Grandmaster Henry Espera talks about his early days, training under Tatang, and more
He lives in Silang, Cavite so I was surprised when I saw him this morning in the park where Master Cris Pasindo and I train (Quezon Memorial Circle, Quezon City). That’s about 65 kms (40 mi) distance.
He said he was going to meet with someone but came early to get some solo practice.
I was eager to learn more about him, so when he was done, I requested Master Cris to invite him for breakfast. My husband, J-cip, joined us.
For more than two hours, while absent-mindedly eating a Filipino breakfast of tapa (beef jerky), sunny-side up eggs, fried rice, orange juice, and brewed coffee, Master Henry let me inside his fascinating world.
His demeanor was gentle and humble, and he told his stories with fondness. I’m grateful for the privilege.
- Born on December 1, 1953 in Sorsogon, Bicol
- 4th child in a brood of thirteen (yes, 13!)
- At 7 years old, his father gave Henry his own itak so he could do his daily chore of getting firewood for cooking.
- At 21 years old, Henry went to Manila and got a job as a laborer at a Gravel and Sand company
- After a few years he became a jeepney driver plying the Divisoria-Monumento route, driving from 6 PM to 6 AM
- Every morning, as he went home to Moriones, Tondo, Manila, he would see many people walking towards a certain direction. After some time, he learned that those people were going to Luneta. That’s when he discovered that iconic park.
- Since then, he would usually cut short his duty, bring back his jeepney to the garage at 3 AM and then by 6 AM he would already be in Luneta, doing some exercises and relaxing.
Training under Antonio “Tatang” Ilustrisimo
- Master Henry doesn’t remember exact dates. He knows that he met Tatang in the late 80’s and remembers that he was already training under him when there were airplanes bombing Malacanang “From Luneta, Tatang and I saw the planes but we didn’t know what was happening”. (Note: I think that’s the 1989 Philippine coup attempt.)
- They usually met Monday to Saturday, 6-9 AM
- Robert Morales, also a student of Tatang, once suggested to him not to attend the Sunday trainings anymore since he already was with Tatang Monday to Saturday. So on Sundays, Henry would just sit at the side and watch the group training. “That’s maybe why some are questioning if I really trained under Tatang. But you can ask Maestro Siuox Glaraga. He was then (along with Grandmaster Jose Mena) also in Luneta on weekdays and he saw us.”
- Tatang always wore long-sleeves shirt (tucked in), formal pants, and leather shoes.
- Tatang liked pandesal and coffee.
- Training would consist of situationers and problem solving.
- Tatang did not do numbers and counting. He gave no lectures on technique. He’d say, “What if someone hits you like this?” He’d show a move and then you follow him. If you ask him about your move, “Tama ba ito?” (Is this correct?). He’ll answer, “Kung tumama, tama.” (If it hit, then it’s correct.”) Note: Because of the double meaning of the word “tama”, it sounds more poetic in Tagalog.)
- Tatang wanted moves to be small but powerful. “Liitan mo lang ang galaw.”
- Training was always painful as Tatang did not have qualms of hitting you.
- In the mid-90’s, Tatang became sick and was confined at the Quezon Institute for about a month. When he got well, he resumed training (although, he was not as strong as before). He continued for about two years more until he died.
- The morning before his death, Henry still trained with Tatang. Tatang went home at around 9 AM. Around midnight he woke up and talked briefly with his wife. The next morning, he didn’t wake up anymore.
- It took some time before Tatang was buried. The sad reason: They didn’t have money for burial.
- Most important lesson from Tatang: Practical fighting.
Training under Alejandro “Andy” Abrian (Moro Moro Orabes Arnis Heneral)
- Mang Andy worked as a maintenance man in Luneta. He was in charge of the maintenance of the flag poles and saw to it that flag rules were followed.
- He watched Tatang and Henry practice, and after Tatang left, he would call Henry and comment about their training. He would then teach Henry his own techniques.
- It was from him that Henry learned a lot. “Matagal nang namatay si Tatang, kasama pa rin ako ni Master Andy.”
Training under a certain Mang Juan (Automatic Arnis)
- A friend told Henry that there was very good Arnis Master in Quiapo.
- They went to meet him and Henry trained under him for about two weeks only. “I already knew the techniques he was teaching so I didn’t see the need to train under him.”
Training under Erning Espinosa (Boxing)
- In 1992, with already a few years of Arnis training, Henry got into a fist fight versus five men. (They were trying to unjustly tow his jeepney). Henry eventually chased them away but not before sustaining a lot of cuts and bruises. He went home discouraged and thought “Arnis is not enough to make me win a fight. I have to learn how to grab, hold, and punch also.”
- Somebody introduced him to a boxing master, Erning Espinosa, based in Balintawak, Quezon City.
- From him, Henry learned blocks and punches, even trapping, grappling and kicking.
- He also remembers Master Erning’s favorite siete-siete technique: You make your opponent move forward to attack you… lead him to a corner… and then suddenly move sideways so that you can trap him (forming a “7”, hence the name)
Rapido Realismo Kali
- Over the years Master Henry developed his own system: Arnis mixed with punches, kicks, grappling, and wrestling.
- He emphasizes the use of small moves made powerful by footwork, body position, and timing.
- He differentiates edged from impact weapons.
- He espouses the repetition of a certain move hundreds or even thousands of time. “Muscle memory is crucial,” he says.
- He first named his system, Espera Mixed Martial Arts.
- With the suggestion of his student, Isagani Abon, he later changed it to Rapido Realismo Kali International.
- He likes to be called Master Henry but his formal title is Punong Guro.
Words of Wisdom
Finally, I asked him for messages he wants to tell others. Here they are:
- Show humility by being careful with your words. Do not say anything that would provoke.
- If others insult you, show the strength of your character by keeping your cool.
- Strive to be a good man. Having martial arts skills is dangerous if you don’t have character.
- Teach young people to love the country and its national sport, Arnis. If you see an interested young person, teach him well.
Thank you very much Master Henry!
Before our talk, I asked permission if I can write about what he’s going to tell me. He said, “No problem. Go ahead.”
After our talk, I said I’m going to write things up and show him before I publish. He said, “No need. You go ahead and publish.”
So here’s my waiver: I’m telling these stories the way I understood them. If I got some information wrong, it’s not Master Henry’s fault, it’s mine. Please accept my apologies and let me know in the comments below so I can correct things.
Salamat at pugay po.
P. S. I still have stories about Tatang’s oracion but that will be for another post.
Thank you for taking time to read my blog, The Deadly Dance.
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