10 May 2010

The First Lady of BJJ


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.


Keyboard warriors
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 :)

49 comments:

A.D. McClish said...

Wow!! It's amazing, as you say, that there isn't a record of this! Good luck in your investigation. I'd love to hear more about these early BB women and the challenges they faced! Great stuff!

Georgette said...

Nice question Seymour... I am intrigued. I notice GTR says Leka moved to southern California. Was that where you were looking for her?

I'd also ask the Fadda people. The Gracies weren't the only people to be developing BJJ back then, after all...

Dolph said...

Great essay. Thanks!

Junior Familia said...

Thats super interesting since jiujitsu was intended for woman, kids, and weaker indviduals.

Someone to ask might be Kyra Gracie, or even Megaton's wife Luciana.
Luciana has a lot of stripes on that black belt. Gracie Humaita I imagine would probably have the first female black belt given that fact that it belonged to Helio Gracie himself before Royler took over.

I dont know brodinho but i like this one.
I would like to find out.

The Part Time Grappler said...

Awesome.

We should work on a "First to..." list.

Something for GOBB?

Meerkatsu said...

Thanks guys, this search will not stop until I get a definitive answer. I have a few more leads to follow so hopefully I'll have some more info to post at a future date.

PTG, yes, good idea - BJJ Firsts.
Hmm, how about the first ever BJJ academy outside of Brazil?
The first ever BJJ tournament?
The first instructional video or the first book?
And...who was the first person to create a BJJ blog?
Questions, questions!

slideyfoot said...

Ooo, history questions! Always fun, and all ones I'd be interested to know the answer to as well.

All the available evidence appears to point towards Leka as the first female black belt, but I continue to hope that there MUST have been at least one woman earlier than that, who trained back in the 20s or 30s.

I would have thought the first instructional video was Rorion's Gracie Jiu Jitsu Basics in 1991, following on the heels of his documentary/propaganda Gracie Jiu Jitsu in Action from a few years earlier.

As to the first book, I seem to recall Carlos Gracie put something out early on, but that might have been on diet rather than training. The earliest I've seen is this from 1995, which I would love to get hold of. I don't think that particular instructor is held in very high regard, and seen as somebody trying to cash in, but I'd still like to read it.

There's also this, from Ralph and Cesar in 1997. Looks like a free book you got when you bought their videos.

J Sho said...

I had a look and based on modern competition results, Patrícia Lage is the name that sticks out.

Tais Ramos and Rosangela Conceicao were the first female mundials winners in 1998 albeit the results do not mention what belt level, the year before Leka won hers (and that was at the comined purple/brown/black category).

The 1996 and 1997 Brasilieros results have feminine categories, but only up to purple, in 1998 however, when Leka was competing as a brown (she won Leve), there is a lone black belt competitor, Patrícia Lage, representing Roberto Lage SP. Interestingly she is still competing today in various competitions, so if you could track her down, she might know.

In 1999 there were no female black belt at the Brasilieros, but several brown belts competing and in 2000 there was still one lone competitor, Janaina Ventura representing Carlson Gracie team. In 2001, 2 female black belts, one at master, Erica Paes and Maria de Fátima respectively.

You mention, Cindy but she was still a blue belt in 1998 (at the Pan Ams).

I can't believe that there weren't female black belts before the 90's tho, surely a female Gracie perhaps?

Meerkatsu said...

Awesome stats JSho, thanks mate. I'll chase those leads up. Ebe mentioned Karla Gracie from an old article in Black Belt magazine - it stated Karla is the first female from her family to have achieved the rank of BB. this could mean anything, but it would be interesting to know the actual date.
I'll spend more time on this with everyone's leads in the next few weeks and see what comes up.
Brilliant work guys!

Jason (JiuJitsuMap.com) said...

We talk so much of the patriarchs of BJJ it was a refreshing idea to think of the possible matriarchs. Thanks, Seymour.

Erik@Breakpointfc.com said...

We're trying to remember the name, but this Vera is the first female black belt.

"Question 8: Up to now, what was your most memorable fight?

Leka: There were many but, the most memorable was at the 1995 Brasil Championship. I was a purple belt at the time. Since the previous year, even though my career was "shallow" and despite my low belt color, word was spreading that I was a strong fighter. So only two others entered the tournament. One of them was Vera, who was 36 at the time. She had not fought for a long time, but before that she had a long string of fights and always won. She was a legend among female jiu-jitsu fighters. When she was a purple belt, finally no one wanted to fight her, so she stopped practicing jiu-jitsu. Then she heard about me and decided to compete again, specifically to fight me.

Question 9: Did you defeat Vera?

Leka: Regrettably, things didn't turn out well. Three fighters were competing, Vera, myself, and one other. I fought Vera twice but I was defeated both times. Actually, in the first fight, I absolutely think I won, but the referee didn't agree, so Vera was the victor. I immediately challenged Vera to a rematch, but she didn't accept, and retired again undefeated. I wasn't able to erase the shame of having been defeated.

