What Made Ben Largusa A True Filipino Martial Arts Legend?

Ben Largusa was born in Hawaii on the island of Kauai in 1926.

Largusa’s parents immigrated to the United States – specifically Hawaii – from Cebu, Philippines.

In his mid-thirties, Largusa moved to San Francisco because he was advised, by his teacher, to train and spar with opponents of different styles.

Prior to his death in 2010, Grandmaster Ben Largusa was readily recognized as one of the most respected Filipino Martial Arts masters in the world. 

Considering that the Filipino Martial Arts had been visible to the world since 1964 and that there was widespread knowledge of many masters around the globe by 2010, it was certainly an accomplishment to be considered one of the most respected Filipino Martial Arts masters in the world.  

But beyond respect, Grandmaster Largusa was seen as a true Filipino Martial Arts legend.

What was it that made him a true Filipino Martial Arts legend?

Was it his incredible fighting skill?

Perhaps it was his penchant for firsts?

Maybe it was his profound ability to systematically analyze and organize things?

It was all of these things and much more!

His Fighting Skill

Ben Largusa’s martial arts training began when his father started teaching him Filipino Martial Arts.

Despite his father’s introduction, his first escrima teacher is usually credited as being Master Agustin.

He experienced a break in his escrima training when he joined the United States Army in 1945 during World War II.

During his tour-of-duty in the Army, he trained in several fighting systems, including judo and boxing.

He returned to Kauai in 1951 after he was discharged from the Army.

It was at this time that he was accepted as a student of the legendary Floro Villabrille with the blessings of Master Agustin.

Grandmaster Villabrille was revered as the Philippines’ greatest fighter.

Largusa’s one-on-one training with Villabrille brought his fighting skills to an exceptional level.

Recall that his teacher advised him to train and spar with opponents of different styles. That teacher was Grandmaster Villabrille.

After arriving in San Francisco and meeting various martial artists, Largusa was finally in a position to heed his teacher’s advice and spar with other stylists.

It should come as no surprise that when he sparred with practitioners of various styles, he reportedly easily handled his opponents.

He credited his effectiveness against various stylists to the Villabrille system.

A Man of Firsts

Ben Largusa was a man of firsts.

He was the first to commercially organize the Filipino Martial Arts and the first to introduce kali in the public arena in the United States.

Commercial Organization

After leaving Hawaii, Ben Largusa opened a Kali school in south San Francisco in California.

Largusa developed a system of ranking and a curriculum designed to span three years.

He believed that his school was the first school commercial organization of Kali.

Some escrimadors did not support this commercialization because they felt the art might get watered down for public consumption.

But anyone who saw Grandmaster Largusa or his students move and work would attest to the fact that the art was not watered down.

Additionally, the first commercial organization orchestrated by Ben Largusa was blessed by Grandmaster Villabrille himself.

Public Introduction

Ben Largusa gave America its first demonstration of Kali in 1964 at the Ed Parker International Karate Championships in Long Beach, California.

Largusa, with the help of his brother Dominador, demonstrated sparring with escrima sticks.

Ed Parker was not just a great martial artist; he was also open-minded one.

It has been reported that Parker was interested in learning more about kali long before he had Largusa demonstrate kali at Parker’s 1964 Karate Championships.

During their get-togethers, Largusa explained to Parker that Kali was much more than just stick-fighting.

He showed Parker empty-hand movements and techniques, as well as footwork.

It was these get-togethers and Parker’s love of the movements and footwork that Largusa showed him that prompted Parker to ask Largusa to demonstrate at his karate championships.

Maintaining Cultural Links

Grandmaster Largusa did his part to sustain the art’s traditional ties to the Philippines by including orascion, prayer and sayaws.

For Largusa, orascion was meditation.

He believed it was the spirit of giving that was exercised in the meditation.

Being humble and giving was important to him, as he believed you had to give before you can take; especially when you train.

As for the prayer, it was a non-partisan gesture meant to give the students an opportunity to communicate with the divine being associated with their belief system.

It was not meant to teach any brand of religion.

Sayaw is the dance form that kept Kali hidden from the Spaniards in the Philippines. Grandmaster Largusa taught his students 20 or more sayaws.

The sayaws contained basic movements, defensive movements, counters, strikes and footwork patterns.

Students were expected to be able to do the sayaws to the beat of a drum or with their own imagined rhythms.

Not a Giver ... A Teacher

You know the old adage, “Give a man a fish; feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish; feed him for life.”

In martial arts, this akin to giving a student a technique and him having a technique or teaching him a concept, principle or theory and him having the knowledge to create multiple techniques.

Grandmaster Largusa was definitely a teacher as he taught concepts not just techniques.

Examples of concepts included the basic concept of defense in Kali, defanging the snake, and multiple triangles.

The Basic Concept of Defense in Kali

Largusa defensive concept contained three elements – the parry, safety factor and killing blow.

