It was around the start of 1994 and Fredia "The Cheetah" Gibbs had just experienced a harrowing ordeal. She was never going to set foot in California again. She was preparing to move to New York when she received a call to turn on the television. Valerie Henin, dubbed “the most dangerous woman in the world,” was on Johnny Carson. Johnny asks her if she’s the most dangerous woman in the world; how come she hasn’t fought anyone in America?
That’s when Henin said she was in the US to fight Fredia Gibbs. With that, Fredia’s mother told her that she had to go back to Cali. She had to face her fears. The match was set. The “Battle of the Masters,” the first international pay-per-view card in the sport, was to be held in San Jose. It was supposed to be Muay Thai. Her kickboxing trainers, the Uriquidez family, paid for her to train with the Muay Thai Academy of America in North Hollywood. She had 90 days to prepare. “I learned it quickly,” says Gibbs. “They were like, ‘Wow, you’re a natural.’ I learned it real fast, those knees, those elbows, those shin kicks.”
She recalls how hard it was when she first started kicking tires, but soon she was hitting them with all she had; if blood would fly, she didn’t care. “I was just tearing them up,” she says. One of Henin’s camp was sent to take a look at Gibbs. “They saw me,” she says. “They saw that I was ripped and ready.” She says that Henin’s camp knew that she was going to win and they had the format of the fight switched from Muay Thai. No low kicks were allowed, only high kicks. She says that she thought they were trying to mess with her mind, but it was okay because little did they know that she was a high kicker before she was a low kicker. “They didn’t know anything about my background,” says Gibbs. In seeking to take away an advantage, they unwittingly allowed another. “My legs got really tired during the championship fight, like the second round,” says Gibbs. “Third round, that’s when I had to reach deep within.” She knew she didn’t want to fall down and that she needed assistance. She quietly prayed for help. As soon as she had done that, Gibbs threw a kick, caught her opponent with a right hand, and another when she attempted a counter-kick. Down went the champion. “I’ll never forget it,” says Gibbs. “Looked up and saw my mom’s birthday.” The time on the clock was 8:16, coinciding with her mother’s August 16th date of birth. She says that it was a message.
In her success, she dethroned “the most dangerous woman in the world” and took the title for herself. But this was merely one great highlight in a lifetime career that has spanned the breadth of four different professional sports: track, basketball, boxing and kickboxing. Fredia Gibbs is a three-time World Tae Kwon Do Champion, an ISKA, WKA and WCK world kickboxing champion with two defenses each. She is Hall of Fame at Chester High School in both basketball and track, where the team is known as the Cheetahs in her honor, and her ISKA belt was inducted into the Mickey Vernon Sports Legend Hall of Fame in a ceremony at Cabrini College. She has been given the key to her hometown of Chester, Pennsylvania, and has been inducted into the 2022 Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fame, among other honors. She has even been honored as one of the greatest female athletes in Philadelphia history and the greatest African-American female athlete of all time for kickboxing.
Gibbs’ story begins in Chester, Pennsylvania, where she grew up in the Fairground projects with her mother and brother. As she came up, she said that her mother taught them to turn negativity into positivity. There is always a solution. “We grew up poor, but I didn’t know we were poor. I didn’t realize we were poor until I went to college; once I went out in the world,” says Gibbs. She describes growing up in the Fairgrounds as hard. For years, she was constantly bullied by female classmates. It all came to a head one day coming home on the school bus. Everybody got off the school bus except for Fredia, who was anticipating a fight. Fredia didn’t want to fight. She asked the bus driver if she could take her to the next stop. The driver had her walk to the back of the school bus and unlock the emergency door. Everybody walked to the back of the bus along with her. She returned to the front, and again the crowd followed. The bus driver then instructed her to run out of the emergency door. And Fredia was off in a flash. “That’s how I became All-American in track,” says Gibbs, “because of my bullies.” When Fredia was in sixth grade, the track coach, James Joyce, recruited her after learning of her prowess in outrunning her tormentors. Under the tutelage of Joyce and Benny White, she competed in the summer leagues and eventually became a state champion attaining All-American status in track during high school. As a result of her athletics, she became the first student, male or female, to receive a dual scholarship. She was accepted to Temple University for both track and basketball. “I thank my bullies a lot for chasing me,” says Gibbs. “If it wasn’t for them, I never would’ve been All-American and received a Division One scholarship.” After running from the bus, she says she busted into her house like a “Black Super Woman" disrupting the household arrangements in the process. Her mom didn’t know that she was being bullied for years. Her mom went outside and spoke to the congregation in front of her house. Mom asked who wanted to fight her. Three girls raised their hands. Mom told them they all weren’t going to fight her daughter, that she would face the baddest out of the three. She was then given those oft-heard instructions. If Fredia didn’t beat her opponent, she would face a beating from her mom in addition to the bully and wind up getting beaten twice. While she doesn’t remember exactly what happened, she does know she must’ve done something right because she didn’t receive a second beating from her mother.
