Mamerto Adan is an engineer by profession but a writer by night. He's interested in science, history, and martial arts.
Who Is Jose Rizal?
The thing I like about most of the Ilustrados is they weren’t just mentally sharp. It was never a good idea to physically assault most of their members. Behind their formal attire was a person trained to duel.
Having been born from well-to-do families, they had access to quality education and martial arts training as well. The Luna brothers are a good example, being known for their swordsmanship and firearm skills. Another one of their members, Jose P. Rizal wasn’t a pushover as well.
Though he looks great in portraits, the real Rizal wasn’t that physically impressive. Filipinos are known for their lack of stature, and Rizal was even smaller, with a height of only five feet tall! Yet still, throughout his life, part of his education was learning to fight.
Being small wasn’t a hindrance for Rizal to study various martial arts both locally and in his travels. Overall, he amassed a nice collection of fighting styles and nearly got involved in various duels. Some say, his extensive martial arts training was the reason why he opposed armed uprising, which he saw as nothing but wasteful violence and vain attempts.
At an early age, Rizal was a fragile young man. Yet, thanks to his uncle, he had exposure to martial arts, which helped strengthen his weak body. According to historians Gregorio F. Zaide and Sonia M. Zaide, it was his uncle Manuel who helped Rizal develop physically.
Being an athletic man, he taught Rizal horseback riding and wrestling. And not only that it—Rizal shed his sickly and frail physique. The wrestling lessons also protected Rizal from bullying. Obviously, a small kid like Rizal was a favorite target of bullies. But in his Memorias de Un Estudiante de Manila, Rizal described how he beat a bigger and older kid in school and gained fame out of it.
And from there, his love of combative stayed with him. In fact, during his trips to various places in Europe, Rizal learned several forms of martial arts, from striking to weapons training.
Rizal the Swordsman
Many people were fascinated by a photo of Rizal in his fencing gear having a bout with his fellow Ilustrado. Indeed, handling a sword was one of Rizal’s martial disciplines. A letter dated Nov. 27, 1879, to Enrique Lete tells of an 18-year-old Rizal’s desire to train with the sword: “My hands are shaking because I have just had a fencing bout; you know I want to be a swordsman.”
There are claims though that Rizal was trained in Arnis, a Filipino martial art, but no record of this exists. Yet his uncle probably taught him some forms of stick fighting, which according to some sources, he used sticks in various fights.
In one account during his college life, verbal insults between the Spaniards and the Filipinos would end in violent encounters, and it was up to Rizal and his gangs to resort to their stick fighting prowess. The Spaniards would call the Filipinos “chonggo” (monkey), while the Filipnos answered with “bangus” (milkfish).
He also practiced swordsmanship during his stay in Madrid, and as some of his fighting portraits showed, he trained with the Luna brothers.
Rizal the Sharpshooter
Among the Ilustrados, Rizal was always known to be a good shot. In fact, during his brief scuffle with Antonio Luna over a woman, a duel almost broke out. It was noted how Luna was the better swordsman, but Rizal was the better shooter.
The brief accounts of firearm workings in his books Noli me Tangere and El Filibusterismo indicate an extensive knowledge of such weapons. He practiced pistol shooting in Madrid, together with fencing, and his letter to Antonio Luna gave pictures of his skills with firearms:
“Speaking of shooting, I am sending you a target containing 10 bullet holes; it was seven and a half meters from me. At twenty-five meters I can put all my shots in a twenty-centimeter target”
Rizal the Weight Trainer
And like many fight enthusiasts, Rizal also trained with weights. Rizal had to endure starvation in his stays in Europe, but the lack of food never stopped him from training. Even after going vegetarian due to lack of food, Rizal lifted, and he was known as the smallest guy in the gym.
In Berlin, Germany, he boasted how we would beat the strongest man in the gym, according to Dr. Maximo Viola. Overall, the general description of Rizal in Madrid was as followed:
“He was then in his thirty-first year. The first impression one had of him was of wholesome vigor and physical well-being. He was rather slender of build, but all muscle and sinew, compact, for he never remitted in his exercise."
Rizal's Knowledge of Other Martial Arts
Again, his many travels enabled him to absorb many types of fighting styles. During his stay in Japan, Rizal met Seiko Usui, the daughter of a Samurai. From her father, he learned Judo, an art that bears some resemblance to his wrestling background.
Learning this modified Jujutsu made sense to Rizal, as it enabled smaller guys to take on larger opponents. Rizal was also trained in striking sports: while he was in London he had boxed with the sons of his friend Dr. Reinhold Rost.
With such an extensive background in fighting, one might wonder if Rizal was ever in real fights.
Again, he fought a bully in his younger years with his wrestling background. There are also records of him stick fighting and fencing. And some notorious cases involved Rizal going to duels.
No one could forget his brief disagreements with Antonio Luna, and disaster was averted when parties stepped in to stop the duel. Rizal and Luna eventually became friends again.
Spanish scholar Wenceslao E. Retana was also challenged by Rizal in a duel. It started when he wrote malicious articles about Rizal’s family, but Retana backed out after learning Rizal’s martial background.
And lastly was in Dapitan, when he challenged Frenchman Juan Lardet after accusing Rizal of cheating in a business deal. Lardet also declined after being warned by Capt. Ricardo Carcinero (commandant in Dapitan) of Rizal’s fighting prowess.
Rizal's Non-Violent Approach
With his martial arts training, it’s amazing how Rizal avoided getting involved in an armed uprising. As his experiences in martial arts show, learning to fight teaches you two things. First, what to do in a fight; second, what not to do in a fight. Knowing your strengths and limits in martial arts goes hand in hand, and this influenced Rizal’s view on armed conflict.
True martial arts will teach one to be realistic in a fight and to value survival over wasteful violence. With that said, Rizal saw an armed uprising by ill-equipped and ill-trained rebels against the professional and superior Spanish Army as a vain attempt. During a dialogue with Bonifacio’s envoy, Dr. Pio Valenzuela, he said:
“I will never lead a disorderly revolution and one which has no probability of success because I do not want to burden my conscience with an imprudent and useless spilling of blood; but whoever leads a revolution in the Philippines will have me at his side.”
Basically, training in martial arts fostered good sense in Rizal!
1. Mallari, Perry Gill (30 December 2019), "Jose Rizal’s prowess in sports legendary." The Manila Times.
2. Navarro, Rene (n.d.), "Jose Rizal, Martial Arts Warrior." Positively FIlipino.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.