Ben Largusa – The Filipino Martial Arts

Ben Largusa
By Dan Inosanto – The Filipino Martial Arts 1980

Ben Largusa separates himself from the title of Escrima master. He is a man of Kali, the older Filipino art. Kali is the source from which all Escrima styles developed.

“Escrima, Arnis, Sikaran, Silat, Kuntao, Kaliradman, Kalirongan an Pagkalikali are all phases of Kali,” says Largusa, “but Kali is the mother or ancestral art. These phases are all part of our training.”

“Ben Largusa is a master because of his skill and knowledge,” says Dan Inosanto. “If you don’t know him, it’s hard to draw anything personal out of him, but movement wise – can’t touch him.”

Largusa gets his movement from his instructor, Floro Villabrille, the most commonly repeated name among the Escrimadors in Stockton. Villabrille lives in Hawaii and Largusa, who was born on Kauai, studied under him for six unbroken years in the fifties. He has maintained contact with him to become his foremost protégé.

Largusa now has a school in South San Francisco with a system of ranking and a curriculum that is geared to span three years. If the student is active and learns what he is taught, he may then qualify to teach. According to Largusa, it is the first time Kali has been organized commercially and the school has Villabrille’s blessing.

A class in Kali at Largusa’s school begins with “Orascion” or meditation and a kind of non-partisan prayer. Largusa makes a point of saying that neither the prayer nor the meditation are used to teach any brand of religion.

“I just teach the basics and they communicate whatever they want,” he says. “If you’re a Christian, they you communicate with the heavenly Father. If you’re not a Christian, then you communicate with whatever you believe, supernatural spirit or spirit of light. It is the spirit of giving that is exercised in this meditation. You have to be humble. You have to give before you can take, especially when you train.”

After the orascion, beginners learn the 12 basic movements of Kali with a stick in each hand. Then they learn five variations or styles to each of those movements: “Numerado” style for infighting, “Literada” {otherwise called riterada or retreating style} for outside fighting, “Sumbrada” which is a fast-paced counter for counter style, and “Fraile” and “Cabisedario” that are combinations of the previous styles. The double sticks may be round or flattened to resemble a sword. The flattened sticks serve as a reminder that Kali is adaptable to any kind of weapon, bladed or blunted, and one edge of the flattened stick is used like a blade. Using a stick in each hand helps the student develop his weak side by immediately relating it to the movements of his strong side. He in effect becomes ambidextrous with his weapons and by shortening his weapon, he soon learns that the art works just as well empty-handed. All in all, the training not only makes the person ambidextrous in terms of hand movements, but in terms of weaponry as well.

The Kali people often use the circle to organize their hand and foot movements. A defending Kali man, for instance, may step around his opponent to position himself in “safety zones.” These safety zones are places where the opponent has either not had time to gain momentum in his strike, a zone that would jam his strike before it begins, or where his strike has reached the end of its motion.

The end of every movement in Kali is the beginning of another movement. “DeCadena” or chain-like movements where each is connected to the next is what gives Kali its fluidity.

According to Largusa’s descriptions, the basic concepts of defense in Kali have three elements: the parry, the safety factor and the killing blow. The parry is the motion that deflects the opponent’s strike. The safety factor is the checking motion that holds the opponent’s striking hand in place after a strike has been deflected. The killing blow is the counterstrike, but it may occur after the parry and safety factor or during either one. The Kali men train to be able to insert the killing blow or counterstrike at any time in the clash.

“Killing blow” may be a misnomer because, according to Largusa, the ultimate philosophy in Kali (at least as he practices it) is to discourage, not injure, and to spare life, not take it.

“If we wanted to kill the person,” says Largusa, “if we were convinced that our lives were threatened, then we would go to the vital area, the head, to the mind or its supporters, the lung or heart. But the ultimate in Kali training is when you can spare a man’s life. Only then have you learned the purpose of Kali training.”

“A rattlesnake can kill, right? If you take off the fangs, it still looks deadly, but it cannot kill. In Kali,” says Largusa, “a hand is considered a fang. If you take away the hands , it cannot pick up a gun or a weapon and kill you. People who are not familiar with Kali see us strike to the hands and say it’s not deadly, but they don’t realize until they learn Kali how deadly it is and why we strike to the hands.”

