Like many other sports, especially combat sports, jiu-jitsu was male-dominated for the longest time. But gradually, more and more women fell in love with the gentle art, and thanks to the stubbornness and perseverance of the likes of Yvonne Duarte, the old ways eventually made way for the gentler gender to compete on the mats.
Today, male divisions may still shadow female grappling, which is unlikely to change. Still, many women have captivated audiences with their skills and character and deserve recognition and glorification just as much as their male counterparts. Here are 10 of the best female BJJ fighters.
We will start the list with the most important pioneer of female jiu-jitsu. Yvone Duarte was the first woman ever to receive a BJJ black belt in 1990 and made it her life’s mission to ensure other women had the opportunity to compete as equally as men. She is one of the big reasons the first female division in Rio was created in 1985.
Duarte competed and remained undefeated for 10 years and, towards the end of the 1980s, opened her own BJJ academy, Equpe Yvone Duarte, which was also the first one run by a woman.
More recently, Yvonne achieved another historical milestone by becoming BJJ’s first female coral belt last August 2021.
To continue the list of pioneers of the female side of BJJ, I present to you Rosângela Conceição. A legendary Brazilian athlete, the woman known as Zanza was an elite competitor in three separate grappling sports- judo, freestyle wrestling, and BJJ.
Zanza took part in two Olympic games- the 1996 games in Atlanta as a judoka and in 2008 as a freestyle wrestler. However, she is on this list because she became the first woman to win a world title in jiu-jitsu in the first CBJJ World Jiu-Jitsu Championship with a women’s division in 1998.
Zanza repeated the feat and won world titles again in 2003 and 2005. Her foray into freestyle wrestling and gold medal at the Pan American Games in 2007 also made her the most successful female freestyle athlete in the history of Brazil.
One of the most decorated and legendary grapplers is the 8-time BJJ Black Belt World Champion, 3-time European Champion, Pan American Champion, and Brazilian National Champion Michelle Nicolini.
Starting with Capoeira as a teen in Brazi, Michelle switched to jiu-jitsu and trained under Robert Drysdale, who promoted her at every step, including her black belt. She became the first female to win gold at the black belt level in both gi and no-gi at all four major BJJ Championships.
Michelle has also succeeded under the ADCC banner, winning the 2013 gold medal, silver in 2011 and 2015, and bronze at the 2017 edition. Like many other great BJJ fighters, Nicolini also fought in MMA, mainly in One FC, with 6 wins, 5 of which have come by submission.
Mackenzie Dern is one of the most talented female grapplers of all time. Mackenzie was a number 1 ranked IBJJF competitor before transitioning to MMA and currently fights for the UFC, having a very successful career there.
As the daughter of renowned grappler Wellington “Megaton” Dias, Mackenzie started training at 3 years old. At 14, she began competing in the adult division under her father and Leticia Ribeiro’s guidance and obtained her black belt at 19.
Before she put on the MMA gloves in 2017, she made a remarkable BJJ career and became the only female to take first place at all 5 of the highest-ranking IBJJF Gi Championships (at black belt level). She is also one of the few women to defeat Gabi Garcia.
Last but not least of her grappling accomplishments is her 2015 ADCC title.
Beatriz, commonly known as Bia Mesquita, is arguably the best and most decorated female BJJ fighter ever. The second-degree black belt under Leticia Ribeiro started training BJJ very young while excelling at other sports. But once she dedicated entirely to jiu-jitsu, she became something extraordinary.
Winning the Brazilian National Championship at age 10, Bia rose through the competition and belt ladder and has won numerous titles, conquering every major BJJ stage.
This includes 10 IBJJF world titles in a gi and 5 in no-gi (combined titles at the colored belt and black belt), the 2017 ADCC crown, and many more IBJJF and UAEJJF gold medals.
She is also the WNO135lb titleholder and, in 2023, announced she would be entering MMA, where we could only expect her accolades list to grow.
No female BJJ fighter’s conversation can be complete without Gabi Garcia. Gabi has been a crushing presence on the BJJ and MMA scene for years, and very few have managed to best her or remain competitive.
Gabi Garcia received her black belt from Fabio Gurgel and has impressive accomplishments, although slightly marred by a banned substance disqualification in 2013.
But that aside, she has won double gold in the IBJJF world championship four years straight from 2010 to 2013. What may be even more impressive is her complete dominance over the ADCC tournaments, with four titles to her name.
Gabi also boasts a 6-0 record in MMA, although her fights there have been against less-than-stellar competition.
One of the very few female members of the mighty Gracie clan to make it to a black belt level is Kyra Gracie. As a teen, Kyra’s family tried to persuade her to let go of her competitive inclinations as they believed the rough sport was for men.
Still, luckily for us, she persisted and became the first Gracie woman to actively compete.
Kyra won 4 world titles at a black belt level and the 60 kg gold medals in the ADCC in 2005, 2007, and 2011, amongst many other lesser accolades.
She is an ADCC Hall of Fame member and an important sports ambassador. Due to her competitive record, looks, and personality, she has become one of the most popular and televised BJJ practitioners.
Leticia Ribeiro is an exceptional grappler who has become synonymous with innovation within the art. She is a distinguished IBJJF Hall of Fame member and a 4th-degree black belt.
While Leticia started training to get in shape, she quickly found her love for jiu-jitsu and began training more seriously. Her multiple world titles and accomplishments are enough to earn her a spot on the list, but she is even better known as a coach.
Her female BJJ camp, Gracie Humaitá, has produced some of the best grapplers in history, two of whom you have already encountered on this list as well- Mackenzie Dern and Bia Mesquita.
Ana Carolina Vieira
Ana Carolina Vieira, nicknamed “Baby,” is a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt under Master Julio Cesar Pereira and one of the top female athletes. Carolina is also the younger sister of another jiu-jitsu star, Rodolfo Vieira.
Carolina started jiu-jitsu at 14 but quit because no other girls were in the academy. But a few years later, she was inspired by watching her brother compete and returned to training, which was the right decision from today’s standpoint.
Since then, Baby has won 5 World Championships as a black belt and 1 more in no-gi. But she was familiar with the gold way before she turned black and has equal world titles as a colored belt.
Hannette Staack was a late starter compared to most super successful BJJ athletes, but taking up jiu-jitsu at 18 did not stop her from becoming a highly accomplished grappler and a member of the IBJJF Hall of Fame.
Nette’s list of accomplishments includes 5 IBJJF World Championships and 3 ADCC gold medals. She is currently a 4th-degree black belt and, together with her instructor and husband, Andre Terencio, runs the Brazil 021 School of Jiu-Jitsu in Chicago.