Scenes from Pekiti-Tirsia seminars and demos in the 80s & 90s.


Grand Tuhon Gaje would often tell the story of how he began Pekiti-Tirsia training at the age of six, under his maternal grandfather Conrado Tortal. Conrado began young Leo’s training with three long years of footwork. Conrado started Leo on a rickety old table in the home, moving in forward and reverse triangles, while his grandfather tapped his leg with a stick at the apex of the movement to get him to move faster. After a few weeks of this Conrado moved his grandson to training on the halves of three coconut shells, while stepping with only one foot at a time on each shell.

One day after three long years of practicing nothing but footwork, while watching his Grandfather and his great uncles train in cool stuff with sticks and other weapons, young Leo finally had enough and picked up the bucket of water his Grandmother was going to bath him in and threw the water at his Grandfather, demanding “You have to train me on stick now!”

His Grandfather shrugged and said, “Alright, now you can begin.”

Many years later Leo found out that it was his Grandfather’s original plan to have him train just one year on footwork, before moving on to stick work. “But you were too patient!” his Grandfather said. He told Leo that his plan was to have Leo practice footwork for only one year, believing that this would ensure that the young boy would not complain when the inevitable blisters and other pains came with stick training.

Young Leo’s stick training began with a year of the Solo Baston Abcedario; during which he spent the first month practicing just the first set of 12 attacks. Each month Conrado would give him a new set, so in the second month he was practicing 24 strikes: in the third month 36 strikes and so on for the year, until by month 12 he was practicing all 12 sets of 144 strikes.

Now 144 strikes would have been too much for a boy to learn in one session, but getting a new set of 12 strikes each month, each set building on the one previous: that was something a young boy could handle. 

When I started training with Tuhon Gaje in 1975 I was 14 years old and had no previous martial arts training. For the first six months I trained with him, I was in a kids class he was teaching out of his garage two nights a week. He gave us kids just basic kickboxing techniques: nothing that would get us into too much trouble at that age. After a “real” martial arts school opened down the street, most of the kids left save for myself and my buddy Mike Maddi (Mike now does special effects make up for Hollywood. You’ve seen his work on the TV show “Gotham”). Mike and I then got moved into the adult class, which was held in the basement of various Filipino businesses until we moved to the Philippine consulate in Manhattan in August of 1976. Most of the students at this new class were either adults or kids with previous martial arts training. Leo held this class each Sunday for 6 hours while the warm weather lasted. During the colder months, we trained in an unused section of a Tae Kwon Do school in Queens, NY.

It was during this time period (76 though 79) that we worked on the foundational aspects of Pekiti-Tirsia; including what would become known as the “64 Attacks.” Whenever someone asks me how long it takes to learn the basics of Pekiti-Tirsia, I tell them that we worked on 64 Attacks for a full three years and just the “Break in-Break out” drill, with all its permutations, took six months of those three years. Our classes in those days met on two weeknights for two hours each in Queens and another 6 hours on one of the weekend days at either the Philippine consulate or an unused section of a machine shop in Manhattan.

So those of you who were introduced to 64 Attacks during a weekend seminar, consider this: We worked on those drills for ten hours a week for three years before Tuhon Gaje was satisfied that we could move on to the next step in training. (When Tom Bisio won the Instructor’s division in the first national tournament in the Philippines in 1979, the only solo baston technique he had learned at that point were the 64 Attacks). 

During those early days of my training with Tuhon Gaje, I “ate, slept and dreamed” of nothing but Pekiti-Tirsia, as only a boy that age could. Since Leo lived around the corner from my home, it was common for me to drop by his house after school and get some training in before regular classes. Leo would usually demo a simple technique for me and then tell me to do it “one thousand times,” while he went back upstairs to his family. I don’t think I ever made it to the full 1,000 reps on anything (he usually had mercy on me way before I could have finished that number anyway and returned to check my progress).

I was not too fond of this type of training back then, wanting to learn a lot more techniques per session, but I have come to see the wisdom of it when I began to teach my own classes and seminars. For a beginner with no foundation to work from, it’s often a waste of both the teacher’s and student’s time for the teacher to explain in great detail the rules, principles and theories of why a technique is done a certain way (especially if that student is an impatient  teenage boy). It’s far better to let a young student do the technique for multiple reps with just one or two goals to aim for, (“Sidestep while you do angles 1 and 2 and keep the strikes at the same speed the whole time.”). Training like this lets fatigue after multiple reps do the work of knocking off the rough edges and showing the student the most efficient way to get a specific job done.



