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BJJ Legends Who Paved the Way for Women In Jiu-Jitsu

BJJ Legends Who Paved the Way for Women In Jiu-Jitsu

BJJ Legends Who Paved the Way for Women In Jiu-Jitsu

1. Yvone Duarte

Yvone Duarte

Photo Credit: @yvoneduartejj

Name Yvone Magalhães Duarte
Nickname N/A
Born Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Date of Birth August 26, 1963
Weight 52 kg
115 lbs
Weight Division Peso Pena (Featherweight)
Height N/A
Fighting Style BJJ
Disclosed Career Earnings N/A
College  N/A
Rank 7th-Degree Coral Belt
Head Coach Osvaldo Alves
Favorite Technique Cross Choke & Armbar from Closed Guard
Lineage Carlos Gracie Sr > Reyson Gracie > Osvaldo Alves > Yvone Duarte
Team Association Osvaldo Alves

Yvone Magalhães Duarte is one of the most influential figures in BJJ history, serving as an inspiration for female BJJ competitors and helped pave the way for them in a sport once considered only for males. She was the first female BJJ black belt, having received her black belt in 1990 from Osvaldo Alves.

Duarte is also honored to be one of the people involved in the development of the female divisions in BJJ competitions in 1985. In 1997, she became the first female to start a female Jiu-Jitsu team named “Equpe Yvone Duarte.” Duarte was promoted to a 6th-degree black belt in 2020, becoming the first female BJJ competitor to receive this honor. Later in 2021, Duarte became the first female BJJ coral belt holder. 

Achievements

Championships Year Belt Position
Rio de Janeiro State Champion 1985 Black Belt 1st
1986 Black Belt 1st
1987 (Weight and absolute) Black Belt 1st
Brazilian National Champion 1991 Black Belt 1st
1992 (Weight and absolute) Black Belt 1st
1996 (Absolute) Black Belt 1st

2. Rosângela “Zanza” Conceição

Rosângela “Zanza” Conceição

Photo Credit: @tapology.com

Name Rosângela da Silva Conceição
Nickname Zanza
Born São Leopoldo, Brazil
Date of Birth August 7, 1973
Weight N/A
Weight Division Meio Pesado (Medium Heavy)
Height N/A
Fighting Style BJJ
Disclosed Career Earnings N/A
College  N/A
Rank Black Belt
Head Coach Sylvio Behring
Favorite Technique Arm Drag to Sweep Single Leg
Lineage Mitsuyo Maeda > Carlos Gracie > Hélio Gracie > Alvaro Barreto > Sylvio Behring > Rosângela Conceição
Team Association N/A

Rosângela da Silva Conceição, also known as “Zanza,” is one of the top competitors skilled in BJJ, wrestling, and judo. She was interested in and wanted to learn grappling during a time when there were few females in this field. There was no female BJJ weight class in São Leopoldo at that time, so Conceição left her state to train with stronger competitors.

In 1998, when the CBJJ World Championship announced a female division, Conceição entered and became the first BJJ female practitioner to earn a BJJ world title. At that time, there were only two female weight divisions: lightweight and heavyweight. Conceição was a purple belt at that time.

Later, Conceição won multiple gold medals in World Championships, ADCC Trials, Pan American, and Brazilian Nationals. She was one of the first female BJJ fighters to prove females were strong enough to handle BJJ.

Conceição also worked with children with Down syndrome at Darcy Vargas Children’s Hospital, teaching them the basics of judo and conditioning workouts. In this way, she executed the most positive side of martial arts. Conceição also worked as a UAE coach when she was invited by Sheikh Tahnoon Bin Zayed to a grappling event. Her contributions to the creation of female divisions in martial arts can never be forgotten.      

