Interview with Viñas Arnis System Inheritor Russell T. Mackler: Arnis and HEMA

The Viñas Arnis System followed the old tradition of hiding different aspects of the art from students. That all changed with Nonong Viñas and the current head of the System, Russell T. Mackler. Here, Mackler discusses how he is pushing the boundaries of the Viñas Arnis System and how the Historical European Martial Arts community has assisted him. All images provided by Russell T. Mackler.

Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow: Welcome and thank you for taking the time to speak with us!

Russell T. Mackler: I appreciate the interest and opportunity, thank you. It is my pleasure.

MAYTT: Tell us about your martial arts background. What drew you to the weapons aspect of the martial arts as opposed to the empty hand systems?

RM: I grew up in an environment that influenced violence, and this eventually led me to begin training in various martial arts so I could defend myself.

MAYTT: I see. You are also the inheritor of the Viñas Arnis System from Grandmaster Nonong Viñas. How did you come across the Viñas System and what was the experience like becoming an heir to such a system?

Russell Mackler.

RM: The experience… long, surreal, unexpected, and humbling. I am not sure my story is some unique experience. I never set out to inherit the system or be known for knowing the system. I am actually somewhat of a recluse, and I’m trying to resolve this so I can pass the system to others. My original intent was to become a better man, learn how to defend myself, and become proficient in fighting with weapons. Like many others obtaining something special, I think it was my passion, dedication, and persistence that finally led me to where I am today. It is the day-to-day dedication that finally leads you to something great. Overall, I was stubbornly interested in the Viñas system, where it came from, how it came to be, and what truly made up the system. Above all else, my interest in knowing and caring about Grandmaster Nonong and his family.

As far as finding the system… I would like to think I was at the right place at the right time. I originally came across the system by chance in 2000. I was working for Lockheed Martin in Goodyear, Arizona and a colleague and I discussed a desire to train in Filipino Martial Arts (FMA). This eventually led us to a Martial Arts studio about a mile from work. They primarily taught Tang-Soo-Do but also taught FMA. The FMA system being advertised and taught was Lapu-Lapu Viñas Arnis. From my understanding and at that time, there were only three people teaching aspects of the system under the ” Lapu-Lapu Viñas Arnis” in the US. One in Los Angeles, one in Goodyear, and one somewhere in Texas. I am sure other people here in the US teaching aspects of it, but they claimed it as their own. The system was mainly taught in Bacolod, Negros Occidental, Philippines.  This is the location and surrounding area like Bago City of other systems such as Yasay Saber, Tapado, Modified Tapado, Isoy Sison System, Lighting Scientific, Sefino System, Hortencio Navales System, Honorio Tagle System, Modern Arnis, Kalantaw System, Pekiti Tersia, Dikiti Tersia, Oido de Caburata Arnis, Juan Lawan, Luna Lema, etc.

MAYTT: Could you tell us more about Nonong Viñas and how he was as an instructor? What was his role in developing and disseminating the family’s system?

RM: To others, I think Grandmaster Nonong was secretive, tough, stubborn, and appeared impatient. He told me he was more interested in solving complex problems with fighting over teaching the basics. He said most people came to him asking about single techniques rather than wanting to understand the big picture and truly fighting. I believe one of the most common words used by him was Gago (stupid) while teaching others. I also found he wasn’t willing to give complete answers to other people. He would give partial answers and then wait to see what they would do with it. Would they ask more questions, explore, and come back with more interest? Most of the time when I asked why he wouldn’t correct issues he saw with others, he would say, “it’s up to them,” or “God knows” while crossing his pointy fingers as a sign of belief or honesty. I believe a part of him was influenced by his father’s desire to keep the system private.  due to their concerns with people stealing stuff and claiming it as their own. An example of this is Hermino Biñas a recognized Master in the early 1980s of the Lapu-Lapu Viñas Arnis club claiming in the US that he developed the Viñas system with Jose Viñas.

Page 8, Jose L. Viñas, “Viñas Arnis – Filipino Original Book of Arnis For Self Defense,” First Edition 1981.

On the other hand, Grandmaster Nonong and I had a different relationship than he had with his other students. He was much more patient and open with me. A few of his other students that had been with him longer told me he behaved differently with me. He told me he felt like I was the brother he never had and treated me like family. He compared my curiosity and experimentation with his observations he had of his father.