Meerkatsu said...

Wow, thanks Eric, you could be onto something. So anyone else? We're looking for the surname to a certain 'Vera' who was around at the time that Leka was a purple belt. We're talking mid 1990's I presume?

J Sho said...

1995 specifically, but if she was a purple belt in 1995 and then quit the sport after beating Leka as a purple belt, then how would she have been the frst black belt - she would only have had 2 years to get to brown then black before Patricia Lage shows up as a black belt. This Vera (not the one listed under NU in later years) does not show up in any competition results (1995 ones are not available via ibjjf.org).

Karla is presumably Carlinho's younger sister, (in this picture from ~1985, she is #24)
http://img.photobucket.com/albums/v237/TheComish/the_gracies.jpg
although there is Carla the daughter of Robson/wife of Macarrao/mother of Neiman as well and another Karla via Ilka's lineage (the sister of Helio and Carlos sr) but i doubt it is these latter 2.

Perhaps Reyson would know (if Reila or Mo don't)?

Erik@breakpointfc.com said...

We should also ask how we value a black belt's legitimacy. Any Jiu Jitsu school at the time could have awarded a black belt to a female to have her recognized as the first female black belt - there were few other females to judge her black belt status by.

I talked to Aloisio Silva, Leka's original professor, and that was essentially his response: that the first female black belt should be judged by competition prowess rather than by who awarded her the belt with that color first.

I think it is part of the Western paradigm of thinking to look for 'firsts,' however arbitrary their status or acts as 'firsts' may have been.

If we look at the question of who the first competition-tested female black belt was, the answer is in the Feminino category here: http://www.ibjjf.org/results/1999mundial.htm

It is convenient that these competitions approximately coincide with the time that there began to be countable numbers of brown/black belt females. So they are some of the first female black belts.

J Sho said...

Hmm, worth remembering that there were 2 other champions that year, so Leka was perhaps one of the first 3 (unless the other 2 champions were not yet black belts?)

And also that the division was combined purple/brown/black, not just other female black belts.

How many black belts did those first 3 champions beat to become the champ would be interesting to know.

Meerkatsu said...

Thanks Eric, your comment:"I think it is part of the Western paradigm of thinking to look for 'firsts,' however arbitrary their status or acts as 'firsts' may have been. "
Well yes, and no, I mean I don't think my question is just a bit of trivia or in any way arbitrary, not if you consider that female BJJers were and are still a minority. Then the first female BB would be, like it or not, an amazing achievement agains the odds.
Do we, as a community, not still talk about Royce Gracie as the winner of the FIRST UFC?
However, I take your point about the process of awarding a grade based on performance against one's peers. If there WERE so few females, then the only way to compare them was through a big tournament.
Interesting stuff and I'm glad it's brought up some interesting points for discussion.

I guess I would still like to know if women trained BJJ from the 1950's onwards?

Elyse said...

In 2006 I had a similar question in mind. I found a huge list of BJJ black belts on the web - the site was gross, black background with a red plain-text list. It looked as though the list hadn't been updated since 1997 or so when I made my first Geocities page.

There were about 200 different black belts listed, so I skimmed the list pretty quickly and found about 10 female black belts, most of them with names I did not recognize (comparing this mystery list to competition results etc.).

I tried to find that list, but couldn't. It's probably buried somewheres in the sea of interweb 1s and 0s.

Meerkatsu said...

Yes I remember that list Elyse, it was hosted on BJJ.org or OnTheMat and showed all the black belts and even down to some blue belts too. Obviously such a list would be too massive now to update so I guess it was taken down.
shame, it would have been a useful historical resource.

J Sho said...

Courtesy of archive.org:

The list of ranks: http://web.archive.org/web/20060715033203/http://bjj.org/a/ranks.html

The Lineage chart: http://web.archive.org/web/20060613045014/http://bjj.org/lineage.html

"Recent" promotions: http://web.archive.org/web/20060613045334/http://bjj.org/a/promotions.html

Now in a side note i have been told that Kim Gracie (Rickson's ex wife) may have been made a black belt in 1997, which would predate Leka and the others mentioned previously. Someone on NHBGear is hopefully going to reach out to Kron and see if he knows.

Elyse said...

With the new business about BBs requiring federation memberships, I went digging on the IBJJF website and found the CBJJ (Confederacao Brazileira de Jiu Jitsu) list of black belts.

Two women caught my eye:
Luciana Tavares (Luca Dias)
and
Maria do Carmo Paixao Teixeira

Anyone know anything about Maria? The list says she's a 2nd degree BB, team Carmem Casca Grossa

J Sho said...

Luca Dias got her bjj black belt in March 2003.

Don't know about Maria, but she used to be part of De La Riva's team i think. maybe Meerkatsu can ask Nick to ask Vicente jr if he knows.

