By Njoli Brown
An interview with Guro Wilton Valerio of Kuntaw Kali Kruzada
Njoli: Yeah man, I just wanted to check in. See what’s going on at the getdown, going on at the Kuntaw.
Guro Wilton: Yeah, it’s been good. You know, we’ve got some new black belts in there.
Nj: So they’re going to start rotating in teaching and that kind of thing?
GW: Yeah, they’re almost there. Still in that process of doing that teacher level certification.
Nj: Oh, okay. So they’re not really attached to each other?
GW: No, not really. I mean, you can get your black belt and not necessarily have worked as much on your teaching tools. There are different certifications for a variety of things. I think the one who’s making his way through it all is Hubert (Saladino).
It’s one thing to make your way through the the learning process but then going through it all again, thinking about teaching it…
Nj: So, maybe it recognizes that other feature beyond application that’s more intensely developing your analytical mind.
GW: Yeah, that’s pretty much what it is in many ways.
Nj: Yes, I can definitely see that Hubert has an enthusiasm for teaching and that is very apparent in his way.
What about you though? How long have you been in this?
GW: 15… 14 years? Yeah, I think 14.
Nj: Wow, so 14 years with Kuntaw… and were you doing something else before that?
GW: I mean, I did some Tae Kwon Do before, you know, like most New Yorkers did in the 80s and 90s, hahaha.
Nj: Bro, I’m tellin’ you. They got it locked down. Locked down tight.
GW: Yeah, 80s, 90s, 70s too.
Nj: So was your first coming into kali with Kuntaw or with some other group?
GW: No, it was with Datu Rich.
Nj: So how did you first get in touch with him?
GW: He used to teach at Fight House. I don’t know if you know that place. It used to be called something else. It used to be called Chow’s back then. Named after Peggy Chow who ran the school.
They had it sectioned off and so you know it provided a lot of individual training spaces, and everybody was there. I mean, Renzo Gracie was there before he was a huge name. Man, and you know, we were right after him, right after all those smelly-ass gis and everything, hahaha.
But you know, there was also a Thai Boxing class there as well. So, I had gone there to check that out but the teacher, he just showed no interest at all. Kinda blew me off, like “oh, what you see is what you get. Look around and whatever, whatever, whatever…” Meanwhile Datu Rich was teaching at the same time and I was like “that looks amazing!”
Right from there I started talking to him. “Hey, is this JKD? Is this this? Is this that?” When he told me it was kali, I mean, I had never really heard of any Filipino martial arts. I mean, some of my best friends were Filipino. You might have met Guro Alex.
At first I would just come by every week or so and just watch class. They probably thought I was some kind of spy or something, hahaha, trying to steal some secret moves.
Nj: Were there a lot of other groups operating during that time?
GW: No, not really. As far as large organizations, you always had Doce Pares, maybe Doug Pierre. But I hadn’t really heard of them until later.
Nj: Crazy thing, on the side a bit, but recently I’ve been doing a lot of reading and researching and realizing there were a lot of old school kats out there in Philadelphia. I’ve been reading a lot about some huge contingents of classical and modern kali/arnis/escrima practitioners who immigrated and, not only moved out to California but, also took up residence in Philly.
GW: Hmmm, that’s interesting. I didn’t really know about that but I do think that you find a lot more long time committed students outside of New York City. Maybe just because New Yorkers just don’t have a lot of time. Ya know and because of this along with the high rent, it’s a hard thing to run a school here in New York without selling yourself out. It’s a balance thing. Either people go that TS (franchise) route or a much more low key thing. It’s difficult…
At my old Tae Kwon Do school the teacher did a few stick things and that sparked my interest. He would do some stick drills and what not and if we ever asked him he would be like “Oh, this is Filipino martial arts.” That really sparked it for me. I think he had trained some with Remy Presas. Just seminars and things like that.
Remy was really big with doing seminars, especially in the 70s. So my teacher Spider, you might know Spider Rodriguez, you’re from New York, anyway, he’d go to these workshops and then come back and teach us some stick stuff. When I finally ended up find a stick fighting school, I don’t know, I was just like “this is it.” At that point I kind of segued away from Tae Kwon Do into kali.
Nj: All of this stands out to me also because of the really interesting role that blacks and Latinos have played in the development of martial arts in New York. There’s been a really big presence for decades now.
GW: Yes, really big. We kind of needed it, on many levels… and the truth is, they were taking it very seriously. The 70s and 80s were kind of a “golden era” for a generation of martial artists.
Nj: So what about you and opportunities to head over to the Philippines?
