Antonio "Tatang" Ilustrisimo’s last interview before his death.

Conducted by Steven Drape, a teacher of San Miguel Eskrima under Urbano "Banoy" Borja who was a student of Momoy Canette.



This interview was conducted with Grandmaster Antonio "Tatang" Ilustrisimo, along with his senior students Antonio Diego and Christopher Ricketts, on 29 July1997 in Manila, Philippines. At the time of the interview, GM Ilustrisimo had been ill for several weeks, so he was weak and had some difficulty talking.   (As it turned out, his illness became worse and he eventually passed away in the fall of 1997.)  We were accompanied by a live-in companion, who helped serve as a translator for some of the Grandmaster's answers.

GM Ilustrisimo lives in one of the toughest sections of Manila, near the docks. He was a merchant seaman for 35 years, and has spent most of his life in this same area. As an example of the respect people here give to this living legend, the story is told of a gang fight between a local Manila gang and a group of men who had come to Manila from the Visayan islands for work. At the height of the melee, with many men involved in the fight, "Tatang" walked right through the middle of the spot and everyone stopped fighting to let him pass. He is one of those rare men where legend may actually match reality.

This interview was conducted for Australasian Fighting Arts Magazine (AFAM).

AFAM: Erle Montaigue met you and wrote an article in AFAM in 1981. He told me that he was very impressed with you and your art. Have any of your training methods changed since 1981?
GM Ilustrisimo:  The principles of the art have not changed, so of course it is the same.
AFAM: When you began teaching your students, like Tony Diego, you had certain ideas as to what they would learn by now. Have they reached your expectations?
GM Ilustrisimo:   Yeah! Tony has been with me for a long time, since 1975. If you want to train with me, you must learn the old way. When we train, I will hit your hands, many times, so you learn. You must take the pain to learn.
AFAM:   Tony Diego, you've been with GM Ilustrisimo for more than 20 years. Have you been satisfied with your training in the Art, and with "Tatang"?

Tony Diego: At first, he wouldn't teach me. He said that the Art was only for fighting. I kept asking and finally he accepted me. I've been very satisfied. I have never felt that I wanted to change, or stop training. At one time, I was a little frustrated, though, and I asked "Tatang" why I couldn't be more like him (in his ability). He simply answered, "You are you, you are not me." Everyone learns in a
  different way, so you must be satisfied with the result that you get. You can never be exactly the same as your teacher.
AFAM: Do you feel like you have mastered everything the grandmaster has to teach? Tony Diego:  Once I asked "Tatang" if he had taught me everything, if I had the complete system. He replied, "When a guest comes to your house and you give him food, you always give him the rice from the top of the pan. It's the best rice that everyone likes to eat, but you save for yourself the rice from the bottom of the pan. There it has become hard and crusty." I think that means that he taught me everything he could teach, but that there are things that he still has that are not teachable. Things that come from a person's experiences in life.
AFAM:   Tony, you will retire from your job in a few years. Do you think that you will take on more students, expand your teaching?
Tony Diego: No, I don't think so. I have several students who have been with me for many years. Probably they will take over the job of carrying on, of passing on Kali Ilustrisimo.
AFAM: GM Ilustrisimo, your style of arnis impresses as one of the most natural for self-defense. Are your views still the same in that this Art should only be used for self-defense using straight-forward methods instead of more flowery techniques?

GM Ilustrisimo: The fancy stuff in arnis, all the flowery movements, is only for stage shows and demonstrations, not for real fighting.
AFAM: What is your advice to students who would wish to take up arnis nowadays in the Western world? It seems that today, the old ways of learning are fading, and more and more students want to learn tournament styles.
GM Ilustrisimo: Arnis is simple- 1-2-3 (demonstrating a 3-strike combination in the air). The tournament styles are different, not really arnis.
AFAM: How long do you feel a student needs to train to learn arnis, how many years?
GM Ilustrisimo: Only two weeks, you can master the techniques! Arnis is simple-   1-2-3 !
AFAM:   Two weeks!?
GM Ilustrisimo: Study with me one hour every day and you can learn how to fight for tournaments. My students usually win in the tournaments. Remember, though, that training for tournaments is not training for real fighting. Wearing armor is bad for the Art, students don't learn well.
AFAM: Have your methods changed much as you have grown older?
GM Ilustrisimo: When fighting, you only adjust to your opponent, to what he does. As you get older, you must still adjust. Maybe you do something differently than when you were younger, but it is just an adjustment to the situation. Age is just one part of the situation.  

