History of WEKAF
How Eskrima Became a Sport
As printed in the WEKAF CEBU 2016, Official Souvenir Magazine (2016)
“ESKRIMA NOW BELONGS TO THE WORLD” thus acclaimed top martial artist from Chicago Fred Degerberg, the following day after the First World Eskrima Kali Arnis Championship held at the University of the Visayas Gymnasium on August 12-13, 1989. The words were indeed prophetic, as years later Eskrima-Arnis competitions were staged regularly in over 30 countries triggering the rise in following and the popularity of the art as (a) good spectators’ sporting show, thanks to the World Eskrima Kali Arnis Federation (WEKAF). WEKAF help paved the way for the art to further grow into unparalleled proportions by holding 13 world championships with the last edition held in Debrecen, Hungary in July 2014.
WEKAF is the sole international governing body in the study, practice and promotion of the Filipino martial art which has at present over member 40 countries.
With the art now enjoying a tremendous worldwide popularity, people started to become curious to know “who really started it all”. It was generally believed that the man mainly responsible was Supreme Grandmaster Dionisio “Diony” Cañete, however in an interview with the latter, with candor and honesty, responded:“It is not correct to credit me alone for the making of Eskrima as a sport and for its upsurge in popularity. It was a collective idea of the three of us, my first cousin lawyer Amorito Cañete and good friend and Eskrima sparring partner, Nonito “Dodong” Limchua, SGM Diony said.
“The idea was a result of our experience in training particularly in the sparring aspects which we believed that it would be attractive, fun, enjoyable and safe provided there are certain rules to regulate and some sort of protective gears to prevent injuries. With the support of the four top officials of Doce Pares, my father Eulogio, uncle Cacoy, elder brother Panfilo and Orlando Sanchez we all agreed to transform the “sparring” into a sport just like boxing and other forms of martial arts” SGM Diony added.
However in 1974, according to him the project was averted and left in limbo as Amorito and Limchua moved to Manila where they transferred their professional and business offices. Incidentally in 1975, SGM Diony went on a trip to the United States to conduct seminars which were hosted by Dan Inosanto, Richard Bustilo and Fred Bandalan among others. The meeting proved providential as it was in their meeting that SGM Diony learned about the increasing popularity of Eskrima and the excitement it created among the martial art communities in the States.
Dan Inosanto then discussed about the potential of Eskrima to be the martial art of the next decade but stressed that concerted and cohesive efforts among all the stakeholders of the well-known groups to join its promotion. Hence he suggested that DOCE PARES, being the oldest Eskrima club to lead and spearhead the movement.
Upon his return to Cebu in late 1975 with Amorito and Limchua, they called a meeting with the Board of Officers of DOCE PARES and later on with that of Cebu Eskrima Arnis Association (CEA). CEA was formed and founded SGM in 1974 wherein he banded all the Eskrima clubs and schools in Cebu together with all the well-known Masters, most of whom were involved in “death matches” or “juego todo” in the past.
After getting the support of the two organizations of the plan for an all-out promotion of Eskrima, the three went on to meet with the Officers of the National Arnis Association of the Philippines (NARAPHIL) headed by General Fabian Ver who at that time was also waiting for SGM’s report about his U.S.A. trip. In this momentous meeting, everybody affirmed the idea of a massive promotion of the Filipino martial art even as SGM told General Ver that “the best and quickest way to promote Eskrima is to make sparring Eskrima matches very safe and enjoyable”. After explaining at length, the process and the necessity to adopt tournament rules, they all agreed that as a matter of courtesy and respect the task of preparing and drafting the “rules” be assigned to the great Masters of Cebu, to give them a free hand based on their experience of the “format” and on how to regulate the fight to make it formal and “civilized”.
SGM as President of CEA then formed a committee composed of the big names of Eskrima, among them Cacoy Cañete, Felimon Cañete, Atty. Jose Villasin, Venacio “Anciong” Bacon, Maj. Timoteo Maranga, Teoflio Velez, Felimon Caburnay, Vicente Carin, Artemio Paez, Lorenzo Lasola and Crispulo Atillo.