At one point, when he lived with me for six months, we would spend eight to twelve hours a day training, talking, and documenting his family’s system. We spent a lot of time exploring, testing, and discussing everything we could about the system. I know this was different than how he taught others based on what other students told me and observing how he taught others. I would like to think it was due to my genuine interest in him, his family, and the system.

As far as his role, he inherited the system from his father who founded the system in 1932. He inherited it in 1991 after his father passed away. Like in most martial arts stories, the inheritance at the time was contested by Jose Viñas’s oldest students. I believe five of them started something called “LARSEDE” (Lapu-Lapu Arts of Arnis and Self-Defense). Then I believe Eliseo Constantino went his own way and Dominador “Doming” D. Ferrer started his own system “KDS” (Kalantiaw Defense Society). While Joe Kam, Saging Tolentino, and Rodrigo (Digoy) Guanzon changed the name to “SULTANS” (Seven Unified Lapu-Lapu Tactical Arnis Neo-Society); where seven represented the seven defensive movements of blocking and counter attacking.

Grandmaster Nonong started teaching on his own right after his father passed away in April of 1991. He, unlike his father, decided to come up with more formal ways to teach his family’s system. He started a new club and taught new students such as Bobot Gayoles, Baldwen Garrucho, and others.

MAYTT: It seemed like he wanted to make his own mark on his father’s system. In your opinion, what makes the Viñas Arnis System unique compared to other arnis and weapons-based systems?

RM: I am not sure when it comes to weapon-based systems that one is “unique” over another (maybe one can answer more problems as compared to another?). I would instead say that few people teaching any one specific system have a depth of knowledge and that even fewer people have wisdom over their knowledge. With this, I will say the Viñas system has a unique way to explain a great deal of information and there is a good correlation between empty hand, short weapons, and then longer weapons. These “understandings” enable a breadth and depth at answers unseen future problems. I don’t think there is really such a thing as some special secret to a system, but rather a larger understanding that enables what appears to be secret techniques within anyone specific system. For example, when you say “Martial Art” how does the system differentiate the explanation of being martial vs art? How does the system enforce the concepts and principles of being martial? Why does the system make one movement over another, given the context of the situation? I think when an individual can start answering these types of questions (based on experience and experimentation) with their system then they have begun the path of gaining wisdom with their knowledge in their system. In some cases, they might find their system isn’t complete or can’t answer some problems. This is when someone might think one system is unique over another.

Grandmaster Nonong and Russell at Grandmaster Nonong’s father’s grave. His father was the founder of the system, “Grandmaster Joe.”

MAYTT: In addition to running a school, you are also affiliated with the Phoenix Society of Historical Swordsmanship and Loyal Order of the Sword, both Historical European Martial Art (HEMA) systems, which is an uncommon crossover. What led you to explore HEMA? Was there something missing arnis that you found in European martial arts?

RM: My exploration of other weapon-based systems including HEMA began due to discussions with Grandmaster Nonong.

When I refer to HEMA, my reference is to a number of systems coming out of Europe which are no longer formally taught, but rather being researched and re-discovered through historical manuals and references.

As I mentioned, I am somewhat reclusive, but Grandmaster Nonong explained to me that he had given me all of this knowledge, but it was useless without real world experience. He said if I really wanted to understand, I would need to go out and fight with other systems. This idea led to a lot of challenges and questions. How could I go fight with other weapon-based systems without coming across in unproductive ways to these other people? Given our current era and society, I believe we shouldn’t pursue this type of knowledge similarly to ways of the past. We fortunately live in a time when some of us can build deep relationships with others without a concern for our lives and knowledge getting stolen from us. With this, I initially started reaching out to other individuals I knew in other FMA systems in my area. This process, for whatever reason, wasn’t leading to the results Grandmaster Nonong and I discussed. One FMA individual I knew brought up a HEMA event in California and suggested I go. From here, I met a few individuals and this slowly turned into me meeting Richard Marsden, the founder of Phoenix Society. I privately discussed that I wanted to test my knowledge and he was very open minded and welcoming. Within a few weeks he introduced me to Greg Hinchcliff, the founder of Loyal Order of the Sword. With them, I took on the perspective and communicated that I still had a lot to learn but wanted to do a lot of experimentation and full speed sparring.

