The Legend of Floro Villabrille

The Legend of Floro Villabrille
Kali’s Master of the Death Match

By Jim Coleman, Black Belt Magazine 1990

They came, several hundred strong, from Oahu, the mainland, the Philippines and the host island of Kauai to pay homage to him.  They brought food.  They brought gifts.  They brought music.  They brought their martial arts.

But most of all, they brought their love for the man whose kali style they practiced and whose legendary skill they revered.

It was a celebration to honor Floro Villabrille, the acknowledged grandmaster of the Villabrille-Largusa System of Kali, which is a composite of all Filipino fighting methods.  The undefeated death match fighter, recently turned 78, is not the powerful force he once was.  A stroke in 1975 left his left side paralyzed and hampered his ability to walk. He has had two heart attacks and continues to have heart problems.  His biggest opponent now is his own vulnerability.

But he seemed pleased that so many would come so far to see him, shake his hand and demonstrate to him their skills in the Filipino arts.

The event was organized by Wilmington, California-based Greg Lontayao, one of the system’s senior instructors, who brought representatives from four of his six schools to the celebration.  Seven other groups attended the event and demonstrated for the grandmaster:  John Taeza’s kali school; Benny Albios’ Oahu kali school; Honolulu-based Snookie Sanchez and his talented group; escrima instructor Joey Delmar of Honolulu, the successor to the late Raymond Tabosa, and her students; Rudy Orland and his Oahu group; Eduardo Pedoy and his students from Honolulu; Frank Mamalias and his Oahu based students; and 71-year old Ciriaco Canete , who came all the way from Cebu City, Philippines and concluded the program with a demonstration of his doce pares system and escrido, a combination of escrima and aikido.

“This is the first time was have gathered all the different styles together to demonstrate and show respect to the grandmaster,” Lontayao said.  “We understand and respects each other.  There are no problems.”

Ben Largusa, Villabrille’s top student and the man who brought kali to the U.S. mainland nearly 17 years ago, was unable to attend the celebration due to a death in the family.  But Largusa sent his daughter Lois to Kauai with a message for Villabrille.   “Like a tornado, kali started its movement in Kauai and gathered momentum,” she told the gathering, alluding at time to Villabrille’s unmarked, unscarred face despite the many full-contact matches he fought during his lifetime.  “We salute you, and we love you.”

In his book, The Filipino Martial Arts, kali expert Dan Inosanto quoted Villabrille on how he trained for his fights:  “Before  a fight, I go to mountains alone.  I pretend my enemy is there.  I imagine being attacked, and in my imagination I fight for real.  I keep this up until my mind is ready for the kill.  I can’t lose.  When I enter the ring, nobody can beat me; I already know that man Is beaten.”

Villbrille began training in the Filipino arts at 14 and studied under a number of instructors in the Philippines.  His favorite teacher was said to be a blind princess named Josephina, who lived ina village called Gandari on the island of Samar.  To this day , Villabrille does not know how the princess was able to see his blows during training.

When he was 18, Villabrille fought one of his most memorable bouts against a Moro stick fighter.  Although the Moro was the faster of the two, Villabrille traded blow for blow and eventually won the full-contact match after five rounds.  For several weeks afterward, Villabrille was unable to lift his arms over his head due to the blows the had received while attempting to block the Moro’s stick attacks.  If the match had been fought with swords instead of sticks, Villabrille admits he probably would have been killed.

Many who competed in these brutal bouts did die, or suffered permanent injury.  No body armor was permitted, and elbow, knee and head strikes were common at close range.  In fact, just about any technique was allowed.  Yet, Villabrille never lost a fight, competing in his final match in 1948.  A television crew from Hawaii Tonight News, hearing of Villabrille’s prowess, attended the celebration in Kauai and asked him questions about his so-called death matches.  “I didn’t feel nothing,” Villabrille told the interviewer.

Years ago, in his prime, Villabrille might have joined the other masters on stage and demonstrated his kali as well.  But his weakened condition wouldn’t allow it.  Still, stories of his exploits circulated throughout the assembly hall as the various groups performed.

Some people believe Villabrille has the power of anting-anting, a magical charm that gives one superhuman strength.  Perhaps that explains how he punched nails through two-by-fours, and how he was able to pull the nails back out again.

“One time he took a rusty nail – it had no point; nothing –  and he smashed it right into solid wood,” recalls Frank Mamalias, one of Villabrille’s former training partners.  “He told the audience:  ‘I have $100 for anyone who can pull that nail out.’  None succeeded, so he held it, took his hand, and pulled it out with no hesitation.  It sounded like a .38 going off!”

The there’s the story about how Villabrille challenged a man to peel a coconut with his bare hands.  The man couldn’t make any inroads in the leather-like covering that surrounds the actual coconut, so Villabrille took it and pried the outer portion apart with his two hands.  “The sides of him, there are many,” Mamalias says.

Villabrille tributes abounded at the celebration in Kauai.  Phil Tacbian, who trained with Villabrille for a year and was running for Hawaii state senator at the time of this printing, called his former training partner “a true master.  No instructor came anywhere near the grandmaster.  He was a true perfectionist.”

Although somewhat guarded about discussing Villabrille’s full-contact matches, Tacbian admitted that, in his younger days, Villabrille “killed a guy.  He learned how deadly the art was for real.  The losers…some of them got killed.”

While far from animated, Villabrille seemed to enjoy the festivities, which included music from a six-piece band of kali practitioners  (headed by talented flutist Simpy Albios) and a banquet of tasty Philippine food.

Perhaps the most exciting routine was that of Snookie Sanchez, 53 who arrived late after attending a tournament on Oahu earlier in the day, performed a demo with his daughter in which she defended against his double-blade attack with a pair of long sticks.  It was one of the few full-speed routines that featured “live” blades, and certainly caught everybody’s attention.  When Sanchez went down under a particularly effective double-stick attack by his daughter, Villabrille snickered “He’s dead.”

Sanchez’ most impressive work was saved for last, however, when he blindfolded himself and proceeded to demonstrate the art of latigo (bullwhip).  “I used to kill all of the plants in the yard,” Sanchez remarked as he cracked the whip in preparation of his demo.  “And I tell you, I was good.  I used to get a licking (from my mother).”

Candles were placed in a circle around Sanchez and while blindfolded, he used the whip to snuff out the flames of all but one.

Next to Lapu Lapu, the legendary Filipino warriors credited with slaying the invading Spaniard Ferdinand Magellan in the 16th century, Villabrille is probably the most famous martial artist ever to come out of the Philippines.  When he left the celebration, assisted by his wife and nurse Trini, it was a sad sight to see the once-powerful grandmaster so feeble.  Still, he made his exit with pride and dignity, and with the respect of several hundred of his followers, who watched and wondered if they would see him again.