Interview with Kali Master Ama Guro Jun de Leon

Kali Master Ama Guro Jun de LeonInterview with a true Filipino master: Guro Jun de Leon

Interview conducted by Ajarn Nick Hewitson

(1) When did you start your martial arts training?

As far as Filipino Martial Arts are concerned, I started my “formal” training in 1966 in Far Eastern University in the Philippines under Grandmaster Lamberto Ticsay. But before that, I received informal and much more painful lessons as a child from my grandfather, who was a practitioner of the estocada system and from GM Pinong Mayuga, a training partner and student of GM Ben Lema of the Lightning Scientific Arnis system.

I also trained in a variety of other martial arts that wasn’t indigenous to the Philippines. To answer your question, I started my martial arts training 4 decades ago, I am still learning and I continually search for teachers to learn from.

(2) Who were your teachers?

In the Filipino martial arts, I studied formally and informally with various instructors, among these teachers were Grandmasters Lamberto Ticsay, Ilongo fighting master Mr. Maning Recto, Grand Tuhon Leo Gaje and Guro Dan Inosanto. In other Martial Arts, I received a Shotokan black belt from Sensei Oscar Datiles, my Shorin-Ryu (Nidan) black belt from Sensei Rolando Gonzales, a brown belt in Judo from Sensei Marcelo Hernandez, Muay Thai training from Kru’s Ed and Eric Advincula, who are certified under Thai Master Tong Trithara in Springfield, Missouri and Wing Chun training from Sifu Stephen Law.

(3) Did you ever compete in competition?

Yes. While at Far Eastern University, I was on the arnis team and did represent the school in various arnis competitions.

(4) I understand that you were challenged many times to duels, can you tell us about them, as I understand that in the Philippines many of these matches end in death and serious injury?

In my youth, I was challenged a few times to duels and accepted them. The two that stand out are my duel with GM Ernesto Presas of Kombatan and Eliseo Javelosa, an arnis expert who ironically worked as a guard at Far Eastern University, Philippines. The one with GM Ernesto Presas ended as a draw when we both acknowledged that we were evenly matched. We became friends after that.

During my confrontation with Mr. Javelosa, the opportunity to strike his hand passed. Fortunately, he had moved within the medium range and was in an awkward position to counter my attack. In an instant I had struck his head.

GM Lamberto Tiksay stepped in and concluded the match. I approached him after that event to settle the matter and we became good friends as well. While many duels do end in serious injury, very few actually involve death. The nature of stick combat, without helmets and padding, is usually done at the long range, the ‘largo’ range and the usual tactic involves going after the hands the moment it comes within your reach. Once a person is injured and cannot continue, the match usually ends.

You have to remember that Filipinos are very family oriented and their first consideration is providing for, and protecting their families. The Philippines doesn’t have the social safety nets that western countries have to look after those left behind. One of my teachers, GM Maning Recto, became famous for his duel in 1941 against Moises Padilla. The match lasted only a few minutes and ended when Mr. Padilla became too injured to continue fighting. Deaths do occur. Only a few years ago, someone died in a match in Negros. The winner is still in prison. Despite what you may hear about lawlessness in the Philippines, killing someone, liability waiver or not, is always very serious, and rightly, will be punished severely.

(5) What brought you to Canada?

The same thing that brought every other Filipino here and overseas, better opportunity both for myself and my family.

(6) How long did it take you to develop the Kali Deleon system?

It’s continuously being developed. It’s a compilation and exploration of techniques, training methodology, and physical and psychological approaches to combat that arose out of my experiences at home in the Philippines as well as experiences with other teachers and masters since the early 70’s. For the longest time I just called it Arnis de Mano. But because my students had been pressuring me to give what we do more identifiable label, I just decided to called it Kali Deleon methodology. As I said, it’s still being developed. The Kali Deleon of even a few years ago is different from Kali Deleon today. Kali Deleon is always evolving to reflect the dynamic nature and reality of martial arts. At the same time we hold on to the traditions of Filipino culture – respect and honor to all those we have strong relations with (Kali DeLeon is a family, first and foremost).

(7) What are the main differences between Kali Deleon and other Filipino systems?

