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The Impact of Filipino Boxing on Western Boxing: A Real Story

Updated: Dec 7, 2023


This is a story that every boxing fan should know about, but most everyone has never heard of. I'm here to change that.


During my years of training under the legendary martial arts master, Guro Dan Inosanto, I was fortunate enough to have heard countless numbers of fascinating true stories about Filipino - American history. Guro Dan often talked about how his parents' job was to record and document Filipino - American history for the U.S. government. In fact, the U.S. government brought his parents to Stockton, California, where they ended up residing permanently, so that they can continue to record Filipino - American history. One of the most unforgettable true stories he shared with me was about how Filipino boxing directly influenced modern Western boxing.


In the beginning, we had John L. Sullivan.

There once was a man among men named John L. Sullivan. He was nicknamed "The Boston Strong Boy" by the media of the time and was considered the greatest boxer of his age. He was the Michael Jordan of his time. His boxing reign lasted from 1882 to 1892. Sullivan's style of boxing was typical of his era: standing as tall as possible, head erect, arms held down by the waistline with fists upturned. The concept behind this stance was that it projected toughness and strength, like saying, "I can take whatever you can dish out. I'm not afraid of you." This was the mindset of "take a punch to give a punch," also known as "trading blows." John L. would go toe-to-toe with a rival and beat him into submission with his fists. Not much footwork. Not much evasiveness. Not much technical skill. Just straight up slugging.


So what happened between John L. Sullivan's style of boxing and today's style of boxing?


The Philippines Happened, That's What


The Philippines became a military colony of the United States from 1898 until 1946. The U.S. placed the island nation under martial law. The U.S. occupied the Philippines with the Army, Navy, and Marines and made it their home for a long time. One of the objectives of the local U.S. government was to study and learn about the indigenous culture, as well as introduce American culture to the Filipinos. To accomplish this, American servicemen were sent into the local populations to share and learn, promoting a cross-cultural exchange. Americans introduced such things as basketball, baseball, hotdogs, hamburgers, and ice cream, among other things, to the Filipinos. And the Filipinos loved it.

"The backbone of the Filipino empty hand skills is derived from that of the Knife."

- Guro Dan Inosanto, The Filipino Martial Arts


Enter Filipino Boxing


In the Philippines at that time, almost everyone carried a blade. This was for protection and for utility purposes. This Filipino "blade culture" was reflected in its indigenous martial arts. When Filipino fighters went at it, they often fought using knives. They'd slash, thrust, and evade each other, trying not to get maimed or killed. This life-and-death type of dueling was common, especially among the macho, testosterone-fueled types. But when these fighters fought empty handed, they called it "Suntokan," taken from the Filipino word "suntok," or to punch. This art is known today as Filipino boxing. In this style, you can use kicks, elbows, knees, headbutts, eye attacks, groin attacks etc. It was no-holds barred, for sure. But what made Filipino boxing unique was that they fought each other with bare fists the same way they did when they fought with knives. They used elbows and hands as if they were knives.


What does that mean? In Filipino martial arts, the immediate goal is to destroy the hand or arm holding the incoming weapon (De-Fanging the Snake) by slashing it with a blade, forcing the attacker to release his weapon and rendering him vulnerable. Imagine someone coming at you with a knife, and as he tries to stab you, you cut his hand with your own knife, making him drop his knife. But when Filipinos fought bare-knuckled, they applied the same exact principle: they "destroyed" any incoming punches and kicks by using their elbows, knees, and hands like knives or spikes. They called these techniques "Destructions" and "Guntings," (scissors). For example, they'd target the brachial nerve or ulnar nerve on the punching arm and smash it with knuckle shots, creating a dead arm or injured arm. After this "destruction," they followed it with a barrage of punches and strikes to finish the opponent. Any punch or kick that came in was getting destroyed. That's why their punching had to adapt to this tactic. It had to be faster.


Filipino fighters developed bare-knuckled punches that copied the movement patterns of knives - lightning fast, accurate, and a quick return of the punching hand to the face to avoid getting hit by a counter-attack. The jab and cross are actually taken from straight thrusts with a knife. The tight hook, shovel hook, and body hooks are actually circular slashes with a knife. The body shot is actually a knife stab. The uppercuts are upward slashing motions with a knife. The overhand right is a forehanded slashing motion with a knife. So when boxers today use modern boxing punches, they don't realize that they're actually replicating the movements of knife techniques. Add to these offensive techniques the Filipino evasion techniques like slipping, bobbing, weaving, ducking, and rolling, and you have many ways to avoid getting hit by a knife during a fight.


