Are You Curious About How Floro Villabrille Became Grandmaster of the Philippines?

Floro Villabrille was born in the Philippines in the province of Cebu on February 18, 1912.

In 1926, at the age of 14, he began his martial arts studies by learning Eskrima from his uncles and kung fu from his grandfather. His studies ignited an unextinguishable flame that illuminated the path of his quest for knowledge.  

Villabrille’s quest for knowledge led him to research the art of Kali by traveling the length and width of the Philippines.  Throughout his travels, he studied many different forms of Filipino martial arts from many different teachers.

His uncle, Leoncio Villagano, Master Pio from Masbate Isles, and Princess Josephina from Gandara, Samar were his three most influential teachers.

According to his successor, Grandmaster Ben Largusa, his favorite teacher was Princess Josephina.

The Legend of Samar

Anyone who has spent any significant amount of time with a well-connected Kali teacher who is well-versed in the art’s oral traditions or anyone who has seriously researched Grandmaster Floro Villabrille’s past will surely be familiar with the Legend of Samar.

Samar is a province in the Philippines located in the eastern Visayas region. Gandara is a village on the island of Samar.

Villabrille endured a difficult journey to get to the village of Gandara because accessible trails were nowhere to be found. 

His pioneering spirit was not immediately rewarded. He resided in the village for quite some time before finally getting the opportunity to learn the art of Kali as practiced by the villagers of Gandara. During this time, he performed many menial tasks. 

The menial tasks were meant to be a series of initiations that displayed his loyalty and sincerity to learn the art. In time, Villabrille’s loyalty and sincerity became evident and he was finally allowed to begin his Kali practice. 

His excitement quickly turned to resentment when the village chieftain assigned his blind daughter, Princess Josephina, to teach him. His resentment quickly turned to respect, however, as his practice began.

Princess Josephina, who was blind since birth, had developed an extraordinary sixth sense that Villabrille said allowed her to feel what direction and angle the strikes were coming from. He was so amazed by her prowess that he lived on the island for two years so he could learn under her direct tutelage.

The Death-Match King

A death-match was a fight in which victory was only declared when one of the combatants was either slain or demobilized.

In the 1930’s, combatants in these full-contact Kali and Eskrima stick fighting bouts were not aided by the use of body armor, pads or headgear. In this respect, these bouts were similar to the no-holds-barred fights of today.

The death-match combatants used the stick in the right hand and punched with the left hand. Additionally, grappling, sweeps and throws were used in close quarters.

Villabrille’s death-match career began at age 17.

His death match career ended in Hawaii in 1948.

In a career that spanned nearly 20 years, Great Grandmaster Floro Villabrille was an undefeated champion of countless Kali and Eskrima stick fighting death-matches in the Philippines, Australia and Hawaii.

His Most Legendary Match

At 18 years of age, Villabrille was working on a ship when he received a telegram from his training partner Felicisimo Dizon. Dizon’s telegram told Villabrille about a young Moro stick fighter.

Dizon, a great stick fighter in his own right, had fought the young Moro and lost.

When Villabrille’s ship returned to the Philippines he was met by friends. Not wanting Villabrille to get hurt or killed, his uncle Villagano tried to talk him out of fighting the young Moro.

Villabrille refused to cancel the fight.

So, on July 4, 1933, Villabrille fought his last fight – his most legendary match – in the Philippines.

His opponent was a young Moro Datu, from the island of Mindanao, named Elario Eran. Elario was an expert in Kuntao Silat – another form of Indonesian / Filipino martial art. 

The National Grand Championship of the Philippines was at stake.

The young Moro Prince lived up to the hype. He was highly skilled. He and Villabrille traded blows for several rounds.

During an exchange, Villabrille felt a hit bounce off his skull. At the same time, however, his bahi stick struck Eran on the neck causing instant death. Bahi is a type of wood made from the heart of a palm tree.

At the bout’s conclusion, then U.S. Governor-General Frank Murphy of the Philippines presented Villabrille with a certificate stating that he had won the Grand Championship of the Philippines.

Floro Villabrille was now the Grandmaster of the Philippines.

Next Stop America

Later in 1933, Villabrille stowed away on a ship to Oahu, Hawaii.

He later settled in Kauai, Hawaii.

While in Hawaii, he fought several more matches.

Villabrille fought his last match in 1948.

Shortly thereafter, death-matches were banned. 

Villabrille Kali

Villabrille’s diligent training, pursuit of combat excellence, and extensive combat experience made him a wealth of knowledge, skill, and ability.

He pooled his knowledge, skills, and abilities to develop his own system of combat known as the Villabrille System of Kali.

Today Villabrille’s System of Kali is known as the Villabrille-Largusa Kali System.

This is due to two facts:

  1. Grandmaster Ben Largusa was the man who dissected Villabrille’s System of Kali, systemized it, and put into place the theories philosophies that complement the art and

  2. Grandmaster Ben Largusa was Floro Villabrille’s foremost student and personally chosen successor 

Floro Villabrille - A National Treasure

Grandmaster Villabrille is considered a national hero in some parts of the Philippines. 

Villabrille’s status as a national treasure can be confirmed with a visit to the municipal museum on Mactan Island in Cebu.

The museum houses a giant picture of Lapu-Lapu, the man credited with killing Magellan.

Next in size is the certificate and picture of Grandmaster Floro Villabrille.

Gone But NOT Forgotten

At the age of 80, Great Grandmaster Villabrille passed away in 1992. 

He was survived by his wife Trining and their three sons, Kenneth, Floro Jr. and Ralph.

While Floro Villabrille may be gone, he will not be forgotten.

Historians, students, and teachers of Kali who recognize Villabrille’s greatness and contributions to Kali do things to keep his name alive.

This biographical sketch of Villabrille 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 the Grandmaster.

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