I would like to note that Greg Hinchcliff doesn’t do HEMA. He has his own system that he has developed over many years. He uses European weapons, such as the rapier and many other European based weapons. A FMA practitioner would refer to Greg as a Grandmaster; although Greg would never refer to himself this way. In a lot of ways, he reminds me of the stories I heard about Jose Viñas. He is a phenomenal fighter and has produced a lot of great fighters like Richard who have moved into HEMA and have made their own mark and great reputation in this area. There are other students who have carried on the name of “Loyal Order of the Sword” in the HEMA community, such as Shawn Fackler.

As far as something missing… I feel like with many martial art systems, FMA has a lot of closed off communities. FMA culture is reluctant to have one system interact with another similarly to how the HEMA community interacts with each other currently in its infancy. FMA culture in the places I have been is secretive and untrusting.

Eventually, HEMA will most likely move in this direction because of unreasonable and unproductive people who can’t acknowledge where they come from.

In FMA, an individual with a lot of knowledge isn’t willing to pass all of their knowledge along easily, let alone full speed sparring with others from other systems. I once had a Master Instructure tell me in the Philippines that if he had five aces, he wouldn’t give all five to one student, but rather give a different one to five different students. In addition, he wouldn’t give any of them the counters. I could discuss and provide so many similar examples with many different FMA practitioners. Even Grandmaster Nonong and his father, Grandmaster Jose Viñas who founded the system in 1932, thought in similar ways. Both Grandmaster Nonong and his father hid parts of the system from people. Grandmaster Nonong was very secretive about his family’s system. This also leads to other misunderstandings. I once had an e-mail from someone who studied under the Lapu Lapu Viñas Arnis club in the 1980s tell me he knew the “One” secret that Grandmaster Joe taught his son Grandmaster Nonong. This idea of knowing a “Secret” about a system seems common and appears to come from the effect of hiding parts of a system from others. Too many people are chasing the “Secret” in place of understanding the big picture or intent of the system in the first place.

With HEMA the communities, they are focused on the rediscovery of dead arts. Their vision and purpose are meant to share knowledge and experience. With some clubs, they also want to put this knowledge and experience into practice and gain wisdom from it. HEMA’s “vision” contradicts most FMA culture’s “vision.” In doing so, FMA detailed system information is passed down to a select few, and in some cases fractured across multiple people. Whereas with HEMA, many people are studying similar systems across many different groups inviting collaboration.

What I found missing isn’t necessarily techniques, but rather culture and opportunities to experiment, fight, and gain wisdom from these experiences. 

Grandmaster Nonong and Russell.

MAYTT: It is interesting to see the differences between the two martial cultures! On the subject of arnis and HEMA, in your time within both systems, how have you seen them compliment one another? Were there aspects that HEMA covered that arnis did not and vice versa?

RM: First, Arnis and HEMA are broad overarching words. Within Arnis, there are many systems and with HEMA there are also many systems. Since I am not familiar with all systems from either category, I can only discuss the items I am familiar with. In this article, I will stick to my perspective with the Arnis system I have inherited Viñas Arnis, and with the limited knowledge I have regarding the HEMA systems that I have been introduced to.

It is my opinion there are both similarities and differences between the different systems being explored under HEMA and with Arnis systems. I would think with any martial arts system there are overlaps creating similarities with each other. In this, I also think there are aspects covered in one or the other that are not covered in both. While this is very basic, similarities exist in that there are guards, attacks, and defensive movements. An example of a close similarity might be Fiore’s woman’s guard (Posta di fenestra) and Viñas’s second guard. Both guards have the weapon on the right shoulder with the right foot back. Although, the intent of the guards is different, my interpretation of Fiore’s woman’s guard is “deceptive” inviting your opponent to attack while Viñas’s second guard is for footwork and to protect the weapon hand since Viñas’s sword work lacks a hilt/crossguard. With the lack of a hilt/crossguard, how you attack and defend is fundamentally different than with having one. The HEMA systems I have been around focus on the use of a crossguard while Viñas’s sword doesn’t depend on it. The are many more examples as well such as the length of a weapon, the shape of the weapon, how and why you make a movement, etc. Overall, once you have a better understanding of any one system you can see similarities, differences, and compliments with others.

