By Mark Brady
Tuhon (“Master”) Apolo Ladra was born in the Philippines province of Batangas, birthplace of the balisong or butterfly knife. A master of the Pekiti-Tirsia style of Kali, Ladra believes the art of blade pervades everything, from the use of switchblades, balisong or machetes, to eskrima sticks, police batons and other impact weapons, to empty-hand techniques of fighting used by martial artists around the world.
Why? Because blade represents, practically and philosophically, the razor-thin line between victory and defeat, between life and death. “We hold life precious,” says Ladra, following from the wisdom of his teacher and mentor, Grand Tuhon Leo T. Gaje, Jr. “Kali wisdom and practice promotes life, not death. Health, not sickness. Success, not failure. Love, compassion and care for others pervades the art of Kali.”
One might ask how this life-affirming ethic is consistent with a brutally combative style of martial art used by some of the world’s deadliest military strike forces.
“We train so that we can protect and preserve,” says Ladra. Prepare to be deadly in order to preserve life. It’s a paradox deeply embedded in the Kali culture. It also speaks to Ladra’s and Grand Tuhon Gaje’s belief in Kali as a path to wisdom in healing, not just fighting. This is the wisdom of a warrior.
As a warrior, the taking of a life is only justified when one’s own life, or the life of the clan, is in jeopardy. “A warrior understands his role as protector and must be physically and mentally conditioned to survive anything,” says Ladra. “This is belief in health, not sickness. This is the never-surrender mindset.”
Tuhon Apolo’s origins as a martial artist came through the practice of taekwondo in Baltimore in the 1970s, 80s and 90s. His may accomplishments include becoming the top-ranked Eastern Regional Champion during the 1980s and more than 100 first-place trophies and grand championship titles in national and international competitions. He inspired thousands of students through the running of 57 taekwondo schools. But still he felt the pull to do more.
Grandmaster Joe Corley would come to describe Ladra’s teaching style as “charismatic, empowering and humble.” The grandmaster and martial arts legend would also describe Ladra’s technique as “deadly fast, accurate, smooth and nasty.”
All of the above, as Ladra emphasizes in his classes, curriculum and seminars on Kali, apply.
Much of Kali’s combative practice has been embedded in the Filipino way of life for centuries. It’s an art of disguised motion, and its deadliness is hidden in plain sight.
Under Spanish rule from the late 16th into the 19th century—and with the memory of Magellan’s defeat at the hands of armed natives always fresh among the occupying Spaniards—Filipino people were banned from practicing martial arts or carrying sticks or blades. But they were not banned from entertaining the colonialists or from working in the fields.
“So it was there that we practiced the art, in secret. The authorities watched, of course, but they didn’t know what they saw.”
In this way, a simple agricultural routine doubles as hours of training in movements integral to the art of blade. As a farmer plants rice, he reaches to the hip for the bucket of seed that hangs from his belt. He grasps and pulls the handful of seed and lets it fly across the paddy with a slashing motion, just as if slashing across the opponent’s belly. He repeats the motions, hundreds of times, stepping to the right and left in a V formation. All the levels, lines and proportions are so exact they appear to have been laid out by machine.
“That’s the kind of motion, footwork and squatting that we do in Kali training,” says Ladra. “Bending to deploy a weapon from the hip and rising to change the level of the attack, disguising the attack. It’s the ability to attack undetected.”
The footwork of Kali, especially, derives from a traditional folk dance called the Tinikling, in which dancers nimbly step, hop and canter over and between four bamboo poles, which are constantly in motion.
The Tinikling, developed in the early years of Spanish rule, shares its origin with that of, three centuries later, the Pekiti-Tirsia system of Kaii. Both come from the Visayan region in the central Philippines, and upon the motions of the dance you can see, like a ghostly double-exposure, some of the combative mechanics of Kali distancing, timing and precision.
In likeness and in practice, the dance becomes Kali.
The motions of Filipino dancers and farmers underscore one of Kali’s central tenets: repetition.
“You have to develop your muscle memory and fine motor skills,” says Ladra. “This is essential to Kali. In the old ways of sowing and tilling the fields, farmers built up thousands and thousands of repetitions that go directly with the footwork and motions of the blade or stick.”
The advancing student of Kali builds on this foundation, one intricate variation at a time, each new sequence running through repetitions in the tens of thousands. The evolution breeds a set of five essential skills that Tuhon Apolo calls STAPP: speed, timing, accuracy, precision and power.
