Martial arts spaces are not always the most inviting to women, and are more often than not, heavily male-dominated. There are very few female household names in combat sports. But, when there are, they are usually exceptional at what they do and are often trailblazers for the women that come behind them.
Fighters like Ronda Rousey, Nicola Adams, and Katie Taylor have reached celebrity status. We have yet to see a female grappler reach the international acclaim that these ladies have, but that doesn’t mean they are any less worthy.
Here are our top 10 women in BJJ:
1.) Michelle Nicolini
Hailing from Brazil, Michelle Nicolini is an 8 x BJJ Black Belt World Champion, as well as 3 x European Champion, Pan American Champion and Brazilian National Champion. The list goes on; Michelle is considered one of the most prolific and decorated BJJ grapplers of all time.
She began her martial arts journey with Capoeira aged 14, however, by 17 she had turned to BJJ, earning her black belt in just 6 years. She went on to become the first female to win gold at black belt level in both gi and no-gi at all four major BJJ Championships. She also placed second for most IBJJF world championship titles, sitting only behind Beatriz Mesquita. She retired from BJJ competitions in 2016 to focus on her MMA career. Currently signed to One Championship, she has her eyes set on the strawweight world title.
2.) Mackenzie Dern
Mackenzie Dern is a former world no. 1 ranked IBJJF competitor and current mixed martial artist. She grew up immersed in the sport as her father, Wellington ‘Megaton’ Dias, was a highly accomplished grappler in his own right. She started training at just 3 years old with him and her step mother who also holds a black belt in the sport.
By 14 she was competing in adult divisions. As she progressed through the belt rankings, she won a world title at every level, finally obtaining her black belt at 19 years old. She holds an astounding amount of titles to her name, including being the only female bjj practitioner to take first place at all 5 of the highest ranking IBJJF Gi Championships (at black belt level). Additionally, she is one of the few women to ever defeat Gabi Garcia.
She transitioned to MMA in 2017, before signing with the UFC a year later as one of their hottest prospects where she is considered a major contender for the strawweight title. She is the first woman in UFC history to finish a fight with a leg lock and has won the Performance of the Night award in her last two fights.
3.) Gabi Garcia
One of the most dominant grapplers the world has ever seen, Gabrielle Garcia, is also one of the sport’s more controversial figures. The Brazilian played a multitude of sports growing up, competing at high levels in volleyball, handball, and field hockey. At 13, influenced by her uncle, she joined a BJJ gym and quickly found a natural ability. She proved successful at competitions from very early on, eventually deciding to put her career on hold and pursue BJJ professionally.
She trained under the widely acclaimed Fabio Gurgel at Alliance Academy, one of the most notable BJJ camps in the world. There she floursided and became one of their most accomplished grapplers.
She has amassed 24 gold medals over an 11-year period, beating the competition at some of the sports most prestigious events. She was inducted into the IBJJF Hall of Fame, one of only seven women to be awarded the honor.
Her reputation has been marred by a disqualification for the use of banned substances in 2013. Although she was stripped of her title that year, she was not suspended from the organization (IBJJF) when a review found that she had taken the substance unknowingly.
4.) Kyra Gracie
Kyra Gracie, the granddaughter of Robson Gracie, and great-granddaughter of Carlos Gracie is the first Gracie woman to actively compete in BJJ and one of only two Gracie women to have earned their black belt.
She grew up in the same house as uncles Ralph, Ryan, and Renzo and began training unofficially as a toddler before joining classes, aged 11. Early in her career, she faced opposition from family members due to her gender, but she ignored their concerns and achieved her black belt aged 21. She was soon considered one of the best competitors worldwide and one of the most decorated grapplers in the family.
Kyra carries on the Gracie legacy with her impressive record including 4 x BJJ World Champion, 5 x Pan American Champion and 3 x ADCC (Abu Dhabi Combat Club) champion to name a few.
