Fredia Gibbs used a punching bag when she was growing up in Chester to unpack the daily bullying she endured from her peers.
Mentored by her uncle, William Groce, Gibbs responded to the taunts by joining Chester’s Quiet Storm Martial Arts school when she was 10. The workouts helped Gibbs gain self-confidence, and she went on to do more than simply stand up to her bullies.
Gibbs was a track and basketball star at Chester High School. She was star basketball player at both Temple and Cabrini, and she played pro ball in Europe. In 1994, Gibbs became the only African American woman to win an International Sport Karate Association Muay Thai title. She went on to win two more titles and ended her kickboxing career with a 16-0-1 record. Her only draw came against a man, Muay Thai.
Then, from 1998-2003, Gibbs became a pro boxer and compiled a 9-2-1 record.
And, later this year, the 55-year-old Gibbs will become what is believed to be the first female athlete in Pennsylvania to have a seven foot bronze statue erected in her honor. It is to be unveiled in front of the Boys and Girls Club of Chester.
“I’m really excited for it,” Gibbs said. “It’s going to be cool.”
Gibbs is also a motivational speaker and trainer these days. Her life is also tailored around teaching the next generation self-defense at Chester’s recreation centers.
“I tell them, ‘I want to pour this into you while you are young,’ ” said Gibbs of what she tells her students. “ ‘If I can do it, you can, too.’ ”
Gibbs became a kickboxing star almost by accident. She was watching TV one night in 1990 while playing basketball in Germany when she stumbled upon a kickboxing bout that featured Benny Urquidez. That reminded her of her background in karate, and she wondered whether she could return to that type of competition.
So, on September 8, 1990, Gibbs hopped on a plane to Los Angeles and joined Urquidez at his training center. She had her first bout less than a year later.
By 1994, Gibbs was 8-0 with eight knockouts. One day, her coach, David Krapes, booked a fight with French superstar kickboxer Valerie Wiet-Henin. Wiet-Henin was the reigning World Super Lightweight champion and known as the “most dangerous woman in the world.”
Gibbs was not excited about the matchup, especially after seeing how it was being handled in California. Weit-Henin was appearing on TV talk shows and on the covers of magazines. She, on the other hand, was getting little publicity, and even some in her camp were not being supportive.
“I experienced a lot of prejudice in the martial arts world,” Gibbs said. “It was sad to me, but it also motivated me. I had a lot of prove being a black woman and being the only one.”
William Sriyapai was a teenager who trained with Gibbs before the Wiet-Henin fight.
“When I saw her training I was like, ‘Holy crap. Who is this chick?’ ” said Sriyapai. “She was just hitting me with combinations for days … I was just trying to defend myself."
It got worse when all the questions at the prefight press conference were directed at Wiet-Henin. Then, when she arrived at the arena on fight night, Wiet-Henin had an extravagant dressing room, while Gibbs got a small room with no mirrors or lights.
As she walked out to the ring, someone yelled at her from the stands, “That’s the black girl who came here to get knocked out.”
All Gibbs thought was, “God, tonight we’re going to shock the world. That’s what we did."
Gibbs went on to beat Wiet-Henin and became an overnight sensation. Later, the NAACP celebrated her with a banquet, and she said she will never forget meeting actress Cicely Tyson there. Tyson told her they’re not going to give you what’s yours. You are going to have to take it.
“When she said that I felt her energy permeate my soul,” Gibbs said. "I really got the Holy Spirit. It was amazing.”