A question like this is unfair to both my system and other Filipino systems, in that it would pigeon hole me into set characteristics, when my system is constantly and continually evolving, and it would caricature other systems instead of describing them accurately. Let’s just say that all systems have their strengths and weaknesses. Kali Deleon is a system and is built around basic weapons movements and fundamental body structure and movement. Technically there is very little difference with other systems. We train to bring out the potential in each individual student. The objective and training methodologies in Kali DeLeon is always focused on producing quality FMA practitioners while enhancing the quality of the art.

(8) Is there a lot of rivalry amongst the Filipino systems as to who is the best?

This just doesn’t exist between Filipino martial arts systems. Filipinos by nature are competitive with each other. To answer your question, yes, there are a lot of rivalries between systems and a lot of it is just based on politics or personality differences. This is more the case in the Philippines than it is outside the Philippines.

(9) I know that Guro Dan Inosanto is very prominent in the promotion of the Filipino arts. Have you had anything to do with him?

I have had the honour of training under Guro Dan Inosanto on many occasions. I’ve actually sponsored his seminars to Canada many times and always found that I learned a great many things from him.

(10) Could you explain the differences between, Kali, Escrima and Arnis?

Same difference as Visa and MasterCard. Same thing, different names. Kali, until recently was a name rarely used in the Philippines. Arnis was the term used in most of the Philippines, and Eskrima (or escrima) was popular in Cebu. Lately the term kali is becoming popular because it is a term that doesn’t have some of the self-limiting connotations affecting “arnis” and “eskrima” as only stickfighting. Kali is seen as a more all encompassing term that includes empty hands, grappling and bladework.

(11) I understand that most Filipino systems are weapons based, knife, stick, and machete. So are Kuntao and Panuntukan simply the unarmed versions of those same arts?

More or less, depending on the Kuntao or Panuntukan system you’re talking about. It would probably be more accurate to say that Panuntukan is the empty hands striking aspect of FMA systems, with movements that reflect its blade based roots. Kuntao is a synthesis of Filipino Arnis/Eskrima/Kali based systems and either Chinese or Silat approaches. It also has a weapons component, though not the primary one as in arnis.

(12) What are your favorite techniques?

Being a teacher who constantly espouses the need to learn the totality of skill sets and techniques, I hesitate to promote some techniques over others. Honestly, it depends on my mood, my opponent, the circumstances, etc. The techniques I would use against an agitated but elderly family member over a family squabble, would be different from the techniques I would employ against an agitated drugged out psychopath on the street, and would still be different from what I would use against a finely honed, skilled athlete on the competition floor. Luckily Kali DeLeon is based around three principles: Laging-Una (strike first), Tikbang (continuous striking on the half-beat), and Agos (ability to flow and adapt). These three principles either alone or in conjunction with the other two principles can be used in any circumstance.

(13) What gets you mad about the martial arts (insufficiently trained people promoting their abilities beyond their actual skills) teaching potentially fatal disarming techniques?

Speaking specifically about FMA, I get agitated when I don’t see the Filipino Martial Arts presented well. It’s a reflection of our culture and as a Filipino I want to see my culture and heritage presented as well as it could be. Teachers teach what they know, and if you don’t know very much, that’s what your students will get. People shouldn’t be teaching if they only know enough to hurt themselves. Imagine how much worse their students will be. With empty hand arts, there is some leeway, in that mistakes probably won’t be as fatal. There is much less margin for error, when compared to weapons.

(14) If you hadn’t taken up the Filipino arts which martial art most appeals to you?

I love every art, from Muay Thai to Tai Chi. They can all give us so much.

(15) I understand that you have been in recent years doing a lot of work with the US marines, could you give us some of the background to this and how you became involved.

For the past few years I have been invited by Grand Tuhon Leo Gaje to help him teach both U.S. and Filipino marines in the Balikatan joint military exercises in the Philippines. It is especially an honour for me in that I am the only instructor there who is not, strictly speaking, and a Pekiti Tirsia stylist. We teach all aspects of the Filipino arts, from sticks, to blades, to striking and grappling. All from a combat perspective of course. Last February 2004 Guro Romelle Espiritu and I taught the Special Action Force (SAF) Commando Unit of the Philippines.

