Introducing Black Belt’s 2018 Man of the Year
E very traditional martial art exists in the present because at one time in the past, it was used successfully in battle. It would have been illogical for warriors to pass down strategies and techniques that failed to function in fights. End of story.
In part because of geography, most cultures and classes were pitted against the same enemies, often for long periods of time. Therefore, it can be assumed that most fighting systems developed to neutralize a specific enemy. Case in point: In Japan, jujitsu was created to combat the samurai, with their iconic weaponry and their unique way of fighting.
Now, the fact that most members of a given adversarial group probably fought in similar ways, one can argue that this could limit the efficacy of the art that’s being used against said group if it was pitted against a different group. It follows, then, that any art that was battle-tested against two enemy cultures would be more effective than a style that faced only one. And it follows that if an art was forged in three crucibles that resulted from prolonged clashes with three mighty nations, it would have the upper hand.
Such a system does exist, and it’s called pekiti tirsia. This form of kali is helmed by Leo T. Gaje Jr., and it’s being used by millions of military men and women around the world for the very reasons I just mentioned.
Crucible No. 1
Gaje was born in 1938 on the island of Negros in the Philippines. When he was just 6, he began training under his grandfather Conrado Tortal. The reason the patriarch put his only grandson on the martial path so early was eminently practical. “He said, ‘I will train you so you can protect your property and family,’” Gaje said. “Every family in the Philippines had to be able to take care of themselves.”
Historically, a significant part of that mission of protection was to fight against the Spanish, he added.
You see, in the aftermath of Ferdinand Magellan’s arrival in 1521, Spain took gradual control of the Philippines. And the Spanish, with their blades, ruled with an iron fist. “Often, one member of a family would go out to observe how the Spaniards used their swords — they were intelligence agents, in a way,” Gaje said. “In my family, my grandfather had three brothers, and they observed the fighting system of the Spaniards. They would report to my grandfather, then do clinics on the type of fighting they saw. Most of it was using the blade from long range.”
With the intel, Gaje’s grandfather focused on footwork — specifically, how the family might use close-range methods to defeat their enemies. “My grandfather and his brothers analyzed the footwork of the Spaniards step by step,” Gaje said. “They saw that most of the movement was linear, so they developed a way to open it up, which is the open triangle. From that base, they were able to strategize their methodology. They used diagonal lines because a diagonal line is a protective line when you slash and thrust. They were looking for a way to attack up close that was not counterable, meaning to say there was no way to block the technique.”
The brothers determined that there are two ways to fight when blades are involved: with weapon contact and without weapon contact. “If one blade makes contact with
another blade while blocking, it takes time to recover,” Gaje said. “So they studied angulation [to avoid that]. If your angle is coming in this way, I go that way. If you go high, I go low. All this was part of a building process — they did it every day.
“Whenever they developed a new technique, they would go on a test mission. The brothers would go out and fight with the Spaniards. One hundred percent of the techniques we teach now worked then. That’s why we teach them — and it’s why in pekiti tirsia, we always say that every technique cost lots of lives.”
Gaje’s grandfather often talked about the cultural discipline he and his brothers were adding to what the Spanish practiced, Gaje said. “He called it the actual expression of combat. It was about the counter of motion before attack time, which is where [the acronym] COMBAT comes from.
“The system they created — pekiti tirsia — had only 12 methods, one for each month of the year. In one month, you had to learn one method. The first three months were for skill development. The next three months were for specialization. The next three were for mastery. And the final three were for testing and building confidence. It all had to be done quickly because they were fighting the Spaniards.”
To polish their skills for actual use, the brothers would begin with hardwood sticks, Gaje said. “They would hit water for power development and to feel resistance. They also worked on speed so their actions couldn’t be trapped or easily countered. And, of course, they focused on using footwork to get in close — pekiti tirsia means ‘close-quarters techniques.’ It isn’t designed for long range.”
The goal, Gaje reiterated, is to take action before the opponent’s strike comes to fruition because then you don’t need to spend time blocking. “If you give me a slash, I will slash, also,” he said. “Counter of motion before attack time means that as soon as there is one motion from your opponent, you’re there. It can be any first move.”
Such combat efficiency came as a result of three centuries of Spanish control of the Philippines, Gaje added. “It enabled us to develop a blade technology that was superior to that of the Spaniards.” Crucible No. 2 “Eventually, eight provinces of the Philippines revolted against Spain,” Gaje said. “After the revolution ended, Spain negotiated in the Treaty of Paris of 1898 to sell the Filipinos to the Americans at $3 per head. Imagine that! The Philippines was considered the property of Spain, but why did they have to sell the Filipino people to America? Why not the land?”
At first, the Filipinos were elated to have cast off the Spanish, but they quickly learned that being under American rule wasn’t much better, Gaje said. “We started fighting the Americans with guerrilla tactics. Our success caused Gen. [John] ‘Black Jack’ Pershing, who served in the Philippines, to tell the War Department, ‘We cannot win the war like this. These Filipinos are so savage.’”
Among other things, Pershing recommended that the U.S. military develop a handgun that was capable of stopping the Filipinos, Gaje said. “That’s why they created the .45-caliber. At close range when Filipino fighters came at
Marines with their bolo [ knives] raised, a .45 was needed to stop them. The .38 didn’t work.”
