connection than others, this being one in particular.

One thing that struck me was a sense of validation in my own growth in the art. There are things that I’ve explored and developed on my own based on internal sense of logical progression and studying footage of Angel, where he demonstrated things that were not necessarily taught explicitly. In watching master Ricketts, I saw him teaching those elements I had worked so hard to figure out. Serrada is in many ways a reductionist system; Angel taught us keys to understanding, saying it was up to us to unlock the doors. Kali Ilustrisimo doesn’t feel different to me, just presenting more clues to the art and validating my intuitions.

I also took advantage yesterday to ask Topher if he knew anything of my old friend Sylvestre “Ver” Abainza, a policeman who is also a world-championship caliber boxing referee, whom I met through his position in 1989 as chief referee for WEKAF. I stayed at Ver’s uncle’s house in Mandaluyang, and later Ver visited me in California. We lost touch after I moved and I’ve tried over the years to re-establish contact. I know Ver is still active in boxing circles, and I’ve come close to finding him through FMA and the Internet. Hopefully one day my search will reconnect us.

The second part of the seminar was Lameco Escrima, presented by Roger Agbulos. For those who’ve never met him, Roger is a funny guy with a wealth of information. An old acquaintance of mine, Steve Van Harn, quoted Silat master Mushtaq Ali recently when he said that Roger has “good Wa.” This is an Oriental expression that basically means “good face” or more to the point, “good energy.” Playing a bit of empty hands casually while standing off to the side was like fighting water. Roger is that smooth, and a delight to watch in action.

Finally, there’s the part GM Max Pallens plays in all this. I’ve been aware of Pallens’ martial arts for about 30 years now; he’s trained many top regional and national fighters, and his sons have earned world championships in karate and FMA. It was through his karate tournament in San Leandro in 1985, where I was competing, that I met grandmaster Angel Cabales. It just seems fitting that it was once again his event that put me in contact with master Ricketts. Without his efforts to promote the FMA over the years, I probably would not be writing this. I’ve thanked him in person; it seems appropriate to do so in writing too.

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