Filipino Martial Arts: Why We Don't Make the List
Updated: Apr 21
My friend Brian Johns at Bamboo Spirit Martial Arts wrote a great post called "The 10 Best Martial Arts".
He pointed out that the FMA's rarely make it to the top 10 best martial arts list you find on the web, and gave numerous examples (although I think he missed this list, where Filipino Martial Arts are #2 Six Great Martial Arts for Killing a Man with your Bare Hands).
He asked why that was:
Why? Is it because of: (1) Lack of branding? (2) Ineffective marketing? (3) The splintered nature of Filipino Martial Arts? (4) or a combination of one or more or all of the above?
I started to write a response on his blog, but it was too long (it's long for a blog post, too, really, but please, bear with me). I decided to write it here instead.
I agree with Brian 100%, and I wanted to expand on the topic a little bit.
First off, to Brian's point, nobody knows the Filipino Martial Arts exists. Really. We are out-marketed by the karate, TKD, BJJ, and Krav Maga crowds to the outside world - and even within the martial arts world, too.
It makes me think of the experience I had when I started the kobudo program in Texas.
A student in an organization where my teacher has been promoting the Filipino Martial Arts for years and years had no idea the FMA's even existed, and she's a very dedicated martial artist. She gave me a blank look when I said what I did, and she said, "I didn't know that was a thing."
We are very poor marketers, as a community. We don't do a good job cultivating content online, with a few notable exceptions, and while it's getting better, the vast majority of us do a poor-to-adequate job, especially compared to other martial arts communities.
This is a basic marketing problem. It's a simple solve, but just like Arnis is often simple, it doesn't mean it's easy.
It is our responsibility - yours and mine - to keep our arts alive, and pass it on to others. In the 21st Century, that means doing this work online as much as it means finding a place to teach and recruiting students (and this online work will help you with that, also). It doesn't mean you have to do ALL of those, but you have to do SOME - Facebook and a web site with a blog, for example, is not that difficult to do.
First, every single of of us should use free social media tools like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Tumblr, Pinterest, YouTube, MeWe, Minds, free web sites (like Wix or Weebly or Squaresite or Wordpress.org), blogging (again, lots of blog platforms are free), and every other online thing we can think of to promote what we do.
There is literally zero excuse for not doing this other than pure laziness or unwillingness to learn what you need to learn.
I don't want to hear "I can't figure out Facebook" or "I don't understand Twitter"- little old ladies do Facebook and Twitter, you can too, that's an excuse. There are hundreds of article out there - search "Best Practices" and the social media channel of your choice, and you'll hit tons of free help. If you are smart enough to forge yourself into the deadly martial artists you are, you can use free social media tools. If you are reading this, you know how to use the internet. It's not that hard.
You just have to remember this: bad marketing is better than no marketing at all. The simplest effort will totally amplify the fact that you exist, and help students find you.
The big exception to this is video (YouTube, Facebook video, Vimeo, etc.).
Please, guys, make decent video.
I used to run a "Motion Monday" feature on this blog and stopped because it was too difficult to find quality videos featuring the Filipino Martial Arts that didn't come from the same basic sources over and over again.
Good content, terrible presentation.
Decent video is defined as:
✔ Can I see what is happening?
✔ Can I hear if someone is talking?
✔ Is the video grainy and of very poor quality?
Your cell phone probably takes a good enough video to put online. The issue with sound can be fixed with an inexpensive lavalier microphone.
Friends, not marketing yourself and your Filipino Martial Art means that dorks like me with far less experience and skill than you have will end up being more well known. All because of marketing.
That's simply not right.
The fix for this is not me stopping what I do, although some of you out there might grouse that I have no right to do this blogging thing, and I guess that's a point of view you could have (not that it will stop me).
The fix is for the rest of us to step up their marketing game. We ALL contribute to getting the word out about the Filipino Martial Arts. I truly believe that if Professor Remy Presas were alive and starting out in the US today (versus the 70's), he'd be all over this stuff! You should be too!
We also have to be good at "tagging" our online work with the appropriate tags. I used to think Filipino Martial Arts/FMA was viable but now I don't think so. I think we need to use ALL of the terms "Arnis", "Kali", Escrima" and "Eskrima" (note the spelling variant) as much as we can.
Unfortunately, we just don't have a single "catch-all" name for our arts other than "The Filipino Martial Arts", which from a branding perspective - and I'm a marketer by trade - sucks. It's too many words, it's hard to say quickly, and when we abbreviate it, it could mean a lot of other things (for example, I've discovered on Tumblr the hashtag #fma also means "Full Metal Alchemist", an anime series, as well as "Filipino Martial Arts").