MAYTT: Much like HEMA, arnis seems to be on the periphery of many martial artists. In your opinion, why do you think that is the case with arnis? What steps can be taken to make the Filipino martialart central to the broader martial arts?

RM: I think there are many reasons for Arnis being on the periphery in countries other than the Philippines.

Unwillingness to Share details

One reason, in my opinion, is that different Arnis systems are closed off from the open public and don’t share the details of their system with many people. If a system chooses to keep parts of the system close to the vest, it is hard to market the system to a wider audience. There are so many different martial arts now it is hard for someone to justify “waiting” to see if they might get some secret knowledge.

Competition

Outside of the Philippines, Arnis systems don’t necessarily compete with each other. I think the lack of community, bringing different organizations together through competition, makes it challenging to spread. A good comparison is Jiu-Jitsu. There are different schools all over the world and they have an opportunity to compete against each other, in addition to sharing knowledge and wisdom.

Systemization

Another reason Arnis is hard to propagate is due to the lack of standard curriculums and ranking. It is true that some systems of Arnis have these, but for the most part, they are lacking in this area.

Propaganda, Disinformation, & Misinformation

Another big issue in my opinion is the spread of propaganda, disinformation, and misinformation about the details, techniques, and origination of systems. When this takes place, it is hard for people to trust what they are learning. It might have worked in the 1980s and early 1990s, but now that information can travel around the world easily this has hurt FMA in general. As a small example, look at drama around the word “Kali” and its origination. I can say this word isn’t well known/used in the Philippines. Instead, this word has been used outside of the Philippines to market martial arts from the Philippines.

Location

Most FMA systems are not taught in a gym, but rather taught in parks, backyards, garages, and other “underground” type locations. I think it is more difficult to get a wider audience’s acceptance with FMA being taught in these types of locations. Having an established business in a building can change how individuals feel about learning martial arts.

MAYTT: That’s an interesting perspective. You and several other Filipino martial artists founded the Arizona Filipino Martial Arts Association (AFA). What factors influenced your decision to help cofound such an association? What goals did you hope to achieve when you first began and how has the association made steps towards those goals?

RM: The AFA is no longer operating. Originally, we wanted to change some of the issues outlined above with why FMA isn’t propagated more easily. The AFA was trying to bring different FMA systems together as a community. We were not trying to bring different systems under one umbrella, but rather allow FMA communities to work together and broaden situational awareness about what is taught in Arizona. We were trying to make all FMA systems in Arizona more accessible to the general public. Someone can see what our vision, mission, and core values were here at the Wayback Machine.

MAYTT: Final question, with areas all over the country feeling the extended effects of the pandemic, how do you think martial arts, specifically the weapons-based martial arts, will recover from this situation? Will it be a slow and gradual rise to what it was before the pandemic or a major spike in practitioners once restrictions are lifted?

RM: This is a good question, and I believe humans will want to train again or, if not, are already training and never stopped. For example, CombatCon is still happening this year in Vegas. There will be an in-person track and an online track. I will be teaching in person. I can’t imagine humans not wanting to pursue their interests and if Covid subsides, we all will be getting back to our everyday lives.

Even with this belief, I was able to see firsthand how Covid and the shutdowns impacted our gym. We had three organizations in one location: Phoenix Society, Black Sun Boxing, and Viñas Arnis. We ended up losing students and it got progressively worse as Covid stretched on. We also had a fire at our gym, which caused us to search for a new location. Phoenix Society picked a new location and invited us to join them, but it was too far of a location for Black Sun Boxing and myself. With this, Black Sun Boxing and Viñas will be opening a location in Tempe, Arizona in July/August. We are planning to integrate strength training and martial arts under one roof.  Think of it like modern gladiators. We will be teaching kickboxing, Catch-wrestling, Wing Chung, Viñas Arnis, some HEMA, and a few other things. We will also have strength & cardio training with weights. Once we open, I will have the URL location on Viñas Arnis and/or Black Sun Boxing.

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