I began researching this post ages ago with one simple question: who was the first woman to achieve the rank of black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu?
No one I asked seemed to know the precise answer. Wouldn't you think the first female black belt would be a landmark moment, a stupendous achievement against great odds?
Something that would be recorded in the annuls of BJJ history?
Obviously not. My quest was to take me across the globe (figuratively speaking) to quiz some of the leading authorities and female icons in BJJ today. Along the way, I learned a lot of new things...
The first female black belt question came to me when I was researching my Ana Maria India article. Google did not offer much help and Ana herself did not know. I asked my previous interviewee, Penny Thomas. She didn't know, so she asked her mate and fellow world champion Leiticia Ribieiro, who seemed to recall that there were a few black belts at the time she was learning, so we're talking at least late 1990's, but again, no firm names or dates. I also asked top grapplers Hillary Williams and Felicia Oh, who are both active teaching women-only seminars, and they both mention Alessandra 'Leka' Vieira to me.
The Lion Killer
Leka Vieira is a pioneer because she was the first black belt womens world champion.
The very excellent Global Training Report website does state that she is the first female BB:
"Aloisio Silva taught on special occasions. He devoted a lot of his time to his star pupil, or one of them. She was Alessandra Leka Vieira. Leka was not Aloisio's most outstanding student, but she was his most personal. Leka started learning jiu-jitsu from Aloisio when she was a pudgy high school girl. Now she is the first female black belt in Brazil, champion of many tournaments, and has an 8 percent body fat ratio that most men would envy. Leka is small (55 kilos) but buffed. She is soft-spoken, shy (seldom smiles), almost prim, wears glasses and looks like a librarian-one with a crew cut and bulging biceps. This is her way of saying she is serious about jiu-jitsu. Watching her roll leaves no doubts about that. Once a couple of big tough female fighters came to Dojo to see what Leka had. They became good friends after she trounced them."A full and gushing interview can be read here.
End of story right? Well, maybe. When I posed this question out there, some say she is, and some say there were other black belts before her. Leka, is hard to track down, I cannot find her academy anywhere and definitely not her email or Facebook address for me to contact. I think I saw something online about her turning up at Royler's academy for a one-off session. But it seems the demands of motherhood have taken over her once illustrious BJJ career.
The Gracie Way
Moving on, I thought if anyone would know, Mestre Rorion Gracie, first son of the late Grandmaster Helio Gracie, would know. Being the eldest, and keen historian, Rorion would have witnessed first hand how the combat art that his father and uncles helped to develop from small beginnings into the world wide sport we know today. Surely he would have seen women or girls training in classes way back in the early 1970's at least?
The Gracie University website, which offers belt by belt online tuition in Gracie style jiu-jitsu, also has a forum where Rorion or his sons will personally answer your questions. This is pretty cool. As long as you keep it brief, you get to chat, well at least ask a question, to the great man himself. The forum even has a History section where Rorion will answer questions about Gracie history. Alas, my query to him was answered with a simple: "I don't know."
Hmm, what about another well known BJJ historian? Who better than the author of practically every BJJ book on the planet, Kid Peligro. His book, The Gracie Way, is a potted history of the Gracie family and the rise of BJJ. But there is nothing in the book about women (apart from a brief para by Helio's youngest daughter Ricci.) But quite handily, Kid has a blog where you can post comments which seem to get answered pretty quickly. But Kid replied to me saying it was a tough question and he would have to make some enquiries. Read, probably code for, stop asking me stoopid questions.
Undeterred, I decided to open it out to a wider audience. On each internet forum, there is usually one guru who seems to have the statistics on everything jitsu related on the planet. In the UK, we have the poster known as JSho, in the States (actually he is from Brazil), there is Donkey Kong. Ask any of these guys a question and you will get an informed answer. So I did. JSho admitted, it was a question even his BJJ geekery could not find the answer to. And Donkey...well I guess Mario got him cos he never replied.
Another forum regular, Banana, thinks the first women black belt was a Japanese girl, but did not know the name. The blogger Slidey thinks Banana might be referring to Cindy Omatsu who was the first non-Brazilian (Cindy is Japanese-American) to be promoted to black belt. A pioneer certainly, but not THE first.
Conclusion so far
I can't imagine the early days of training BJJ were easy for women. Perhaps, when the first academies opened up in the late 1930's and 1940's, social convention dictated that there was no such thing as women who trained combat sports. Maybe women only took up the sport post-war, maybe even as late as the 1970's or 1980's.
If the world of early judo was any comparison, women did train and were encouraged to do so by Jigoro Kano and his intructors.
I would like to think that out there, sitting on her rocking chair in the lazy Brazilian afternoon sun, smiling at her dozens of grandchildren, is an old lady with stories to tell. Stories about great warriors who would defend the family tradition using a martial art that was effective against vagabonds and ruffians who were much larger. A martial art where the smaller, weaker individual could defeat the larger, stronger but less skilled.
Lady, if you are out there, I salute you. Oh, and please tell me your name :)