History of the Martial Art Style of Kali

What's the connection between Kali and the Spanish conquistadores?

Filipino Martial Arts
Mark Lloyd Eden/EyeEm/Getty Images

Throughout Philippines history, the martial arts style Kali helped Filipinos defend themselves against invaders. It has also proven effective in knife and machete fights. The art has even been practiced by a variety of special forces units worldwide.

While Westerners refer to the Filipino Martial Arts (FMA) styles of stick and sword fighting as Kali, Filipinos refer to it as Eskrima (or Escrima). But one thing is certain: if you want to know how to use weapons to protect yourself and devastate an opponent, Kali is a very efficient way to go.

The History of Kali

The history of almost any martial arts style is difficult to pin down because written records usually fail to accompany their beginnings. Kali's history is no different. However, it is generally believed that the native Filipino styles associated with it were started by various tribes to defend themselves. It is also quite possible that these styles originally emanated from or were strongly influenced by martial arts from other areas, such as India.

Regardless, the documentation indicates that Filipino Martial Arts styles were used when the Spanish Conquistadores arrived in the 1500s and generally differed based on the tribe or area of origin. As was the case with many martial arts styles, the native practice of Kali or Eskrima was later hidden from the occupying Spaniards by disguising the practice in dances.

The presence of conflict in the Philippines has no doubt helped practitioners of Kali to find what truly worked in their art and discard much of what did not. In recent years, the practice has become more systemized, making it easier to learn.

During World War II, several American special operations groups stationed in the Philippines were introduced to the Filipino Martial Arts, leading to this style reaching America despite the fact that natives were reluctant to allow outsiders in on their fighting secrets.

Most recently, Kali practitioners in the Philippines have become somewhat focused on fighting without protection. Many died in the early phases of this movement, but more recently practitioners have begun to use hardwood sticks instead of knives to lessen fatalities. Further, the practice is now illegal in Filipino society, even if it is not unusual to find matches in parks and rural areas.

Characteristics of Kali

Kali focuses on the ability to transition from fighting with weapons to empty hands fluidly, as there is always the possibility of losing or being without a weapon. Though there are several systems of Eskrima/Kali in use today, most teach elements of weapons fighting, striking, grappling and throwing/ takedowns. More aggressive maneuvers like biting are also taught.

Kali practitioners believe that hand-to-hand combat moves are similar to those with weapons; thus, these skills are developed concurrently. Some of the popular combinations of weapons used are the single stick (solo baston), double stick (double baston), and sword/stick and dagger (espada). Along with this, the most frequently used training weapon is the rattan, a stick about the length of its wielder's arm.

In the end, Kali practitioners are known for their lightning-fast movements and efficient footwork in wielding weapons.

Basic Goals of Kali Martial Arts

Kali is primarily a weapons-based style of fighting. Thus, it involves inflicting bad, often fatal damage to opponents with the use of weapons and empty hand techniques as quickly as possible.

Sub-Styles of Kali

  • Balintawak
  • Cabales Serrada Eskrima
  • Doce Pares Escrima
  • Garimot Arnis
  • Inayan Eskrima
  • Kali Sikaran
  • Kalis Ilustrisimo
  • Lacoste-Inosanto Kali
  • Lameco Eskrima
  • Latigo y Daga
  • Lightning Scientific Arnis (LSAI)
  • Modern Arnis
  • Pekiti Tirsia
  • Rapid arnis
  • Sayoc Kali
  • San Miguel Eskrima

Three Famous Kali Practitioners

  1. Angel Cabales: Cabales is widely considered the Father of Eskrima in the United States. Along with this, he was the first to open a school in Stockton, Calif., that taught the art to both Filipinos and non-Filipinos.
  2. Leo T. Gaje: Gaje is the present keeper of the Pekiti-Tirsia Kali System. He is also an awardee of the Karate Hall of Fame (the only non-Karate Awardee) and Martial Arts Hall of Fame.
  3. Dan Inosanto: Inosanto is perhaps best known for learning Jeet Kune Do under Bruce Lee and for being the only person granted Instructorship under him. However, he's also very accomplished in the Filipino Martial Arts, as well as a plethora of others. In fact, he has helped to save some of the Filipino styles from extinction. Inosanto currently teaches at the Inosanto Academy of Martial Arts in Marina del Ray, Calif.