Achievements

Championships Year Belt Position
IBJJF World Championship 1998 N/A 1st
2003 Black Belt 1st
2005 Black Belt 1st
Brazilian National Championship 1999 Purple Belt 1st
Pan American Championship 1999 Black Belt 1st
ADCC South American Trials 2009 Black Belt 1st

3. Alessandra “Leka” Vieira

Alessandra “Leka” Vieira

Photo Credit: @lekavieirabjj

Name Alessandra Vieira de Souza
Nickname Leka
Born Minas Gerais, Brazil
Date of Birth March 14, 1976
Weight 64 kg (141.5 lbs)
Weight Division Peso Leve (64 kg / 141.5 lbs)
Height N/A
Fighting Style BJJ
Disclosed Career Earnings N/A
College  N/A
Rank 6th-Degree BJJ Black Belt
Head Coach Aloísio Silva
Favorite Technique Open Guard
Lineage Mitsuyo Maeda > Carlos Gracie Sr. > Robson Gracie > Aloísio Silva > Leka Vieira
Team Association Checkmat BJJ

Alessandra Vieira de Souza, also known as “Leka”, became the first female black belt to become a BJJ world champion in 1999. She helped pave the way for female jiu-jitsu competitors and became the first female to promote another female, Cindy Omatsu, to the rank of black belt.

Vieira was very passionate about jiu-jitsu. She was promoted to a blue belt in a record time of six months after starting her jiu-jitsu training. In 2001, Vieira was invited to train the female class. Around this time, more women started to participate in jiu-jitsu and had the opportunity to enter world championships. Vieira eventually moved to live in Los Angeles and worked at Rigan Machado’s academy as a coach.

Vieira promoted three female competitors to black belts. She also won various medals in several World, Pan, and ADCC championships. In 2008, Vierira took a break, got married, and had a baby. In 2010, she wanted to come back but suffered from severe spinal injuries during a fight that kept her from taking part in BJJ. A few years later, Vieira returned and resumed her BJJ career as a coach at Checkmat Academy. Now, Vieira is working at an affiliate gym located in California leading classes for female practitioners.   

She became a member of the Black Belt Magazine Hall of Fame in 2014 and was chosen as Competitor of the Year. In 2018, she launched Wonder Woman BJJ Project to promote women in BJJ. She won the Pan Masters Championship in 2019. She gained her 6th Degree belt from Leo Viera in 2022. The same year she was inducted in the United States Martial Arts Hall of Fame 

Achievements

Championships Year Belt Position
IBJJF World Championship 1999 Black Belt 1st
2000 Black Belt 2nd
2002 Black Belt 1st
2005 Black Belt 1st
IBJJF Pan American Championship 2001 Black Belt 1st
2002 Black Belt 1st
2003 Black Belt 1st
ADCC World Championship 2005 Black Belt 2nd
IBJJF Pan Masters Championship 2019 Black Belt 1st

4. Juliana Borges

Juliana Borges

Photo Credit: @bjjheroes.com

Name Juliana Vieira Borges
Nickname N/A
Born Goiânia, Goiás, Brazil
Date of Birth July 31, 1977
Weight 69 kg (152.0 lbs)
Weight Division Peso Médio (69 kg / 152.0 lbs)
Height N/A
Fighting Style BJJ
Disclosed Career Earnings N/A
College  N/A
Rank Black Belt
Head Coach Fernando Marques (Boi)
Favorite Technique Pressure Passing
Lineage Carlos Gracie > Carlson Gracie >Andre Pederneiras > Fernando Marques (Boi) > Juliana Borges
Team Association Nova União / Fernando Boi / American Top Team

Juliana Vieira Borges is an elite judo practitioner, grappler, and wrestler who became the first woman to earn the title of ADCC Open and Absolute Weight Champion.

Borges is also a multiple-time World and Pan Champion in the blue, purple, and black belt divisions. She also earned a list of achievements in judo and freestyle wrestling.     

