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Cuentada... my approach

Updated: Mar 25, 2020

I remember thinking how cool it was going to be to be able to do what my teachers said I should be able to do eventually; that being not only to disarm every incoming angle but also counter every disarm and counter-disarm attempted against me, all in a real fight with a tactically intelligent and actively resisting opponent, as opposed to a choreographed drill with a cooperative and habitually acquiescent partner.

The only problem was, while my teachers would go on and on about this mythical group of enlightened grand masters who could do such things with remarkable ease themselves, when it came to what I was being taught, they never actually laid out any real steps to acquire those skills myself.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I love a good yarn as much as the next guy and stories of extraordinary prowess, however embellished they may be, can serve to inspire the next generation of eskrimadors while also passing on the history and culture of the art, as well as the unique personalities and contributions of those who went before.

However, it seemed to me that we ought to be devoting at least some portion of our training to working on doing what they said we should be able to do eventually, but that was not the case, not ever.

Oh sure, they would teach jazzy variations and really interesting and sophisticated ‘progressions’ meant (we were told) to be so deeply ingrained through repetitive practice that – upon necessity – we would somehow transcend the chasm between mechanical training and what the legendary combat general George S. Patton called the orgy of disorder that is battle and have full and unfettered access to everything we were ever taught.

It’s the same paradox that advocates of traditional kata espouse when anyone questions the set-pattern approach to training, except that, in the Filipino martial arts, our set patterns also include set answers to a seemingly well-thought-out list of what-ifs one need only memorize and work like a faith-based, twelve-step program to be ready for whatever may come.

And right about now, I’m probably starting to piss off the followers who staunchly believe their ‘system,’ with its ‘battle-proven’ patterns, is the real deal. How many of us have heard the droning of devotees claiming that theirs is the ‘original’ system?

If whatever the so-called ‘original’ system included in its arsenal of dirty tricks was unequivocally and forever the only true art by virtue of it being the ‘original,’ why isn’t the United States Air Force still flying Orville and Wilbur Wright’s canvas and spruce contraptions?

In my feeling, and I am an admitted iconoclast, if teachers do their job, their students will naturally evolve and advance their ‘system.’ It’s certainly not a negative to move on from the original seed if one has the creativity to do so.

However, as doing so does require a certain degree of irreverence, it can definitely undermine the presumed authority that insecure grand masters of the ‘original’ system tend to hold like guillotine blades over the necks of their followers when they demand blind allegiance, so it’s not a big surprise to me that such excursions are rarely encouraged.

If you haven’t noticed, I’ve sprinkled in a few allusions to the borderline-religious mindset that pervades the Filipino martial arts because I feel very strongly that it is the atheists and heretics, if you will, who have always been the originators, the ones who scoffed at rules, restrictions and rank to forge their own path.

Moreover, what I feel we should take from their example is not only the ideas and innovations they came up with but also, more importantly, their willingness to break from the security of the crowd to venture out on their own.

On a side note, as an artist, I have always found it odd that martial artists are so inclined to follow a certain teacher or system with such unquestioning devotion. In the art world, no one but an idiot would ever say that they paint in the Leonardo Da Vinci style. Only Da Vinci did that and to be a devotee of his ‘system’ of personal expression is a ludicrous idea. Anyway, I digress…

Returning to the point, to the dismay of anyone who has ever pressure-tested their systematized approach in the crucible of even light, padded-weapon sparring, the results more than likely did not inspire confidence in your training method.

To zero in on just one element of the art, if you have ever put on a fencing mask and exchanged even just moderately hard blows with a game partner using hard sticks, you have undoubtedly found it nigh on to impossible to pull off any semblance of checking in the manner you were taught. Rather than engaging your critical thinking and digging into and questioning the manner in which checking was taught to you, though, if you’re like most practitioners – the followers – you probably leapt to the conclusion that checking was a useless remnant of the past and then discarded it.