GW: I’ve been there twice so far, in 2006 for about 2 weeks and again in 2010, and it was really great and I loved it. The training there was just, just different. I mean, you’ve trained with us so you know that we’re pretty serious about training the self-defense aspects of the art and I felt like that just wasn’t the focus out there. They’re more about learning the drills and learning the art and there wasn’t any… paranoia about the way they were training. They’re also very into tournaments and demos. I went out to one with GM (Vic) Sanchez. Then there’s that really deep level of dedication, like a whole other level.
I mean, you know, at Kuntaw we get maybe 3 hours a week here. That’s what you’re warming up on out there and that’s almost every day. That felt like one of the biggest jumps. I felt like my skill level really rocketed, being able to spend up to 30 hours in a week training.
NJ: So, I’m curious do you see similarities ad contrasts? One thing that stands out to me is the fact that the knife is by no means an abstract thing to Filipino practitioners and so it’s practiced in that way. Do you find that cultural perspective plays a role in practice both here and there?
GW: I don’t know, but it was a big change and definitely an eye opener.
Nj: Interestingly though, you train with Datu Rich Acosta and he seems to be tremendously open minded stylistically speaking. He’ll pull things from Aikido, Wing Chun and Jiu Jitsu if he feels like they’re relevant. Even the style uses this cross of Cinco Tieros, Lightening Scientific, Modern Arnis, etc.
So what’s been your experience in terms of diversifying your practice?
GW: Well, I know that we really like the way the Wing Chun fits in with what we’re doing, especially thinking in terms of the hand trapping. Practicing that element of Wing Chun really helps out a lot. It enhances the knife fighting and the close in stick fighting stuff.
So, yeah, I think I’m definitely interested in using what works, not getting so wrapped in metaphysical restrictions but focusing on what’s practical. A lot of that also comes from Datu’s brother, Maestro Rico, because he trained at a lot of different schools, the ones you mentioned and so many others. That’s where the idea of kruzada comes from in the name.
And you start to realize that the body only moves in certain ways and you start seeing the in-common techniques. You’re cross-referencing between a variety of answers and creating one big hybrid. We may not like to call to a hybrid art but that’s essentially what it is.
It was a process of getting rid of the the useless drills and coming at it from a more simplified directions. It’s not like aikido or karate or some other art where there are thousands of techniques. We have a few angles and a few techniques and we have to work hard to master them. A lot of arts have a lot of fluff, a lot of drills that don’t really lead anywhere and maybe they see that as a way to train beginners.
Nj: It could be. I mean, a lot of the people might say that the purpose behind certain drills is to teach body mechanics and movement theory so that it can ingrained into the student before they start to move on to more advanced applications.
GW: It’s harder to teach some aspects of kali to someone who doesn’t have any martial arts experience, especially when you’re talking about things like Lightning or Cinco Tieros.
Nj: Maybe that’s why you see a lot of the people who take kali have tried or trained something else before and have at least a general sense of their body.
GW: Sure, I’d say that’s true, particularly if I’m thinking of the ones who really stick with it. ‘Cause it can take a lot of time to learn those body mechanics, the timing, to train the basics, and you have to come in with the patience to do that kind of work.
I mean, it took me forever just to get my head wrapped around the idea of blocking & checking or sinawali. All of it was good, but it was a lot of work, learning to use my left hand as well as my right.
I found a lot of the good fighters that I met in the Philippines were left handed and maybe that gave them a leg up because so many of us are used to fighting another right hander.
Nj: Since you started training kali have you taken any other martial arts and how was that experience?
GW: Yeah, yeah. I’ve done a lot of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.
Nj: Was there something specific you were looking for in that practice?
GW: Yeah, definitely. Although I might not think it’s the most practical of martial arts, it does teach you a lot about body mechanics. It gets you away from trying to muscle through things. BJJ is all about leverage and that was a real eye opener. Similar to Wing Chun, there’s this element of energy flow. You don’t have to be big and strong to take someone twice your weight down to the floor. And then there’s the conditioning aspect. We don’t get too much conditioning in the Filipino martial arts. If anything, it’s very specific to the arms and shoulders and areas needed for manipulating the sticks and knives but in terms of the lower body… I felt like that was something I really got out of doing the BJJ.
Nj: I wonder if this plays into this aspect that I noticed from your classes. I’ve seen that it’s not common for every FMA (Filipino Martial Arts) school to spend as much time as you all do with dumog or ground fighting. I always thought it was a very intelligent thing, you guys recognizing not just these 3 ranges, but this additional fourth that is on the ground.
GW: Sure, sure and the truth is, when you see it many of these places… how good is it? If you were to take what you’d learned and throw it into a real BJJ school, would it hold up? That’s a big test.
