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).

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