Few people in the world can truly be called a grandmaster of arnis. Fewer still have studied with the original Filipino masters or fought in stick-fighting challenge matches. Crispulo “Ising” Atillo is one of those rare people.
Crispulo Atillo was 14 years old when he began his formal training in 1952 under arnis legend Venancio “Anciong” Bacon, but his first fighting experience came at a much younger age.
During the Japanese occupation of the Philippines in the early 1940s, Crispulo Atillo’s father was a member of the resistance, and more than once both father and son narrowly avoided capture. It was also during these war years that he witnessed Venancio Bacon and another legendary balintawak master, Teodoro Saavedra, fight in challenge matches.
These early experiences left a deep impression on the young Crispulo Atillo and made him a lifelong devotee of the original style of balintawak arnis.
After World War II, the only surviving balintawak master was Venancio Bacon. It was from him that Crispulo Atillo learned most of this single-stick style. But Crispulo Atillo’s father was also a student of the late Teodoro Saavedra, and the senior Atillo passed those skills along to his son. The result was a style of arnis that made the junior Atillo one of the best ambassadors of arnis in the Philippines.
Crispulo Atillo’s balintawak arnis is a single-stick style. The free hand is used for controlling the opponent’s stick. When a student begins training, he starts with basic blocks, strikes and stances that are common to most styles of balintawak. The stick is held vertically and directly in front of the face while the practitioner swivels from side to side to block attacks.
Atillo then teaches stick-to-stick drills, followed by stick-and-hand drills — all of which lead up to his specialty, sparring.
In the Philippines, Crispulo Atillo is famous as a fighter, and his style reflects this. It emphasizes simple techniques and footwork. In fact, like many boxing coaches, Atillo believes that mastering stances and footwork is the most important part of fighting. They, along with the vertical-stick defense, are given a great deal of attention in his style of balintawak.
Crispulo Atillo claims that his fights are what really make him a master of arnis. He has fought in four full-contact challenge matches with no protective gear and banged sticks with some of the biggest names in the Filipino martial arts. In fact, he fought doce pares grandmaster Ciriaco “Cacoy” Cañete in the last officially sanctioned “death match” in the Philippines in 1983.
While the fight ended in controversy — both sides claimed victory after less than a minute of fighting — it was the kind of encounter that most arnis practitioners never even come close to experiencing.
Crispulo Atillo said his goals include sharing his art with stick fighters in other countries. He has a special fondness for the United States because of childhood memories of his father fighting alongside American soldiers during World War II.
Atillo is truly interested in teaching his style to the world, and he now has students in Europe and the United States. His dream of spreading his art is an admirable one.
In a world that seems bent on making everything contemporary and overly complex, Crispulo Atillo is one of the last remaining masters of original balintawak trying to pass on an uncomplicated but powerful martial art as he enters his twilight years.
About the author: Keith Vargo is a martial artist and author who lives in Japan.