The parry was the motion that deflected the opponent’s strike.

The safety factor was the motion of the checking hand that was intended to hold the opponent’s striking hand in place after the strike had been deflected.

The killing blow was the counterstriking motion. It could have followed the parry and safety factor or it could have occurred during either one.

Defanging the Snake

This concept was used by Grandmaster Largusa to teach his students to hit the hand.

He would tell his students to envision a rattlesnake because it could be deadly; just as an opponent could be.

He then told them if they took the fangs out it would still look deadly, but it would no longer be able to kill.

He then explained that, in Kali, he considered the hand a fang.

With that consideration in mind, taking away the hand would prevent the hand from being able to pick a weapon to kill you or even to be a weapon itself to injure you.

So, defanging the snake is about hitting the hand to limit the attacking options of the opponent.

Multiple Triangles

Like the circle, the triangle is key to understanding Kali.

It’s not surprising then that Grandmaster Largusa taught his students about multiple triangles, such as the rhythm, internal and universal triangles.

The rhythm triangle is depicted with the mind at the top of the triangle and the hands and feet at the other two corners. An opponent’s ability to fight can be seriously impacted, if not completely eliminated, by knocking out any corner of the triangle. The mind is at the top because it affects both the hands and feet.

The internal triangle is depicted with the mind at the top and the ki or internal strength in one corner and the point of contact in the other corner. Largusa explained that by hitting the back or the feet the ki could be weakened. Weakening the ki to subdue an opponent was akin to killing the bark to destroy the tree.

The universal triangle, which was depicted with the supernatural spirit at the top and the practitioner and his opponent in the bottom corners, was the highest level of training and understanding in Kali.

Orascion was the means to communicating with the supernatural spirit.

Grandmaster Largusa believed it made the mind stronger. He believed it developed the fighting spirit. He also believed that without this spiritual and mental training one would move mechanically – like a robot with no feeling and no meaning.

Ben Largusa's Philosophy

Recall the term killing blow from earlier.

While a highly trained Kali man could kill an opponent, Grandmaster Ben Largusa believed that the purpose of Kali training was to spare a man’s life.

He felt the ultimate philosophy was to discourage, not injure, and to spare life, not take it.

In his eyes, when you spared a man’s life only then have you learned the purpose of Kali training.

More Than Villabrille's Successor

As Dan Inosanto has written, Ben Largusa was a master because of his skill and knowledge.

That skill and knowledge came, in large part, from studying under the legendary Grandmaster Floro Villabrille for six or seven unbroken years in the 1950s.

While Largusa was not the only one who trained under Villabrille, he was the one chosen by Villabrille to be his successor.

As his training with Villabrille progressed over the years, the ever-insightful Largusa realized that fighting techniques and theory were at the forefront of his martial arts education under the legendary grandmaster.

But, given the way he was taught and his desire to teach others, he realized that he would have to make some changes to facilitate a “friendlier” learning environment.

So, he systematically and painstakingly deconstructed Grandmaster Villabrille’s complete system – step-by-step and move-by-move.

In recognition of his efforts, Grandmaster Floro Villabrille presented Largusa with a signed legal document designating him the sole heir to the Villabrille method and the title of Tuhan or Master.

Additionally, Villabrille authorized Largusa to add his name to Villabrille’s system of martial arts, which is why the system is now known as the Villabrille-Largusa Kali System.

Villabrille was not the only one to recognize Ben Largusa’s efforts and skill.

On June 18, 1993, the city of Los Angeles also recognized Largusa’s efforts and skill, as he and other Filipino Martial Arts legends were honored at an event dubbed, “The City of Los Angeles Honors the Living Treasures of the Filipino Martial Arts.”

Other Filipino Martial Arts legends that were present included Leo Giron, Sam Tendencia, Lucky Lucaylucay, Richard Bustillo, Dan Inosanto, and Greg Lontayao.

A Kali Man

Grandmaster Ben Largusa was known to separate himself from the title of escrima master.

It was his belief that escrima, arnis, sikaran, silat, kuntao, kaliradman, kalirongan and pagkalikali were all phases of Kali.

To him, Kali was the mother or ancestral art and the aforementioned phases are all part of Kali training.

So, Grandmaster Largusa was a man of Kali.

Sustaining His Legacy

While Grandmaster Ben Largusa has been gone for some time, many Filipino Martial Arts teachers and students (especially those connected to Villabrille-Largusa Kali) help to keep his legacy alive. 

One way they do this is by passing on stories of Largusa via the oral traditions of Kali.

Another way his legacy survives is in print.

Three pages of The Filipino Martial Arts as taught by Dan Inosanto are devoted to Ben Largusa.

This biographical sketch of Largusa is one of the ways that I display my commitment to keep this greatly revered Grandmaster’s legacy alive.

Additionally, I speak to my students about Grandmaster Largusa.

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