The Philippine-American War continued until the commonwealth was formed in 1935. “That was the only way for the Americans to say they did not lose in the Philippines,” Gaje said. “They said, ‘We’ll give you a commonwealth.’ We said, ‘What are the conditions?’ Among other things, they said, ‘Your men will be in the U.S. Armed Forces under Gen. MacArthur.’”
What precipitated was a period of improved relations between the Americans and the Filipinos, he said. “But then in 1941, Japan invaded the Philippines with a force of 200,000 and battleships and tanks and planes. They started attacking, and America lost the Philippines.”
Crucible No. 3
The war with Japan was brutal and bloody, resulting in the Japanese occupation of the Philippines and the installation of a new government. “The Filipinos and the Americans who were left fought back,” Gaje said, “but there was no sign that we were winning because we were outnumbered — and there was no support from the U.S. because it was responding to the Pearl Harbor attack. The Americans in the Philippines were totally dependent on the Filipinos for support. Many Filipinos sacrificed their lives in defense of the Americans.”
Not surprisingly, the ensuing five years brought countless conflicts with the Japanese, who carried firearms and often swords while the Filipinos were forced to rely on their blades. Looking back, Gaje now regards it as an unparalleled learning experience. Necessity, as they say, is the mother of invention. And innovation.
Fast-forward to the 21st century. All members of the special forces of the Philippines learn the pekiti tirsia skills that were honed in those three periods of turmoil. “It’s mandated,” Gaje said. “They start with the stick, which is a training tool. As they progress, they learn the knife. Of course, the stick can be used as weapon. If you have a hardwood stick, which is very strong and heavy, you can be flexible — you can stop a person without killing him.”
The Filipino fighters aren’t the only ones benefiting from the evolution of the art. “More than 1.2 million people in the Indian military do pekiti tirsia ,” Gaje said. “And there’s another 700,000 in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. The U.S. Marines learn it, too, as do the militaries of Japan, Singapore, Malaysia, Korea, even China.”
A natural question is, How do all these countries’ decision-makers know about an obscure art like pekiti tirsia? Why don’t they pick kenpo or jujitsu, for example?
He’s the inheritor of a martial art that literally is being used by millions of military personnel around the world, but he’s as humble and approachable as anyone you’ll ever meet. Now he’s investing a good portion of his time and energy to spread the art of pekiti tirsia to civilians in need of functional self-defense.
´I decided to bring it out because I saw what was happening in the Filipino martial arts, how things were being bastardized,” Leo T. Gaje -r. said. ´Some of what people think is cilipino martial arts is just a combination of judo and karate and a lot of blocking techniques. It’s very dangerous because nobody can do that stuff on the street against a knife.
“fn contrastI my grandfather and his brothers developed pekiti tirsia so people could look at their opponent and diagnose, for instance, where he will go, what he will do and how he will use his weapon. That’s what we call the counter of motion before attack time. Then we don’t have to block. Instead, we do counteroffense. We destroy the functionality of the weapon by going for the closest part of the attacker that we can cut — the wrist, the elbow and the shoulder.”
As you might expect, such notoriety with respect to efficacy leads to requests for instruction from countries whose armed forces likely would use the skills in lessthan-honorable ways. ´When they ask, I don’t say no,” Gaje said. ´I just say I’m occupied. We limit our technology to countries that are allied with the provisions of the rnited kations.”
Because of all he’s doing in the martial arts community and in the militaries of the world, Black Belt is proud to name ieo q. daje gr. its 20NU jan of the vear.
TRAINING TOOL AS WEAPON: Leo T. Gaje Jr. (left) confronts his opponent (1). The man begins his attack, but Gaje GRHVQ·W ZDLW +H VZLQJV KLV stick from its ready position WR WKH RSSRQHQW·V ZULVW WR LQWHUFHSW WKH EORZ (2). Gaje then places the far end of KLV ZHDSRQ DORQJVLGH KLV QHFN ZKLOH XVLQJ KLV OHIW hand to control his arm(3). The pekiti tirsia master moves to his left so he can JUDE WKH HQG RI KLV RZQ VWLFN(4) DIWHU ZKLFK KH SXOOV WKH man in tight for a choke (5).
FIRST CONTACT: Leo T. Gaje Jr. (left) adopts an unconventional posture in front of his foe (1). When the man initiates a GRZQZDUG VWULNH Gaje drops and thrusts the tip of KLV ZHDSRQ LQWR KLV abdomen (2). Before the opponent can recover, Gaje inserts WKH VWLFN EHWZHHQ WKH PDQ·V OHJV DQG pushes (3) +LV balance broken, the adversary falls, and Gaje immediately chambers his ZHDSRQ (4) for a VHULHV RI IROORZ XS strikes (5). Note KRZ KH XVHV KLV OHIW hand to immobilize WKH RSSRQHQW·V ZHDSRQ EHDULQJ DUP ZKLOH KH·V RQ his back.
WITH EMPTY HANDS: From another unconventional ready position, Leo T. Gaje -r. appears to wait for his opponent to attack with the stick (1), but before he can do so, daje advances and executes a throat strike (2). Using his left hand to control the weapon arm, Gaje seizes the man’s head (3) and rotates (4), maneuvering him down and into a head lock (5). daje then takes him to the ground (6) and slips the weapon arm under his left leg, which removes the threat posed by the stick (7). To finish, Gaje slams an elbow strike into his head followed by a hammerfist