Achievements

Championships Year Belt Position
IBJJF World Championship 2000 Blue Belt 1st
2001 Purple Belt 1st
2004 Brown Belt 3rd
2009 Black Belt 3rd
IBJJF Pan Championship 2000 Blue Belt 1st
CBJJO World Cup 2004 Black Belt 1st
ADCC World Championship 2005 Black Belt 1st
NAGA Expert Division Mixed 2005 Black Belt 1st

5. Letícia Ribeiro

Letícia Ribeiro

Photo Credit: @ibjjf.com

Name Letícia Ribeiro N. Dos Santos
Nickname N/A
Born Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Date of Birth February 24, 1978
Weight 53.50 kg (118 lbs)
Weight Division Light Feather (53.50 kg / 118 lbs)
Height N/A
Fighting Style BJJ
Disclosed Career Earnings N/A
College  N/A
Rank 6th-Degree BJJ Black Belt
Head Coach Vini Aieta
Favorite Technique Armbar
Lineage Mitsuyo Maeda > Carlos Gracie > Hélio Gracie > Royler Gracie > Vini Aieta > Letícia Ribeiro
Team Association Gracie Humaitá (Tijuca)

Letícia Ribeiro is one of the 10 elite female BJJ competitors and a member of the IBJJF Hall of Fame. She is a seven-time Gi World Champion, a two-time No-Gi World Champion, and a two-time Pan American Champion.

Ribeiro started BJJ training to get into shape and lose weight after she found weightlifting to be unhelpful. She started her BJJ career at the Gracie Tijuca gym, an affiliate of Gracie Humaitá Academy. At this academy, she trained under famous fighters and was promoted to the rank of black belt by Royler Gracie and Vini Aieta.

Now Ribeiro is working as a coach at Gracie Humaitá Academy alongside elite grapplers and coaches like Mackenzie Dern, Penny Thomas, Bia Mesquita, and others. She also leads a female team that represents Gracie Humaitá. Ribeiro’s women's BJJ training camp is recognized as the top BJJ program for females in the world.     

Achievements

Championships Year Belt Position
IBJJF World Championship 2000 Black Belt 1st
2002 Black Belt 1st
2006 Black Belt 1st
2009 Black Belt 1st
2010 Black Belt 1st
2011 Black Belt 1st
2012 Black Belt 1st
IBJJF World No-Gi Championship 2008 Black Belt 1st
2010 Black Belt 1st
IBJJF Pan American Championship 2003 Black Belt 1st
2004 Black Belt 1st

6. Penny Thomas

Penny Thomas

Photo Credit: @PennyThomasAthlete

Name Penny Thomas
Nickname N/A
Born Durban, South Africa
Date of Birth July 2, 1979
Weight 69 kg (163 lbs)
Weight Division Meio Pesado (69 kg / 163 lbs)
Height N/A
Fighting Style BJJ
Disclosed Career Earnings N/A
College  N/A
Rank 3rd-Degree BJJ Black Belt
Head Coaches Luis Herédia
Other Prominent  Coaches Leticia Ribeiro
Micah Atkinson
Favorite Technique N/A
Lineage Mitsuyo Maeda > Carlos Gracie > Hélio Gracie > Rickson Gracie > Luis Herédia > Penny Thomas
Team Association Gracie Humaitá, Rickson Gracie, Maui Jiu Jitsu, NovaGen BJJ

Penny Thomas is the first South African BJJ black belt world champion. She is an inspiration for South African females who wish to get into BJJ training. Thomas is also a good mathematician, software developer, and artist, having won many awards in all these fields.  

Thomas was a former member of the South African Junior Olympic gymnastics team. She was forced to leave due to a spinal injury. Later, Thomas began to learn BJJ for self-defense but soon began to look for chances to compete competitively in BJJ.

Thomas regularly visited Brazil for competitions. She opened a BJJ gym in her garage and started teaching BJJ. She also met another BJJ legend, Letícia Ribeiro. Thomas moved to San Diego, California to train with Ribeiro and still works alongside her at Gracie Humaitá.

