By Mark Brady
Apolo Ladra, a native of the Philippines and Master (“Tuhon”) of the indigenous art of Pekiti Tirsia Kali, holds to the mantra “Learn to teach, teach to learn.” What have more than 40 years of training taught him? Here are some distillations.
Tuhon Apolo Ladra was born in Batangas, Philippines, and came to the United States at age five. He holds an ATA 6th-degree black belt, 7th-degree WTF black belt, and the rank of Master at the Ernie Reyes’s West Coast Tae Kwon Do Association. 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.
How far back do you trace your martial arts heritage?
I was born in a place where conflict was inevitable. Batangas, Philippines, is where the balisong, the butterfly knife, was born. My father was chief of police in Batangas. To see him suited up in pressed, crisp khakis and cap, standing up straight, it set him apart from virtually everyone. I held him in the highest respect. And even when I was very young, I knew he had dangerous responsibilities. I had a sense, it’s hard to define it, of what he risked while out on the streets.
When he moved our family to Baltimore, I found myself in a different world, culturally. Safer, perhaps, but far more antagonistic. I loved basketball, but no one would hand me a basketball or invite me to play. I wanted to hang out, make friends, but it was a very hostile environment, a bully-rich environment, and I was literally shoved aside.
How did martial arts come into your life in the U.S.?
Luckily, we lived on a route for J. Kim’s Taekwondo school. My brothers and I would see his yellow van pass by like an ice cream truck, the word “KARATE” painted on the side. There was an allure there, a draw. I could feel my muscles tense up, my back straighten, when J. Kim drove by, waving out the driver’s window. I wanted to join, so my father signed us up.
As I progressed through the ranks (this was the early 1970s), I gained all the skills and abilities that you attribute to martial artists. Strength, flexibility, discipline, coordination, courage. I could stand up to bullies, to anyone, without brashness, without violence. Just confidence. Courage.
That was a massive contribution that martial arts played in forging my identity. I couldn’t just play the card of my father being a big, bad chief of police in one of the most hardcore, street-rigid regions of the world. I had to develop my own identity as a confident, strong human being. That development I owe to my formative years in taekwondo.
Were there other dimensions to your early martial arts training beyond combat?
I also learned a lot about leadership and management, in the social and business spheres. I managed, at my height, 57 individual taekwondo schools. I taught more than 60 classes a week. I trained hours every day and competed for gold and silver medals at martial arts events around the world. I helped train state, national, and Jr. Olympic champions.
These were serious responsibilities, knowing that others were depending on me. Not like grade school where you pass up through the ranks whether you earn an A or a C, accountable to no one. I had to keep on top of the books, keep the lights on and the mats cleaned and the instructors informed and motivated to teach. This ingrained in me the values of quality, conviction, and action. These are part of me. They’ve never left.
How did you return to training in your native Filipino martial arts?
When I entered my twenties, I felt a strong pull toward the Philippines, specifically my homeland’s heritage in the martial arts. Developed and passed down through families for so many hundreds of years, there are literally thousands of sub-disciplines of Filipino martial arts, from ancient weapon-based styles from remote areas in the south to the urban skirmish arts of self-preservation in Arnis and Eskrima.
I felt a need to learn and to teach from the deep well of Filipino martial arts, specifically Pekiti Tirsia Kali. I have been fortunate enough to train directly under the tutelage and watchful eye of Grand Tuhon Leo Gaje, Jr. For more than twenty years his teaching has strengthened and sharpened me, you could say.
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What else has your career in the martial arts exposed you to?
It humbles me to say that martial arts has also trained me to handle the spotlight. The arena is different than the street. People are there to observe you, even to cheer and applaud, but they can still lash out. It’s a different strain on your nerves. And you have to learn to handle it, or else you’re eaten alive.
I’ve sat in newsrooms being interviewed live about my practice in martial arts. I’ve come onstage surrounded by the eyes and chants of tens of thousands at venues ranging from D.C.’s Capital Centre to the Russian National Championship Arena. The pressure has prepared me to teach impromptu, walk-in classes in Kali 4 Kids at local dojos and to conduct 5-day intensive seminars like the one at the MAIA 2017 Supershow in Las Vegas. Whether it’s crossing through an alley in the shadows or taking center stage at a seminar, martial arts has given me the experience, the confidence to do it.
Can you say a few words about the philosophic and practical value of competition in the martial arts? How is it different from other modes of competition?
The world is hostile. It doesn’t mean you can’t be friendly, honorable, hospitable. But as martial artists, and in my feeling, this is especially true in the art of Kali, you develop a keen sense of what it is to be confronted, challenged, threatened. For civilians, martial arts competition immerses you in this and helps you learn to handle the tension so you can act.
There is great value and entertainment in a basketball tournament or even a spelling bee. But the impact of martial arts competition is incomparable to sport or intellectual competitions. My tournament wins in taekwondo arenas vs. top competitors from around the world came at the expense of many gashes and bruises. I learned from these, my body literally absorbing the lessons. And I’ve learned to convey these impacts to the people I train, no matter what their background.
With Kali, the art of blade, there is no margin for error. This reflects my approach to life, striving for perfection with all my actions, from teaching martial arts to parenting my young son. I cannot convey the respect I have for my father, for Grand Tuhon Gaje, for my students, my brothers and my country. It’s from their love of the art that I generate my love for practicing and teaching Kali.