Going up a really good purple belt or whatever in BJJ, I mean, they’re really good, really fast and it’s hard to lock ’em in or submit them. So I felt like that was a good reason for me to train with them and to learn their techniques. I wanted to understand how they move and why they move in the ways they do.
And then we incorporate some of that stuff back into our teaching. I mean, we’re not big into doing Brazilian Jiu Jitsu ’cause it’s not the most practical thing but there are some aspects that are really fundamental like: how to move your hips, how to relax, that kind of thing.
Nj: Yeah, proximity is such a psychological thing and people can really freak out once someone moves into their space or is in contact with them for too long.
GW: That’s a big problem for a lot of students. We do chi sao, for example, and you’re supposed to be totally relaxed, it’s energy flow, but people freak out. That same thing comes up when we get into all the hand-to-hand stuff, where you have to grab someone or grab their stick or whatever.
So stuff like Jiu Jitsu and dumog help with stuff like that, especially when you get into a grappling situation. Knowing if you should be grappling, particularly when someone’s holding a knife or some other weapon. Jiu Jitsu spends a lot of time getting its students really comfortable with a variety of different guard positions.
These things can be really good for FMA but, of course, we remember that we’re so practicality minded and know that we don’t want to wrestle on the floor for too long. But you never know. I mean, most people in this country have done some kind of wrestling, done some kind of mixed martial arts, it’s gotten so big. So you never know if you’re going to get taken down by surprise and if that happens you don’t want to freak out, you want to be ready to react accordingly.
The truth in all of this though, is that we have to practice to also learn other people’s weaknesses. We also have to train to be strong enough and have enough stamina for all kinds of situations.
That’s something I think students need to learn more of,how to train themselves. It’s like a weight lifter who wants to build a certain muscle. He has to work it every day. We do some angle 1s and 2s in class, you have to work them and perfect them.
When I first started I was really into exercise science and wanted to be a personal trainer. So I looked at martial arts as another type of body development. When I set up class I think about how many angle 1s are we gonna do, how many redondas, can we put in a high intensity sparring session? All of this is so people can build a strong core, foundation.
Nj: Since you’re bringing up teaching I’d love to ask you a bit more about that. I’d love to hear more of your thoughts about managing a space, dealing with the in and outflow of students, keeping up your enthusiasm when you find yourself constantly returning to the fundamentals, the excitement or feelings you have for the students who’ve been with you for a longer time. Take it where you will…
GW: Yeah, it’s been six, seven, maybe even 8 years I’ve been teaching now. The last four or so have been at Shin Budo Kai. Just before that though, we were almost closed. Maestro couldn’t teach anymore and Datu Rich was out in Jersey with family, kids. So basically I was the only one. I was either, close the school down or I keep teaching. At that point I really put it on myself to keep the school open. I didn’t want to see us lose everything we’d worked for over the years prior to that.
But, yeah, now six or seven years later, I’ve seen a lot of beginners come and go. You start to feel like you can tell who’s going to stay, who’s not going to stay. And, yes, it’s great seeing people progress, especially when you see them pass that two year mark. The time flies but you can really see the difference. That’s really exciting.
For me, a lot of this has been about learning from my own mistakes. At first I would teach too advanced. You know Maestro and Datu, they will throw technique after technique at you. So I decided when I was teaching I really wanted to reinforce the basics so that everyone could keep up with it. You can tell when certain students just aren’t really grasping something or they’re kind of shaky on this thing or that so… You just have to focus on the basics.
I mean, a good “1,” I think it’s the best angle ever and if you train it hardcore for a year, it’s the only angle you’ll ever need. If you have the timing and the strength behind it and the endurance to hold onto the stick, all you need is angle 1. Angle 1 and angle 2, you could keep it to that. So, there’s a lot to basics that could seem kind of boring but is so important.
One thing I learned from GM Sanchez was that there should be at least one thing in your class that you do every time. You’ve been to my class and have seen that I have some pretty standard warm-ups that I do all the time. Because all of those body mechanic warm-ups translate into sinawali, into stick and dagger movements, and so on. We’re trying to develop muscle memory not just work on the moves that make us look cool (’cause there are definitely students who are into that, hahaha).
Nj: True, true. Speaking truthfully, I always think of it in terms of a hope that my students will have the opportunity to train with someone far better than me. I figure, I’m trying to help put together tools so they can reap the most benefit from the chances they encounter.
GW: Sure, and this is exactly what I meant by saying when they train with Datu and Maestro the pace is fast and I want them to pick up as much as possible. Because they will be throwing them technique after technique and sometimes it’s just a matter of you learn it or you don’t and we’re moving on. Besides, there’s always something to improve on in the basics. Change up your training. Use a tire, get a partner, but stick to working on those basics.