However after six months, with the committee unable to come up with a “draft”, SGM Diony informed General Ver that he himself would draft and formulate the rules and thus within thirty days, he presented the purposed rules to the Board of Doce Pares and CEA which approved it en toto. After its subsequent approval by NARAPHIL, there was still the problem of the necessary tournament protective gear. As SGM and Limchua were into the business of boxing at that time, the former as licensed promoter and the latter as a big time manager with a stable of elite boxers, they immediately thought of adopting and using as model, the boxing headgear with some modifications. Prototypes of the headgear, body protective jacket and hand gloves were thus produced and while they were in the process of being “perfected’, SGM, Amorito and Limchua launched a massive information and education campaign by holding seminar-workshops to train prospective officiating people to serve as referees and judges.
And thus in late 1978, with a number of officiating people duly certified in the proper interpretations and appreciation of the “rules”, the Filipino martial art was deemed ready to tread in an uncharted path that catapulted it to become one of the most popular martial arts in the world today – the birth of Eskrima as popular spectators sporting show.
Since its founding in August 11, 1989, the Federation has already passed the “birth and growing up pains” so to speak that it now boasts of over 40 countries in its fold. And it is still growing, thanks to its leaders even though they are elected two years and new faces get into the controlling Board, WEKAF continues to grow and moves on smoothly because everyone adheres to the principles and direction set by the founding fathers and follow the examples exuded by the original leadership.
WEKAF is already an institution, a “government” of the Filipino marital art that has to be governed and managed in the same democratic principles enshrined in the Constitution of the Philippines, where all members have the rights and opportunity regardless of race and origin. Every country has the opportunity and the rights to lead and run the Federation, precisely, all are qualified to vie or bid for the hosting rights of every Championship event. And because of the “no-reelection” rule, no one can perpetuate power of influence, which as history tells us, the root cause of leaders to acquire dictatorial tendencies, thus limiting the center of authority only to one or few individuals. WEKAF as what it is today, rests its power in the general membership although supervision and management are delegated or entrusted to the chosen few who acts and perform their duties in accordance with the policies and principles of the Federation.
That’s the beauty of the federation – no group has control or can claim overwhelming influence on the general membership. Which was exactly the vision of SGM Diony, who is considered the Father of WEKAF, to make the Federation extremely democratic with equal rights and opportunity to all members with no one or any particular group exercising power and undue influence that may deter others from active participation or rendering them to passiveness thus leaving entirely the rein of administraton to one or few individuals. That’s the singular reason, SGM Diony introduced the rule and tradition of “no-reelection” for the position of President, when he was asked to be reelected in 1992 and 1994, and again in the 1998 elections, wherein the members begged that he remained as President as he was the only one capable of holding the membership in unity and steering the Federation to progress at the stage of its existence. But the SGM had none of it, as replied in direct and simple words, that WEKAF was built on a solid and strong foundation with every member in the beginning made to understand that the strength of the group is on the general membership which is the Federation itself and not on one specific person; Otherwise, he stated that if the members believe that there’s only one man capable of running the Federation then there’s no rhyme nor reason for it to continue to exist because in the end anyway, it would just disband and disintegrate.
These words of wisdom reverberate up to this time and radiate the true meaning and import of SGM’s statement. At that time some people said the SGM may be right with the wrong reason or wrong with the right reason, but whatever, the end is what it is today, an established institution, and the pillar of strength that propelled the Filipino martial art to an unparalleled popularity in the world today.
Its beginning – the date August 11, 1989, some 100 people were assembled at the Convention Hall at the Sacred Heart Center in Cebu City Philippines. Coming from 10 different countries, the participants composed of about 75 foreigners and 25 from the Philippines. The main purpose of the gathering was to form an organization that would serve as the governing body in the promotion, practice and study of the Filipino martial art, Lawyer Dionisio Cañete who was chosen as the temporary Chairman and Presiding Officer, steered the assembly to a smooth session which resulted to the selection of the title and the name of the federation known as the World Eskrima Kali Arnis Federation (WEKAF). It was however, the late Orlando Sanchez sports editor of a leading Cebu newspaper and PRO of Doce Pares which later was unanimously approved and accepted by the body during the historic gathering.
