If you are not a practitioner of Filipino Martial Arts, when you first hear of it or see it you could not be blamed for thinking that FMA exclusively dedicates itself to weapons-only training, and for the most part - especially in the more commercial schools - you would be correct. The reason for this is simple: Most groups rarely venture past the weapons training stage, even though you will constantly hear them saying that the weapon is just an extension of the hand. Yet when many do show empty hands training it all too often is techniques based on Kickboxing or Ju-Jitsu. You would be hard-pressed to find many of the more commercial groups showing you a direct translation of the weapons to empty hands.
But, venturing into the art from a more traditional side (away from the more commercial groups) you soon begin to realise that the weapons training is just the tip of the iceberg and in fact the weapons training, handling and mechanics represent the backbone of the art. The Mano-Mano or Pangamot (the empty hand fighting aspect) is the higher end of the art and through mastering this aspect, you develop a further understanding of the weapons training and what it really offers. In short, the weapons support the empty hands and the empty hands support the weapons.
The problem is this: Many groups today only tend to show the more flashy weapons drills, disregarding the nuances of movement, positioning, posture, and mechanics. Why? Simple: It looks cool; it puts bums on seats; it’s flashy and they market it as being “the most deadly art in the world...” But without the higher end of the art (ie. the forward-moving aggressive empty hand aspect) you truly have not moved beyond the introductory stages, for at its core, real FMA has very little to do with the weapons being deployed and more to do with the mechanics of movement, intent, posture, positioning, timing and controlling of distance (whilst disrupting that of the opponent).
The FMA in its correct format is a complete fighting system both of weapons and empty hand. Though its use of weapons certainly sets it apart from other martial arts, if you look at all other martial arts born from conflict, you will find the use of weapons taking priority, with empty-hand skills a secondary area of concern. For although you would choose not to enter a conflict empty-handed, it was quite possible to lose retention of your weapon, or to have to fight to access one.
So don’t be fooled by the flashy stick, knife and sword drills: They are just window decorations. Look deeper and you will find an art that will teach you how to move, posture, disrupt an opponent, improvise and have the right mindset and tools to improve your chances of emerging from a conflict intact. On that last note, whilst I would certainly say that FMA offers the most rounded martial arts in the world, I would question whether it offers the most effective (especially given that so many practice it just as a method for making pretty patterns). Of course there must be a reason why so many around the world (including special forces, security personnel, etc) love it, but even when a person is given the proper knowledge and tools, they still need the opportunity and the courage to put them to use. This is more down to the individual and their circumstances than the art they train.