Women’s Jiu Jitsu: Self-Defense or Sport?

It was common to hear in the 1980s when I started training and certainly before, that women should not train Jiu Jitsu, only self-defense. This was how the Gracie academy understood it at the time and soon there were almost no girls training Jiu Jitsu. Slowly that changed and many who started in self-defense were delighted with the sport and wanted to keep evolving. The path was automatic for the sport because this is the natural evolution of self-defense techniques.

This preconception was obviously wrong and today it’s unthinkable. This idea has been broken down (as many other ‘rights’ have been won by women) within our still macho society. The will and courage of some of the first girls to train really paved the way like Daniela Genovesi, Marcia Monteiro, Leka Vieira, and many others. They ignited the first flame of Jiu Jitsu we have today.

But something was missing, female Jiu Jitsu didn’t attract attention in the championships. The technical level was low, as was the number of competitors so female competition started losing strength. The 1990s was not good for female Jiu Jitsu, until along came an athlete who carried something beyond the desire to just test herself and evolve through Jiu Jitsu – she carried Jiu Jitsu in her blood, a Gracie! That’s what the sport needed, Kyra Gracie made the focus return to female Jiu Jitsu. She had technique, beauty and lineage – she was a Gracie raising the girls’ flag and the doors opened. But of course, there were many doubts about her ability. Was she really good? Or was she simply a name? It was however what the sport needed to raise the game.

I remember one of the world championships, 2008, if I’m not mistaken. I watched Kyra fight against Luanna (at that time she wasn’t training with me yet) which was simply electrifying. It was a technical, high-level bout with a controversial ending. It was the impetus for the sport to kick off. Kyra was champion that year, Luanna would return to defeat her the following year and they would fight several battles with victories on both sides, already showing that the technical difference between men and women if they still existed was small and only a matter of time to disappear fully.  Kyra also took female Jiu Jitsu off the mats and integrated it into “lifestyle,” while athletes like Leticia Ribeiro, Michele Nicolini, Gabi Garcia, Luanna Alzuguir, Bia Mesquita, Luiza Monteiro and others transformed the competition side of Jiu Jitsu raising the bar for the sport and attracting more and more girls. This was the generation that consolidated female Jiu Jitsu and made it a reality. Today there is a new generation with incredible quality: Mackenzie Dern, Tammi Musumeci, Andresa Corrêa, Nathiely de Jesus, Tayanne Porfirio, Dominyka Obelenyte, Monique Elias and many others who rival men in terms of emotion, commitment and technique and yet show immense camaraderie and respect when competing, which is the way it should be.

Jiu Jitsu remains the best and most effective form of self-defense that women can learn but it is also a fascinating and challenging sport, so this is the answer to the title question of this text. Finally, I would like to apologize if I have forgotten any names. There are obviously several other names that are part of this story and deserve recognition, but the intention of this text is just to encourage more girls to train Jiu Jitsu!

Let’s work on improving the number of female practitioners in our sport.  What do you think? What are your experiences with women’s Jiu Jitsu and/or women-only classes? And how should we encourage more women into the sport?



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