Apolo Ladra: The Next Generation of Pekiti Tirsia Kali

His name is Apolo Ladra. Apolo’s creed is to strike first and keep on striking. Defense, he says, is the other guy’s problem. Apolo Ladra is on a mission to make the Filipino martial art of kali, especially the style known as pekiti tirsia, as popular as taekwondo and jujitsu. “I want people to know its true culture and ethics and the true meaning of the blade,” he said. “This is our treasure, and I want to share it with the world.” Born in the Philippines, Ladra immigrated to America when he was 7. In the States, he was drawn deep into taekwondo. He excelled as a student and went on to become a taekwondo instructor and a competitor. He opened a network of martial arts academies and saw success there, as well. As time passed, however, he felt the attraction of kali, the fighting art of his homeland. Ladra then did a 180 and immersed himself in the stick and blade art. His current appraisal of the situation is succinct and fair: Taekwondo remains his “martial art and sport,” while pekiti tirsia is his “combative art.” I said that’s fair because in Ladra’s mind, those are two different things.

Get to Know Apolo Ladra Here, Then Read More About This FMA Master and See His Dynamic Kali Techniques in the Oct/Nov 2018 Issue of Black Belt!

His name is Apolo Ladra. Apolo’s creed is to strike first and keep on striking. Defense, he says, is the other guy’s problem.


Apolo Ladra is on a mission to make the Filipino martial art of kali, especially the style known as pekiti tirsia, as popular as taekwondo and jujitsu. “I want people to know its true culture and ethics and the true meaning of the blade,” he said. “This is our treasure, and I want to share it with the world.”

Born in the Philippines, Ladra immigrated to America when he was 7. In the States, he was drawn deep into taekwondo. He excelled as a student and went on to become a taekwondo instructor and a competitor. He opened a network of martial arts academies and saw success there, as well. As time passed, however, he felt the attraction of kali, the fighting art of his homeland.

Ladra then did a 180 and immersed himself in the stick and blade art. His current appraisal of the situation is succinct and fair: Taekwondo remains his “martial art and sport,” while pekiti tirsia is his “combative art.” I said that’s fair because in Ladra’s mind, those are two different things.

[Apolo Ladra teaches a student at the "art of the blade" seminar at the 2018 Martial Arts Supershow]

Origins

Before delving into the differences, Apolo Ladra offered some details on the culture he comes from. “I lived in Batangas, the city where the butterfly knife started,” he said. “As far back as I can remember, I always loved the blade, which is probably because my uncle, my grandparents and the people in my neighborhood always had a blade.

“My father used to be the chief of police there, and he often encountered bad guys with knives. People from Batangas are well-known for their skills in terms of using the blade in combat. If a person from elsewhere bumps into someone from Batangas, they know that he is probably carrying a butterfly knife and that he most likely knows how to use it.”

But Ladra left the Philippines before he could dive into that martial culture. How, then, did he discover pekiti tirsia? “My teacher is grand tuhon Leo T. Gaje Jr., who inherited the style from his grandfather,” Ladra said. “The first time I heard of [him] was in the mid-1970s when I saw him on the cover of Black Belt magazine. During that time, I was doing taekwondo. I said, ‘Man, I’d love to train with that guy because he is Filipino and he made the front cover of Black Belt. I searched and searched for grand tuhon until we connected in the 1980s, and I’ve been training with him ever since.”

[Apolo Ladra teaching side by side with his own instructor Leo Gaje]

Arts

Most Black Belt readers are familiar with the Filipino fighting arts, but they might be confused about the differences between kali, escrima and arnis. I asked Apolo Ladra to explain. “Kalis means blade, so it’s really not so confusing that people say they do kali, escrima or arnis,” he said. “Different styles may focus on blade, stick or empty hand — or some of each. Basically, it just depends on family heritage or what part of the country they are from. Also, because of the many different dialects in the Philippines, people use different terminology for the various implements and techniques. It’s pretty simple.” Easy for him to say.

I asked Ladra for details about pekiti tirsia, the style he and Leo T. Gaje Jr. do. “We refer to our art as the art of the blade,” Ladra said. “Even though it is blade, we do stick and empty hand, as well. We don’t differentiate between the various implements too much. We don’t say, ‘These defenses are for empty hand, these are for stick and these are for blade.’

“When you learn one, you learn them all. Why do things twice? We grip the blade and stick the same. When there is no blade or stick, our hand stays the same, and [we] also have punches, hammerfists and knifehand strikes — it’s all there! To us, the blade, stick and empty hand are the same.”

It all boils down to muscle memory, Ladra said: “Say it takes 10,000 repetitions for a technique to become a reflex. What if I practice holding the knife by the handle 10,000 times and then practice holding the stick farther up from the handle or near the middle 10,000 times? In the heat of battle with no time to think, I might make the mistake of grabbing the knife by the blade. I want to know the correct reflex will kick in, rather than hope the wrong one does not.”

Flow

Another combat philosophy that Apolo Ladra espouses is related to the generosity of people in the Philippines. “Filipinos are known for their hospitality — they are friendly and always smiling and always want to give value to other people, including food and even labor,” he said.

Then the martial artist in him resurfaced. “As a person who is from a generous people, I want to be generous, too,” Ladra said about self-defense. “So if someone gives me a punch, I give him three more back. I give him the combination. I give him the flow.”

I prodded the master to reveal more about the flow. “We teach 12 basic techniques,” Apolo Ladra explained. “From those 12 techniques, what flows for me — because of my body type — might be No. 1, No. 3, No. 7, No. 9 and No. 10. What flows for you might be No. 1, No. 2, No. 4, No. 6 and No. 8. What flows for me is different from what flows for you because we have different builds, we have different backgrounds and we have different ways of thinking.

“Advanced techniques are nothing more than the execution of our basics in combination, which is optimal when it flows. Those flows are what we hit people with. The techniques you do should be able to flow together. That’s why many top masters say, ‘You’ve got to find your own flow.’ Moreover, flows are great because when you are flowing, you are having the most fun.”

Part of having fun while fighting is not getting hit, Ladra continued. “Our guiding principle and philosophy is basically to be first. In every situation, you want to be first on the offensive. You don’t want to go on defense and try to block what’s coming at you because some of it will get in and you will be hit, probably multiple times.

“That’s why we are always, and I mean always, on the offensive. Our strategy is OCR, which means offense, counteroffense and re-counteroffense. Defense is the other guy’s problem. Fighting is fun when you’re doing all the hitting.”

Principles

Most martial arts masters have guiding principles they live by, principles that can help students achieve their objectives not only in the arts but also in their personal lives. The following are Apolo Ladra’s.

1. Lead by Example: 

“All the people who train with me know that I have the ethics and the discipline to make sure I don’t ask them to continue their education if I am not,” he said. “I am always and forever a student, always learning to teach and teaching to learn. Right now, even — during this interview — I am actually learning stuff. While you’re asking me questions, I’m repeating a lot of the basics over and over, and it’s bringing back information, some of which I plan to use in today’s presentation.”

2. Have a Positive Attitude: 

“I always stay positive,” Ladra said. “To me, it doesn’t matter if things are not going great or if the grass is not greener in what I’m doing. I try to keep a smile on my face and be happy. When I do that and I’m with other people, they become positive, too.”

3. Never Give Up: 

“Self-discipline and never giving up go hand in hand,” Ladra said. “You discipline yourself that no matter what, especially if you have a goal or a dream, you do whatever it takes and stay committed. If you have your own vision and you’ve made up your mind to pursue it, then when you feel the time is right and you are prepared, go and do it. Dreams do come true.”

Text by Floyd Burk • Photos by Brandon Snider

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