Nj: Damon (Abraham of Kapatiran Madirigma NYC) is from the same era as you right? Are there other guys who started out with you who are still in the game?
GW: From my generation there are not many of them left. Guro Joe, Alex… Damon came around a little later. He had been training with Kombatan which comes from Ernesto Presas. It’s basically almost the same thing that we do. I mean it’s their own thing and they developed it and I like Komabatan a lot. But, yeah, Damon was already a black belt by the time he came to us so we were already on the same level, but he stuck around. He wanted to learn Lightning.
So, he’s definitely from another generation at Kuntaw, him, (Lakan) Jay (Shin) and then right after Jay, (Guro Lakan) Hubert (Saladino) came.
Nj: So what about your opportunities to train? Who did you come up with and how do you get your training in now?
GW: Well, back then it was pretty decent size, maybe as many as 15 people. Kind of like when class fills up nowadays. I’d know Guro Alex since I was a kid. We grew up together. Me, him and Randy, we came from the same Tae Kwon Do school. I went to that school because they went there. Those guys were friends of my brother and I was always the younger one tagging along with them.
But when they stopped doing TKD I was still wanting to do something. Finaly , when I found Datu Rich I got Randy and Alex to come train with us. So we all went over to kali together. Alex and his brother Randy, me and my brother, Marcus.
That really helped to keep me training ’cause we would finish up with class and then we’d hang around in the gym and practice, or we would meet up in the park to work on things. That kind of thing helped so much, even though we didn’t know what we were doing, we still got together and played with the angles, worked on bigay tama, free flow, disarms and that kind of thing.
At the time class was only 3 times a week, about an hour and a half per so, what’s that, around 4 hours a week. That goes by so quick and you could really use an hour each session just for warming up. If there ended up being a lot of explanation or stuff to talk about you could end up with lke 15 minutes of class.
Me? I don’t like to talk much during class. I’m like “let’s get to work! We’ve got an hour,” hahaha. After we left Fight House we cut it down to that hour. I guess it was easier to schedule and to manage. You can definitely get stuff done in that time, you just really have to be on track.
Nj: What that’s really saying is that people have to b motivated to train outside of class.
GW: We tell ’em that. They can also take privates or semi-privates. That’s pretty much how my generation of students did it. We’d go out to Long Island where Maestro was and we’d do black belt class, sometimes we’d call it Fight Camp, hahaha. We’d go over the stuff but in different ways. It felt like he was really grooming us for teaching.
Nj: And what about now? Who do you get to train with now?
GW: My shadow, haha. I do a lot of conditioning on my own and sometimes I get together with Guro Alex and we’l go over bigay tama. We’ll do a lot of grapling because he’s a really good grappler. But teaching is what’s really helped me clean everything up.
Through the years I’ve taught so many beginners and having to teach things all those times has really given me the opportunity to work out the details. You’re able to see your own errors and tweak the formula. You see the mistakes you make in the students that you teach and then you ask them “Who taught you that? Oh, I taught you that? Hahaha.” That’s part of why I think teaching is so much a part of your development. It’s so hard to really look at your own technique otherwise.
Nj: On a separate but related note, I wanted to talk about something that I’ve noticed from your classes that stands out as a thing that many groups struggle with.
You guys seem to have a good number of women in your group. Not only that but,some of them are really solid students who’ve stuck around for quite a while.
GW: This is actually the most women we’ve had in a long time. It’s always been at least one but usually they don’t go longer then one year or so. Some stay as long as two years which is a fairly typical.
It helps having one or two committed women in the group ’cause I think it shows something to others when they come to check us out or to try out class. You also have to understand how to teach some things differently for them. With some of the guys you can use a more aggressive approach. In fact, some of them prefer that. With women, their strengths are different so you have to teach things in…
GW: Yeah, variations. Lots of that. You also have to teach that mentality, a mindset that’s focused on self defense. We usually teach them a lot of knife ’cause it’s most useful for them, that and thinking about applying improvised weapons. Besides, in kali, knife translates to stick, translates to open hand and on like that. If you learn the right mechanics, that #1 strike, that hammer fist, that chop, they all come from the same basic idea.
Nj: I also wanted to ask about your work as an acupuncturist and how that supports or influences your martial practice.
GW: Well, I was always really interested in healing but I was pretty disillusioned with the conventional medical practice, the doctors would just hand you an antibiotic for anything, like they didn’t really care about you. So while I was doing Tae Kwon Do I started getting exposed to the idea of oriental medicine and that kind of thing. The more I kept training martial arts, the more I realized how important it was to learn how to heal myself, especially if I wanted to keep training until I got old. If my body’s already racked by arthritis when I’m 70 then where do I go from there?
