Tuesday, May 30, 2006


Chapter 2


I finally got to train in a commercial karate school a couple of years before I immigrated to the United States. The school was a branch of the “Philippine Combat Karate Judo Association” or “PHICKAJU” for short. It was located in a commercial building in the heart of Cubao in Quezon City, a suburb of Manila, and its core instruction included shorin-ryu (Latino Gonzalez style), Kodokan judo and arnis. Its clientele ranged from high school students to law enforcement officers to bouncers and personal bodyguards. I still have my original PHICKAJU I.D. #5452 signed by the chief Instructor, , Ranie P. Henson, 4th Dan Black Belt.

There was one word to describe the training there—brutal. To begin with, classes were for two hours in the tropical heat without air conditioning. The first half hour was for warm-up (as if we needed it) and conditioning, after which time everyone would be sopping wet. Training was on a cement floor, which at some spots would be rough, chipped or uneven, sometimes wet and slippery, and at all times punishing on unshod feet. Instructors regularly hit students in the stomach. One of their favorite tricks was to hook a kick (using the heel) to an unsuspecting student’s stomach from behind him This physical contact was not meant to hurt a student but to remind him gently to tense his stomach muscles upon delivery of a technique, and to maintain his balance. I went to a morning class and was fortunate to have a young, tough but easygoing instructor named Morris Dolores.

There were two kinds of sparring—“controlled” and “uncontrolled.” They actually used these English words to differentiate the sparring. “Controlled” meant you could deliver medium contact kicks or punches anywhere below the neck and above the belt. “Uncontrolled” meant full contact blows to the same area. Some of you are probably thinking, “That’s not so bad.” I hasten to mention that, at this time in ancient history, protective equipment was unheard of—that’s right, not even a cup or a mouthpiece. Quite frequently, a blocked punch got deflected to the face, and an errant kick into the groin.

Which brings me to two sparring stories. While I was “uncontrolled” sparring one time, I took a kick to the stomach. The bad news was the kick was thrown full force, and it hit me a couple of inches below the belt line. The good news was, I tensed my stomach muscles upon impact (as trained), felt minimal pain and stayed on my feet with no ill effects. A few minutes later, though, I tasted blood in my mouth. I was convinced I was bleeding internally and my young life would ebb and end on that concrete arena. When I sat down after sparring, the guy next to me said, “You have a split lip.” You can’t imagine how relieved I was to have a split lip. As they say in Tagalog, not to worry, “malayo sa bituka” (it’s far from the vitals).

The second sparring story is about the young cigarette vendor who peddled his goods at the entrance of the building of the dojo. For those who never been to the Philippines, cigarette vendors are those itinerant daredevils who carry their wares in an open box and sell individual sticks of cigarettes, gum or candy to pedestrians and passing motorists, oftentimes jumping in and out of speeding jeepneys and busses.

Anyway, this particular cigarette vendor told me he used to be a student at the school. When I asked why he quit, he stuck out his left arm to show me. His hand, instead of being on the same plane as his forearm, was at a 90 degree angle, and the wrist area was withered and scarred. Using a downward block, he had blocked a front kick thrown by Chief Instructor Rannie Henson during an uncontrolled sparring match, and the kick shattered his wrist. Either the doctors botched the job, or I suspect that he was too poor to get the proper medical attention.

Finally, there was the matter of belt promotions. PHICKAJU was member of a shorin-ryu confederation named “Siete Pares Association” which convoked its seven schools every year for belt promotions and, somewhere along the way, some camaraderie and brotherhood. For the belt promotions, the usual kata and self-defense requirements were easy enough. Sparring was an entirely different story, however. Seven candidates from the different schools squared off against each other, not one on one, but one against everybody else. In other words, when it was your turn, all you had to do was spar (uncontrolled, of course) against six other high-strung, adrenaline-pumped karatekas from other schools out to impress the judges, their senseis, their schoolmates, the other school members, as well as any casting agents who happen to be around.

To this day, I do not know what enabled me to survive that test with just minor bruises, not even a split lip. I wish I could say it was superior skill. Right. Most probably either luck or fear. But I would like to think that, after years of arduous training, I had developed into a real karateka in a real, hardcore karate school in the Philippines.

This was my last dojo before I left for a new life and uncertain future in the United States. Little did I know that my martial arts education with Filipino masters was far from over.


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