Thomas is a four-time Gi World Champion and a one-time No-Gi World Champion. She is also an ADCC, Pan American, and Grappler Quest Superfight Champion.   

Achievements

Championships Year Belt Position
IBJJF World Championship 2003 Blue Belt 2nd
2004 Blue Belt 1st
2005 Purple Belt 1st
2007 Brown Belt 1st
2008 Black Belt 2nd
2009 Black Belt 1st
2010 Black Belt 2nd
2011 Black Belt 2nd
South African Grappling Champion 2005 Purple Belt 1st
World Cup Championship 2006 Purple Belt 1st
Pan American Championship 2006 Purple Belt 1st
2007 Brown Belt 1st
2009 Black Belt 2nd
World No-Gi Championship 2007 Brown Belt 1st
2008 Black Belt 2nd
Triple Crown (Men Division) 2007 Brown Belt 2nd
ADCC 2007 Brown Belt 1st
Grapplers Quest No-Gi Champion 2008 Black Belt 1st
2009 Black Belt 1st
Grapplers Quest Superfight Champion 2010 (Las Vegas) Black Belt 1st
2010 (Boston) Black Belt 1st

7. Hannette Staack

Hannette Staack

Photo Credit: @hannettestaack

Name Hannette Quadros Staack
Nickname “Tin” & “Nette”
Born São Luís do Maranhão, Brazil
Date of Birth February 7, 1979
Weight 64 kg (141 lbs)
Weight Division Peso Level (64 kg / 141 lbs)
Height N/A
Fighting Style BJJ
Disclosed Career Earnings N/A
College  N/A
Rank 4th-Degree BJJ Black Belt
Head Coach André “Negão” Terêncio
Favorite Technique Mount
Lineage Mitsuyo Maeda > Carlos Gracie (senior) > Hélio Gracie > Francisco Mansor > Carlos Henrique > André “Negão” Terêncio > Hannette Staack
Team Association Brazil 021 School of Jiu-Jitsu

Hannette Staack started her BJJ career under Master Flavio Figueiredo and “Professor” Fernando Cruz. Staack trained under both of them until she earned her purple belt. But when Cruz left BJJ coaching, Figueiredo introduced Staack to another BJJ coach, Andre “Negão” Terencio. At this point, Staack was an average BJJ student.

Under the supervision of Terencio, Staack improved her BJJ skills. In 2002, she came into the spotlight after winning her first world championship at the 2002 IBJJF World Championship by winning all five fights at black belt level. Later, she won five more gold medals competing in more World Championships.

In the 2007 ADCC absolute weight division, Staack faced Rosangela Conceição and submitted her via a flying armbar. This was one of Staack’s most famous fights as she gained international recognition after winning this fight.

Now Staack is running her own academy, Brazil 021 School of Jiu-Jitsu, along with her husband and coach, Terencio, and Terencio’s professor, Carlos Henrique.

Achievements

Championships Year Belt Position
CBJJ Brazilian Nationals 2003 Brown Belt 1st
IBJJF World Championship 2002 Black Belt (purple, brown and black combined division) 1st
2004 Black Belt 1st
2005 Black Belt 3rd
2006 Black Belt 2nd
2008 Black Belt 1st
2009 Black Belt 1st
2011 Black Belt 1st
2013 Black Belt 3rd
2014 Black Belt 2nd
IBJJF World Championship No-Gi 2007 Black Belt 1st
ADCC World Championship 2007 Black Belt 1st
2009 Black Belt 1st
2011 Black Belt 2nd

8. Laurence Cousin

Laurence Cousin

Photo Credit: @laurence_bjj

Name Laurence Cousin Fouillat
Nickname N/A
Born Saint-Germain-en-Laye, France
Date of Birth August 7, 1981
Weight 58 kg (129 lbs)
Weight Division Peso Pena (58 kg/129 lbs)
Height N/A
Fighting Style BJJ
Disclosed Career Earnings N/A
College  N/A
Rank 3rd-Degree BJJ Black Belt
Head Coach Flavio Behring
Favorite Technique Guard & Omoplata
Lineage Mitsuyo Maeda > Carlos Gracie > Hélio Gracie > Flavio Behring > Laurence Cousin
Team Association Acemat/Ribeiro Jiu-Jitsu
Behring Jiu-Jitsu
Six Blades Jiu-Jitsu

