Arnis / Escrima / Kali
Tao of Tai Chi Chuan Institute
for Health, Self Defence and Spiritual Development
Great may be the man who conquers others
but much greater is one who conquers himself and ceaselessly helps others
Grandmaster Antonio 'Tatang' Ilustrisimo
(a Brief Profile)
The great exponent of eskrima, Grandmaster Antonio 'Tatang' Ilustrisimo in Cerada pose.
(courtesy of Bakbakan International and GM Tony Diego)
Grandmaster Antonio Ilustrisimo (1902 - 1997) originally came from
Grandmaster Ilustrisimo's students, fondly call him "Tatang"
which means "grandfather". Tatang learnt Arnis under the
tutelage of his father (Isidro Illustrisimo) and uncles (especially the famous
Melecio Ilustrisimo) in the old way. There were 3 famous Eskrima families
Footwork was one of the first things he had to master. As a tiny boy, he was put on a small table and his teachers would use sticks to beat his legs. He had to learn how to avoid the blows. He was also put on 3 half coconut shells in a triangular pattern and given the same harsh treatment. This footwork is known as Tatlong Bao in the Ilustrisimo family.
As a result he has mastered evasion and dodging at an early age. This is a training that Melecio Ilustrisimo himself thoroughly mastered as he was said to have nailed one foot to the ground and challenge all and sundry to defeat him. No one could, and that footwork is called "Walong Apak" (Nail Footwork) in Kalis Ilustrisimo. These skills of evasive footwork have all been mastered by Grandmaster Antonio Illustrisimo.
He learnt the solo and double baston, espada daga, daga, bolo (sword), dos manos (a long stick/sword - roughly equivalent to the Samurai's sword) and various "weapons of convenience". In particular, as a speciality, Grandmaster Ilustrisimo is noted for is his expertise in bladed weapons - something which many modern Grandmasters of Arnis can not lay proper claim to since their real practical experience concentrated on the rattan sticks. (Claims by most systems that they can use swords are disputable and only partially true). This expertise as a swordman is not merely from personal experience and practice, but is the legacy of his family art of Ilustrisimo Kali which is a bladed art that stretches so far back in the family line that nobody could remember when it started.
As a boy, the young Ilustrisimo had a very tough, stubborn, determined and
indominatable spirit. When he heard of a far country called '
At a port, he chance on a family friend who recognised him, but not wishing to betray the high ideals of this young boy, he took him to the south as that friend was a Muslim. There the young boy grew up - strong, determined, proud and skillful in combat as ever. He was adopted into a the royal court as an adopted son of the Sultan of Sulu. (This was Hadji Butu who ascended to become HH Hadji Mohammad Jamalul Kiram II, the Sultan of Sulu)
While in the South, he was priviledged to train in the the best of teachers
that the royal court could have. He also trained with Pedro Cortes,
another very famous master in the
Then one day, he was drinking at a beer house, he got into dispute with another man. The man drew his sword to kill Tatang, but the defty young boy beat him to the draw and, with one stroke of his own barong (Tatang's favourite type of sword), he cut off the enemy's head. The victim was left a headless man running wildly before collapsing. Since this was in self defence, this would have normally been 'okay' under the rules of that Islamic society, but the matter was complicated by his being under the influence of the drink (much frown upon), and plus the fact that the victim was from another royal clan that was a rival to the Sultan's clan. To avoid inter clan warfare, the Sultan was forced to 'exiled' the young offender. The Sultan gave him a gift of money and sent under escort to a British ship to head home. He was only 17 years old then.
He returned to his parent's place. They had not seen him since he left as a young boy (this indicates his spirit of determination and independence - and his courage to live away from home without his parent's guidance) and thought he was dead. They were over-joyed to receive a telegram saying he was returning. But they couldn't recognise him. A proud young man in Muslim dress walked towards them from the ship and it was only when he greeted them that they realised it was him.
He soon left to become a sailor, but when he had the oppotunity, he would continue to train in the fighting tradition of his family line.
