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PART 3: How to Become a World Champion in 2 Combat Styles: Graciela Casillas

Updated: Nov 15, 2023

An undefeated boxer and kickboxer, Graciela Casillas is the first athlete male or female to hold 2 world championships in martial arts and boxing at the same time.

Long time advocate of self defense training for women, Graciela has expertise beyond the ring as a certified NRA weapons instructor, Kali FMA master, and one of the first and few women to graduate the ESI Executive Protection Program. Today she is one of the most sought-after martial arts and tactical trainers in the world teaching self-defense programs with stick blade gun and empty hand to civilian law enforcement and even military personnel around the world. She is also an adjunct professor at Oxnard College with two masters degrees.

When you became the first person to hold world titles in kickboxing and boxing, how did you prepare for that? What was the lead up like for tackling two different disciplines at the most elite level?

When I first began kickboxing, fights were few and far between since there were so few women in the sport. I trained each day with the hope that I would get a fight. I had to be strong emotionally and mentally. I only trained with men because there were no women to train with and they did not go easy on me. During the 70’s training was not sophisticated. Our workouts were several hours long and incredibly rigorous. Refugio Flores, who led the fighters and eventually became a world champion, worked us to the bone. We sparred hard, hit heavy bags, did focus mitt work, hours of conditioning, and just when we thought the workout was over, we would pile into a car and go to the high school to run the track. I often went home with a busted nose and bruised ego. At the time I was a student at University of California Santa Barbara, so I would drive every evening from the university to Oxnard and back without letting my parents know what I was up to because they would not approve of me fighting.

My training paid off and I was winning all my fights, yet the struggle to get fights, equal treatment and respect from the other male fighters and promoters never stopped. I had to focus on preparing for the fights while dealing with rejection and unequitable treatment from a male dominated sport. Nevertheless, I was not going to give up on my dream to be a fighter.

I continued to fight whenever possible and once I graduated from UCSB I decided to move to Los Angeles where I could get professional training and hopefully more fights. My kickboxing trainer at the time, Hap Holloway, would take me along with his other fighters to the Hoover Street Boxing gym where trainers worked with our hands. We also had a training session with Arnold Urquidez, brother, and trainer to world kickboxing champion Benny Urquidez. That was the first time I met his sister, Lilly Rodriguez. She was a ferocious fighter and I was impressed by the fact that she was a kickboxer and boxer.

After meeting Lilly, I was determined to do the same. I showed up to the Olympic boxing gym where Jimmy Montoya, who I had met previously had the largest boxing stable in the world with many top-rated fighters. I told him I wanted to box professionally and asked if he would train me. Armature boxing did not exist for women at the time. He reluctantly agreed, and my boxing journey began.

I initially thought ‘how hard could it possibly be?’ Remarkably hard. I kept telling myself to keep my feet on the ground. I quickly realized that boxing was more mental than physical. The fact that you were within arm’s reach of your opponent vs kickboxing where you could hang in kicking range brought on an entirely different dimension – and set of challenges. With boxing I learned that your opponent primarily targets your head and body whereas, kickboxing allows you to control distance with your legs.

I did not belong to a dojo, so I simply trained at the boxing gym. When I needed to train for a kickboxing match, I would train with two professional champions, Howard Jackson, and Steve Fisher, both of whom were a significant influence on my fighting style.

You were an early adopter to FMA tell us how that relationship began?

In the year 1980, after fighting for several years, my journey took a significant turn. I had achieved victories in my fights, possessed physical strength, and knew how to finish a fight. However, at the end of the fight, one wondered who won the fight. I would leave the ring looking as bad as my opponent. Paul Maslak, editor of Inside Kung Fu and friend was concerned that my lack of lateral movement and footwork posed a threat of potential harm in the long run. He suggested someone who could refine my fighting skills and enhanced my overall performance.

That person was none other than Dan Inosanto. Guru Dan Inosanto is a revered figure in the world of Filipino martial arts and Jeet Kune Do. His expertise spans a multitude of disciplines. While my initial goal was to develop lateral movement and footwork, it was the kali that truly captured my attention and passion. Kali, with its rich history, fluid movements, and explosive techniques.

What particularly resonated with me was his philosophy of adaptation and progression within martial arts. He emphasized the importance of constantly evolving and adapting techniques to suit individual needs and circumstances, a belief that closely aligned with my own.

Now, with over four decades having passed since I began this journey, my appreciation for martial arts continues to grow. As both a student and an instructor, I value the lessons learned under Guru Dan’s tutelage and carry them forward.

This interview was taken from portions of a longer interview. For more on Graciela, check out the Black Belt+ exclusives section.

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