While a fighter needs to know just a few good techniques that work for him and his own fighting style; a teacher needs to know many more techniques and principles for their use, since he can’t predict what type of fighter will come train with him.

Here are a few ways to help your students refine their personal fighting style and which techniques, tactics and principles best fit that style.

First, let's look at what defines a fighting style.

Mohammad Ali and Mike Tyson were both American professional boxers, fighting within a few years of each other and learning the same punches legal in the sport of boxing. Yet these men had very different fighting styles. Why is that? Let’s look for clues in the measurements of each fighter in his prime.

Mohammad Ali: Height 6”’ 3”. Reach 78”. Weight 215 lbs.

Mike Tyson: Height 5’ 10”. Reach 71”. Weight 216 lbs.

So Ali and Tyson weighted about the same when each were in prime fighting condition, but Ali was taller than Tyson and had a longer reach. Can we attribute the difference in fighting styles solely to the height difference? Let’s look at two more pro boxers.

Ken Norton:  Height 6’ 3”. Reach 80”. Weight 220 lbs when he fought Ali.

Larry Holmes: 6’ 3”. Reach 81”. Weight 211 lbs when he fought Ali and 225 lbs when he fought Tyson.

Watch several fights with these four boxers and you will find some real differences in fighting styles. Why? I believe a lot of the differences can be attributed to differences in both physical and mental attributes.


In the early days of Pekiti-Tirsia in the U.S., Tuhon Gaje encouraged us to cross-train in other martial arts, (he himself had trained in both Judo and Karate in college and Indonesian Silat style of Mustika Kwitang as an adult before coming to the U.S.).

In the 1970s and early 80s I cross-trained with two other instructors that Tuhon Gaje had introduced us to: Kuntao teacher Edwin Renonos and Penchak Silat teacher Eddie Jafri.

Training with these two men helped me find the fighting style that fit me best and let me understand the styles of other fighters.


Let’s start with Eddie Jafri. Eddie was an Indonesian Penchak Silat teacher who Tuhon Gaje had us cross-train with beginning in 1979. Eddie divided personal fighting styles into four types: Earth, Wind, Fire & Water. Here are the attributes of these styles.

EARTH: This style is a master of ambush tactics and focuses on counter attacking the opponent’s  limbs. In most Filipino Martial Art systems there is a principle of “defanging the snake”: this fits well within the Earth style. An Earth stylist will specialize in limb destruction techniques, whether they be with a weapon or by empty hand methods. This fighter prefers to work from long range, baiting his opponent’s attack, while waiting for a single limb to enter within range of his own counter-attack.


EARTH VIDEO: Defang the Snake.


WIND: This style is the long range, mobile sniper. A wind fighter focuses on using footwork and his superior timing and distance control to evade his opponent’s attacks. Like Earth, the Wind fighter prefers to work at long range. However, instead of counter-attacking the opponent’s limbs, he goes for a prime target such as the head or heart. Mohammad Ali’s slipping of his opponent’s punches and then counter attacking from range is the example I often give when describing this fighting style.

You need a good understanding of footwork to be a successful Wind fighter; so two-man timing drills that teach distance control and how to use angles during a fight are important for you. So is the ability to hit fast from long range. Mohammad Ali was said to do 1,000 jabs a day in his workouts. Conrado Tortal (Tuhon Gaje’s grandfather and teacher) did 1,000 Witiks (whip strikes) each morning for his warm up.

Eddie used the following principle to give us a fast jab in his Silat classes; high reps and a concentration on the return part of the jab. He would tell us, “if your fist goes out 100 miles per hour, make it come back 200 mile per hour.”

WIND VIDEO: Blade Boxing Footwork Drill.


FIRE: This style is well suited for a strong and courageous fighter. Fire style focuses on the attack, throwing a barrage of hard combinations as they advance. Fighters with this style like to get in close and smother their opponent with either too many attacks to counter or with superior power. Mike Tyson is a prime example of this style. Many Recontras techniques in Pekiti-Tirsia are well suited for this style of fighting.

 FIRE VIDEO: Solo Recontras, Attack 1 from Set 3.


WATER: This style is a master of strategy and war by attrition. He will parry his opponent’s attacks without committing to a counter-attack until he is confident he will score. When I think of the water style, I always think of the Contradas techniques in Pekiti-Tirsia or many of the trapping techniques we learned in Silat from Eddie Jafri. The water fighter likes to work at middle range where he can use his superior strategic mind to calculate many moving parts at once, while still keeping an escape route open if things get too hot.