There was a period in the early 1980s that I was teaching a lot of seminars at karate schools. Since these were “hard style” schools, I had a very difficult time getting them to loosen up so they could do Pekiti drills with good flow. Because they had been training in a hard style, their movements all had to display as much power as possible, whether power was needed at that particular point or not. My first “loosen them up” procedure back then was to lead them in multiple sets of push ups, sit ups and squats; the idea being that if I tired them out enough, then they wouldn’t have enough energy to be inefficient in their movements. However, I couldn’t do the same multiple reps routine that my teacher had done with me as a boy. For one thing, these guys were adults at a seminar with a finite time to train, not a wide eyed teenager at a regular class who would do whatever his teacher told him to do. They also were used to doing high reps in their karate classes and so just doing multiple reps if those reps were “wrong” for pekiti was not going to help them. Mainly though, I was usually at these schools at the request of their teacher and had to impress them in as short a time as possible, or I wouldn’t be invited back. Therefore, my “go to” procedure back then was to exhaust them into compliance: then try to get them functional with a drill that they understood well enough, that they could practice correctly on their own until the next seminar.

At that time I had to remember everything through written notes and muscle memory. This was in the early days of video, but while the capability was there, I couldn’t afford a video camera (and video editing back then was only for professionals with expensive equipment). I believe this is why forms and kata were so important in so many traditional martial arts. They were a mnemonic device to help remember the techniques.

By the mid 90s, I was starting to teach more seminars and was able to get a video camera. This was a real camcorder with 8mm tape. Woohoo! (I was moving up in technology. My first PTI videos were shot on a borrowed VHS camera that used full size VHS cartridges and was the size of a 1980s boom box. I had to buy a second VHS machine to make copies of the tapes). 

Even with this technological memory helper, I was still teaching close to the same way I had been taught, with my seminars at FMA schools moving along at much the same pace as my regular classes.

I figured that the maximum speed I could teach advanced material with an experienced group was between thirty minutes to one hour of training per technique (depending on how often the group trained with me). This meant that when teaching an advanced set such as Seguidas  at my monthly 6 hour seminar in Fishkill, NY, (in the early 2000s) we could cover the 12 attack combinations in the set in those 6 hours. If the guys had any questions they could get answers at the beginning of next month’s class. However, at an annual overseas seminar, I expected that advanced material like Seguidas would take 12 hours to teach the same 12 attacks in the set, if I had any hope of the instructor and senior students understanding it well enough to practice on their own for a year.

This format made thing interesting when I did a seminar in those days. My annual seminars at other martial arts schools were often advertised as being held for 8 hours per day, but that was for the main class. We would usually get through only the first 7 or 8 techniques by the end of the day. I would then go to dinner with the instructor and his senior students and then come back to the school to work for another 4 hours to finish the set.

I admit, I was a bit of a maniac back then. This was especially true in my overseas seminars, where I would see a group only once a year and felt I had to pack everything I wanted to teach them in the short time I had there.  I remember that we were in one such after-hours session in Germany at the house of one of the senior guys. It got to be midnight and I had not finished the set I wanted to teach. The younger guys wanted to call it a night, so I went to the door and locked it and said “you can’t leave until I’m done teaching this set!”

I remember the youngest guy in the group actually falling asleep while standing and sliding down the wall to continue his nap. :-)



The usual way of teaching a technique is to have the class divide up into two person teams (usually they are regular training partners) and have them practice the technique on that one person the whole session. This is a good way to get students to remember the basic mechanics of a movement, but the downside is they can become complacent and only become proficient at the technique done with that one partner.

For the last several years, I have been trying to integrate advanced principles into the basic training as early as possible. One way I do this is to keep the two person training team to just a few minutes and then move the class into three person teams.

This three man team training has important benefits for students:

1.  It helps prevent tunnel vision.* By having two or more opponents to practice on in class, you avoid concentrating on one person, to the exclusion of everything else around you.

2.  It helps avoid what I call “Good Guy Spot” syndrome. This is when a student does a technique that moves them a step or two away from where they started, but when the technique is over, they return to the original spot before they can do the technique again.

This is a bad habit to get into, especially if you are training to escape from an ambush point.

I used to think this was caused by students having prior training in a traditional Karate school (I did seem to see it more often in those schools, rather than Kung Fu schools). However, a medical person in one of my classes told me that what was actually going on was the person was using the background image behind his training partner to help remember the details of the technique: ie “parry, hit, move toward the poster of Bruce Lee.” What they should be thinking is “parry, hit, move right” because we won’t always have a poster of Bruce Lee on the wall behind our opponent.

(*Under stress, the body releases hormones to help handle the emergency. One of the effects of this is to cause "tunnel vision." This causes an increased focus on the source of the danger, with a reduction of attention to peripheral vision. This is good if you are a primitive hunter and need to focus on throwing your spear at a running animal in front of you; but very bad if you are a modern warrior who can be attacked by multiple opponents from any direction.)