Tatang used to hang around "rough places". He is well known amongst the wharfies and bars. That was where he fought many times and honed his fighting skills. I have met many Arnis masters who are very good in what they do, but some of them privately admitted to me that even they are extremely careful when going to such areas that Tatang frequents because fighting and killing in bar/street fights is very different, and much more dangerous, than fighting an Arnis dual.
His life as a sailor gave him the oppotunity to travel from place to
place. This provided oppotunities to contest fighters from other far-off
For example, he responded to a grandmaster match in
Grandmaster Ilustrisimo used to participate in Arnis matches in the fiestas
in the local barrios occasionally when not at sea. However, due to his
fondness for the blade, and his reputation as a fighter-killer, not many
masters would dare to fight him. He only knows how to fight naturally -
without restrictions - something that is not very comfortable for other
masters. The only rule is the terms of defeat - when to stop the
fight. He laments that he had to accept fights during his travels to
practise a little of his art. eg. He fought a master in
Grandmaster Ilustrisimo, however, had lots of practice during World War II where, as a guerilla, his boss often sent him on missions to kill both Japanese soldiers and local conspirators. He is said to have killed groups of people at a time. So reliable were his services that his code name in the guerilla movement was 'The Executioner'.
Grandmaster Ilustrisimo hung around his friends whenever he was not at sea. Occassionally, he would spar with them. Accounts independently related by various old sources who hung around them confirmed that Grandmaster Illustrisimo had sparred with Felicissimo Dizon quite a few times and was more than a match for him. It is also said that mutual Arnis friends wanted to arrange a formal match (ie. prize fighting) between Grandmaster Ilustrisimo and Felicissimo Dizon. Grandmaster Ilustrisimo, being a seasoned prize fighter, readily accepted. But the great Dizon turned down the offer citing that Grandmaster Illustrisimo is a larger man, a taller man with a longer reach, and thus they are in different categories and should not be matched. (Dizon was a formidable fighter with few defeats, most notably of which was from the great Illaus Romo. Also, a scheduled match between Dizon, Delphin Lopez and Cacoy Canette did not eventuate also because Dizon failed to turn up - according to Cacoy Canette).
While sojorned in
Grandmaster Ilustrisimo used to frequent bars in the rough areas of
Grandmaster Ilustrisimo retired from sea-faring in his advanced years, but not from active practice. Even in his old age, he received challenges from young fighters eager to build a name for themselves by unfairly bumping off an old man, but he survived and gave them a hiding instead.
In his advanced years, Grandmaster Ilustrisimo was partially blind, but he
can still spar with his students using real bolos (swords) and exert control
not to harm them. How does he "see" the student's incoming
bolos when he cannot properly see ordinary objects is still a mystery to most,
but Dan Inosanto mentioned in his book that (Ilustrisimo's cousin) Floro
Villabrille's favourite master was a blind princess. (Some sources
indicate that this 'princess' was actually not blind, but partially blind, just
like Tatang. And not a princess of Samar, nor Princess Josephina, but daughter
of a chief. She was known to possess some mystical powers. Also,
this story later as changed by later generations to 'main' or 'best' teacher
- instead of 'favourite' teacher - in the sentimental sense, not
favourite as 'best' teacher). Tatang insisted that while in
Grandmaster Antonio Ilustrisimo remain undefeated the whole of his life.
Grandmaster Ilustrisimo was over 90 years old when I, the author, last saw him. Yet this old partially blind man was still sparring and giving youngsters a hiding! I consider that a champion!
I have met and studied many masters of Arnis and other martial arts. Of all of them, Grandmaster Antonio 'Tatang' Ilustrisimo is the most outstanding of them all. I have adopted his style as my main style of Arnis.
Acknowledgement: I wrote this profile of Tatang from the little that I know of his extraordinary life which is full of exciting adventures. It is the tip of a giant iceberg. I apologise to Tatang and his senior students for any inaccuracies that might have occurred.
Click this link for some stories of Tatang:- Adventures of
Some Adventures of Tatang
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Updated: 4 November 1998