I can’t be the only one who finds it ironic that that flies so directly in the face of the otherwise unquestioning devotion to systems and lineages. What I think it reveals, though, is the inclination of individual practitioners to make sweeping changes to their personal expression of the art when their experiences and research uncover weaknesses or deficiencies in what they were taught. That’s why they call martial arts training ‘the solitary path.’

Functional checking, counter-checking and counter-counter-checking; disarming, counter-disarming and counter-counter-disarming; masterful weapon control and manipulation; weapon seizure and preemptive counters to weapon seizure; control of distance and position such that the opponent’s options are minimized or entirely eliminated while your options are expanded and fully under your control… these are all elements of the art that you should be training from the earliest beginnings. And you should be doing so in a way that teaches you to get to checkmate quickly rather than simply exchanging techniques in a cooperative exercise without developing the mindset to achieve victory.

On its face, the concept of cuentada would seem to offer a way to do just that. Often defined simply as ‘accounting’ or ‘to do by calculation,’ cuentada is all about learning to prioritize in the flow.

To illustrate, imagine that I have either directly seized or somehow entangled your weapon. Obviously, you need to regain control of it as soon as possible. However, if I am in position to immediately strike you with my weapon, that threat has to be your priority. Even if your system has a really cool technique for breaking the opponent’s grip on your weapon, you can’t just absorb a few full-power cracks in the skull while you pull off your cool technique. So, turning your attention to my weapon, how do you nullify it while also getting your weapon back under your control, all while I am actively and very skillfully maintaining my position of advantage? Mind you, I’m not talking about anything that is choreographed in any way. I’m describing a very real dilemma, one that finds expression in innumerable ways in the flow of a combative exchange… and by ‘combative,’ I mean the goal of both combatants is to effectively breach the other’s defenses and land a telling blow, followed by a withering barrage of confirmation blows.

While cuentada is alluded to in every system of Filipino martial arts I have trained in, Balintawak eskrima often includes the word in the various names practitioners come up with to distinguish their particular approach from that of another’s.

As a perfect example of what I was saying about individual practitioners making sweeping changes in their personal expression of the art, I’ve trained with a number of Balintawak grand masters and, to the uneducated eye, it might seem that they are all teaching entirely different arts. Crispulo Atillo, for example, teaches a brand of checking and counter-checking that is very preemptive. He’s a very little guy (I’m thirteen inches taller than he is) and he undoubtedly figured out, early on, that if a much bigger opponent gets hold of his stick, he’s screwed. So, good luck trying. On the other hand, when I worked out with Bobby Taboada years ago, he was an ox by comparison. Grab hold of his stick and he would not only rip it out of your hand but he might also rip your hand off, just because he could.

What we’re talking about, though, is cuentada. Both Atillo and Taboada teach it, or at least allude to it in their teaching, and can do it themselves exceptionally well. If you aspire to acquire such skill, though, you will need to look beyond the ‘procedure of teaching,’ as Atillo calls it, to distill the essence of cuentada for yourself and, with all due respect to your teachers, tailor it to suit you, just as they did. But don’t presume for a second that their vaunted procedure of teaching will impart that knowledge to you directly without you engaging your critical thinking and doing the work it takes to slough off the imprisoning chains of their intentionally repetitive and mechanical procedure that’s only meant to give you a taste of what it’s is all about.

Simply put, if one person is feeding attacks and the other is answering those attacks in a prescribed manner, that is a choreographed exercise. That is not cuentada.

Cuentada is the apex. Sparring is certainly important and essential, but the very first things you would actually want to do in a real fight are not what anyone wants to be hit with in a friendly sparring session. Cuentada puts those things first on the list of priorities in attacking. To practice cuentada, you have to consciously abandon any semblance of a cooperative exercise. However, that is certainly not to say that you should throw all caution to the wind and just fight. You won’t survive the practice long if you take that approach. The beauty of cuentada training is that you can choose the degree of intensity at which you want to practice.