So when American servicemen first saw Filipino boxers in action, they laughed at them and thought they were ridiculous. "What the hell is that about?" They couldn't understand what the Filipinos were doing. Why were their hands up so high? Why were they constantly moving around? Why were they constantly moving their heads? Why were they trying to punch each others arms? But once they understood what Filipino boxing was all about, they wanted to learn it. So American soldiers were ordered to train in Filipino boxing during their off-hours. American soldiers and Filipino boxers held friendly competitions. The Americans gladly contributed the use of boxing gloves and punch mitts. They loved the speed, elusiveness, and shiftiness of this new kind of boxing. It was different from the boxing they saw back in the States. It wasn't the "take a punch to give a punch" mentality that the big John L. Sullivan-types had. It was a new philosophy of hitting your opponent without getting hit yourself. Ever heard the boxing phrase "Stick and Move?" Guess where the origins of that tactic came from? Knife fighting! This was the original "hit-and-run" style boxing. The emphasis was now more on evading punches, firing super fast counter-attacks, and then getting back out, instead of just standing your ground and trading blows. This was Muhammad Ali before Ali was even born. This was Floyd Mayweather Jr. in the distant past. This was fun! The Filipino boxers were proud to share their boxing with the American servicemen, who in turn, decided to adopt this new style of boxing as their own.



Bringing It Home


The U.S. Army and Navy decided to adopt Filipino boxing into their boxing curriculum, but with some exceptions.


First, there would be no recognition of the Filipinos' contributions to the U.S. Army-Navy boxing program. There wouldn't even be any mention of Filipinos being involved. Why? Perhaps racism. Remember this was happening during a colonialist period for America. William Howard Taft, the 27th President of the United States (1901- 1904), referred to the Filipinos as "Our little brown brothers." Filipinos at that time were treated by Americans as less than equal. They were viewed as uncivilized and backwards. It wasn't surprising for the U.S. military to appropriate Filipino boxing, but it was unforgiveable not to give tribute to the Filipinos who shared it with them.


Second, the removal of all the dirty and savage techniques and tactics, such as hitting below the belt, hits to the groin, kicks, elbows, knees, grappling, throwing etc. The U.S. Army-Navy Boxing Manual kept the Filipino boxing stance, punches, defense, footwork, evasions, strategies and "clean" tactics, among other things. Now if you look at the picture above, the Navy boxer now has his hands up in a high guard position, his back foot is lifted, and his chin is down. He looks like a modern-day boxer. This picture was taken from the front of a Navy boxing manual from the 1940s.


All of a sudden, a new boxing style emerges and is brought back to the United States. Americans loved it! Filipino boxers like Pancho Villa (World Champion 1919 - 1925) and Flash Elorde (World Champion 1951 - 1971) emerged in the U.S. and became boxing superstars. But no one can really explain where they got this new boxing style from.



The Filipinos' Valuable Contribution


The truth is, without the influence of Filipino boxing, boxers today would still be fighting like John L. Sullivan. Muhammad Ali would've been a different kind of boxer. He probably wouldn't be "floating like a butterfly, and stinging like a bee." The approach to boxing that the Filipinos had was opposite of the European approach to boxing. To the Europeans, British, and Americans in the 19th and early 20th century, the perfect boxer was someone who was big, strong, and powerful. Speed wasn't important. Instead, punching power was more important. Boxers then didn't move around too much. They were expected to go toe-to-toe, blow-for-blow, willing to take punches to give punches, and never backing down. Back then boxing was more a battle of attrition, where the strongest man won. The winner was the one who was left standing, despite absorbing his opponent's blows. That's why John L. Sullivan reigned. He had a tough skull.


But now come the smaller but faster Filipinos with their brand of boxing that was more akin to unconventional warfare, that used hit-and-run tactics, and valued speed and elusiveness over attrition-based boxing. They kept their hands up, chin down, elbows in, and punched and moved around. Today that style of boxing is universally accepted as Western boxing. The U.S. Army-Navy Boxing Manual was responsible for this style of boxing. And Filipino Boxing was responsible for changing and influencing the Army-Navy Boxing Manual. Without the contribution of Filipino boxers to the sport of boxing, today's boxing wouldn't be what it is. Unfortunately, this part of U.S. history has been buried. Unless you've studied under Guro Dan Inosanto or one of his instructors, you'll never know. Guro Dan's family recorded this piece of history so we won't forget.


The U.S. military may never admit to appropriating Filipino boxing from the Filipinos and that's a sad reality. But maybe someday the people, and country, who transformed the world of boxing will be given the credit they deserve. I can only hope that justice will be done.


Learn Filipino Boxing at Tandez Academy

Did you know that you've probably watched Filipino boxing in action and didn't know it? If you've watched any big Hollywood action movie, chances are you were watching Filipino martial arts. Almost every Hollywood action star uses Filipino Kali, or Filipino boxing, for their films because it looks realistic and totally badass! From John Wick to Jason Bourne to the Equalizer, they used Filipino martial arts.

If you're interested in learning about Filipino boxing, or want to train with us, please contact us at:

Tandez Academy, 1931 Old Middlefield Way, Unit C, Mountain View, CA.

Phone 408 373 0204 / Email: info@tandezacademyofmartialarts.com.

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