The principle behind counter-offense as opposed to defense is that attack answers attack. This is called sabayan, or “draw to draw.”
“If you thrust,” Ladra explains, “I thrust. You strike, I strike. You move, I move. All in an instant.” The edge lies in STAPP. Is my counter-offense faster than yours? Is my timing to perfection? What about the angles, the accuracy of how my strike travels to you, the precision and power with which it lands?
“Everything’s offense,” says Tuhon Apolo. “We draw at the same time, your blade comes toward my stomach, mine to yours. But my angle is above, my pathway more is more precise. Your blade’s deflected. Mine cuts.”
Kali masters know how to use these angles and entry ways to their keen advantage. Tuhon Apolo calls this “bisecting the line.”
“Every time we engage, whether I execute or you execute, our lines meet, and I bisect. Could be with my stick, with my arm. This teaches you where to go in, counter-offensively. Your approach can’t just be blocking or circling, avoiding or deflecting attacks. You have to move in ways that force your opponent to defend. If you don’t, you’ll lose.”
The fulcrum is another crucial component of Kali. “Fulcrums are always there, potentially,” Ladra explains. “It’s in the form of triangles, and to imbalance the triangle, you hit the apex. This creates the leverage for offense, counter-offense, and recounter-offense.”
Leverage also aids in disarms, though Ladra warns that this is should not be a focus for the fighter. “The focus is to survive the fight–not to disarm, necessarily. What is he doing with his other arm while you’re busy taking the weapon from one hand? If the disarm happens, it must happen incidentally. When the focus is on the disarm, focus is not on offense–and you lose the fight.”
The takeaway: Never fail on the offensive. “You can’t compromise this mindset,” he says. “At its core [in Kali], you’re battling not only defeat, but death. So finish the fight quickly. My teacher [the legendary Grand Tuhon Leo Gaje, Jr.] always said ‘you don’t want to fight a person in January and finish him in December.’”
Forms of evasion and deflection do come into play in Kali, but always with an offensive edge.
“You can circle, but circle offensively. I shoot out my arm for a high block with my hand open, and my fingers circle toward the eyes.” This is practical offense as defense, defense as offense. “There’s always an opening, always an angle of attack.”
Take an example. The first hit of the drill known as “Heaven” or the “Upper Six” comes at a diagonal, toward the head, the hands, body or legs. More specifically, to the temples, collarbone, elbows, wrists, kidneys, hips, knees or ankles. The potential for line bisections or intersections comes in the form of deflections or diffusions, the latter using force and trajectory to advantage for counter-offense. This attack is very effective, because the mechanics are exactly the same throughout the series of motions, the STAPP principles developed to mastery through repetition.
These principles include mastery of angles of attack, bisecting the line, leverage, and fulcrums. Physical science studies matter and its motion through space and time, along with energy and force. With his academic background in engineering, Ladra likes to call himself a combat engineer.
“When you’re attacked,” he says, “you have angles of entry with which to respond. These are vertical, horizontal or at 45 degrees. These lines bisect or intersect. When my stick diffuses your strike, this means that I grace your line of attack, I follow it with mine and counter your force so that I strike and your attack misses the mark. The footwork is a cornerstone, based on the triangle pattern, which we use to quarter the opponent and strike.”
It all comes back to offense. “It’s always my turn,” says Tuhon Apolo. This doesn’t, he cautions, mean you won’t get cut. It means you have a better chance of being the last person standing.
“It’s a survival art,” says Ladra. “It only takes one strike, one slash, one thrust. You must be offensive¨
Tuhon Apolo Ladra was born in Batangas, Philippines, and came to the United States at age five. A 6th-degree black belt in ATA and 7th-degree in WTF taekwondo, he has won numerous gold medals in international competition and authored video tutorials on taekwondo curriculum and tournament strategies. A student of Grand Tuhon Leo Gaje, Jr., heir and guardian to the Pekiti Tirsia style of Kali, Ladra’s Kali-4-Kids, KaliCombat, and KaliFitness curricula are used by tens of thousands of students worldwide.
Mark Brady is Creative Director for Ripple Effect Martial Arts in Colorado, where he studies under founder and 5th-degree black belt Master Greg Macy in the Jhoon Rhee tradition of taekwondo.