5.) Leticia Ribeiro
Another historic figure in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Leticia Ribeiro is a BJJ Hall of Fame grappler and considered one of the best female fighters of all time.
Looking to lose some weight and get fit, Leticia joined a Gracie Academy aged 15. She progressed to gain a 4th-degree black belt as well as becoming a 9 x world champion. She now leads one of the best all-female BJJ teams at Gracie Humaita, where she coaches talents including two listed here: Mackenzie Dern and Bia Mesquita.
6.) Hannette Staack
A comparatively late starter to the other women on this list, Hannette Staack began grappling aged 18 after being introduced by a friend. She was the only woman in class but showed up every day as a gesture of gratitude to her instructor who was giving her a discounted tuition.
She is a 7 x World Champion and 3 x ADCC Champion making her one of the most successful BJJ competitors to grace the sport.
Originally from Rio, she recently opened an academy with her husband (and coach) Andre Terencio in Chicago.
7.) Bia Mesquita
Beatriz Mesquita, or Bia for short, is a natural-born athlete. She started BJJ at just 5 years old. She also tried her hand at Judo and swimming, both of which she successfully competed in. But, BJJ had her heart and was already a junior champion and state champion by 10.
Her initial coach suggested she train under the legendary Leticia Ribeiro, where she flourished under her tuition, eventually receiving her black belt.
She is a 9 x IBJJF World Champion and 5 x ADCC Champion and has 23 titles at black belt level alone, setting a world record.
She currently intends to compete in MMA as a new challenge, initially entering as an amteur, but quickly transitioning to professional leagues.
8.) Yvone Duarte
No list would be complete without the addition of Yvone Duarte, a pioneer for women in the sport. She was the first woman ever to receive her BJJ black belt in 1990 and wanted to ensure other women had the opportunity to compete as equally as men. She was a driving force in creating a female division back in 1985 and was also the first woman to start her own BJJ team.
She is a 6th-degree black belt which makes her, along with Patricia Lage, the highest-ranked IBJJF female grappler. She is expected to reach coral belt status in her lifetime, an honor bestowed on a select few martial artists who have dedicated their lives to their practice.
9.) Ghazlaeh Parman
Inspired by Bruce Lee and The Last Dragon, ‘Gazzy’ Parman grew up dreaming of becoming a ninja one day. She began classes in T’ai Chi Ch’uan and Shaolin Chuan Fa Kung Fu as a young girl. As her interest grew, she started expanding her practice to other art forms. She proceeded to learn karate, where her coach offered her free classes in exchange for cleaning, however this came to an abrupt end when her beloved coach retired from teaching and she left the sport just shy of attaining her brown belt.
It wasn’t until her college years that she stumbled upon BJJ due to a chance encounter with an old friend. This led to an invitation to a grappling meet. There she met Joe Moreira, and became his student. Again she was handed an opportunity. He offered her free training if she trained every day for a year. Within a few weeks she was hooked and left her studies to pursue grappling professionally.
In 2005, the ADCC first opened to female competitors and Gazzy was selected as 1 of 16 women internationally to compete in the tournament. She also became the first female athlete to be sponsored by both the UFC and Tapout.
She is one of the ‘dirty dozen’, the first 12 women outside of Brazil to reach a black belt.
10.) Thais Ramos
Thais Ramos was another trailblazer in BJJ. She began her martial arts career with capoeira before turning to BJJ at 17. Her brother initially coached her before she joined classes. But, in the mid 90’s, classes were mainly filled with men and there were no female competitions in Brasilia, where she grew up. She began traveling to Rio de Janeiro to compete. She became the sport’s first IBJJF champion in 1998.
She may not be as well-decorated as some of the other athletes on this list, but she was there in the beginning, training before all the accolades were even possible for many women. She retired in 2003.
Combat sports have a long way to go for female athletes regarding opportunities, representation, and financial compensation. But, with women like these, it shouldn’t take too long to get there.