The Philippines could be the next big hub for Jiu-Jitsu superstars 2
Filipino martial artist Alvin Aguilar helped introduced Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu in the country in the mid-90s. Photograph from Coach Franco Rulloda's Facebook

The Philippines could be the next big hub for Jiu-Jitsu superstars

With height and physical strength not much of a factor, and our longstanding heritage in combat sports, the grappling martial art can be the next big thing for Pinoy athletes. And, with its debut in the Southeast Asian Games next month, our fighters can showcase what they've got to the rest of the world.
Nissi Icasiano | Oct 09 2019

Grappling is one of the oldest forms of combat in the world. Cave drawings in France from over 15,000 years ago appear to depict people engaged in acts of grappling. Babylonian and Egyptian artifacts show people employing most of the maneuvers known today. In Greece, wrestling served as the main attraction in the ancient Olympic Games.  

Various grappling disciplines evolved across the globe, including Sumo in Japan, Turkish oil wrestling, and Uzbekistan’s Kurash among others. In the Philippines, traditional indigenous martial arts are practiced in different regions like Bultong in the Cordilleras, Dumog in Western Visayas, and Layug in Central Visayas and Mindanao.

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The Philippines could be the next big hub for Jiu-Jitsu superstars 3
Franco Rulloda sees a bright future for Filipinos in the sport. Photograph from Coach Franco Rulloda's Facebook.

Due to American colonization, modern-style wrestling made its way into the country and has remained up to the present time. Many Filipinos have etched marks in this field, notably in the 1954 Asian Games, where Nicolas Arcales and Mansueto Napilay brought home silver medals, and Basilio Fabila captured bronze. It was the only year in Asian Games history that the Philippines claimed medals in wrestling. Filipino wrestlers were privileged to compete at the Summer Olympics from 1936 to 1988. Since the implementation of continental qualifiers the year after, not a single grappler has had the opportunity to set foot on an Olympic mat.


Next big thing

Through lifelong Filipino martial artist Alvin Aguilar in the mid-90s, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu was formally introduced in the Philippines. The grappling art was formed from the Kodokan Judo fundamentals that were taught by a number of individuals, including pioneers Takeo Yano, Mitsuyo Maeda, Soshihiro Satake, and Isao Okano.

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu eventually came to be its own discipline through the experiments, practices, and adaptation of Judo through Carlos and Helio Gracie in the 1900s. Though our nation is heavily engrossed with basketball, boxing, billiards, and currently volleyball, one Filipino practitioner believes that Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu could find a foothold in the Parthenon of Philippine sports.


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Franco Rulloda, who earned his black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu under the tutelage of Aguilar last May, sees a bright future for Filipinos in the sport because, unlike basketball, it does not require height. It is built on the concept that a smaller person can successfully defend against a bigger and heavier assailant. This you can do by using proper technique, leverage, and taking the fight to the ground before applying joint-locks and chokeholds to subdue the opponent.

“The fighting spirit and passion for combat sports makes Brazilian Jiu-jitsu perfect for Filipinos,” Rulloda explains. “It is honing one’s physical attributes and using acquired knowledge to his or her advantage. It does not require too much strength, height, and athleticism.”

Rulloda points out that a lot of our prominent and successful athletes come from combat sports.

 “Manny Pacquiao, Nonito Donaire, Eduard Folayang, and the list goes on. Fighting has been ingrained in every Pinoy’s DNA,” he says. “Martial arts have deep roots in Filipino culture. History has proven that Filipinos have that warrior spirit.”

There are already a handful of Filipino competitors who have made a name for themselves internationally, including Meggie Ochoa and May Masuda. Ochoa captured three-straight gold medals from 2014 to 2016 at the World Jiu-Jitsu Championship or the Mundials. On the other hand, Masuda became the first Filipina to snare a gold medal at the Mundials in 2009. Eros Baluyot, meanwhile, had his career-defining moment in 2010 by bagging a gold medal at the age of 17. Joey Lepiten, Gian Dee, Kaila Napolis, Annie Ramirez, Kim Custodio, Vince Ortiz, and Marc Lim have likewise made it to the podium in different overseas tourneys.

“Filipinos learn fast. We somehow have this gene attributed to absorbing techniques quickly and applying them right away. We are dedicated athletes. We put our heart and soul into whatever it is we are doing. We invest so much in our endeavors, and we are passionate about what we believe in,” Rulloda says.


Making a mark

The Philippines now houses the most number of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belts in Southeast Asia: Aguilar, Rulloda, Masuda, John Baylon, Fritz Rodriguez, Pichon Garcia, Allan Co, Toffy Ilagan, Froilan Sarenas, among others.

Currently, there are 10 clubs in the country that have been recognized by the International Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Federation including DEFTAC-Ribeiro, Atos Philippines, KMA-Fabricio, John Baylon BJJ, and Cobrinha BJJ Manila.

Aguilar, who holds the distinction as the first homegrown black belt here, says the sport has come a long way since he first piloted a small class in his garage. “Back then, Jiu-Jitsu was only comprised of four or five people. Right now, we have at least more than a thousand competitors,” he shares. “I am very happy with the level and the standard that we’ve already established here in the Philippines because we’ve produced a lot of champions.”


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The pioneering fighter says that we are definitely number one in Southeast Asia, and top three in Asia. “These are the things we should take advantage of. We have so many good grapplers. Everybody here is so good, not just from my team,” he adds. “You put them in any gym around the world, and they will always be able to produce.”

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu in the Philippines made significant strides last year when both Philippine Olympic Committee and Philippine Sports Commission declared the Jiu-Jitsu Federation of the Philippines as the sport's national governing body. The sport will also make its much-awaited debut at the Southeast Asian Games, which our country will host from November 30 to December 11.

Ochoa is more than excited to participate in the regional biennial meet, as she doesn’t get a lot of opportunities to compete in her country. “It is a big deal because we’re the host, and I’m definitely going to prepare for that,” she says, “Not just me but every Filipino athlete is going to prepare for that. We want to show what we are really capable of.”


Spreading the gospel

Despite the success of a few homegrown talents in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Rulloda admitted that it still has a lot of work to do to adapt to Filipino taste. “The growth has been steady through the years. However, the biggest hindrance to the growth of the art is the lack of awareness of what really happens in an actual self-defense situation and how Jiu-Jitsu can be an effective tool for it,” he stresses. “The sporting aspect has a slow progress because the low awareness level leads to low exposure and that results in difficulty of getting sponsorships for deserving athletes.”

To help in this cause, Rulloda stages a yearly tournament called Arte Suave Manila. It started in 2015, and aims to excite at a grassroots level. “Whatever noise this event will create is going to help the future of these athletes. I want them to get exposed, I want them to be discovered, and I want them to get sponsors,” he reveals.

The two-day competition originally focused on white and blue belters, but it opened its doors to purple belts in 2016. One of its main attractions is the submission-only super-fights, where combatants will contend in a ten-minute match. If there is no submission by the end of the given time, a draw will be declared.

Arte Suave Manila is set to hold its fifth annual event from October 19 to 20 at the Commercenter Alabang in Muntinlupa, and Rulloda is expecting a promising turnout. “It is a league by fighters, for fighters. The sport is growing in the country, and so we’re expecting to see high-level Jiu-Jitsu displayed on the mats again this year,” he promises.

Rulloda reiterates that Filipinos have the potential to do great things in the sport. “We can take Jiu-Jitsu to the next level, not only here in our country, but to the Asian level, and even worldwide,” he declares.


For more on Arte Suave Manila, visit their Facebook page.