Updated: Oct 25
Graciela Casillas is a true trailblazer in martial arts. In 1979 she became the first fighter to hold world titles in both boxing and kickboxing by taking the World Women's Boxing Association's and the World Kickboxing Association’s bantamweight championships. Casillas retired undefeated in 1986. She is a multi-style athlete, student, and instructor and her demonstration has paved the way for many.
We knew that Graciela Casillas was a legend and had loads of wisdom to share, however, we weren’t ready for her truth bombs and poignant reflections that she shared during her interview. Check out Black Belt+ for more instruction from world-class teachers.
*Due to editorial limitations, parts of this interview may have been abbreviated.
Black Belt+: As a pioneer of women's fighting, who inspired you?
Graciela: My martial arts journey began in 1974 when I joined a taekwondo class offered through the church I attended. At that time the only inspiration I had come from the mystique I believed as a young girl that the arts possessed. When the tae kwon do class came to an end I signed up at a hwa rang do school where my teacher Joo Bang Lee became my inspiration. He moved with grace, fluidity, and speed. His kicking combinations were mesmerizing.
However, it was not until I became a professional kickboxer that I met a woman that inspired me to step out of my comfort zone and into the boxing arena.
I had the opportunity to train with the world champion, Lilly Rodriguez. She was a small yet fierce fighter. I learned that when she was not kickboxing, she would step into the boxing arena. She was not only a great kickboxer but also a very accomplished boxer. She was my greatest inspiration during my fighting era, and she was a powerful role model for all women.
Black Belt+: Black Belt+ was started to help students outside the dojo, what are your expert tips on training solo or remotely?
Graciela: We often hear the phrase “practice makes perfect.” However, it is my opinion that only “perfect practice makes perfect.” Focus on what you are being taught in the dojo and supplement it with apps like Black Belt+.
If you are a beginner, practice to your level. When you train on your own, focus on one element at a time. Ask your sensei if you can take a video of him/her doing the kata you are learning, having a perfect reference point to emulate.
Depending on your style, use the opportunity to work on your mechanics at home. Black Belt+ offers you a wealth of instruction and reference points at the touch of your finger. The app may not replace learning from an instructor in person, however, it can enhance your skills and expose you to a variety of styles and principles.
Prior to the invention of apps and online training, you had to find creative ways of training on your own. For example, as a beginner, I used a chair at home to practice my side kicks. A chair serves as a training partner in several ways.
First, you can hold onto the back of the chair to practice your kicks in slow motion. This will not only strengthen your legs but also help to develop form and control of your kicks. Secondly, I practiced kicking over the back of the chair which would force me to bring my knee up to an effective position. These are just two examples of how you can solo train.
When I first started learning escrima I had minimal experience training with weapons. Although escrima is a well-rounded art, there is a great emphasis on weaponry. As a beginner, I realized that in order to become proficient with the stick and b lade, I would have to get my reps in alone since I did not have a training partner.
When I could not remember specific techniques, I recalled Guru Dan Inosanto’s words, “Write your ABCs in the air with your stick.” So, I did, and this simple drill served to develop coordination, flow, and target selection.
More than 40 years have passed since I learned this concept and I continue to practice my ABCs with my sticks. Cultivate skills based on your level. Practice techniques taught in class and give yourself permission to be a beginner. In time you will evolve with more complex techniques.
Don’t be in a hurry to develop that triple-spinning heel kick when you are still struggling to execute one without falling. Invest the time to learn the techniques that serve to build a solid foundation. After almost 50 years of martial arts training, I still focus on my basics when solo training.
Black Belt+: Over the many years you have been so consistent in your curiosity and training. But oftentimes students hit a wall, so what’s your advice for students who lack motivation or want to quit? Graciela: Contributing factors to students losing motivation and the desire to continue showing up to class may depend on a variety of factors, including the age of the student, financial considerations, personal challenges, or school culture.
It is not uncommon for a martial artist to hit a wall or lose the motivation to continue on a journey that has no final destination. For those who stay on the path, learning never ceases.
So, if you are considering giving up, I would strongly suggest that you first have a meeting with yourself and then with your sensei. Yes, on why you are losing interest. This process can take place mentally, without the need to verbalize it out loud. Another option is to consider the most meaningful questions and write down your answers. I refer to this as meeting personal expectations. Here are some of the questions I would contemplate:
1. What do you think caused you to hit a wall? 2. What kind of wall did you hit? Boredom, too complex, lost interest, too costly? 3. Is the school curriculum and principles aligned with your needs? 4. When did your mood or desire to continue change? 5. Is it the art, school, or teacher that is no longer a good fit?