Another thing I tell the students to do is to drop their gaze from the opponent’s eyes to his chest at heart level. When you look into an attack’s eyes, it triggers an emotional response. You may be afraid of him or you may be angry at him, but either way, that caveman part of your brain is going to start sending signals out which kick you into “fight or flight” mode and this is a big cause of tunnel vision.

Looking at the heart turns a big, scary bad guy into a silhouette of a human shaped target; which is much easier to deal with on the psychological level.

Looking at the opponent’s heart area instead of the eyes also helps spread your peripheral vision, which further helps prevent tunnel vision.



I like to move these three person teams into what I call the “Decision Tree” process, once they have enough tools in their technique toolbox to handle four common decisions they may have to make in a fight.

Here are some questions to think about:

1. Should I move right or left? Which direction is easier? Where are my escape routes?

2. Is my opponent or his weapon larger or stronger than I am, or is he/it faster than me or my weapon?

3. Which of us has the better endurance?

4. How much time do I have to get the job done? Where are the other bad guys?

Let’s say he is throwing a left jab at your head. The basic way of dealing with this attack would have you parry on the outside while you move to your right to avoid the attack.

But what if there is a second attacker, or a wall or some other impediment to your right? In the Abcedario de Mano, one way to deal with the left jab is to smother his attack, while you move to your left and attack his head. It is a more advanced technique to move to the inside angle (because it requires better timing than the basic technique), but sometimes the harder path is the safer path.

If he is stronger than you are, then you might avoid his attack through footwork and attack weaker targets on the body. If he is faster than you, but you are stronger, you might need to shut him down as early as possible, before he gets your timing or your endurance fades.

One way to do this would be to attack the attacking limb itself, (“defang the Snake”) targeting a nerve or the small bones in the hand, while moving his attack off target. Both of these techniques/principles can be found in the Abcedario de Mano.

A Decision Tree drill for the Solo Abcedario could be to add left hand techniques, such as jams, checks, passes or parries to the mix. One way to do this would be to have the student counter the 12 attacks of set one with just a single  counterattack: for example attack 1. He now has to decide which left hand movement will work best if he is countering a 1 with a 1, or a 2 with a 1 and so on.

In the 5 Attacks Subsystem, we will often do this Decision Tree drill. Counter each of the four diagonal attacks using only one number (so 1 vs 1, 2, 3, 4:  2 vs 1, 2, 3, 4, etc). The Decision Tree in this drill is to choose which angle of footwork from the Ranging Footwork pattern will work best to help counter the four different attacks with the number they choose.



In the 70s and 80s the only way I had to remember a technique was through written notes and lots of repetitions to reenforce muscle memory. Therefore, I taught my students the same way and over the same time periods as I had learned the technique.

Fast forward to the 2000s and I was in my 40’s, older, and (hopefully) wiser. Now I had a digital camera and editing software on my computer. Copies of videos were put on easy to mail DVDs, (I now have upgraded to digital downloads of MP4 files for even faster delivery times).

So, beginning in the 2000s, we had a good electronic memory helper with inexpensive camcorder video, but I still wanted to keep to my standard teaching format of one hour per advanced technique. It wasn’t just repetitions of a new technique I was after; but taking the time to impart a core understanding and then have time left over to explore the variations of each technique and their underlying principles.

As the 2000s wore on, I found that fewer and fewer seminar hosts could get their students (especially the younger ones), to stay for an 8 hour seminar on one subject. I began to get requests for two or more subjects per day and requests for a much shorter day as well.

Fortunately by this time I had several students who had finished the system and were Mataas na Guros by then and so I had instructors I could point to for follow up seminars. This often occurred  when a seminar host just wanted to bring me in to his school introduce a subject to his students and then continue their training with another PTI instructor in depth.

As I got older, I began to loosen up a bit (mentally, if not physically) and I finally realized that I can have a bit of both teaching styles at my seminars.

I now teach in the same depth as the old days, but feel no need to finish a full set in one day. If I can only get to 3 or 4 techniques in a half day session, but give the students a good understanding of those few techniques, then I can be happy with that.

If they want to learn the whole set, they can take follow up classes with another PTI instructor. If they just want to see the rest of the set to get an understanding of what is to come, then they can easily download the video and at least see what the rest of the core material looks like.

The time spent vs things learned formula still applies, but at least now each student can choose how much or how little of the full system they wish to learn, and understand from the beginning what they are likely to get out of their training.


Train Hard, but Train Smart,

Tuhon Bill McGrath

Leo Stories Part 2: Alphabito

Leo Stories Part 3: "Go Ask Grandma"

For info on upcoming classes, seminars and camps, visit:

 *On tunnel Vision: