2011: The Year of the Woman in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

The Girls in Gis 2 year anniversary in Texas. Click to enlarge. Image courtesy Mike Calimbas.

by Jen Flannery

We may one day look back and say that 2011 was the beginning of a new era in women’s Jiu-Jitsu. A record number of female competitors at the 2011 world championships in Long Beach (a 30% increase over the previous year) is only one of many reasons why.

The high point of the year was the IBJJF’s announcement that the Brown/Black belt division would split for the first time in 2012, demonstrating a firm belief from the powers that be that women’s Jiu-Jitsu is growing and here to stay. The last split was when the female purple belts were given their own division in 2005; with an ever-increasing depth at each belt rank since that time, the ladies have arrived!

The lowest point for women’s BJJ in 2011 is that the world’s highest-level and most prestigious submission wrestling event (ADCC) still neglects the women’s divisions. It is understandable due to a lack of elite-level depth at this point that the selection committee is hesitant to expand from its current 8 participant format to the same 16 invitees of the men’s divisions, but with only two weight classes (over and under 60kgs) and a cancellation of the women’s absolute division this year, they seem to be slowly regressing. At the very least, they should return to the 4-weight-class system plus absolute that existed 4 years ago, because under the current structure many of the top women are excluded from participation while others hold a massive size advantage over their opposition. The emerging Abu Dhabi World Pro tournament circuit experiences similar problems that significantly limit the female athletes. Here’s hoping that 2012 or 2013 will bring more women’s divisions to both of those tournaments!

2011 Firsts… (Kept to a number of highlights due to space restraints)

  • The first Arab women training BJJ in the Emirates entered their first competition in April at the Abu Dhabi Pro Jitsu Championship.
  • The first Swedish woman was promoted to the rank of black belt. (Ida Hansson)
  • The first resident Australian female, Esther Tavares Tutida, received her black belt (Sofia McDermott Drysdale already held the rank but she resides in the U.S. with her husband Robert Drysdale)
  • Australian ladies held their first BJJ camp.
  • In London, a Check Mat purple belt started the first weekly open mat for women in the UK.
  • The ladies at Clockwork BJJ in New York City held the first of a now regular open mat series in the city.
  • The IBJJF split the blue/purple female No-Gi division into two separate divisions at the No-Gi Pan and the No-Gi Worlds for the first time.
  • The first instructional video to be made by a female black belt was released earlier this year (Emily Kwok).
  • The first website geared towards providing comprehensive coverage on female practitioners, competitions, seminars, camps, etc became known (Grappling Girls Guild). [Full disclosure: the author of this article runs the site – Caleb]
  • 6x World Champion Leticia Ribeiro (Gracie Humaita) started her own training camp, running the first in Stockholm, Sweden in March and the second in San Francisco in December. The San Francisco camp hosted 64 women from across the US and Canada and from all affiliations!

Other high points for women in BJJ come in the form of the continued success of past ventures such as…

– In Princeton, NJ, Women’s Grappling closed out the year by holding their 9th official camp at Emily Kwok’s (the first female Canadian black belt) academy.

Girls in Gi’s (an open mat series for women in Texas) held their 2-year anniversary open mat in August, hosting 40 women from all across the state.

– The return of the Holland BJJ camp for ladies, 30 women from all across Europe gathered to train together in August.


  • Submission of the Year goes to 8x World Champion Hannette Staack (Brazil-021), who returned to the competition circuit this year, and her flying armbar over Ida Hansson (Check Mat) in the finals at the World Championships.
  • Best (and most technical) Match goes to Kyra Gracie (Gracie Elite) and Michelle Nicolini (Check Mat) for their 14-minute battle in the finals at the Abu Dhabi Submission Wrestling World Championships in Nottingham, England. Kyra came out the victor but both women proved that the top BJJ ladies are as exciting and technical as their male counterparts. Inspirational.
  • The Most Dominant Black Belt this year was definitely Gabi Garcia (Alliance) with the best record of the year, not losing a single match at her weight or the open at the Europeans, Pan Championships, World Championships, or ADCC! Incredible performance that isn’t likely to be repeated in the near future (except by Gabi).
  • The Most Dominant Lower (non-black) Belt is a bit more of a toss-up. On the one hand, I’d like to give the number one slot to young (16 yrs old) Dominyka Obelentye (Alliance) for her dominant performance in her division and the absolute at the World Championships and No-Gi Pan. However, she missed the Gi Pan due to a knee injury and missed No-Gi Worlds due to the SAT’s (kids…) so she can’t be considered most consistent. The most consistent purple belts placing at the top, were Mackenzie Dern (Gracie Humaita) and Rachel Demara (Lloyd Irvin).

Notable promotions earned in 2011:

  • Rachel Demara (Lloyd Irvin) and Mackenzie Dern (Gracie Humaita) for their promotions to Brown Belt
  • Bia Mesquita (Gracie Humaita) and Ida Hansson (Check Mat) for their promotions to Black Belt

The top three women’s teams for competition placement at the elite level in 2011 were Alliance, Gracie Humaita, and Lloyd Irvin.

With so many advances being made, 2012 is shining brightly for the ladies in our sport. The European Championships will kick off the tournament season in a few short weeks and I am excited to see who will be coming out of the off-season firing on all cylinders!

Jen Flannery is a purple belt under Ryan Hall at 50/50 BJJ. She is a consistent competitor at the international level with a number of medals from the IBJJF Pan and World Championships. Her website, “Grappling Girls Guild”, is dedicated to furthering female Jiu-Jitsu by recognizing important accomplishments and providing a sense of history that she hopes will inspire other women as they make their own journey in this life-changing martial art.

2 Replies to “2011: The Year of the Woman in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu”

  1. Great article and great site (I’ve been following Jen’s writing for a while, and her content on Grappling Girls Guild has been fantastic), but one small correction: as far as I’m aware, the first female black belt to produce an instructional DVD was Cindy Omatsu, back in 2005. I reviewed it here.

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