By Terry L. Wilson
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.
GIRLS AREN’T SUPPOSED TO HIT BOYS
In 1972 Denley walked into a karate studio simply to “check it out.” She had no idea at the time, but she was about to embark on a path that would see her become a living legend in the sport. “I didn’t get into karate to become a world champion,” Denley said. “In fact, I took karate simply because I had an extra hour in my schedule that day.
“I’m an Olympic-qualified track-and-field runner (1976). I was asked to play semipro basketball for the Houston Angels and was an MVP on my college volleyball team and my neighborhood softball team. Some have considered me a natural-born athlete, so when I walked into that karate school, it was to do nothing more than add something new to my résumé. That’s all. I had zero intentions of fighting.”
A mere three weeks after she wrapped a white belt around her waist, an unexpected challenge cropped up. Until that point, the novice karateka had never thrown a punch at another human being.
“There were about 30 more people in the classroom than normal,” Denley recalled. “I came to find out that these were individuals from my instructor’s neighborhood. Unknown to me, Alfredo Torres, my instructor, had seen something in me and invited all his neighbors to watch me perform.
“I had never sparred before in my life. Mr. Torres called me out on the floor to fight. I stood there and broke into tears for a good halfhour because I didn’t want to fight. I was not there to spar — period. I was taught that girls are not supposed to be hitting boys and vice versa.
“So I stood there in front of everybody, crying like a baby. I thought, after a minute or two, that Mr. Torres would come over and tell me to sit down, but he didn’t.”
It was because of what her instructor did next that Denley was able to live up to her athletic potential. “Mr. Torres stood there and said to me, ‘When you get through crying, do what I asked you to do, which is to spar,’” Denley recalled. “I was shy, and with all those strangers watching me, I was very embarrassed because they were waiting for me to fight. But when I realized that Mr. Torres wasn’t going to let me sit down, I stopped crying and commenced sparring.”
UNLEASH THE KRAKEN
And commence sparring she did. In the blink of an eye, the tears disappeared. They were replaced by the focused glare of a hunter advancing on her prey.
At that moment, Denley took her first steps toward becoming the world-class fighter that history has recorded, unleashing a whirlwind of punches and kicks against that opponent and those who followed until there was no one left to fight in her dojo.
The visitors — and Torres — were stunned at what they had just witnessed. It was like a switch had been flipped, turning loose a hidden warrior who was residing within the mild-mannered martial artist.
Denley was perhaps the most surprised person in the room. She half-whispered, “I only did what Mr. Torres told me to do,” as if to justify her actions to herself.
“I did so well that the very next week, we were at the Mardi Gras Nationals tournament in New Orleans,” Denley said, “and I went through everyone like I’d been sparring for years, winning each match until the only ones left to fight were the black and brown belts.
“Now, the [promoters] weren’t going to let a white-belt girl beat up all their black belts — so I got disqualified for punching a brown belt in the stomach too hard. Go figure!”
ATTITUDE IS EVERYTHING
Among the spectators that day in New Orleans was a future Black Belt Hall of Famer named Karen Sheperd. “I was glued to my seat,” Sheperd recalled. “Linda was like a tornado ripping through everyone she faced.
“What I noticed the most was the look of victory on her face as she entered the ring. I’d never seen anyone that focused before. You could tell that in her mind, she had already won that fight.”
Denley elaborated on the observation: “It’s hard for a competitor to win without having a winner’s attitude. You have to believe in yourself, and the only way you can do that is if you’ve done your homework, and the homework is the training.
“I preach this all the time: If you walk into that ring with 40-percent ability and 60-percent confidence, you are more likely to be victorious over a person who comes to a competition with 40-percent confidence and 60-percent ability.
“If you have given your training 110 percent, that alone will build your confidence in competition. Sparring is easy; the hard work is the training you do before getting into the ring.”
After Denley proved herself at the Mardi Gras Nationals, she fought her way from coast to coast and then country to country, creating a legacy with each victory. Her success elevated the Texan to the status of martial arts superstar and eventually earned her that spot in the Black Belt Hall of Fame.
“For the next nine years, I never lost a match,” she said. “And for seven of those nine years, I was never even scored upon. During my career, I won 17 world championships.”
NICKNAMES R US
In American sports and even in the martial arts, most athletes acquire catchy nicknames, which are then used as branding tools for marketing everything from apparel to video games. Linda Denley, however, was never big on nicknames — but that didn’t stop her fans from coming up with some good ones.
“My instructor Mr. Robert Torres called me ‘Lady Bird’ for the first three years I competed,” she said. “Then for some reason, he started calling me ‘Lady Truck.’
“At some time, a writer dubbed me the ‘Texas Terror,’ but that’s not my nickname.”
She noted that it’s not just nicknames that are created; it also can be quotations. “Sometimes quotes are made about things that aren’t true,” she said. “I once read an article about how I knocked out 10 guys in a full-contact match, but of course that’s not true at all. I never fought in a full-contact match.”
JUST TELL ME WHAT TO DO
A martial artist to her core, Denley is quick to credit Robert and Alfredo Torres for putting her on the path to victory. “Had it not been for my instructors, who saw that I had the ability to be a world champion, I probably would never have thrown that first punch,” she said.
The hard hitter from Houston said she never had a favorite technique or a favorite fighter to study, but when she saw someone using a move that resonated with her, she would practice it, perfect it and then make it her own.
“When I saw a technique that I liked, I would ask my instructors to show me the mechanics of that technique,” Denley said. “I would practice it until I could execute it with precision. I was always trying to find a way to get better and to add to my arsenal.”
She may have been unstoppable in the ring, but the motivation behind her victories surprised her fans and trainers whenever she would reveal her inner self. Turns out she wasn’t fighting for fame or even riches. With each punch she threw, Denley was testing her own ability.
She was fighting against herself.
“I wasn’t trying to prove anything to anybody but me,” she said. “After the third world championship, I wanted to test myself.”
“My instructors kept telling me how good I was, so I began traveling internationally. I went everywhere there was a fight to be fought. That included the Internationals in Los Angeles, and I won that. After that, I went to Mexico, Puerto Rico, London, Germany, Italy and Canada looking for any fighter who could beat me.
“Then I realized that as hard as I train, there shouldn’t be anyone who could beat me — unless they’re training as hard as I train. My training [at the time] consisted of running 3 or 4 miles before class, then two to three hours of martial arts training, then running another 2 or 3 miles after training.”
Part 1 of 2. Check out Part 2 coming this month.
Terry L. Wilson is a freelance writer and jujitsu practitioner based in San Diego.