While explaining his concept of training the students to strike the hand, Largusa also demonstrates how easily the target may be adjusted when necessary. Since the hand is smaller and more elusive than the head or body, it would seem that training against the hand for a target would only sharpen a student’s accuracy. In incidents such as defending against a nunchaku with a stick, the hands actually move much slower than the weapon and, therefore, are easier to hit. Seeing the kind of speed possible in both Escrima and Kali, some might wonder if trying to follow the hand wouldn’t be dangerous thing to do in any kind of combat. How so you follow five strikes that take place almost simultaneously if you’re trying to follow them each time? This is where Largusa brings out the concept of the rhythm triangles in Kali.

“It has been proven in boxing,” he says, “that the hands are faster than the eye. If you shoot six darts at me at once, I can’t defend against each one, so I treat them as one dart. If you throw three of four punches at me fast, I treat them as one punch. They are only one point of your rhythm triangle. Once you understand the theory of the rhythm triangle, you can understand these movements.”

The triangle, like the circle, is a key to understanding Kali. The rhythm triangle is pictures with the mind at the top of the triangle and the hands feet at the other two corners. Knock out any one of them and you’ve seriously hampered, if not completely negated the opponent’s ability to fight. The mind here is at the top because it affects both the hands and feet.

Another example of the triangle explaining a principle of Kali is the “internal triangle.”

“The internal triangle is pictured like the rhythm triangle,” says Largusa. “The mind is at the top. On one side is ‘ki,’ the seat of internal strength, and on the other side is the point of contact. If you hit the back of the feet, the ki will weaken. Like the old saying, kill the bark and the tree will die. This is the same process.

“Without this spiritual and mental aspect one moves mechanical, like a robot, no feeling and no meaning. Orascion {meditation} is very important because it makes the mind stronger. It develops the fighting spirit, what we call plain old ‘guts.’ Now with Kali spiritual training, one doesn’t have to be born with guts, it can be developed.”

The highest level of Kali training then would be the universal triangle. Here the supernatural spirit is at the top, communicated with by orascion. The practitioner and his opponent are on the bottom corners.

Supernatural spirits, sticks and blades, fighting with weapons and empty hands – all of this leads to the inevitable question, always asked off to the side. Does anyone ever get hurt? Largusa says he has never received any injury in all his years of training. They keep injuries at a minimum in his school by teaching “slow training,” a theory related to the yin and yang of Kung Fu or Karate.

“Our philosophy,” he says, “is soft but hard, hard but soft. When you train slowly, speed comes automatically. With soft training, hardness comes automatically. We have very slow training in the beginning so they can correct the finer points and develop finesse. When we go fast, we use either the light rattan stick or the plastic baseball bat and go to the non-vital areas such as the trunk and between the joints to prevent injuries.”

Largusa’s school now has just under 40 students who are slowly working their way up the ladder of the ranks. When they’re ready for a promotion, Largusa gives them a test. The test includes “sayaw,” the dance form that kept Escrima and Kali hidden from the Spaniards in the Philippines. Largusa teaches 20 or more sayaws that the students are supposed to be at random either to the beat of a drum or with their own imagined rhythm. Within the sayaws are the 12 basic movements of Kali as well as all the defensive movements, counters, strikes and footwork patterns.

He also teaches sets, similar to Kata in Karate but labels them into two categories: planned and freestyle. The planned set is as it sounds with the movements planned in sequence, mainly for the beginners. The freestyle set, However, employs anything the student has learned and is more similar to shadowboxing.

All considered, Largusa’s school is probably the most organized and commercial Filipino arts academy found in the United States. To some Escrimadors, commercializing a school for the public use means that the art is being watered down and “frozen” to keep it organized and palpable to the public consumption. But people who have seen Largusa’s students work, and particularly Largusa himself, always seem to come to the same conclusion: “You can’t hit ‘em with a 10-foot pole.” That’s got to say something.