Grand Master Floro Villabrille is the undefeated champion of countless Kali and Eskrima stick fighting death-matches in the Philippines, Australia and Hawaii. In the 1930’s, Kali and Eskrima stick fighting matches were full-contact bouts where the combatants were not aided by the use of body armor, pads or headgear. Combatants used the stick in the right hand and punched with the left hand. In close quarters, grappling, sweeps and throws were used. It was similar to the no holds barred fights of today except that victory was only declared when one of the combatants was either slain or demobilized.
Floro Villabrille was born February 18, 1912 in Cebu, Philippines. He began his martial arts training at age 14, studying Eskrima from his uncles and kung fu from his grandfather.
In his hunger for more knowledge, he traveled the entire Philippines studying the many forms of Filipino martial arts from various masters. His three most influential instructors were his uncle, Leoncio Villagano, Master Pio from Masbate Isles, and Princess Josephina from Gandara, Samar.
His favorite instructor was Princess Josephina, who was the blind daughter of a village chieftain of Gandara on the island of Samar. When Villabrille first arrived on the island, he wasn’t immediately taught Kali. Only after passing a series of initiations that displayed his loyalty and sincerity to learning the art, Villabrille was assigned to the chieftain’s daughter. At first thought, Villabrille was insulted that the chieftain assigned his blind daughter to teach him, but his resentment quickly turned to respect. Blind since birth, Josephina developed an extraordinary sixth sense that Villabrille said allowed her to feel what direction and angle the strikes were coming from. Villabrille was amazed by her prowess and lived on the island for 2 years learning under her direct tutelage.
By the age of 17, he was fighting in death-matches. July 4, 1933 was Villabrille’s last fight in the Philippines. His opponent was Elario Eran, a Moro Datu (Prince) from the island of Mindanao. Elario was an expert in Silat-Kuntao; another form of Indonesian/Filipino martial art. People warned Villabrille that the Moro Prince was quick and better than him and suggested that he cancel out of the fight, but he ignored the pleas and refused to bow out. At stake was the National Grand Championship of the Philippines. According to Villabrille, the Moro Prince was highly skilled and they traded blow for blow until the 3rd round when Villabrille felt a hit bounce off his skull. At the same time, Villabrille’s bahi stick struck Eran on the neck causing instant death. At the end of the bout, then U.S Governor-General Frank Murphy of the Philippines presented Villabrille with a certificate making him Philippines’ Grand Master of Martial Arts. That same year, he stowed away on a ship to Oahu, Hawaii, later settling in Kauai, Hawaii.
Villabrille fought several more matches in Hawaii. In 1948, he fought his last match and shortly after, the death-matches were banned. Villabrille pooled his knowledge of the various styles in the Philippines and along with his combat experience in the ring developed his own system of combat known and the Villabrille System of Kali. His foremost student and personally chosen successor, Grand Master Ben Largusa systemized and broke down Villabrille’s System and put into place the theories philosophies that complement the art. Today, the art is known as the Villabrille-Largusa Kali System.
In some parts of the Philippines, Grand Master Villabrille is considered a national hero. At the municipal museum on Mactan Island, Cebu, Philippines, Villabrille’s original certificate from Governor-General Frank Murphy hangs next to a statue of Lapu Lapu, the man who is credited for killing Magellan and stopping the Spanish invasion.
In 1992, Grand Master Villabrille passed away at the age of 79. His wife Trining, and their three sons, Kenneth, Floro Jr. and Ralph survive him.
Grand Master Ben Largusa was the first man to bring the Kali into the United States public arena. At the 1964 Ed Parker International Karate Championships held in Long Beach, California, he gave America its first demonstration of Kali. Also in attendance were numerous martial artists from around the world, including Ed Parker, Bruce Lee, Dan Inosanto, and Jhoon Rhee.
Born on Kauai, Hawaii on December 21, 1926, Grand Master Largusa’s first exposure to Kali came when as a toddler, he watched the Filipino men in his hometown of Kilauea, Kauai, Hawaii practice with the sticks. Although his Filipino Martial Arts training began under his father who exposed him to the basics of Kali, his first formal instruction came from Master Augustine, an Eskrimador. In 1945, his study in the art came to a temporary halt when he joined the United States Army. While in the service, he trained in a variety of styles including judo and boxing.
When he returned to Kauai in 1951, he was fortunate enough to become a student of Grand Master Floro Villabrille. At 25 years old, Largusa trained one on one with Villabrille, who was still in his prime at 39 years old, for 7 unbroken years. At the onset of his training, Grand Master Villabrille had him promise to never teach anyone else other than his own sons the deadly art of Kali. At the time, few people had ever heard of Kali. It was a closely guarded secret that was passed on from teacher to student and father to son. Only the students deemed loyal were taught the art and it was never taught to non-Filipinos. He left for mainland in 1958 but remained in close touch with Villabrille and trained with him whenever the opportunity arose.
Largusa’s genius became apparent when he systemized and broke-down Villabrille’s fighting techniques, and put into place theories and philosophies that comprise the art. He explains that Villabrille “was greatest influence in my life because he opened my eyes to many things, allowing me to observe, analyze and finally modify things for the better.” It is for this reason that the art is known today as the Villabrille-Largusa Kali System.
As the years passed, he saw the need to perpetuate Villabrille’s teachings and to promote a part of the Filipino heritage. With Villabrille’s blessing, he began teaching a select group of students privately in his home in South San Francisco, California in 1969. The first generation included his sons Lindsey Largusa and Jerry Largusa, Greg Lontayao, Mel Lopez, Tony Lamadora, Greg Rojas, Kaohu Cummings, Ted Fidel and Rick Reyes.