AFAM:   Does that mean that the inevitable physical decline that comes with age can be compensated for? Does someone's increasing skill and experience make up for declining physical ability?
GM Ilustrisimo: Yes!

       (To illustrate this point, when Tony Diego first introduced me to "Tatang", he
        playfully attacked him. The grandmaster was holding two canes at the time, one to
        help him walk and a shorter rattan. Even though he does not see well any more, and
        he is 90 years of age, his reaction to even the playful attack was immediate, very
        fast and obviously exactly right to defend himself if the attack had been real. A
        very impressive introduction to the grandmaster!)

AFAM:   Let's change directions now. In your lifetime, who were the best arnis players you can remember, the very best ones?

GM Ilustrisimo: Here in the Philippines, no one would fight me. I had fights in Singapore and in Jakarta with good players. The toughest one was in Singapore. I cut him across the right wrist and won the fight and $5000. I also fought in Calcutta and broke that man's right arm.
AFAM: Besides yourself, then, who here in the Philippines were the best fighters?

GM Ilustrisimo: My father, my grandfather and the brother of my father were all great fighters.

AFAM: So you learned from your father and uncles?

GM Ilustrisimo:   Yes.
AFAM: Who was Pedro Cortes? Did you learn anything from him?
GM Ilustrisimo:   Yes, he was the sparring partner of my father, from Mindanao. His style was much like the Ilustrisimo style, same as my father's.
AFAM: What about some of the famous names everyone has heard about? People like Dizon, Villabrille, Cabales? Did you know them when you were all younger?
GM Ilustrisimo: Yes, we were all here in Manila. Villabrille was my cousin.
AFAM: Did you ever teach Cabales anything?
GM Ilustrisimo: Yes, but I didn't like his techniques.
AFAM:   Did you ever fight with Cabales or the others?
GM Ilustrisimo: Yes, we played often, but none of them would fight me for real.
AFAM:   So you had a reputation even then, when you were a young man. What other fights have you had?
GM Ilustrisimo:   Yes. No one wanted to fight me. In the early 50's, I had a real fight, not an arranged match, with a man called "Doming" here on Dock 8. He had a knife and I picked up a short piece of pipe from the ground. He died from a blow to the head with that pipe.

AFAM: I've heard that you have another nickname. "Dagohoy", is that correct?
GM Ilustrisimo: Yes, it is only a nickname.
Tony Diego: "Dagohoy" was a famous fighter from the island of Bohol who led the people in an uprising. He was a famous figure in our history, so people call "Tatang" this name as, well, a name of respect.
AFAM: Dan Inosanto is very well-known in martial arts circles. One of his teachers of arnis was John LaCoste. Did you know John LaCoste here before he went to the US?
GM Ilustrisimo: No, I didn't know him.
AFAM:   What about the fighters from Cebu? The Canetes, the Saavedras, etc.? Did you know them, or ever fight anyone from Cebu?
GM Ilustrisimo: No, I never fought them, but I don't like their techniques. The Cebu fighters like to use the abanico techniques to the head. No good!
AFAM:  In your style, you train to use a blade. Does that change how you use a
GM Ilustrisimo: It's the same, no different.
AFAM: There was a famous match arranged once, between Joe Mena and "Cacoy" Canete. Can you tell me what happened?
GM Ilustrisimo:   They began to fight but someone interfered and the fight was not resolved, no winner.
AFAM: I've heard that you began training when you were 9 years old. That would have been in about 1916. How was training different then, from the way it has become today?
GM Ilustrisimo:   It was very different. It was only practical training then, learning how to survive.
AFAM:   During World War II, you were a resistance fighter. There are several stories about you from that time. Can you tell me about some of them?
GM Ilustrisimo: Yes, I was fighting the Japanese. I killed 7 Japanese with my blade.
Tony Diego: There is a good story about that time. One night, "Tatang" and a friend had been drinking and were walking home when they came upon a single Japanese sentry. "Tatang" walked right up to the man and pulled his samurai sword right out of the scabbard, looked at it and put it back. The Japanese soldier was so surprised that he just stood there and did nothing, even though he had a gun.

AFAM:   GM Ilustrisimo, you've had a long and eventful life. Is there anything you regret, or anything you would like to change?
GM Ilustrisimo: Nothing. I've been happy.
AFAM:   Thank you for this interview and for the knowledge that you have passed along.