After a full day’s session, articles and by-laws were adopted by the assembly among the salient features of which were: that each member country be represented by at least one Director in the Board and that officers who will supervise the day to day activities of the federation would be elected from among the members of the board. However during the organizational assembly, the body agreed to elect 15 directors with each member country assured of at least one each. During the elections, 35 candidates were nominated and the following names topped the field: Dionisio Cañete, Arnulfo Cuesta, Richard Bustillo, Fred Degerberg, Bobby Breen, Arif Shaikh, Sharon Burns, Niño Pilla, Roland Krauer, Manuel Fragoso, Jorge Alcordo, Ted Javier, Andreas Becker, Anebro Pasay and Greg Henderson.
Cañete was subsequently elected as the charter president with Richard Butillo as the vice president, their term of office to last for two years until the 2nd World Championships and Congress.
The history of WEKAF however retracts and dates back as far as early 1970, when as a newly elected member of the Board of Directors of Doce Pares, Diony Cañete with some other officers resolved to find ways to “civilize” and transform the traditional bloody matches or “sparring among Eskrimadors, and to make it an attractive, enjoyable and exciting sport. The idea was firmed up when he went to the U.S.A. in the middle of 1975, as the first Filipino Arnis-Eskrima instructor invited to conduct seminar-workshop during which time he met Dan inosanto, Richard Bustillo and Fred Bandalan, the top exponents of the Filipino marital arts in the U.S.
It was during their meeting that they forged an agreement to combine efforts in pushing and promoting the Filipino martial arts. Upon his return to the Philippines, Cañete took no time in convincing the top hierarchy of the famous Doce Pares organization led by his father Eulogio Cañete as the president to consider the idea of taking an active role in the promotion of the art.
The Cebu Eskrima Club which composed of all the 14 Eskrima groups in Cebu which Cañete had organized a year earlier, and was elected as Charter President also voted to support the idea of propagating Eskrima worldwide. With the general membership of both organizations agreeing to the grandiose plan, Cañete took no time in convincing the Board of Officers of the National Arnis Association of the Philippines (NARAPHIL) led General Fabian Ver to approve the plan. He then proposed for the holding of formal tournaments, explaining that the “quickest way to promote and popularize Eskrima is to make it a sporting event”. Consequently, a committee was created to draft and formulate the tournament rules which he also deemed a convenient way of ending the traditional full-contact, no holds barred sparring known as “juego todo”. Without any protective gear, the fight normally lasted on a few seconds with either or both protagonists sustaining injuries of varying degree.
After some months had elapsed with the committee unable come up with any draft rules, Cañete volunteered to craft and write it himself. A few weeks thereafter the tournament rules which are now enforced in all WEKAF tournaments today had been adopted.
To complement the rules, Cañete immediately designed and produced the protective gear such as headgear, body protectors (jacket) and hand gloves which are the very same equipment used in all competitions.
During the historic First National Arnis Championships held in Cebu City on March 24, 1979, top leadership of the NARAPHIL, Cebu Eskrima Association and all masters and grandmasters present were in agreement to launch a worldwide promotion and hence the necessity of the formation of a world body which would be tasked with the job of promoting and managing its affairs.
But it took several years and great efforts to export the idea of holding a full contact tournament in the USA and other countries, because all organizations and schools were unwilling to organize or sponsor for fear of possible injuries to participants.
In the meantime in August of 1987, Cañete invited the top masters and instructors for a seminar workshop in Cebu City. Seventeen people from USA, England, Australia, New Zealand and Guam attended the five day affair which was dubbed as the First World Arnis Instructor’s Seminars.
It was in gathering that the formation of the world federation was mulled as the group agreed to meet within two years to finalize and implement the plan. Electing Cañete as chairman of the provisional organization called the World Arnis Federation, he was given the responsibility of disseminating the idea and to contact as many interested parties as possible from the various countries and later on to schedule the congress within the time frame set by the body.
Fortunately, sometime in 1988 thanks to the combined efforts of Cañete, Fred Bandalan and Arnulfo Cuesta, the 1st USA National Eskrima Arnis Championship was held in San Jose California. The tourney held on October 15, 1988 attracted more than a hundred competitors coming from various parts of the United States.
The event was made doubly significant as it was the first time in many years and perhaps the last that the top three grandmasters of the Filipino art in the USA were in attendance together in one function – Grandmaster Ben Largusa, Leo Giron and Angel Caballes attended the tournament upon the strong representation and invitation by Cañete and Bandalan.
The historic event firmed up the plan and finally paved the way for the holding of the first World Championship and Congress which led to the birth of WEKAF in August 1989.
By SGM Diony Cañete