 WATER VIDEO: Silat Trapping Technique.


Another of Tuhon Gaje’s friends was Edwin Renonos, a practitioner of Kuntao. Tuhon Gaje had us train with Edwin one summer in the mid 1970s.

In the school in the southern Philippines where Edwin learned his Kuntao, they had an interesting method of training. Each student had to pick one of five empty hand weapons to train in; either punch, kick, elbow, slap or eye jab and work exclusively using only that weapon for a period of three years.

The training began with two weeks of footwork, basic blocks and strikes before the students had to choose which weapon they would specialize in. Once their weapon was chosen, every class thereafter was spent either sparring or hitting the training bag with that single weapon.

Each student would train and fight only with that one type of weapon for the next three years.

Note: Each specialist used a bag specific for their style. The elbow man used a torso sized sand bag, while the punch man used a sand bag the size of his head. The kick man used a boxer’s heavy bag hung just off the ground for his low kicks, while the slap man used the bags seen in iron palm training. Meanwhile, the eye jab man hit a knot tied in a towel. Care was taken to build up power slowly over time and not do damage to their joints or nerves as they did their bag work.

(See my blog post “How to Hit Hard” for more on this. Link below.)

After three years of this training, they were allowed to cross train with the other weapons. However, at the end of two more years the school broke up because of frequent injuries during sparring. By the time the school closed a broken rib or a dislocated jaw in class were common; but the most memorable injury that Edwin told us about was when the eye jab specialist forgot to trim his fingernails and hit another student in the eye. The white of the eye began to spurt blood and they had to rush him to the hospital.

When we trained with Edwin, he gave us a short talk about the pros and cons of each weapon and had us choose which one we would train with. One of the strongest guys chose elbows, another guy with long legs chose kicks. I chose slap because I liked the speed and strategy.

(Thankfully, none of us chose eye jab).

Edwin’s instructions to us when we were choosing our weapons was to match the tool with how our body was built.

Short, strong guys should choose elbows.

Long leg guys should choose kicks.

Tall, skinny guys with long arms (like me back then), should choose slap or eye jab.

Tall, strong guys should choose punch, but with one stipulation. Edwin said that a good punch specialist should have thick bones, especially in the wrist. (Remember, this was street fighting he was teaching; so no gloves or wraps to protect your hand and wrist like a pro boxer would have in the ring). Edwin said a good punch fighter should have as little difference between the width of the fist and the width of the wrist as possible. A big hand may hit hard, but it would not be well supported by a skinny wrist. Thick bones and a strong wrist to support the fist would help keep the punch specialist from breaking his hand in a street fight.

(Having thick, strong bones was no guarantee of safety however, if you punched a hard target like a skull without gloves on. In 1988 Mike Tyson broke his hand in a street fight with rival boxer Mitch Green, after punching Green in the forehead during the altercation.)


So you have two categories to consider when choosing your own style. What are your mental attributes and what are your physical ones?

What is my aggression level?

How much patience do I have?

Can I think several moves ahead during a fight?

How good is my timing?

How fast am I?

How hard can I hit?

While it is good to know which fighting style best suits your own attributes, you should also be familiar with the other styles. This will help you if you are fighting outside your weight class or against multiple opponents or when you must fight with a different weapon than you commonly use.

So, to play “Rock, Paper, Scissors” with our fighting styles, how would Earth, Wind, Fire or Water counter each other?

WIND: I think the reason Mohammad Ali was so successful using Wind style against the many Fire fighters he fought was because so many of these boxers were “head hunters.” They would throw bombs at Ali and he could snap his head back or otherwise evade these attacks because the head is up at the top of the spine and therefore more mobile than the center of the body. I don’t think this would have worked as well against Mike Tyson with his powerful body shots.

Ali and the other Wind fighters I’ve seen have an amazing ability to fight well while moving back or to the sides. They want you to commit to reaching out to them where they can take advantage of your open spots. An effective counter to this is used by Earth stylists, who wait in ambush for that probing jab and attack the opponent’s limb (defanging the snake is frowned upon by sport boxing, but it works well in other arenas).

