The life and work of modern arnis founder Remy Presas are recalled in this profile published just three years before the stick-combat legend's death. In Part 1, author Jeffrey J. Delaney the art's beginnings and how Presas brought it to the world.
Editor's Note: This article was originally published as "Remy Presas, Founder of Modern Arnis: Pioneer of the Philippine Arts Is Still Polishing and Spreading His System" in the August 1998 issue of Black Belt — prior to Presas' passing in 2001. To preserve the article's tone and historical context, the time references have been left intact.
For more than 50 years, Remy Amador Presas has pursued his passion for the stick, knife, sword, dagger and empty hand — all in the name of modern arnis, the Philippine martial art he created and continues to refine. Modern arnis is one of the most popular, efficient and easy-to-learn systems of self-defense in the world — and Remy Presas continues to spread the style by conducting seminars and workshops around the globe. In fact, the humble master is responsible for pioneering the modern martial arts seminar by teaching his art to students of any style or level, as long as they are willing to pick up a stick and open their mind.
Modern-Arnis Techniques Master Remy Presas: The Man
Remy Presas began his study of arnis techniques at age 6. He learned from his father Jose Presas in the small fishing village of Hinigaran, Negros Occidental, in the Philippines.
Remy Presas left home at age 14 so he could pursue his interest in the fighting arts practiced on the many islands of his homeland. These arts were blends of systems from all over the world: Thailand, China, Spain, Indonesia, Japan and India. They had reached the islands as the people of the Philippines interacted, traded and fought with these diverse nations.
Presas refined and blended the important aspects of tjakele, arnis de mano, karate, jujitsu and dumog into the art he named modern arnis.
“Long ago, arnis was a dying art,” modern-arnis techniques master Remy Presas says. “The old practitioners believed the cane was sacred. This meant they would always aim at the hand of their training partner and not at the cane for practice. Most of the students got hurt right away and immediately lost interest. I modernized this and promoted hitting the cane instead for practice. Then I identified the basic concepts of the many Filipino systems I had learned to bring a unity to the diverse systems of my country. This way, we could all feel the connection.”
Remy Presas prefers to use the term “arnis” over the term kali. “In the West, you hear the words kali and escrima used a lot,” he says. “These terms mean basically the same thing, but if you say kali or escrima, not many people in the Philippines will know what you are talking about. Arnis best reflects the Philippine culture because it is a Tagalog word.” Tagalog is the national language of the Philippines.
“In the Philippines,” Remy Presas continues, “if someone heard you were a good arnis player, they would challenge you — anywhere. I did challenging, also. We fought in the streets, alleys, parks — all kinds of places. Sometimes there were very bad injuries, but I did not lose.”
Remy Presas’ experience and prowess with modern-arnis techniques were unsurpassed. By 1970, he had created a sensation in his country. His Modern Arnis Federation of the Philippines boasted more than 40,000 members.
In 1975, he left the Philippines on a good-will tour sponsored by that country’s government to spread information about modern-arnis techniques around the globe. Since arriving in the United States, the art has grown rapidly.
Modern-Arnis Techniques: "The Art Within the Art"
Collectively, modern-arnis techniques are often referred to as “the art within the art.” Modern-arnis techniques are based on patterns and theories of movement instead of static moves and drills. Rather than learning complex forms and one-step sparring drills for each weapon, students learn the fundamentals of natural movement and use the same patterns of attack and defense in response to each direction, type and intensity of attack. This is true regardless of whether they are holding a sword, dagger, stick or no weapon at all.
In addition, modern-arnis techniques lead into a countless variety of disarms, throws and locks using the maximum leverage available from whatever weapon is being used. At the advanced level, patterns in modern-arnis techniques give way to a continuation of movement. This facet of the art is often referred to as the “flow.”
Flowing refers to the way in which arnis practitioners transition effortlessly from one technique to the next as they sense the movements and attacks of their opponent and respond automatically and continuously. This sensitivity is developed through a free-form sparring exercise called tapi-tapi. It’s a technique similar to the chi sao (sticky hand) drills of wing chun kung fu and the push-hand training of tai chi chuan.
Tapi-tapi proceeds at a lightning pace, with sweeping strikes and blocks followed by parries, punyo (butt end of the stick) strikes, grabs, releases, traps and eventually disarms, takedowns and submissions. This type of sparring is beautiful to watch, especially when someone who is as skilled as Remy Presas bests the most advanced opponents while barely glancing in their direction.
“The techniques must be practiced slowly at first,” Remy Presas insists. “That way, they will become automatic. Also, the student must be relaxed and keep all movements small and purposeful.”
The practice of modern-arnis techniques teaches students to become proficient and comfortable in all ranges of combat. Each of the 12 striking angles that define the modern-arnis techniques system has a basic block, disarm and counter to the disarm.
Once these building blocks are in place, they can be applied to movements known as sinawali, redonda, crossada abanico and others. Numerous joint locks, spinning throws and takedown techniques lead to grappling positions with still more control and submission techniques.
About the Author: Jeffrey J. Delaney is head of the International Modern Arnis Federation.