However, the torment did not stop, dragging young Fredia down to the point where she contemplated suicide. “Every day, they were waiting for me,” says Gibbs. Her grandmother contacted her uncle, William Groce, who, unbeknownst to Fredia, was a martial artist. He came to Fairgrounds and the two of them took a walk. He asked about her being bullied and her thoughts of suicide. She told him that she would rather finish herself off than allow the three bullies to do it. He then told her he wanted to introduce her to karate. She was against it. She didn’t want to fight. Her uncle told her it was not about fighting; it was about rebuilding her self-confidence and self-esteem. “That’s when my whole life changed,” says Gibbs. “Martial arts completely saved my life.” Along with the guidance of her mother, she says that martial arts training fortified her mind and spirit. She learned the hard way that nothing in life is easy.
She went to her uncle’s school, Quiet Storm, which she describes as comprised of a collection of “lethal” Black businessmen, entrepreneurs, judges and blue-collar workers. “When they walked in a room, you could feel their power,” says Gibbs. She was the only female and came to see all of Quiet Storm as her uncles. “Just by observing those guys, I realized my confidence was gradually going to the next level,” says Gibbs. But she was far from relying on observation alone. She recalls performing fundamental strikes and kicks tens of thousands of times. Gibbs primarily trained in Jeet Kune Do, Taekwondo and Aikido, but she says that it was much more than that. “I think that our guys were the creators of mixed martial arts,” says Gibbs as she recalls how her instructors would all learn different disciplines and bring them back to the school for training. Eventually, she began sparring with the others, learning the efficacy of the combinations and techniques she was being taught. Her “uncles” then began to take her to compete against other schools, although she was just a white belt. “My uncle told me, “Don’t worry about that belt; that belt will get dirty,” she says. Gibbs would take on the top fighters at the various schools and progressed to tournaments. She says that in tournaments, she had to learn to control her power because she would get disqualified for going all out. “I even got knocked out a couple of times in tournaments, but it was awesome,” says Gibbs. As a school student, she had quite a hefty load. “My life was totally structured,” she says. Track and basketball practice was shortly after school, and it alternated according to season. At 7pm every day, her uncle would pick her up and take her to martial arts practice. He was there religiously to take her and she practiced six days a week. She had to complete her homework and chores in between school and her practice times. “My mom was tough,” says Gibbs. “She didn’t care that I was a superstar (athlete) in my hometown.” After school, Fredia had to complete all of her chores before she was allowed to participate in extracurricular activities. “To me, it was my sport, my love,” says Gibbs. “To Mom, it was just extracurricular activities.” She says that there was a time when she was angry with her mother because she was always late to basketball and track practice due to finishing her chores, but in hindsight, she is grateful. At one point, she was going to quit sports and sought support from her paternal grandmother, complaining about the burden of her chores and the difficulties it caused on her athletics. She thought her grandmother would side with her; instead, grandma told her she should not quit and do as her mother asked of her. She says that her grandmother told her that it would make her a better person, and she now sees that her grandmother was right, and she appreciates the preparation her mother gave her for life. And indeed, outside of her home, where her mother was the reigning talent, she was a superstar. She excelled in track, was also All-American in basketball, and was exemplary in martial arts. “My uncles in Quiet Storm must’ve known I had something special,” says Gibbs. “I didn’t know that I was an athlete because I didn’t know what athletes were. I just knew that I was good at sports.” Fredia and her blood uncle settled into a routine every Saturday after class. With just the two of them in the school, he would lock the door and place the key behind him, telling Fredia she had to fight her way past him to exit. He insisted that she remain controlled and use proper force and technique. He said that when she was able to fight her way past him, she would be a black belt. The challenge went on for many years, with her gaining ground but never achieving the goal.