Laurence Cousin Fouillat became the first female European to earn a BJJ black belt in 2005. She would go on to become one of the most accomplished grapplers in the European BJJ community. Cousin is the second non-Brazilian to become a Mundial de Jiu-Jitsu Champion.

Cousin started her martial arts career learning Aikido but later transitioned to jiu-jitsu. She immediately took a liking to jiu-jitsu and decided to pursue a career in BJJ. Cousin won multiple BJJ medals at World Championships, ADCC Trials, World FILA Gi and No-Gi Championships, and World Cup Championships.  

During Cousin’s black belt promotion, she met Saulo Ribeiro. The cousin would later become part of the Ribeiro Jiu-Jitsu Association and teach her knowledge to other BJJ competitors. 

Achievements

Championships Year Belt Position
IBJJF World Championship 2003 Purple Belt 3rd
2005 Brown Belt 3rd
2007 Black Belt 1st
2007 Black Belt 3rd
2008 Black Belt 2nd
2015 Black Belt 3rd
World Cup Championship 2005 Brown Belt 1st
ADCC European Trials 2009 Black Belt 1st
World FILA Gi Champion 2008 Black Belt 1st
2009 Black Belt 1st
World FILA No-Gi Champion 2008 Black Belt 1st
2009 Black Belt 1st
ADCC World Championship 2009 Black Belt 4th
European Master Championship 2017 Black Belt 3rd
2017 Black Belt 3rd
2018 Black Belt 1st
2018 Black Belt 1st
2019 Black Belt 1st
2019 Black Belt 1st
2023 Black Belt 1st
World Master Championship 2015 Black Belt 3rd
2015 Black Belt 1st
2016 Black Belt 3rd
2016 Black Belt 2nd
2019 Black Belt 2nd
2019 Black Belt 1st

9. Michelle Nicoloni  

Michelle Nicoloni 

Photo Credit: @miznicolini

Name Michelle Zonato Nicolini
Nickname N/A
Born Itú, São Paulo, Brazil
Date of Birth January 1, 1982
Weight 53 kg (118 lbs)
Weight Division Pluma (Light Featherweight)
(53 kg/118 lbs)
Height 5’5’’
Fighting Style BJJ
Disclosed Career Earnings N/A
College  N/A
Rank 3rd-Degree BJJ Black Belt
Head Coach Robert Drysdale
Favorite Technique Shin on Shin Guard; Triangle & Toe Hold
Lineage Mitsuyo Maeda > Carlos Gracie > Hélio Gracie > Rolls Gracie > Romero Cavalcanti > Leonardo Vieira > Robert Drysdale > Michelle Nicolini
Team Association Checkmat
Evolve MMA

Michelle Nicolini is an elite female grappler who has won a gold medal eight times in the Gi World Championship and two times in the No-Gi World Championship. She is also an ADCC, Abu Dhabi Pro, European Open, and Pan Champion. Nicolini was also inducted into the IBJJF Hall of Fame. 

Nicolini started her martial arts career learning capoeira for three years. Later, she joined Rodrigo Cavaca’s academy and trained under Robert Drysdale. She earned all of her belts under Drysdale. Nicolini has become a role model for female grapplers. 

Nicolini also debuted in MMA in 2011 in Inka FC 11. Her MMA record is 6-3-1. Out of the six victories, Nicolini won five of them via submission. She also has never lost a fight via submission in MMA. Nicolini is currently the Strawweight Champion of One Championship.