Right about now, I imagine you’re getting frustrated. I’ve talked about how a great many teachers who are, themselves, highly skilled at cuentada, often only allude to it in their teaching. I’ve also said that cuentada is meant to be very personally yours. Unfortunately, it’s only natural to look at something a teacher is trying to illuminate for you through the lens of your previous experience in the art and therein lies the main problem with ‘teaching’ cuentada. It is not a technique. It’s about being fully awake and in the moment. Attempting to access and make use of memorized skills will almost certainly fail in the context of cuentada because your opponent will be changing the circumstances constantly, and you’ll be doing the same in return. In a sense, you’ll both be playing keep-away. Neither of you will do anything that will provide any opportunity or advantage to the opponent unless you’re baiting him so you can then counter him and finish it. As opposed to basically every other drill in the art, in the practice of cuentada, the singular objective is to win and the one who wins does so by being better at it, period. Hence, it is a pure test of skill.

Going back to what my teachers said I should be able to do, about fifteen years ago, I resolved to figure out, for myself, how to do just that, as it was clear that no one was actually teaching that. Dismantling and restructuring my daily practice, I flipped the script. With freedom as the goal, I knew that I had to have freedom at the beginning. Hence, I began exploring applying the ideals of cuentada without using a mechanical exercise as a portal. I also made it a point to start there with new students, rather than only alluding to it as a high level goal. No teaching basics. No wasting time with teaching Filipino terminologies (the innumerable dialects and the rivalries that crop up because of them make that an exercise in futility). It’s quite simple, really. Hit but don’t get hit. Take line and immediately seize control of the opponent’s weapon but don’t let him touch your hand or your weapon unless it’s to your advantage to do so (which, surprisingly, it often can be, particularly if the opponent doesn’t know what he’s doing, and very few do).

Having been told, again and again, that I should be able to disarm every angle; that seemed like a good place to start. What I soon discovered, though, was that the way I was taught to look at disarming was, in and of itself, fatally flawed. Isolating disarms in a defensive framework made them easy to learn but impossible to actually pull off against a full-speed, full-power attack. Turning the situation around by aggressively putting the opponent on the defensive made disarming him significantly easier and more practicable. ALWAYS BE ATTACKING is a hallmark of cuentada. Immediately, the opponent is essentially cornered and likely to response by somehow binding or otherwise entangling your weapon as you endeavor to disarm him. That’s why they call it fighting. You need to effectively solve whatever problem he creates on the fly before he can take the initiative and attack, putting you on the defensive.

I can well imagine a great number of you are nodding your heads right now, feeling absolutely certain that you fully understand what I’m talking about because your system teaches a progression of counter-offensive techniques that ingeniously solve the problems you’re likely to encounter in a situation such as that. The problem with that belief, though, is that you won’t have access to those techniques when my stick is coming at your face at seventy miles an hour. In fact, even if I slow it down to just ten miles per hour, you still have no hope of coming up with anything from memory.

After all, that approach is equivalent to coming to a conversation with pre-rehearsed sentences. You may be able to impress people with your eloquence as an orator or speechmaker, putting on impressive demonstrations of advanced technique but, as an eskrimador, your goal is to be a great conversationalist, able to open your mind and give your full and complete attention to whomever you’re speaking with and express your thoughts and feelings in a way that leaves them unable to argue with you. When it’s done well, cuentada can be compared to trying to get your ball back from your big brother. By virtue of his greater life experience and his dedication to torturing you, his keep-away skills are insurmountable. As silly as that analogy may seem, I often use the idea of simply playing keep-away to get students to stop trying to learn by memorizing techniques.

You all know how to play the game. To do it well, you have to be very present. You have to watch your proverbial little brother like a predator stalks its prey. Watch his efforts. See how he tries to solve the problems you create. Then, adapt to him and, as you continue to torture him, expect the desperate lunge and be ready to counter it.

I know it’s reprehensible and politically incorrect to use such an analogy to illustrate my point but, before you get your hackles up, know that I was the little brother and my beloved big brother John was a veritable genius at that infuriating game. And in that fury, the seed of my personal expression of cuentada was sown.

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