Once you have contemplated your WHY, I would encourage you to communicate your feelings to your sensei. Hopefully, the school environment is positive, with a welcoming culture that is receptive to students expressing concerns.
Black Belt+: You have always been a multi-arts martial artist, when do you recommend the best time to branch out and learn other styles?
Graciela: I believe it is important to have a strong foundation before branching out. I spent several years training in traditional Korean arts before I branched out and embraced Filipino martial arts. No matter what art you study, there are universal principles that apply.
Learning these principles early on will prepare you to excel and expand your knowledge of other arts. The reason we use the term “universal principles” is because certain principles remain constant across all martial arts styles and beyond, including most sports. Examples of these are principles of timing, speed, elements of power, and angles. More basic principles may include, never standing with your knees locked, not overextending, or locking your elbows when punching, when applying a standing arm bar, and never bending over and allowing your head to extend beyond your toes.
These are basic principles that hold true regardless of what style you are learning. Developing an understanding of these principles will give you the skills necessary for problem-solving when learning new arts.
Black Belt+: What are some changes or developments in self-defense training over the years?
Graciela: Traditional martial arts seem to be taking a back seat to Instagram and TikTok. One can find endless videos of questionable self-defense techniques. Young students seem to think that they can learn how to defend themselves by watching a video. There are many great schools with very experienced teachers who are passionate about preparing students to survive a violent assault.
“TikTok” techniques may serve as a learning tool for the experienced martial artist who has a strong foundation and looks at them with a trained eye. However, to think that they can take the place of a good instructor is a disservice to the practitioner, and most likely setting the student up for failure, embarrassment, or injury.
Self-defense programs continue to evolve as common threats escalate. People continued to be assaulted with edged weapons and held at gunpoint. There was a time when the term “active shooter,” was not commonly used. We are only four months into the new year and according to the Gun Violence Archive, we have had 163 mass shootings to date.
As we continue to prepare students for “real life” combative situations, we should consider expanding our curriculum to include, if not already present, weapons training, especially edged weapons and firearms training.
As an instructor, I believe in order to be prepared to neutralize a variety of threats, students should learn how to use and defend against a variety of weapons including firearms. Becoming familiar with weaponry can increase your chances of surviving an assault. Beyond developing this skill set, training today also focuses on group dynamics to address the active shooter. This training is offered by schools and colleges for employees and martial arts schools should include this training as part of their curriculum
Black Belt+: Today, what is the emphasis of your teaching?
Graciela: My teaching emphasis is self-defense; however, I believe that all training should be well-rounded addressing the mind, body, and spirit. I appreciate and respect the artistic side of training and continue to preserve it. I see training on three levels: art, sport, and street. My emphasis is on preparing students for street survival.
In doing so, I teach that whenever presented with a threat, one should seek out an equalizer. And, a great equalizer is any implement that can serve as an impact or edge weapon. I learned early on from my teacher Guru Dan Inosanto that learning how to use a weapon increases your chances of surviving if attacked by a weapon-wielding assailant. Being a world champion fighter, I learned that what works in the ring may not work in the street. Instead of emphasizing punching, I teach students to use their elbows combatively. My teaching is driven by a principle that calls for students to develop their reflexes vs. memorizing techniques. Surviving a violent encounter calls for the student’s reaction to be instantaneous, without thought, a simple reflex.
Black Belt+: What motivates you to stay passionate about your art?
Graciela: After decades of being a student, competitor, and teacher, I have come up with a program that addresses self-defense on three levels: mental, psychological, and physical. It is my belief that the mind should be trained before the body. It does not matter how many arts you study if you do not have the emotional capacity and mental fortitude to face a threat.
As an instructor, I find great satisfaction in helping students connect with their warrior spirit, especially women who lack confidence, and the mental ability to defend themselves. I appreciate the opportunity to assist them in getting in touch with the “lioness within.” I am a firm believer that matched with the right program and instructor, the shyest and smallest student can learn to fight back and survive. When a student comes to me and tells me that what they learned in class kept them from becoming a victim, I am reminded why I continue to teach.
You can learn more about Graciela here. And follow her on Instagram here. Start training now for free! Instructional videos on Black Belt+. Download and subscribe directly from Black Belt Magazine at plus.blackbeltmag.com. Or download in the App Store or Google Play.