(16) With stick and knife techniques being so dynamic, have you not thought of using your skills in movies, besides you looking like a young Yul Brunner?

Maybe I should audition next time they have an opening for The King and I? In fact, Kali Deleon has been featured in many movies and television shows. A list would include the recently released Chronicles of Riddick, Mutant X, Relic Hunter, To Catch a Thief and The Famous Jet Jackson. I’ve personally appeared in Relic Hunter. Many of my students are stuntmen and fight choreographers and they’ll agree with you about the dynamic nature of the skills being both attractive and applicable to movies and television.

(17) Is it true that you used to sport and Afro and that’s the reason that you’re so good at fighting now?

No, never an afro. Though I used to have a mullet. LOL. My hair was wavy not that long ago. Then I took my school to compete in the WEKAF championships in Carson, California. The style of fighting there wasn’t what we teach at my school, so I really doubted if my students would do well or not. I told them that if any of them won a gold, that they could shave my head. Well, I was already Yul Bryner the first night of the competition. I’ve looked this way since. Really saves on the cost of shampoo.

(18) Do any of your family members take an interest in martial arts and have they all been in training from an early age.

I have two lovely twin daughters and they have been training off and on since an early age. I say on and off because I want them to do what they want, and I don’t want to be one of those dads who force his kids to do something just because he does. Coincidentally, my lovely wife Tetchie began joining my classes about five years ago and she has become a very skilled and dedicated practitioner of the FMAs.

(19) I understand that you want to promote your system worldwide, do you have a training program for interested instructors to follow, or does it require them to spend a prolonged period with you to learn the techniques correctly in the same way that Dan Inosanto trains JKD instructors in his system.

My approach has very little to do with the accumulation of techniques. Our knowledge is passed on one on one, myself and other senior students, have to train you personally to make sure that your movement is correct and in line with the few basic principles that make up KDL. This takes time and lots and lots of repetition. I require that my students attend class regularly so they learn properly. I don’t want guys who show up every few months or twice a year. They don’t learn anything that way. Granted, this isn’t the best approach if I want to build a worldwide network. Fact is, I’d rather have a few very good students than a lot of mediocre students.

(20) I understand that you are highly involved with the World Kobudo Federation, has that helped to get you more international exposure.

Yes it has. Because of this connection I’ve been able to spread Kali Deleon to different parts of Europe and the United States. Soke Richard Morris of Jiu-Jitsu International is a great help in exposing Kali DeLeon in London, England and part of Europe.

(21) Have you learned to speak French since our introduction to french late night tourism in Annecy some years ago.

As long as my students can speak Tagalog (the national dialect of the Philippines), we’re okay. Besides I know enough French to survive in Toronto.

(22) Have you ever had to use your skills to protect yourself since leaving the Philippines?

Not since my younger days back home.

(23) Are you a very protective father when it comes to your daughters?

You should ask them. But honestly, protectiveness is part cultural, and part natural. Any father is protective of his daughters. It just seems to stand out more when that father has dedicated much of his life to perfecting and teaching martial arts, especially weapons skills.

(24) Are you working on any projects at the moment, books, video’s etc.

Actually, I do have a video project in the works right now. My student in the Philippines, Roland Isla is currently in the midst of editing instructional videos showing single and double stick fundamentals of Kali DeLeon. It will be in line with the new generation of martial art videos with multiple angles and technical aspects. We did the video shoot last January in the Philippines. I’ll tell you when it’s near completion.

(25) Do you hold any yearly training camps and how would someone go about attending?

We hold the annual Kali Deleon camp in a location just north of Toronto every June. Please check out our website www.kalideleon.com for details as well as photos of past camps. It’s a combination of lots of hard work, practice, joking around and story telling. Everybody always has a great time.

(26) Do you do many seminars in Europe, and who would be the person to contact to arrange one.

Again, check out our website www.kalideleon.com and go to the contacts page. You can contact me or my wife Tetchie and we’ll be able to help you. I occasionally do seminars in Europe and I always enjoy them and look forward to each one. Europeans have a wonderfully open mind when it comes to Martial Arts, they’re very easy to teach.