As Floro Villabrille’s foremost student, Ben Largusa was personally chosen as his successor to the Villabrille Kali System. In 1972, Villabrille bestowed upon Largusa the rank of Tuhan (Master) of the Villabrille Kali System.
In 1973, the Largusa School of Kali, in South San Francisco, California, was formally opened. It was the first school to teach Kali to the public. Later that year, the Kali Association of America was formed as the governing body of the Villabrille-Largusa Kali System of which all member schools fall under.
In 1981, Grand Master Villabrille presented Tuhan Ben Largusa the Conveyance of Life Interest, which gives him the exclusive right, license and authority to continue to use the name of the Floro Villabrille School of Kali in perpetuating and promoting the Villabrille-Largusa Kali System.
Upon Grand Master Villabrille’s death in 1992, Tuhan Ben Largusa succeeded him as Grand Master of the Villabrille-Largusa Kali System. In 1994, Largusa named Professor Mel Lopez as his successor and bestowed upon him the rank of Tuhan (Master) of the Villabrille-Largusa Kali System. In keeping with Grand Master Villabrille’s wishes, the Villabrille-Largusa Kali System has only one Grand Master and one Master.
Today Grand Master Ben Largusa resides on Kauai, Hawaii with his wife Philomena. He currently teaches a select group of students and often returns to the United States mainland where he trains with Tuhan Mel Lopez.
Professor Greg Lontayao Jr. was born on May 2, 1937. His journey into martial arts was influenced by his father, Graciano Lontayao Sr., who was born in 1907 on a small Visayas island paradise named Siquijor in the Philippines. The Spanish called it “Isla del Fuego”, the Island of Fire. The Europeans traveled there to write about the mangukukulam or healers and the sorcery and healing powers they possessed.The people of Siquijor enjoy music ,and Sayau (dance). Graciano Sr., an Escrimador master,once told a story about when be was a young boy he would play the sticks and spar with friends and how on one certain night on a day like Good Friday people stay awake from midnight until dawn. Graciano Sr.’s goal was to move to the states to Califomia, to go to school but his destiny changed and in 1920 he settled in Hawaii and started bis family.
When he was a boy, Graciano Lontayao Jr. was once warned by his father, “If you come home crying, I’ll beat you myself.” So in 1951, Graciano Jr., at the age of 14, joined the judo class at the Ewa Gym in Ewa, Hawaii, under Sensei Watanabe, Sensei Abe, Sensei Ventura, Sensei Friatas and Sensei Ben Palacio. He also studied Aikido under Sensei Sugai and Sensei Yoko. Having been born and raised in Ewa, Hawaii, he was locally accepted by many martial arts instructors who came from all nationalities. The Ewa plantation villages was where many people from overseas resided and brought with them their different martial arts skills. Learning martial arts in the 1950’s wasn’t easy. The art was more disciplined and intense. Questions and complaints were considered a sign of weakness. During training and sparring there were often bones broken.
In one village, called Banana Camp, Graciano Jr. began learning his boxing skills from instructor Ben Apostadairo, Richard Choi, Frank Lagon and Art Respicio. During his teenage years, he had to keep up his studies in school in order to continue his martial arts training and to play sports. In his senior year of high school, he led the Waipahu High School basketball team to the championship and became an All Star player.
He studied Kempo Karate at CHA-3 under Professor Marino Tiwanek and Kaji-Kumi Karate under Master Raymond Tobosa. Master Tobosa and Sensei Lontayao attended a seminar by Master Mas Dyama from Japan of Kyu Shin Kai Karate in Jodo Mission of Hawaii. After studying under Master Tobosa for nine years, he was promoted to Sensei 5th degree Black Belt in 1963. Grandmaster Fred Lara, Master of Internal Poison hand system and Red Belt Highest Rank from Grandmaster William K.S. Chow, took him in as his student where he began to learn more and became Sensei (Rokudan) 6th degree Black Belt in Shiki Shin Funi Association of Hawaii.
At about the same time, Sensei Lontayao started a school in the San Francisco area. In 1964 he entered the Black Belt Kumite and matched up with Dan Inosantos, losing the match by one point. The tournament with Ed Parker’s first International Karate Championship, where many witnessed Professor Ben Largusa, the current Grandmaster of Kali, and the legendary Bruce Lee’s Jeet Kune Do demonstration. On the day Sensei Greg Lontayao was introduced to Kali.
In 1967 Sensei Greg Lontayao met then advisor, Grandmaster Ming Lum, who later introduced him to Kung-fu. He began lessons in White Crane under Sifu Quinton Fong and Sifu Ma in San Francisco’s China Town. He also traveled, to Hong Kong and, on the recommendation of Grandmaster Ming Lum, met Kung-fu Grandmaster Kwock.
In 1972 Sensei Lontayao joined together whith then Professor Ben Largusa and opened the first commercial school of Kali in South San Francisco, teaching the late Grandmaster Floro Villabrille/Largusa legendary Kali system. Under the same roof, Sensei Lontayao was teaching Shiki shin Funi and learning Kali. He was chosen by Professor Ben Largusa to be one of the original 12 disciples of Kali. Professor Lontayao was promoted on February 18, 1978, to Guro Lakang Tolo 3rd step; on February 18,1978, to Guro Lakang Lima 5th step; on February 18, 1983 to Lakang Onom 6th step; on October 1, 1984, to Lakang Pito 7th step and, eventually on February 18,1988, to Lakang Walo 8th step.Then on August 14,1994, he was promoted to the highest-ranking professor in the Villabrille/Largusa Kali system, Lakang Polo 10th step.
Professor Greg Lontayao, now 64, lives in Ewa where he grew up. Although he is retiring as Professor of the Lontayao Martial Arts Organization, he will still remain active as an advisor and in approving promotions.