Up until this point all the martial artists discussed in this series have been men. And it is time to change that, because there are some simply fantastic women in the martial art of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. While their numbers are undeniably small, the female population of BJJ players is growing, if a little slowly. Grappling is a hard arena for the majority of women to feel instantly comfortable in and allowing a stranger into the guard position is an intimidating prospect for many beginner female grapplers.
But for those who overcome their fears, Jiu Jitsu offers all the same rewards to women as to men, sometimes even more so. Most grapplers who are at a school with upper belt women will tell you that often that the women are the most technical rolls in the school because they have to make up for their lack of size and strength.
Most women come to martial arts to learn how to defend themselves against assault. The vast majority of victims of sexual assault in the United States are women and in the majority of these incidents the male assailant has no weapon and relies on his superior strength and size. Attacks are likely to take place in a private, familiar place and the assailant is likely to be someone the woman knows. It is a scary scenario to describe and martial arts are one way women can help address such a situation.
Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is a ideally suited for rape defense courses because of its use of leverage and ground grappling to defeat larger, strong attackers. The Gracie Academy in Torrance has their Women Empowered course for many years and other Academies have similar courses operating for over a decade.
While women have been involved with Brazilian Jiu Jitsu for many years, much of that time there they were not very well traveled because of the lack of competitions for women. This happened for a variety of reasons. The self-defense focus of the first Gracie schools, the reluctance to teach women by some Gracies, and the relative low numbers of women in the martial art all meant the women's competition scene lagged behind and women were less visible in the BJJ community.
As a result the first women who earned her black belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu remains a mystery to this day. No timeline of promotions is complete enough to identify a single woman who came before the rest. Theories abound, several of them focus on Kim Gracie, wife of Rickson Gracie.
Here is some rare footage of Kim doing a demo with Rickson (from 3:04 to 4:27)
While there is no clear answer to who is the first female black belt, there is a clear progression of women into competition. The 1998 Pan Ams featured a women’s blue belt division and the Mundials that year had an open belt level competition broken into two weight classes. The next year at Mundials the women were divided into a blue belt and a purple/brown/black division with three weight classes. By 2000 the Women’s division was fully formed, still divided between blues and upper belts between five weight classes.
The team that emerged on the forefront of women’s Brazilian Jiu Jitsu was Royler Gracie’s Team Gracie Humaita, and they were lead by Leticia Ribeiro. While no relation to the Ribeiro brothers, Leticia did train with Saulo and Xande, and had their aptitude on the mats. Leticia is a 5-time World Champion in the gi and 2-time out of the gi.
While Leticia is certainly one of the all time greats, her success is not just on the mats, but also in building a premier women’s team at Humaita. One of Ribeiro’s teammates is the South African gymnast turned grappler Penny Thomas. A Junior Olympian in gymnastics, Thomas was forced to leave that sport due to spine surgery and she took up Brazilian Jiu Jitsu to learn some self-defense and stay active.
Penny became so engrossed by BJJ she quit her job as a computer programer and traveled to Brazil to train full time. The decision has clearly paid off as Thomas won four world championships one at blue (2004), one as a purple (2005), one as a brown (2007) and one as a black (2009). An elite no gi grappler also, Thomas is a regular at Grapplers Quest events and has been featured in several super fights.
Another Gracie Humaita girl that is Beatriz Mesquita, a student of Leticia’s, and extremely accomplished despite just receiving her black belt in March of 2011 on the top of the Pan Ams podium. A four time world champion, no gi world champ, two time European champion, five time Brazilian Champion, Mesquita is one of the brightest prospects in all of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and is also the female grappler featured in the Discovery Channel’s Fight Quest Brazil Episode. (skip to 7:40)
Opposing Leticia’s team is are several of the most accomplished women in the Brazilian Jiu Jitsu world, and possibly none more so than Hannette Staack. An Andre Negao black belt, Staack has been training in BJJ since the age of 18 and has won six Mundials, three Brazilian championships and three ADCCs. Staack has used her impressive resume to start her own Academy with Negao in Chicago, and Brazil 021 is a thriving school.
(Staack in the 2007 ADCC Open Weight final)
Kyra Gracie may be better known for her looks and last name, but her grappling ability is every bit as sharp as those her share said last name. A Gracie Barra competitor, Krya is a five-time world champion, five time Pan Am champion, six time Brazilian Champion and two time ADCC champion.
(Kyra Gracie vs Megumi Fujii in ADCC 2005)
Americans have gotten into Women’s Grappling in a big way with Hillary Williams. A girl of the south, Williams was born in Arkansas and played just about every sport under the sun growing up. At the age of 18 she discovered Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and love it, much to her mom’s dismay. She traveled to competition after competition and when there were no girls for her to face, she entered the men’s division and kicked their asses.
Under the tutelage of her coaches Matt Hamilton and Roli Delgado, yes that Roli Delgado, Williams went from beginner to black belt in just four years. She has left a path of destruction winning world champions, Pan Ams and ADCC medals in and out of the gi at the purple belt and brown/black level. Sadly for grappling fans Williams has opted to go to medical school and become a productive member of society rather than a degenerate grappler like the rest of us.
Not to be left behind, Alliance has a growing women’s team feature the incomparable duo of Gabrielle Garcia and Luanna Alzguir. Garcia is known for her size and crushing style not often seen in the women’s divisions, and she has used her vicious top game to win championships the world over. While many point to her size as giving her a clear advantage, many undervalue the depth of her game. On the other end of the spectrum Alzguir is a lightweight known for her highly technical open guard. She has used that guard to win ever major Brazilian Jiu Jitsu competition at least once in the last three years: IBJJF Mundials, European Championships, the CBJJE World Cup and World Championship and ADCCs.
(Alzuguir facing Beatriz Mesquita of Gracie Humanita in 2010 World Cup Final)
While the women’s competition scene has a lot of room to grow, the numbers of female participates pale when compared to their male counterparts, there is certainly not a gap in skill or ability because these girls can roll.
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"#244 Six-Time Black Belt World Champion Leticia Ribeiro : The FightWorks Podcast | Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) Radio and News." The FightWorks Podcast | Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) Radio and News.
"Beatriz Mesquita | BJJ Heroes." BJJ Heroes: Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.
"Gabrielle Garcia | BJJ Heroes." BJJ Heroes: Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.
"Graciemag International | Luanna Alzuguir: a broken rib and a gold." GracieMag.com.
"Hannette Staack | BJJ Heroes." BJJ Heroes: Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.
"Hillary Williams BJJ Wiki | BJJ Heroes." BJJ Heroes: Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.
"Kyra Gracie | BJJ Heroes." BJJ Heroes: Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.
"Leticia Ribeiro | BJJ Heroes." BJJ Heroes: Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.
"Luanna Alzuguir | BJJ Heroes." BJJ Heroes: Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.
"Penny Thomas | BJJ Heroes." BJJ Heroes: Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.
"The Jiu Jitsu Sisterhood." www.meerkatsu.com.
"Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) - Sex Differences in Violent Victimization, 1994." Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) .
Other Articles in History of Jiu-Jitsu Series:
1. Birth on the Battlefield
2. The Meiji Era and the Evolution of Judo
3. Judo Travels the World and Maeda Meets Gracie
4. Baptism By Fire and Luta Livre
5. The Tragedy of Rolls Gracie
6. Coming to America and the Birth of the Ultimate Fighting Championship
7. The Gracies Leave the UFC and Bring Jiu Jitsu Back to Japan
8. Carlson Gracie, The Grandfather of Jiu Jitsu in MMA
9. The Rise of Sport Jiu Jitsu
10. Twist and Shout