Forty-five years ago, the martial arts world was largely a boys club. Almost all the instructors were male, almost all the famous competitors were male and almost all the martial artists everyone talked about — like those who got featured on the cover of Black Belt — were male.
Then a tournament competitor from Northern California, at the time known as Malia Dacascos, became the first female champion to grace the magazine’s cover. Dacascos, who’s now known as Malia Bernal, was not only the No. 1–ranked woman in the country in both forms and fighting for several years running, but she also had the temerity to begin challenging — and beating — the best male forms competitors. She ended up being rated the fourth best kata competitor in the United States in the men’s division, as well.
“I was always competing against the same group of women, and I thought, Why not compete against
the men for a change?” Bernal said. “I finally asked one promoter, and he let me do it. I’ll never forget that first tournament. All the men lined up for the kata competition, then I stepped out there and someone said, ‘You have the wrong division!’ And I told him, ‘No, I’m competing against you guys today.’
“Then I won. But I never thought anyone would still be talking about it years later.”
A self-described tomboy, Bernal was raised on a farm several miles from the nearest neighbors. She married young, and when her husband was away from home working evenings, her parents recommended she take some sort of self-defense class just in case she ever had to protect herself. Never one to jump into anything without doing a little research first, she began visiting local martial arts schools to see which would be the best fit.
“I went to a local strip mall — one of those places with a pizza parlor, an ice cream shop and a karate school tucked in between — but I
didn’t care for it,” Bernal said. “I went to several more karate schools, but they were all too rigid. I had always done skiing and realized my body was more of a flowing type. Then I visited a kung fu school, and that really piqued my interest.”
The school was run by Al Dacascos, a renowned practitioner of
kajukenbo who would go on to found his own brand of kung fu called wun
hop kuen do. Bernal signed up for classes, never dreaming it would lead to a whole new life for her.
Although the school had more than a dozen other female students when Bernal enrolled, within a few months, almost all had quit. “There were tough guys there interested in hardcore fighting, and they didn’t really want women around,” she recalled. “And most of the women didn’t want to be battered black and blue, so they quit. But I’ve never been known to quit if I really want to learn something.”
After a while, the male students realized she wasn’t going anywhere, and they began offering advice on how to improve. In return, the brash Bernal told them that one day she would be the first female martial arts champion on the cover of Black Belt.
“They all laughed at me,” she said. “But years later when it happened, they all came to me with copies of the magazine and asked me to sign them.”
Dacascos was harsh on her in the beginning, forcing his new student to fight in her first tournament after just six weeks of training — literally pushing her into the ring when she balked at fighting a more experienced green belt. For her part, Bernal felt Dacascos was arrogant and at times cruel. But she made a deal with him, offering to keep fighting in tournaments if he taught her forms and weapons so she could compete in those divisions, as well.
Dacascos began taking her more seriously, and as Bernal’s first marriage began to dissolve, she and her instructor became closer, eventually marrying. As for the potential complications of becoming involved with her martial arts teacher, Bernal said this was never an issue.
“When he had his uniform on and we were in class, he was the boss,” she said. “But when we had street clothes on, it was open prairie. I could say what I wanted, and we were equal.”
Together, the pair became a powerful force, dominating both men’s and women’s tournament competition in the early 1970s. But Bernal decided she should do more in martial arts than just win trophies. To make a profession out of it, she knew she’d have to stand out. She began wearing her hair in unusual styles and sporting custom- tailored kung fu uniforms when everyone else was still wearing a standardissue karate gi.
“Al didn’t like it at first,” Bernal recalled. “He felt it was being disrespectful. I said I didn’t see how it was being disrespectful to him or his art if I’m trying to take things to another level so he and his style would gain more recognition. Eventually, he saw I knew what I was talking about.”
Bernal’s innovations — and her uncompromising work ethic — were passed down to a number of students, including Karen Sheperd and her stepson Mark Dacascos, both of whom went on to become renowned tournament champions and garner acting success in Hollywood.
Bernal hasn’t slowed down in recent years. She continues to teach her own style of xian dai gung fu and work as a fitness trainer who begins her own routine at 5:30 every morning.
Always something of a trailblazer for women in the martial arts, Bernal said she never looked at herself as a person campaigning for women’s rights or as even consciously being part of a movement.
“I just did my own thing,” she said. “I was never one to join the bandwagon. My mother always told [me to] strive to be a leader, not a follower, and [that] I should want what seems to be impossible. That was how I looked at succeeding in the martial arts world back then. I had dreams, and if you have a dream, you follow it until you succeed.”
The editors of Black Belt are pleased to announce that Malia Bernal is the magazine’s 2018 Woman of the Year.