APOLO LADRA Teahes the Filipino Fighting Art to give Modern Warrioes a Tactical Advantage in Any Environment
Biceps, chamber, hip, point. Thrust, slash, cover. The rhythmic shouts come from a kali master instructor, and they’re echoed by hundreds of students who are mimicking his every move. It’s part of the training that’s taking place at the 2018 Martial Arts SuperShow in Las Vegas. In attendance are police officers, former SWAT team members, Special Forces operatives, U.S. Marines and ordinary martial artists representing disciplines that range from
krav maga and taekwondo to Brazilian jiu-jitsu to kung fu san soo.
Men, women and children from all walks of life have assembled in the Bellagio ballroom to learn pekiti tirsia kali from one of the most visible exponents of the art, a man named Apolo Ladra. Let your mind wander, and the clack of their kali sticks can evoke images from different eras and locales. Maybe the sound is the byproduct of Filipino farmers working their scythes in the field. Maybe it’s the noise of riflemen firing, reloading and refiring across revolutionary battlefields. The strikes reverberate beyond the ballroom walls. They’re universal, all-encompassing, drawn from the pulse of an indigenous Filipino fighting art forged over hundreds of years. The resonance is material, and for the stick wielders, it’s spiritual.
Ladra’s role is to serve as a bridge that spans centuries and continents. He’s out to inspire the next generation to learn pekiti tirsia as it was passed to him by the legendary Leo T. Gaje Jr.
The art of kali extends into the martial, mental and cultural dimensions of human exertion. Its practicality derives from native arts adapted to intrusive circumstances. How to fend off an invader? How to adapt to his method of invasion?
It’s arguable that no nation knows this dynamic like the Philippines, where the traditional culture has absorbed a barrage of foreign influences on everything from religion to commerce to combat. For centuries, incursions and occupations by the Spanish, Americans and Japanese forced Filipinos to adapt, conceal or face the eradication of their cultural expressions, including the martial arts. Essentially, Filipino warriors and the populations they were traditionally bound to defend found a way to unfetter themselves from foreign rule. One way, ironically, was to serve as the fighting force on Spanish galleons as they embarked on imperialistic tours of the South Pacific. The fighting style of the Filipinos was so foreign to the enemies of the Spanish that it couldn’t be defeated.
Fast-forward 300 years. Because of their exposure in seminars and magazines, as well as online and in theaters, the Filipino martial arts are well-known to the masses. In fact, it’s easy to overlook how long they’ve been in the public eye. Bruce Lee wielded doble baston in Enter the Dragon (1973). Jeff Speakman whirled makeshift escrima sticks in The Perfect Weapon (1991). More recent flicks like the Jason Bourne series (starting in 2002) have featured intricately choreographed, lightning-quick, brutally satisfying kali scenes.
In just a few decades, the Filipino arts have gone from underground to spectacle, and that’s put them on the radar of all martial artists.
No one represents the full dimensions of the art of the blade like Apolo Ladra, a Filipino native whose father was chief of police of the province of Batangas, birthplace of the balisong ( butterfly knife).
Ladra spent his youth in Baltimore, teaching taekwondo. Then he decided to return to his roots and dedicate his career to propagating the Filipino martial arts, which he learned from Gaje, inheritor of pekiti tirsia. Ladra expresses the art of kali with subtlety and immediacy — during the past two years, the master, now in his 50s, has fought in full-contact stick matches in the Philippines, wearing a fencer’s helmet as his only armor. In the hundreds of seminars he conducts yearly in the West, Ladra conveys a simple dictum: Learn to teach, teach to learn.
To get a sense of the master’s devotion to the art, you need only talk to those he’s taught. For his students, pekiti tirsia represents the most effective, efficient and all-encompassing martial art, an assertion they base on its physical as well as mental dimensions.
Matthew “Dutch” Hemker holds a fourth-degree black belt in taekwondo and first degrees in krav maga, Shaolin kung fu and the Marine Corps Martial Arts Program. He spent 10 years on active duty in the Corps and currently works as a contract trainer for the military. He teaches combat, survival and self-defense through the Warrior Training Group in Hampstead, North Carolina.
Hemker has trained with Ladra for three years, and kali has become the foundation of his personal and professional life. “When people ask me about martial arts, I ask them, ‘What are you trying to achieve?’” he says. “The answer comes in the most bare, direct terms: How do I defend myself against an attack?”
Many consider krav maga the default no-nonsense martial arts approach to hand-to-hand engagement, but Hemker notes similarities between the Israeli system and the Filipino art. “Both krav maga and kali deal with tactical threats with a problem-solving mindset,” he says. “But kali delves into the side answers of self-defense.”
In essence, kali can mesh with virtually any martial art. “The skill sets blend extremely well,” Hemker says. “It’s modular and scalable. I could train a civilian house mom with basic techniques or could scale up the level of aggressiveness for a soldier or law-enforcement officer training to survive being stabbed or bludgeoned out on the beat. In its depth and range, there’s nothing more effective than kali.”
For soldiers and cops, such skills are not only practical but also essential to survival. In the United States alone, there were nearly 130,000 assaults with a knife or other cutting weapon in 2016. Assaults with weapons ranging from bare hands to blunt objects topped 230,000 that year.
Officer Jeff David, who spent two decades on the Pembroke Pines, Florida, police force, teaches close-quarters combat at the Miami Dade College School of Justice. Like Hemker, he considers Ladra’s kali indispensable.
“Six or seven years ago, I went to a friend who runs a martial arts school and said I was looking for someone who could teach effective baton skills,” David says. “He referred me to Apolo.”
The class that Ladra put on emphasized hand-to-hand combat even though it was designed to use sticks. “A ton of people showed up, and we didn’t have enough sticks,” says David with a laugh. “[Apolo] adapted his teaching. We essentially learned a Filipino approach to upright grappling. It was amazing. It involved many of the techniques we use and teach [at the police academy], but Apolo taught us why they work. That why, that how, the mental approach — that’s the force of his teaching.”
David’s interest in kali quickly progressed to sticks. “The biggest attraction for me, as a cop, was the baton,” he says. “[It’s] an incredible tool for grappling and control, with techniques that have been around a long time but forgotten. Locking up arms, doing takedowns, holding [ perps] with the baton — it’s a lost art. Apolo’s bringing it back.”
David also emphasizes Ladra’s absorption of multiple martial arts — hard styles, soft styles, striking, grappling — and his transmission of useful techniques in the context of kali. “The training I got in just six months was
STICK VS. STICK: Apolo Ladra confronts his opponent (1). When the man executes his strike, Ladra moves to the right and intercepts the swing with his hand while using his stick to hit him in the ribs (2). He WZLVWV WKH PDQ·V ZHDSRQ hand while chambering his own stick for another strike (3). Ladra uses a downward strike to knock the weapon from the RSSRQHQW·V KDQG (4-5). Having repositioned his VWLFN XQGHU WKH PDQ·V arm, Ladra applies pressure on his biceps(6) to break his balance and send him to the ground (7). Once the man is on his back, Ladra can VWULNH XQWLO KH·V QR ORQJHU a threat (8).