It would be so be awesome if the leaders of the various large FMA groups could get together and come up with a new catchy word that would cover all of us (preferably a short, easy to remember word) and would still be authentic FMA, like "karate" has come to be for all of the various JMA's even though many are in no way "karate" (hell, even TKD schools use "karate"!).
I don't hold out any hope that any of that will happen.
If you have room, include the tag "Filipino Martial Arts" when you can (it's not always practical due to space constraints).
Another issue we have is the fact that to most regular people, weapons are scary. And that is true WITHIN the martial arts community, as well as without.
Martial arts training appeals to, what, maybe at most 5% of the overall population? I'm not talking about the fandom of the martial arts - the LARPer and the marital arts movie buffs and the UFC fans that don't actually train, aka the "fanboys". I'm talking about people who actually step on a mat. 5% if we're being very, very generous.
When you do martial arts training with weapons, you get an increase the perceived risk of training injury, as well as turning off people who are not very interested in becoming lethal themselves (most people are not killers, after all, nor do they wish to be).
Most folks are not training for combat or to go to war - they have jobs and lives and aren't interested in actually hurting other people unless strictly necessary. Therefore, an even SMALLER proportion of the world is naturally interested in doing what we do, as we start with weapons training (and it is always a big emphasis in the FMA's) and we rarely talk about the other aspects of our studies.
That makes our ability to grow our arts and attract students double-tough.
It does not help that many other martial arts do not allow their students to study weapons until they have studied empty hand for many years. This is not something we can change, but it's something we need to be aware of - that the idea of weapons training being the "higher" skill set is already ingrained in the wider martial arts culture.
Heck, FMA's are often taught as a weapons add-on for upper level students in many martial arts schools teaching a base art from a different country's tradition. This at least keeps some visibility out there, which is better than none at all. This may be a way, if you are struggling to find a place to teach and students, to get your foot in the door of an established school with a different tradition.
We can do a few other things within our control, though. We can do more to talk up the empty hand, and to emphasize the safety precautions we take in training. Yes, I know some of us sneer at this as being nontraditional and "McDojoish".
Go ahead and sneer, and your art will disappear.
The FMA's were disappearing the Philippines, and today are still not as popular as TKD, Karate and Judo there. The FMA's modernized, so they wouldn't be lost in their home country to foreign martial arts, and one way they modernized was to make it safer for regular people to learn and enjoy.
I've taught a kids program as well as adults, and kids do just fine with rattan sticks (we use lighter 3/4" diameter sticks) and wear safety glasses (not required, but we like it as a precaution). I recommend that you use soft sticks and safety equipment (helmets at least) when you teach stick sparring, if you do (and if you don't, do, because it's super fun and EVERYBODY loves it).
I'm all in favor of the truly hard core stick fighting, mind you, but when that becomes the prevailing narrative of our art, it means that we'll get far, far fewer actually trying it. There's room for both.
We need to show how the modern FMA's are actually quite safe and accessible to normal, average people of all ages and stages of physical fitness (in my opinion, more so than many other arts, especially arts like BJJ). Our weapons and empty hand training together gives the student a well-rounded self defense education. Make sure to emphasize training with improvised weapons, which is something the FMA's excel with and something we see in popular media.
One point - the FMA's are rooted in lethality. We can't pretend this isn't true - when applied properly, with intent and with the original interpretations, ours is a killing art. It's a reality we have to cope with, as most people aren't getting into the martial arts to kill. I'd love your thoughts on that one, as I'm not sure how to solve it.
Another issue we have is our media "image", or rather, the distinct lack of one.
I mentioned "fanboys" above. Fanboys can be annoying... but...
Honestly... we need some fanboys.
We don't have a Chuck Norris or a Bruce Lee or Jet Li. Few celebrities are known for training, on their own time, in the Filipino Martial Arts.
Our arts are not in the Olympics, with exposure to millions of non-martial artists world-wide, so we don't get the exposure that Tae Kwon Do, Judo, Wrestling, and Boxing get (not to mention sports like fencing and shooting and maybe soon Karate too).
While our styles are definitely being used in movies and television - nobody knows that it's the FMA's, and it's often blended with other arts to be "movie-fu" and is never, ever identified as what it is within that medium.
So until our Bruce Lee comes along, or we get our own version of "Bloodsport", we need to connect what we do to what average people see in movies, TV, and other popular media, like comic books and video games.
Nightwing should be our poster boy. Every time there is a figure in popular media obviously using FMA's - Daredevil! - we should be crowing about it as much as we can.
We have to get enough traction so that creators of popular culture adapt what we do into what they do. That learning an FMA is not only something that's effective, but COOL.
So look for those opportunities to make that connection for people who don't know.
That's what I think - how the Filipino Martial Arts can become more visible, and take its rightful place on any list of "Best" martial arts.
I'd like to know what you think - what else can the Filipino Martial Arts do to increase visibility (and thus, popularity)? Let me know!