Professor Malia Bernal
Professor Malia Bernal
Professor Malia Bernal Wun Hop Kuen Do
School: Xiang Dai Kung Fu.
Grand Master Malia Bernal
Malia Bernal began studying Wun Hop Kuen Do at the age of 22. Training under WHKD founder Grandmaster Al Dacascos, Malia quickly realized she loved the martial arts: “I knew it was for me the minute I knew I could compete and I had the opportunity to be #1.” Although not allowed to participate in sports as a young girl, Malia says her schoolteachers always encouraged her, telling her she could excel in whatever she wanted to do. Malia agrees: “I was born to be a competitor. [Give me] anything that was a challenge and I had to fight for, that was for me.”
Malia not only broke boundaries for gender–she insisted on competing with male martial artists as their equal–but she transformed the movement and look of competitive forms. She pushed the softer Kung Fu style to the forefront, designing uniforms that emphasized grace and line. When she performed, she captivated, often causing the entire room to stop and watch; she is also one of the few, if only, competitors asked to break down her forms for the judges’ panel.
Eventually Malia and Al Dacascos married. As a Kung Fu power couple, they illustrated the effectiveness and beauty of Wun Hop Kuen Do: Al through the fighting, Malia through kata. With sons Mark and Craig training beside them, they, as a family, traveled to and consistently excelled in mixed martial arts competitions across the continental U.S. and Hawaii. Win after win, trophy after trophy, together the two became–in Malia’s words–“the team to top.” Both in fight and forms, they were untouchable.
In September 1974, Malia Bernal made history as the first woman on the cover of Black Belt Magazine. A pioneer of women in the martial arts, Sigung Malia dominated the tournament circuit in the late 60s and early 70s, reigning as the Number One Woman Fighter and Number One Woman in Kata (forms) in the USA for five consecutive years, and amassing almost 400 awards and titles, including Best All-Around Competitor. The only female three-time recipient of the coveted Golden Fist Award, Malia made a name for herself in a predominately male sport, becoming a Kung Fu legend and an internationally recognized champion.
Al and Malia expanded Wun Hop Kuen Do into the national and international sphere, opening schools in Denver, and later, Germany, where Malia was the only woman to be running a martial arts school at the time. After Al and Malia split, her life took a different turn. She entered the fitness industry, beginning a career as an instructor and personal trainer.
Applying her athleticism and talents in a different way, Malia brought the same attitude and motivation from Kung Fu into her fitness work; ahead of her time, she had the foresight to mesh aerobics and elements of self-defense, similar to Tae Bo™ and other current cardio-boxing programs. In fact, it was during one of her classes that her love for forms returned. “Aerobics can get boring,” says Malia. “One day I asked some of my students, ‘How would you like to learn something that will give you stretch, strength, cardio, and physical and mental training?’ I told them it would be the ultimate of all exercise. That’s how I started teaching Kung Fu forms again.” Eventually, Malia’s class turned into a club, and then the development of Xiang Di Kung Fu–her own, contemporary style–around 1990.
Today, Malia’s legacy lives in on the champions she has trained: Mark Dacascos, Karen Shepherd, Christian Wulf, and Emmanuel Bettencourt, to name a few. She continues to teach and inspire in Northern California, where her current students are consistent tournament winners–something she attributes in part to her unique conditioning and performance regimen, created from a lifetime of experience. Through special workshops and seminars, she helps other emerging martial artists improve themselves through their training, just as she did.
While her list of accomplishments is stellar–among them, a place in the AMA Hall of Fame and Who’s Who in the Martial Arts, a #1 rating in Professional Karate Magazine, and media appearances, including a film cameo alongside Chuck Norris–Malia’s energy and enthusiasm for life and learning is unstoppable. When not teaching, she pursues other interests, such as motivational speaking, further developing the Xiang Di style, and working on her memoir, White Belt Master. Frequently referred to as a legend in her own time, Malia Bernal is truly a paragon of the martial arts.