EARTH: While an Earth fighter likes to ambush his enemy’s limbs, an ambush works best when your side outnumbers the enemy or when you have such a superior position that their equal or superior numbers can not get to you with enough speed to make a difference in the outcome (“I have the high ground Anakim. You can not win.” i.e., “His jab is way out here by itself, so I can hit his hand and escape before his cross can get me”).

Therefore, Earth can be overwhelmed if enough force is thrown against it in a short space of time. Throwing one big bomb at an Earth fighter is likely to get your hand broken or cut; but throwing a hard, fast and efficient combination attack is much more likely to get the job done.

FIRE: Fire fighters like to blitz and overwhelm you with hard hitting, fast  combos. Therefore, don’t get in the middle of this whirlwind, as you’ll get hit from all sides with powerful shots, any one of which can take you down. I have a saying in my classes; “Don’t stand where the bad guy puts his heavy bag.” You really want to avoid fighting most opponents where they are practicing hitting their hardest, but this is especially important when fighting a Fire fighter. A good understanding of footwork and distance control is key to fighting the Fire style.

While Tyson vs Ali would have been a great boxing match, and hypothetically an example of how Fire can beat Wind if the conditions are right, things might come to a different result outside of a boxing ring. I’ve seen cases on video of real street fights in which a single fighter successfully took on multiple opponents. (Since multiple opponents are, in effect, attacking in Fire style, this example is applicable here.) In these cases, the single fighter has survived by staying on the move constantly, not getting entangled with any one opponent, hitting each opponent with one or two hard shots and then moving on, and by using cover to separate and delay the remaining opponents. Cover for our purposes can be a physical object, or it can be distance. Anything that stops or delays your opponent from hitting you can function as cover. 

WATER: While the Fire fighter tries to quickly smother your defenses with his numerous, hard attacks, the Water fighter will patiently seek to smother your attacks with his smart, efficient defenses. Since the Water fighter likes to fight in middle range and observe your technique until he can figure out your flaws, it’s wise to end things as quickly as possible.

Here are some ways to counter a Water fighter.

FAR: At long range act like an Earth fighter and make each contact point in his defense a point of pain for him. In chess terms, instead of faking to his king and then attacking his queen; you fake to his king and then kill a pawn as you withdraw. Having a large variety of tools in your toolbox of strikes really helps here. (For empty hand applications, the Abcedario de Mano and Pekiti de Mano in Pekiti-Tirsia will be helpful in this.)

CLOSE: Get to close range like a Fire fighter, but instead of entering with multiple hard shots, you have to throw a wide net and entangle his defenses. The Recontras techniques in Pekiti-Tirsia are designed for this very purpose; for when a big, strong guy is fighting an opponent who is faster and has more physical or mental endurance.

DA BOMB: Fire guys, here is a good place to throw that big hard shot you love so much; but instead of targeting the head or body, (targets the Water fighter is well practiced in protecting) target the Water guy’s arms or legs with your big hit. (There are many strikes in the Abcedario de Mano that are designed for this.)


There is a drill in Pekiti-Tirsia called Juego-Todo. This is loosely translated as “Anything Goes.” The way my teacher would teach this drill was to cut your opponent, without your sword (or stick) coming in contact with his. Therefore, you will see a lot of evasive moves; with passing, jamming and parrying with the left hand. The goal in this drill is to counter with maximum efficiency, which means no edge to edge or force on force contact. The principle used here is much like a boxer slipping an opponent's punch and attacking on the same beat, instead of blocking and then attacking on the next beat. The Juego-Todo drill is a good drill to develop the attributes needed by a Wind fighter, but because of its open nature, it can be used by any of the fighting styles to help their own styles better.

Here is an impromptu version of a juego-todo drill I did at a seminar in Germany a few years ago.  If you watch and listen carefully, you will see me using all of the four fighting styles mentioned in this article.

When you hear me block his weapon with stick to stick contact and see me wait for a good opening, then I am acting as a Water Fighter.

When I counter cut his weapon hand on his attacking beat, then I am acting as an Earth Fighter.

When I am making fast, direct attacks to overwhelm him, I am acting as a Fire Fighter.

When I am slipping his attack, without making weapon to weapon contact and directly counter-cutting his body, then I am acting as a Wind Fighter.

At the Kenpokan Dojo in Hanover, Germany


As a fighter, your goal is to find which fighting style fits best with your own physical and mental attributes. As a teacher, your goal is to understand all the fighting styles and help your students find the one that fits them best.


Train hard, but train smart,

Tuhon Bill McGrath