Achievements

Championships Year Belt Position
IBJJF World Championship 2006 Black Belt 1st
2007 Black Belt 1st
2007 Black Belt 1st
2010 Black Belt 1st
2011 Black Belt 1st
2012 Black Belt 1st
2013 Black Belt 1st
2014 Black Belt 1st
IBJJF World No-Gi Championship 2008 Black Belt 1st
2010 Black Belt 1st
IBJJF Pan Championship 2008 Black Belt 1st
2010 Black Belt 1st
2011 Black Belt 1st
2011 Black Belt 1st
Pan American No-Gi Championship 2017 Black Belt 1st
2017 Black Belt 1st
European Master Championship 2022 Black Belt 1st
European No-Gi Championship 2018 Black Belt 1st
2018 Black Belt 1st
UAEJJF Abu Dhabi Pro 2012 Black Belt 1st
IBJJF European Open 2012 Black Belt 1st
2012 Black Belt 1st
ADCC World Championship 2013 Black Belt 1st

10. Kyra Gracie

Kyra Gracie

Photo Credit: @kyragracie


Name
Kyra Gracie Guimarães
Nickname N/A
Born Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Date of Birth May 29, 1985
Weight 58 kg (141 lbs)
Weight Division Peso Leve (58 kg / 141 lbs)
Height N/A
Fighting Style BJJ
Disclosed Career Earnings N/A
College  N/A
Rank 4th-Degree BJJ Black Belt
Head Coach Carlos Gracie Junior
Favorite Technique Closed Guard
Lineage Mitsuyo Maeda > Carlos Gracie Sr. > Carlos Gracie Junior > Kyra Gracie
Team Association Gracie Barra/Gracie Elite
Renzo Gracie Combat Team

Kyra Gracie is the first female Gracie family member to receive a black belt. She was also considered one of the best grapplers amongst the colored belt divisions. Now she is one of the most accomplished female grapplers, having won multiple gold medals in major jiu-jitsu championships. Kyra is a three-time ADCC Champion, five-time World Champion, and two-time Pan and CBJJ Brazilian Nationals Champion.

Kyra is the granddaughter of Robson Gracie. She started her BJJ training as a child under her three uncles, Ryan, Renzo, and Ralph Gracie. Later, when Kyra turned 11, she started taking regular BJJ classes. Kyra was promoted to black belt by Carlos Gracie Junior.

Kyra Gracie is one of the most well-known BJJ personalities in the world. She was offered work as an actress. Kyra is currently working with one of the most famous gyms in the world, Atos Jiu-Jitsu.  

Achievements

Championships Year Belt Position
CBJJ Brazilian Nationals 1998 N/A 1st
1999 N/A 1st
2000 N/A 1st
2001 N/A 1st
2005 Black Belt 1st
2008 Black Belt 1st
2008 Black Belt 1st
IBJJF Pan Championship 2001 Blue Belt 1st
2002 Blue Belt 1st
2003 Purple Belt 1st
2005 Black Belt 1st
2007 Black Belt 1st
IBJJF World Championship 2004 Black Belt 1st
2006 Black Belt 1st
2008 Black Belt 1st
2008 Black Belt 1st
2010 Black Belt 1st
ADCC World Championship 2005 Black Belt 1st
2007 Black Belt 1st
2011 Black Belt 1st

11. Final Words

Much like other combat sports, Brazilian jiu-jitsu was once a male-dominated sport, created by and only allowing men only divisions were introduced for almost two years. But over time, various strong female martial artists took an interest in and started BJJ training along with their friends and brothers.

These BJJ ladies not only proved themselves in BJJ competitions but also paved the way for other female BJJ competitors to participate in jiu-jitsu. In 1998, when female divisions were announced for the first time, Gracie women were not allowed to participate in the championship. Now two females from the Gracie family are promoted to black belt. Kyra Gracie is multiple times world and ADCC champion. 

Now there are many female-only BJJ academies and teams established worldwide. Many athletic women are learning BJJ to pursue careers, but also for self-defense and fitness purposes. 

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