In this article, we pay tribute to some of the most famous females who have carved a name for themselves in the male-dominated sport of BJJ. The first female to achieve the rank of black belt, the first female black belt world champion, the fastest female black belt, the youngest female black belt…
Yvone Duarte – First female to achieve the grade of black belt in BJJ; First female to start her BJJ team
Yvone Duarte received her black belt from Master Osvaldo Alves in October 1990. Currently a 6th degree black belt, she is the first female to achieve the black belt rank in BJJ. Born in 1963 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Duarte started learning BJJ in 1978. At the beginning, she learned from her brother Pascoal Duarte and Sergio Penha, before joining the Osvaldo Alves academy. Duarte was the driving force behind the first female division by the Rio de Janeiro federation in 1985. This first competition was open to white and blue belts with only one weight category: 60kg and below. Duarte won the tournament and remained unbeaten throughout her decade-long competitive career.
In the late 1980s, Duarte moved to Brasilia which only had one BJJ academy at that time. Duarte seized the opportunity to open her own gym. She became the first woman to start her BJJ team, “Equipe Yvone Duarte”. In 1997, Duarte was tasked with professionalizing the Brasilia Jiu-Jitsu federation and linking it with the CBJJ (now known as IBJJF). She was then invited to head the capital’s organization. However, Duarte refused as she was pregnant at the time and felt she would not have the time. Duarte is currently a coach and is recognized as one of the two most senior female BJJ black belts in the world (the other being Patricia Lage).
Cindy Omatsu – First female grappler outside of Brazil to achieve the rank of black belt
Cindy Omatsu (full name: Cynthia Omatsu) received her black belt from Rigan Machado and Leka Vieira in 2002. As a Japanese-American, she is the first female grappler outside of Brazil to achieve the rank of black belt. On top of that, she is the first woman to receive her black belt from a woman. Omatsu is currently a 5th degree black belt. Born in 1961 in California, Omatsu started BJJ lessons in 1994 for self-defence purposes. In 2001, Leka Vieira moved to the US from Brazil to lead a women’s only class at Rigan Machado‘s academy. Omatsu excelled in her classes and earned her black belt in October 2002 from Machado and Vieira.
Leka Vieira – First female black belt World Champion; First female to promote another female to black belt
Leka Vieira (full name: Alessandra Vieira) received her black belt from Aloísio Silva in 1998. Currently a 5th degree black belt, she is the first female black belt IBJJF World Champion (1999) and the first female to promote another to black belt (Cindy Omatsu). Born in 1976 in Minas Gerais, Brazil, Vieira started BJJ lessons at the age of 16 under Aloisio Silva. With her passion and dedication to the sport, Vieira won the IBJJF World Championships in 1999, 2002 and 2005, as well as the IBJJF Pan American Championships in 2001, 2002 and 2003.
In 2001, Vieira was invited by Rigan Machado’s academy in California to help start a women’s only class. She agreed and moved to the US, later becoming a US citizen. After taking a break from BJJ between 2008-2010, Vieira is now back in the sport as a coach with the Checkmat academy and leading an affiliate gym in California.
Michelle Nicolini – First female athlete to win all four major championships in gi and no-gi at black belt level
Michelle Nicolini received her black belt from Robert Drysdale in 2005. Born in 1982 in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Nicolini started training BJJ at the age of 17 under Robert Drysdale. She is the first female athlete to win all four major championships in gi and no-gi at black belt level. Currently a third degree black belt, her accolades include winning the ADCC World Championship in 2013; the IBJJF World Championship in 2006, 2007, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014; the IBJJF World Championship NoGi in 2008 and 2010; the UAEJJF Abu Dhabi Pro in 2012; the IBJJF European Open in 2012; as well as the IBJJF Pan Championship in 2008, 2010 and 2011.
Nicolini is now focused on competing in MMA, making her professional cage debut in 2011. She is currently signed to the ONE Championship MMA organisation.
Kyra Gracie – First female member of the Gracie family to receive her black belt
Kyra Gracie received her black belt from Carlos Gracie Junior in 2006. Born in 1985 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Kyra is the first female member of the Gracie family to achieve worldwide fame as an accomplished grappler. She is also one of the only two females in the Gracie family to be promoted to black belt (the other being Deborah Gracie Stambowsky). Kyra is currently a 4th degree black belt.
The granddaughter of Robson Gracie (second son of BJJ founder Carlos Gracie Sr), Kyra began practicing BJJ as a toddler, but only started taking it seriously around the age of 11. Interestingly, her family held very conservative views and tried to persuade her against competing in BJJ. Nevertheless, Kyra persisted and she has won the ADCC World Championships in 2005, 2007 and 2011; the IBJJF World Championship in 2004, 2006, 2008 and 2010; the IBJJF Pan Championship in 2005 and 2007; as well as the CBJJ Brazilian Nationals in 2005 and 2008. Kyra is also a major ambassador of the sport, being one of the most televised BJJ practitioners.
Emma Xiong – Fastest female black belt
Emma Xiong Yuxing received her black belt from Letícia Ribeiro after three years and four months of training. Born in 1991 in Hunan, China, Xiong is the first female from China to achieve the black belt rank in BJJ. She moved to Singapore to further her academic studies in 2014. This was where she started BJJ lessons at the Fortitude BJJ academy with coach Vinc Tan, who awarded all her belt promotions up to brown belt. In 2016, Xiong won the IBJJF World Championships as a purple belt and was soon promoted to brown belt. Xiong then attended Letícia Ribeiro’s female training camp in California in 2017. Later that year, she became the IBJJF World Champion at brown belt level. Thereafter, Ribeiro promoted Xiong to the rank of black belt.
Grace Gundrum – Youngest female black belt
Grace Gundrum received her black belt from Eddie Bravo in 2020. At 18 years old, she is the youngest female black belt. Born in China, Gundrum moved to the US at an early age with her family. Gundrum started BJJ lessons when she was five at Robert Villafane’s BJJ class. This was where she met her coaches JM Holland and Zach Maslany, the founders of 10th Planet Bethlehem.
Gundrum’s promotion to black belt was met with mixed reactions due to her young age. But it should be pointed out that she has been training BJJ for nearly 13 years and has beaten other major names such as Jessa Khan, Alyssa Wilson, Danielle Kelly and Bianca Lebosnoyani. In one of her most notable fights, Gundrum fought the renowned Rikako Yuasa and the match ended in a draw.
Even though her rank and promotion do not follow IBJJF guidelines, Gundrum chooses not to participate in IBJJF competitions. Instead, she competes exclusively in submission-only tournaments such as the Quintet Team Survival invitational, the Onnit Invitational tournament and the Finishers Only tournament.