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  • Ida Beltran-Lucila

GT Leo Gaje Jr: Pekiti-Tirsia’s Law of Self-Protection

Last month, I wrote about my encounter with celebrity Yeng Constantino. This time around, I had the chance to meet another superstar, Grand Tuhon Leo T. Gaje Jr. during an intensive camp workshop in Edmonton in the system of Pekiti-Tirsia, last July.

Pekiti Tirsia Kali is a style of Filipino martial arts system founded in 1897 by the Tortal family, whose sole heir and guardian is Leo T. Gaje Jr.. As a combat-oriented system, it is the preferred training program by military and law enforcement units, and for Hollywood movies. GT Leo Gaje Jr. instituted this fighting system at the United States upon his move to New York City in 1972. Since then, he has been at the forefront of promoting Filipino martial arts globally.

At 81 years old, GT Leo Gaje Jr. is an unassuming man, candid in his conversations. He was even singing karaoke over dinner. But behind that modest demeanour is a formidable spirit, still quick in his footwork and steadfast in his determination. The list of his achievements is mind blowing. He has been conferred: the United States Martial Arts Hall of Fame; the Presidential Exemplary Meritorious Award, presented by Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo; United States Police Association Edgar Hoover Meritorious Award; was named Man of the Year by Black Belt Magazine; and the Martial Arts Super Show First Filipino Lifetime Achievement Award. He has been featured on BBC, Discovery Channel, the History Channel, Game Plan, Comparative Style, Surviving Edge Weapon and other broadcasting and multimedia platform.

GT Gaje introduced Filipino martial arts to the New York Police Department and developed a training program on “Safety Baton and Edged Weapon Awareness/Strategic Knife Defense programs – the FIRST Defensive Tactics system based on safety and liability reduction at a time when the accepted methods targeted the vital areas of the body resulting in substantial liability to police officers and departments”. He was subsequently appointed as the National Training Director for the Justice System Training Association and the Technical Advisor for the U.S. Police Defensive Tactics Association. He is also Senior Advisor to the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the Philippine National Police.

It was notable that the participants I encountered in the training camp last July were in majority, consisted of non-Filipinos, who came from different provinces in Canada, and even from the US. Why there are less Filipinos engaged in this indigenous Filipino martial arts form was a bit puzzling. Kudos to Tuhon Herald Casaña who has been tireless in promoting this system. It was admirable on how the participants entrusted themselves to the training - not knowing the schedule as everything was spontaneously dictated by GT Gaje. They found themselves training for hours on end without meal breaks, and early morning wake up calls for another round of intense training.

Tim Mercer of Edmonton: “Despite the bruises, blisters, sore muscles, pain and early morning wake up calls I learned valuable skills that will help future my martial arts career. Quite an enjoyable experience and something I look forward to all year.”

Mandala Bryan Stoops of New York: “The training was intense and demanding, but only because GT truly wants all participants to develop at peak capacity. Not only did I train, but because we were in a small group, I had conversations and meals with GT as well. GT wants Kali to flourish and his means to that end is Pekiti Tirsia. He is passionate about helping people develop themselves within PTK. I traveled all the way to Alberta from NYC for my training experience, and it was more than worth it!”

Guro Quent Ferdie Roxas of Calgary: “Wilderness training camp with Grand Tuhon Leo Gaje. J.R was everything I expected and more. I was filled with anticipation and nervousness as I have never embarked on an adventure like this on my own before. It was almost like entering or enlisting in the military and getting sent off to boot camp for preparation...Promptly at 6am training started with calisthenic training. I was tired as hell but motivation was all around. 2 hrs would pass till breakfast break. At that time already drenched in sweat. Breakfast was a short hour where we would pick up with Doble Dagga, single stick and firearm retention techniques, all before lunch. I ate and passed out for 20 minutes before the next stage of the day. Double stick and single knife finished off the day shortly after 6. Oh man I was tired. The next day would follow the same routine. This training session was by far an experience that I'll remember. GT even with his hardcore demeanour is a caring man that just wants the very best for his pupils. He wants the torch carriers to be well versed and prepared with his art of Pekiti Tirsia. Perfection is what he demands and for good reason as he is the sole Master carrier of his family's art. I left tired, bruised, fulfilled and grateful to be part of such a great brotherhood of warriors. GT is a great teacher, a legend, and his instructors underneath him are just as passionate. Great leaders produce great leaders and that's why I am a PTK practitioner. Will I do this again? Hell yes!!!”

Pekiti Tirsia Kali is a Filiipino martial art and self-defense system known for its methodology in the use of and protection against weapons, grounded in the philosophy: We believe in success, not failure. We believe in health, not in sickness. We believe in life, not in death. This is the major artery in the Pekiti Tirsia Kali culture, embedded in the doctrines of survival, discipline, and perfection - values that are not just solely for this martial arts system, but for living a life well-lived. For more information on the Pekiti Tirsia Kali, contact Tuhon Herald Casaña at 780-717-9164,, and

* This article was published in the August 2019 issue of the Alberta Filipino Journal.

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