John Wick, Arrow and Roland Dantes

THE GAME OF MY LIFE - Bill Velasco - The Philippine Star

In the film series “John Wick,” Keanu Reaves plays the titular hero, the most feared, prodigious and prolific assassin in the world. As part of his mythology as the underworld’s Grim Reaper, he is said to have killed three men in a bar with merely a pencil, a feat considered fantastical and unbelievable. Yet, decades before John Wick, one of the greatest Filipino athletes and martial arts masters in history was already teaching how to defend one’s self with writing implements.

Arnis Grandmaster Roland Dantes passed away on March 16, 2009. It was a tragic, preventable death due to complications from gout. This writer had known Roland since the 1980’s, when he was one of the co-founders of Arnis Philippines, prior to his leaving the country for almost two decades out of disappointment over how his fellows were trying to hoard power and knowledge in the sport. Roland wanted everyone to learn the signature Filipino martial art, so he taught it to the world, from the US to Europe to parts of Asia and in Australia, where he lived. One of the techniques he taught was how to use a pen for self-defense, and how to inflict the most damage to an assailant. He made an eye-opening demonstration of this with his nephew, the rapper Sly Kane, on my television program “Hardball” in 2007.

Roland had a phenomenal physique way before it became fashionable. In the 1969 Mr. Universe competition, he was second runner-up to Arnold Schwarzenegger. The gentle giant then became a police officer. When radio commentator Angelo Castro Sr. started receiving death threats for his exposés, Roland stood outside his residence at night, his imposing, mustachioed muscular figure discouraging any would-be attackers. In one week, the threat was gone. It was after that that he focused on martial arts, which in turn propelled his movie career. Dantes was cast as the villain in the iconic 1979 Fernando Poe Jr. boxing movie “Durugin si Totoy Bato,” which laughably wanted us to believe that he and FPJ were even in the same weight class.

Roland used more than 30 local and international films that he appeared as a platform to display Filipino martial arts, specifically arnis. His 1974 international action movie “Pacific Connection” with global superstar Nancy Kwan was a powerful showcase of Filipino stick fighting. In 2012, a training sequence from his 1986 film “Arnis: The Sticks of Death” set in a makeshift cage, was copied in a first-season episode of the hit Warner Bros. TV series “Arrow.” Also, in a curious coincidence, Roland died on March 16, the same day in 1521 that Ferdinand Magellan discovered the Philippines. Roland once portrayed an intimidating version of Magellan’s slayer Lapu-Lapu. If I had seen him standing on the beach in Cebu, I would have forgotten about landing in the Philippines entirely. After his death, the Hall of Fame athlete received a posthumous FAMAS Award for his movie work.

When Roland returned to the Philippines in the early 2000’s, he was saddened by how fractured the community had become. Everyone was teaching their own style, with their own rules. But with the respect he held in the community, Roland was able to unite all the masters into the Philippine Eskrima Kali Arnis Masters or PEKAF. Unfortunately he died soon after. His contributions to both bodybuilding and arnis, not to mention his kindness and generosity of self, will never be forgotten. His life was as mythical as the onscreen heroes he portrayed. They don’t make ‘em like Roland Dantes anymore.


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