For Graciela Casillas life has been a remarkable mixture of aggression and defense.
The 28-year-old athlete from Santa Monica quit the professional boxing ring in February after winning a unanimous full-contact karate decision at the Forum during a benefit for victims of the Sept. 19 earthquake in Mexico City.
Casillas, who said she was never defeated in professional boxing or full-contact karate (kick boxing), knows that female boxing and karate are not likely to supplant Monday night football on the tube or overtake baseball as the national sport.
That’s partly why the 5-foot-3 1/2-inch fighter left the ring.
Other reasons--perhaps more compelling--include injuries suffered in an auto accident, small payoffs even for champs in the obscure world of women’s boxing and kick boxing, and the fact that Casillas is tired of hitting and being hit for a living.
“I want to move on,” she said. “Fighting is in my past. I want to concentrate on teaching women self-defense.”
Casillas has been teaching self-defense part-time for a decade, and she’s found that “it’s difficult to get most women through the door to self-defense classes. You have to sort of sugar-coat the classes. Even if the women come in wanting to learn how to defend themselves, they have trouble admitting it.”
Casillas has taught self-defense to such diverse students as singer Helen Reddy and a class of senior citizens.
To overcome women’s reluctance, Casillas starts them off with fitness exercises. Before long, she said, the students find that the kicks and body movements they learn as exercise are also self-defense moves. Casillas calls them “defensercises.”
Once the students realize they know the rudiments of self-defense techniques, “they really want to put the gloves on and hit the equipment hard,” she said.
Beauty Contest Winner
Casillas traces her interest in martial arts to her sophomore year in high school in Oxnard, where she belonged to a Catholic youth group. “We were trying through prayer to get the kids to come,” she said. “But the kids weren’t coming.
“One day Father Alex (the leader of the group) said, ‘This isn’t cutting it,’ and he came up with the idea of a martial arts class to attract group members,” Casillas recalled.
Having been a shy and sheltered child, Casillas said, she found she liked the discipline of martial arts, and the sense of control that came with it. She remembers rising quickly to be ranked first in her class by her instructor.
She continued martial arts training through high school, at Ventura College, where she was student body president, at UC Santa Barbara, where she majored in pre-law, and at Cal Lutheran College, where she took classes in educational psychology. Along the way, Casillas said, she taught martial arts and won a couple of beauty contests.
In 1977, while a student at Ventura College, Casillas started winning trophies in kick boxing. She limited her fighting to kick boxing until she was a 21-year-old junior at UCSB.
Then, Casillas recalled, in the summer 1979, a boxer named Karen Bennett was scheduled to fight in the Sports Arena, but her opponent backed out of the match. Someone suggested Casillas as a replacement.
“We had to doctor my record,” Casillas said. “We just made up fights so I could qualify for the match with Bennett,” Casillas said.
“Everybody was laughing. They said I was going to get killed. I got to the Sports Arena and people were laughing at me. Bennett said she was going to tear me apart and she was a registered nurse so she could put me back together afterward. She was playing with me.”
Casillas won a unanimous decision.
She said that four years, 14 boxing matches, 7 technical knockouts and 2 knockouts later, she retired, undefeated, from professional boxing. Then, this February she retired undefeated from professional kick boxing with a record of one draw and 15 wins, eight of which were technical knockouts, and one a knockout.
Since quitting professional boxing in 1983, Casillas has concentrated on teaching women self-defense. It has become a passion.
“That passion comes from being part of a minority: women,” Casillas said. “There aren’t enough places for women to learn self-defense. I want to provide such a place.” She has been teaching in West Los Angeles and Torrance, and plans to open her own studio in West Los Angeles.
“I don’t teach ‘don’ts.’ I teach ‘what ifs,’ ” Casillas explained, observing that, rather than teaching her students to avoid going places, she teaches them to be alert for possible problem situations.
“I don’t teach people to walk around, paranoid, looking behind their backs,” she said. “I teach them a total ‘take care’ attitude. I teach them that self-defense can become part of their natural way of life.
“Women should be able to go places alone at night. They should be able to go to a club or a health spa or wherever.”
Casillas teaches that self-defense includes much more than physical force. “In fact,” she said, “physical force should be the last resort.
“The first thing I teach is to be really alert, and avoid confrontation of any kind if possible.
“The second thing is that if you feel a man is invading your space in a public place, if he’s getting too close or just giving you the once over, face him. Don’t look down. Look him in the eye.
“And the third thing I teach is that if you are in a situation where someone comes up to you, before resorting to the physical, you talk to him. Most of the time if you just look right at a guy who’s following you and say, ‘What’s your problem?’ he’ll walk away.”
But if he doesn’t walk away, Casillas knows what to do.
“Sometimes the ideal thing to do is nothing, for example if a guy has a gun in his hand,” the self-defense instructor said.
“But,” she continued, “if you decide to fight, the ideal thing is to fight before the man is actually locked onto you, before he’s physically got hold of you. Women have advantages: surprise, speed, agility. You don’t need a lot of power if you hit certain areas of the body like the shins, groin, neck, throat, ears, eyes, nose, mouth.”
Casillas teaches how to make a slap vicious enough to “tear an eardrum,” how to use the elbow as a “great self-defense weapon,” how to send a man running by pinching the inside of his upper arm, the flesh of his neck, the inside of his thigh or his nipple.
“Don’t go for the point where a man is grabbing you,” she warned. “He expects that, so you lose the element of surprise. Instead, if he’s got you by the neck, jam your heel into his instep, if he has you by the waist, go for his eyes with your thumbs.
“The bottom line is that I know how important self-defense is. And I know everyone should have at least a sense of it. It should become just second nature. It doesn’t have to be a burden.”