The Problem with Stick Fighting Tournaments
In the summer of 2008 I was in Cebu City where I saw the world championships of stick fighting. The championships were held in the Ayala shopping center, a very large and popular mall in the city. The local newspapers featured almost daily coverage leading up to the tournament, and the turnout was good. Colorful banners with names of famous arnis masters hung from the tiers of the mall. There was just one problem –the quality of the martial arts on display was poor.
I was on the second floor of the Ayala Mall looking down on a match in progress. The competitors wore masks, head gear, thick gloves, and padded suits. Once the match started both fighters began furiously striking each other non-stop, and the spectators heard the staccato “thwap” of sticks continually hitting a padded suit or another stick. A Filipina standing next to me said, “I can’t tell who is winning.”
In a nutshell, that was the problem with the whole championship. Match after match, the competitors swung wildly without any effort at defense. At the end of the match, so many dozens of blows had been landed by each fighter, how could anybody tell who had won?
In every sport, from basketball to golf, to boxing, spectators can see skill, and can almost always tell who is winning. When the audience can’t see skill, and doesn’t know who is winning, or why, you have an event that cannot last as a spectator sport.
Even worse, from the perspective of real-life combat, if I stab you 15 times, while you stab me “only” 13 times, does that make me the “winner”?
My intent here is not to slam the sponsor organization, who must be given credit for their efforts to promote the Filipino martial arts. My goal is to suggest improvements so that the public will have a more favorable impression of the stick fighting arts. I also believe that Filipino martial artists would rather compete in tournaments that legitimately test and display their fighting skills.
- Stop Action After Each Point. Whenever one competitor lands a solid blow, or lands a clear point, the referee should stop the action. Any strikes that land after a clean point will not count. This simple change in the rules will prevent players from rushing in swinging wildly, because they will have to think about defense. (The late Balintawak grandmaster Timor Maranga suggested this rule change decades ago, but it was never enacted.)
- Widen Permitted Techniques. Currently thrusts and strikes to the legs are prohibited. This results in competitors going “headhunting,” swinging widely at the head. Broadening permissible techniques would result in greater variety and attention to strategy.
- Include an Element of Contact. In its current form, fighters don’t feel any real contact. Boxers must pay attention to defense because getting hit hurts, and there is the possibility of a knockout. I don’t know exactly what the solution is, but if getting hit were less comfortable competitors would have to try to defend themselves and carefully weigh their attacks.