You'll be surprised to learn why — and where — Graciela Casillas, legend of women's boxing and full-contact fighting, started training in the martial arts!
If you’ve been around the martial arts world for any length of time, you know the name Graciela Casillas. If you’re a newbie, here’s a brief intro: She became the International Women’s Boxing Association bantamweight champion in 1976 and the World Karate Association bantamweight champ in 1980. Although she retired in 1986, Graciela Casillas, who has a bachelor’s degree in pre-law and a master’s degree in education psychology, continues to train in the Filipino martial arts and other styles. Taekwondo to Escape Graciela Casillas got a fairly late start in the martial arts when she took up taekwondo at the ripe old age of 15. Strangely enough, she started not because of an overriding desire to learn how to fight but to get out of the house. “I started at the church I attended,” says Graciela Casillas, who grew up in Southern California. “It was a Catholic church, and the priest had asked our parents if we could attend if they offered a self-defense class. For me, it was a way out because I come from a very traditional Latin family where the girls basically stay home all the time. Taking the class meant I could get out of the house two more nights a week. “I didn’t have any idea what the martial arts were,” she says. “I thought they were just a kind of social activity. I had never been involved in anything athletic — in any activity outside of school or church. So I also started out of curiosity.” Hard-Core Training After her first class, Graciela Casillas knew she belonged. She became obsessed with the Korean kicking art and started moving quickly up the ranks. “The instructor was very strict,” she remembers. “It was taekwondo, but he was very military. He made us wear Army fatigues and do knuckle push-ups on the concrete floor. I thought it was wonderful.” A lot of the kids in the class needed that sort of tough love, Graciela Casillas says. “I was very impressed by the regimentation and the discipline. I liked it because at that point in my life, I lacked self-esteem and confidence. I was extremely shy, and the martial arts were something I could do by myself. I didn’t need anybody to practice in my parents’ backyard.” Level Up Although Graciela Casillas started the class with her three younger brothers, they lost interest and dropped out. She stayed with it for a year — until the class was discontinued by the church. “I was the last gung-ho student,” she says. “By that time, I had convinced my parents to let me sign up at the local hwa rang do studio.” While training there, Graciela Casillas heard about something totally new: full-contact karate. “Our school didn’t encourage us to go to tournaments, so we never got to compete,” she says. “Then I was approached in 1977 by someone who was looking for a girl for full-contact matches. That sounded interesting to me because how else was I ever going to know if this stuff worked?” After her hwa rang do class finished, Graciela Casillas would make a beeline for the local kenpo school, where students trained full contact. “In the evening after class, they would close shop, and we would have a full-contact karate workout,” she says. “I had my first match in 1977.” Secret Life At first, Graciela Casillas was forced to live a secret life: Almost no one, including her parents, knew of her full-contact matches. “My master didn’t know what I was doing, but I started getting some local publicity because I was winning,” she says. “But he eventually found out, and I thought I was going to get in trouble. But his attitude was, ‘Make a good name for hwa rang do.’” Graciela Casillas continued studying and competing in full-contact matches until 1979, when she transferred to the University of California, Santa Barbara. She was just shy of testing for her hwa rang do black belt. It wasn’t fashionable for women to fight then, Graciela Casillas recalls. “Women didn’t have the publicity. It was definitely a struggle because I didn’t have much support. But I loved the training, and I liked getting in the ring.” The former champ cautions young martial artists who are contemplating following in her footsteps: Don’t even think about it until you turn 16. And even then, she says, you need to train under an instructor who pays careful attention to what his or her students do and who has the proper safety equipment. Wholehearted Recommendation Graciela Casillas enthusiastically recommends the arts for any kid older than 5. “A lot of instructors take them younger, but if they do, the class needs to be more [play oriented], not martial arts,” she says. “The martial arts can be a real savior for kids, especially with the way society is today,” she says. “They teach you that you don’t have to be like other kids and do things like pierce your nose. One of the most important things I learned is that you need to develop your own identity instead of following everyone else.” Another benefit of the martial arts is they can help you beat the shyness bug. “Because I was really shy in school, some people wanted to pick on me,” Graciela Casillas remembers. “Oftentimes you are very insecure and shy, and you’re going through adolescence, so you’re not really sure who you are, anyway. “The martial arts helped me tremendously because they gave me an inner confidence. Instead of allowing my ego to get in the way and say, ‘OK, I’m going to meet you after school and fight,’ they gave me the strength to walk away and say: ‘I know who I am, and I don’t need this. I can walk away, and it doesn’t mean I’m a chicken.’ It means you’re stronger than the other person because you don’t have to stoop to that level.” Tradition Endures With a background that includes taekwondo, hwa rang do, karate, kali, jujitsu and jeet kune do, Graciela Casillas still believes the traditional arts are best for children. “There is value in doing those traditional things, like standing in a horse stance and throwing thousands of punches,” she says. “I definitely think a traditional art like shotokan or taekwondo is good for kids,” she adds. Later, when you’re more mature and have developed the discipline and the spiritual base, you can get into other arts like jeet kune do or jujitsu, she says.