Across the street from our national hero, Jose Rizal’s monument in Roxas Blvd., and across another street from the Manila Hotel, under the shade of a mango tree, every Sunday I join the group of men and women who take seriously to heart the Filipino Martial Arts (FMA), a system based on a weapon called Arnis.
The leader of the pack is the esteemed and well-loved Tony Diego, or Master Tony, as everybody fondly calls him. For more than three (3) decades now he has religiously taught Kalis Ilustrisimo, his brand of FMA, to Filipinos and also to international visitors who come to the Philippines to train personally under him.
Master Tony turned 65 recently, and my colleagues and I surprised him with a birthday party in his gym in Binondo, the same gym that was featured in Fight Quest, a program in Discovery Channel.
Master Tony’s knees are weak, his eyes are blurring. He is no longer as agile as he used to be. Yet he remains a commanding presence to everybody. With arnis, he teaches us by example the values of our race, humility and respect for others.
FMA has gained the world’s attention not only because it was featured in the breathtaking choreography (by a FMA expert, Jef Imada) in the Bourne Identity series and in The Book of Eli, but more so because it is in fact a deadly game. With only a woodstick to go by, one can hack a person to death.
Master Tony asks us to put away all worries when engaged in combat. He asks: “Do you love life enough to make you want to survive? If you do, nothing can harm you, and you can always win in fights. Forget your worries or face death,” he says.
Worries are the voice of our deepest insecurities. Inside a person’s head could be different sorts of questions: What will people say should I be defeated, or arrested or jailed? Where do I get the money to hire a lawyer or bail? How shall I fend for my wife and my children?
Master Tony’s message is basic and simple. I must value my life. I must only fight to survive. I must remember that it is my conviction to live that will keep me alive.
Master Tony’s personal philosophy reiterates the teachings of the masters I have read in books, or seen in movies—Lao Tzu, Morihei Ueshiba (who founded Aikido), even the Karate Kid. But reading a book or watching a movie is totally different from seeing a master in person, hearing his words, feeling his hands on my shoulders or back as he encourages me to keep on practicing, or to acknowledge that I have improved my footwork, or my strikes.
In all these years, this vessel of the Filipino culture remains humble and poor. The students he has taught are staunchly loyal to him. His assistant Arnold dons and straps him his helmet and drives him home from Luneta after the practice. Peach takes the initiative in organizing parties for him and serving him food and drinks even if he thinks he doesn’t need one.
My reflexes are faster now and my muscles have memorized their reactions to certain attacks. But I am still a new student, and I have so much yet to learn. I am lucky to have Master Tony.
On August 25, 2014, Master Tony passed away. Here is a moving tribute from another Master published in Manila Times on August 30, 2014:
Tribute and Tribulation
by Maestro Romeo Macapagal
When a human being rises to the greatest heights of achievement possible in spite of
in surmountable obstacles, this is greatness. When this level of accomplishment is matched with kindness and compassion, with surpassing generosity even at the sacrifice of personal material needs, this greatness is defined by spirituality and becomes the “Grandeur of the Human Spirit.”This was Antonio Ramoneda Diego. Father, husband, friend, student, mentor, benefactor.
A measure of Tony’s humanity and greatness is the fact that he has raised a brood of eight children, two children-in-law, and two grandchildren, and yet none of these children are his and his wife’s biological issue. Yet, he has struggled, worked hard and honestly to raise them, still looking after them till the time of his death, being especially fond of the grandchildren.
As a husband, Tony was especially devoted to his wife Gelynn and loved her so much he could not face life without her. When she was stricken with cancer, he too deteriorated in health and overtook her in death. Gelynn is now very frail and may follow Tony soon. It seems she too cannot live without Tony.
When his house burned down, the proceeds of his retirement went up in smoke. It is a measure of his loving, caring character that his students gathered resources so that Tony could rebuild his house to provide a home for his family.
And when his wife needed medical care, his students returned in full measure the loving attention and generous instruction he had given them. He was as attentive, caring and generous to his students as he was with his own children.
Under Antonio “Tatang” Ilustrisimo, Tony was a diligent student, loyal and generous as much as his resources would allow. He modeled Tatang in practically every aspect of living and his goal was to become exactly like Tatang.
When Tony became a master in his own right, he taught ceaselessly, sharing unstintingly of his knowledge. He studied and planned endlessly to be able to transmit his knowledge and skill to the increasing number of adherents to the Ilustrisimo system under him.
Tony contributed very much to the popularity and fame of Filipino Martial Arts (FMA). He had given a foreign seminar only once, 30 years ago, and in spite of moving no further than the confines of Tondo district, the Luneta, and rarely beyond the City of Manila, he was able to contribute to the fame of the FMA, that icon of the Filipino, so that the FMA is the object of study of so many followers around the world.
Tony was a good friend, warm, generous, loyal and sincere. He had a gift of natural leadership and charisma. While prone to fits of temper, this was mostly directed at those who would offend his friends.
Tony’s material resources were never enough. Yet he maintained his dignity and honesty at his work as a stevedoring supervisor and later manager. Even when other FMA teachers were making a good living from student’s payments, Tony remained undemanding, accepting whatever amount was given him, never charging a fixed fee. When paid, he took care to share with those who helped him teach. Even when his house burned down, part of funds he received for reconstruction were shared as food for his neighboring fire victims.
Tony’s undemanding and gentle approach made him victim by many unscrupulous students who exploited his knowledge and generous nature. He would be hurt by their actions but then forgave easily.
The trials and tribulations of Tony’s life eventually wore him down, both physically and emotionally, but his spirit as a swordsman and teacher prevailed, always thinking of the future of his students in terms of their continuing learning.
A man’s character is measured by the sincere regard given him by others. With Tony, it is the love, affection and gratitude given by students all over the world to provide for those he has left behind because they know he loved them so much.
Tony is gone, and like all great men there is no replacing him. Once in several lifetimes, there are such men as him, but not very often. Faced with adversity, they triumph over obstacles to rise to the heights of greatness in their chosen field. Like the “Grand Old Man of the Sword,” Antonio “Tatang” Ilustrisimo, his master, teacher and model, Antonio “Tony” Diego has achieved greatness.