Along with that it’s important to learn the balance between over training and keeping yourself healthy. I’ve also got to know about how to take care of my students if they get hurt. So, I feel like these two practices work hand in hand. So much of both of them is about moving energy, understanding how it flows.
Nj: Where did you study acupuncture?
GW: Pacific College f Oriental Medicine, which is here in New York. There are three branches, here, in Chicago and San Diego.
Nj: Do you every find opportunities in your kali classes to talk about some of your healing work? I know, in my capoeira group we have an acupuncturist who has come in a couple of times to hold discussions about general wellness, healing and eating well for active and athletic living, things like that. It gives people the chance to ask those questions. How do I take care of my joints? How do I strengthen my bones? How do I keep my energy up after long work days? How does diet affect my moods and my ability to focus? People have always been super receptive.
GW: I try to talk to some of them about that. Some of them even stop by my office for treatment, but I don’t really get into that stuff so much in class. I talk to them on more of an individual basis. I’ll hear “oh, I’ve got this and that problem.” A lot of times it’s diet related or how people are treating their bodies. On the most base level, keeping chi flowing in the most healthy way possible.
All the same, I don’t want to lecture anybody. You know, everybody thinks that they’re doing it right and it’s not my place to intervene. I figure people will come to me if they need help. Sometimes it can be as simple as modifications to their workout routine. You see a lot of people who want to hit the weights but they’re not necessarily doing the most functional exercises for the martial art that they’re training. You don’t need bodybuilding per se for what we do. It’s okay to be big but, done in the wrong way, it can slow you down or decrease your range of motion. Truth is, swinging the sticks is the most functional thing.
One day… the dream is to make a way to incorporate everything. Me and Guro Alex want to open up something in the future where we can have a martial arts, health and acupuncture center, all of it under one roof. We both know a lot of teachers. We have doctors in the family, psychiatrists and lots of other talented people, even just within the Kuntaw family. If we all just team up together we could do something really good.
Nj: Do you feel wed to New York? ‘Cause, man, you’re talkin’ about some square footage.
GW: I know. That gets us thinking about all kinds of things. I’m like “I don’t know if we can do that here. Maybe we have to move up to Connecticut or something.” Hahaha. It’s probably going to come down to something like that. But anything is possible. Look at gyms like Five Points. They’ve got it all pulled together in one place.
Nowadays, no one owns their own spot and if they do, they’ve probably been in there since like the 70s. Maybe that’s part of why I like doing stuff in all the outer boroughs, Brooklyn, Queens.
Nj: Sounds like a lot of stuff is happening
GW: For sure.
Nj: Thanks for letting me get at you. It’s good to get you sitting down for a minute, hahaha.
Wilton Valerio’s Bio
As a kali practitioner:
Wilton Valerio is a 3rd degree black belt and full instructor under Kuntaw Kali kruzada. For the past 15 years Wilton has trained under Maestro Rico Acosta (Kuntaw Kali Kruzada, Acosta Fighting system) and Datu Richie Acosta (Kuntaw Kali Kruzada). Wilton has also trained in the Philippines with Senior Master Samuel Dulay (Modern Arnis International) and Grandmaster Vicente Sanchez. (Kali Arnis international)
Wilton has over 6 years experience teaching group classes and private lesson in Manhattan and Brooklyn and specializes in coordination drills, timing, reflex, physical fitness and self defense utilizing empty hands or weapons such as single or double stick, knife and improvised weapons.
As an acupuncturist:
Wilton Valerio is a licensed acupuncturist in New York State
and graduated from Pacific College of Oriental Medicine with a
Master of Science Degree in Traditional Oriental Medicine in 2008 and has completed over 500 hours of clinical internship at the Pacific College Acupuncture Clinic and Grand Meridian Clinic in New York City.
Trained in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), he specializes in sports recovery, pain management, digestive support, weight loss, physical fitness/personal training and stress management using acupuncture, tui na (massage), herbal medicine and nutritional counseling. Wilton has been in practice for six years and has helped many patients recover from motor-vehicle accidents, sports related injuries, seasonal allergies/immune support and support clients suffering from anxiety and depression.
Wilton’s practice is located inside the Rutherford Medical Complex on 2nd avenue and 17th street near Gramercy park, Union Square and Peter Cooper Village. Wilton is incredibly friendly, experienced, flexible with appointment scheduling and takes his time with all patents. His rates are very reasonable and believes that healthcare should be safe, affordable and accessible to everyone regardless of their financial situation.