top of page

Linda Denley (Pt. 2): How She Became One of the Top Point Fighters in the World! 

By Terry L. Wilson

linda denley

More than four decades ago, Linda Denley made history when she became the first Black woman inducted into the Black Belt Hall of Fame. It was 1980, and she was named Competitor of the Year because she ruled the point karate world. The fighting philosophy that carried her there was straightforward. “I just want to win all the time,” she said about her attitude then and now. “Losing is embarrassing to me.”

That mindset drove her to keep on winning, and her record earned her a place in numerous martial arts and sports-related halls of fame. Over the ensuing years, Denley morphed into a skilled instructor, and she’s still going strong. This is her origin story.



Denley is quick to acknowledge that the world in which she excelled is different from the world of 2022. “There have been a lot of changes in the way tournaments were done over the years,” she said. “For one thing, the style of the fighters changed. When I was competing, it was easy to determine who the winner was. The winner was the person who was still standing. The loser would be bent over with their hands on their knees. In my era, fighting was very intense.”

That said, Denley doesn’t think everything was better back in her day. “As far as competing in the sparring division, I think it’s a lot better now,” she said. “When I was coming up, we only had one division for women — it was 16 years and above, all ranks, all weights and all sizes. Now they have a division for every rank, every age and every weight. There are divisions for everyone!”

Things were only slightly better for males, she said. “Back when we were competing, there were three divisions for men: light, middle and heavy. The last one standing in each division was champion.” I asked the champ if, when point fighting gave birth to full contact and then to kickboxing and mixed martial arts, new opportunities presented themselves. “I’ve never fought a full-contact match, and I have no intentions of ever doing so,” she replied.

“Others have stated that I was knocking people out in the ring when it wasn’t full contact, but I have never knocked anyone out in the ring. Women fighting full contact is not my cup of tea.”

Another trend Denley is not a fan of is the use of electronic sensors to determine whether a point is scored. Although she’s never competed under such a system, she said she’d rather trust qualified human beings.

“I think a system using machines can weaken the sport,” she said.

“Machines can only react to a touch. I prefer a human judge with the ability to see the technique and determine if the attack had enough power to be effective. But that’s just my opinion.”

linda denley


When asked about female fighters, Denley switched into no-holds barred mode. “Back in the day, women didn’t always get the respect that they do today,” she said. “I don’t think they were shown the appreciation they deserved for the ability they displayed either in fighting or forms. The women had to do twice as much and be twice as sharp in order to be labeled just as good as men.”

Fortunately, they quickly proved they were up to the task. “When women began winning and taking center stage and we proved that we were just as capable as the men, things slowly began to change for us,” she said.

“I hated being labeled. When someone would say, ‘She fights like a man,’ I didn’t understand because I didn’t know that karate techniques had a gender. A proper side kick is a proper side kick, and a bad side kick is obviously bad — same with punches. So I didn’t understand because a martial artist should fight like a martial artist, be it male or female.”

During that tough time, a comment from martial arts promoter and fellow Black Belt Hall of Famer Joe Corley helped Denley cope. He said, “When I think about Linda Denley, I wish I could fight like a girl.”

“That was an honor coming from Mr. Corley,” Denley said. Corley still regards himself as a fan. “Linda Denley is one of my favorite fighters of all time,” he told Black Belt. “And that’s not just because of how she fought in the ring but her entire essence as a martial artist. The first thing that attracted me to her as a martial artist was her attitude. Outside the ring, she walked softly and talked softly, but inside the ring, she was a warrior.”


As the accolades poured in and Denley’s career exploded, Hollywood came knocking. She wound up appearing in six movies — one of them is Jackie Chan’s Armour of God — and on the covers of numerous martial arts magazines.

“All of that was great, but for me, the real benefit of my martial arts training was that it taught me to be confident in myself,” she said. “It showed me that I can do anything I want and be a world champion as many times as I want and even appear in motion pictures.”

Denley said she believes that whatever a person’s life goals might be, hard work equals success and commitment is the key to making dreams become reality.

“If you give 110 percent, you can’t go wrong,” she said. “You must have a passion for whatever it is you are good at and you will be successful. I never dreamt of being a world champion. I never thought I’d be in the movies. I never thought I would travel the world and meet so many interesting people in and out of the martial arts.

“But I have, and I’m very grateful for the experience. God has given me the ability to be good at something that I like doing, and I’ve had a great career doing something I love to do. It just doesn’t get any better than that.”


After the final bell had sounded and her career had come to a close, Linda Denley tallied her titles: She’d accumulated more than 70. That’s why from 1973 to 1996, she was the top-ranked female point fighter in the world.

Renowned and feared for her fierce fighting spirit and heavy hands, she proved to the world that she was a martial arts champion. More important, she proved it to herself.

Now a 10th degree in tang soo do, a 10th degree in the American Karate Black Belt Association and a fourth degree in taekwondo, she’s in a position to focus on paying it forward. She’s the owner and chief instructor at the Texas Black Belt Academy in Houston, which has been the case for the past 45 years. She also conducts seminars around the country, as well as her annual Space City Open Karate Championships in Houston.

black belt plus


In the 1980s and ’90s, Linda Denley dominated the women’s divisions on the sport-karate circuit, placing first at major tournaments in the United States and abroad. That included winning the Battle of Atlanta 11 times, the Diamond Nationals three times, the U.S. Open nine times, the Long Beach Internationals four times and the U.S. Capital Classic nine times.

In 1985 she became the first American woman to win a semi-contact kickboxing title at the WAKO World Cup in London. She did it again in 1987 in Germany and yet again in 1990 in Italy. That made her the first female to hold three consecutive semi-contact kickboxing world titles.

“My instructors taught me not to toot my own horn after my first world-championship win,” she said. “And they told me to be humble because I wasn’t finished. [They] also told me that a true world champion can win championship fights repeatedly and that’s what I had to do to prove myself. To be a true champion, I must do it again and again and again.” Which, of course, she did.

Terry L. Wilson is a freelance writer and jujitsu practitioner based in San Diego.

bottom of page