Meerkatsu said...

Thanks for the digging guys, I'll run the name past Nick, but LOL asking Nick about women's jiu-jitsu JSho!!!

Elyse said...

Carmem Casca Grossa, is that de la Riva?

J Sho said...

Carmem Casca Grossa is from De La Riva lineage afaik. Casca Grossa is a nickname generally (meaning something along the lines of thick skinned/tough skinned iirc), so i am not sure what her actual surname is.

http://1.bp.blogspot.com/_61a8Ql4x9qc/R58vvlv5jcI/AAAAAAAAADo/4TYS2invLak/s1600-h/carmemcascagrossa.jpg

Carmen herself looks to be older than most black belts i have seen, maybe she is in contention for the title now?

Vincent said...

About the "first female bb" thing, well if there were no other female bb to compare her with, then she would have had to been pitted against male bb's, which makes it just as legit.

Suz said...

Thank you for this awesome post and work! As a feminist and women’s/social history aficionada who is now just dipping her toes into the BJJ universe (indeed, my first real contact with any grappling/fighting arts whatsoever), I find this topic of particular interest.

I am not at all inclined to fixate on solitary “firsts” in my own exploration of anything historical. However I recognize the value of such landmark events as portals to erstwhile forgotten/obscured characters, sagas, even entire communites and larger social/cultural developments. How great to encounter the many names & leads you & your readers have already uneartherd!

Who, indeed, are/were those early women? what moves/-d them about the sport, and what has been the nature of their experiences? How much have things actually changed for girl grapplers… or not? Given the background of those early individuals and stories, how might we understand and describe the realm of women’s JJ today? My own sense is that the grappling arts in particular— in all their intimate glory!-- posed pronounced challenges for female firsts in their heavily testosterone-saturated domains. Based on my own cursory introduction to the musings of various female BJJ bloggers (& of course my own very brief experience on the mat); it appears such challenges surely linger. What wonderfully rich grist for the proverbial mill.

Thanks again-- I am passing on your query to the BJJ and women’s history junkies in my own circuits.

Meerkatsu said...

Wow Suz, thanks so much for your comment, your support is very much appreciated and I'm glad it brought food for thought. All the best with your training, I'm glad to see you have the BJJ and blogger bug!

dirtywhitegi said...

good question and great article. i'd love to hear who the first female BB was in jiu jitsu and their story.

perhaps like junior familia said you could ask kyra gracie or luciana, or any of the other female bjj black belts out there. they'd at least know ppl that know ppl that might know i guess.

good luck with the research

J Sho said...

Here is a link to the Black belt magazine article Ebe referred to:

http://books.google.com/books?id=7dkDAAAAMBAJ&lpg=PA68&dq=%22karla%20gracie%22%20intitle%3Ablack%20intitle%3Abelt&pg=PA68#v=onepage&q=%22karla%20gracie%22&f=false

dirtywhitegi said...

very interesting article... can we get any confirmation from family members about this?

J Sho said...

I sent Meerkatsu her son Ronis Gracie's facebook link so he could ask.

Julia Johansen said...

This is a really great article. I think it's really interesting to be in a sport where I am a minority. I'm a minority in that I'm a geek gal, but that has pretty much exploded and we're not SO much of a minority any more.

It's great to have things to celebrate as a community. Thanks for your research!

slideyfoot said...

I asked Carlson Jr this question before his seminar (full interview will be popping up in a future issue of Jiu Jitsu Style, although probably not that part of it, as the answer was basically just 'yes' ;p), and he confirmed that as far as he's aware, the first was Karla.

DirtyWhiteGi said...

Just saw this on facebook... http://www.facebook.com/?ref=logo#!/photo.php?fbid=1332940726879&set=at.1332931206641.48469.1331856155.1320698463

Meerkatsu said...

Wow! Thanks DWG!

AbbyBJJ said...

I was able to ask Carlson Gracie Jr, and his sister Karen Gracie who the first female BJJ black belt was. They both came to the conclusion that it was Vera.

slideyfoot said...

@Abby: Heh - that's not what Carlson Jr said to me last December when I asked him the same question. Did you mention Carlinhos' sister Karla? Could be that he'd forgotten about Vera when I asked him.

There is at least a written source for Karla (the Apr 1997 issue of Black Belt Magazine), but entirely possible the researcher got it wrong.

AbbyBJJ said...

@ slideyfoot No i didn't mention her. I can try to contact Karen and jr and ask them to confirm who it is. Are Vera and Karla the only two possibilities right now?

slideyfoot said...

@Abby: At the moment, it would seem that the main options are:

1. Karla Gracie, based on that Black Belt Mag article, and possibly Carlson Jr's comment to me (though as he said Vera to you a few months later, perhaps he changed his mind, or Karen had other info).

2. Alessandra 'Leka' Vieira, who Seymour talks about in the above article, citing the GTR link. However, she was still a brown belt when...

3. ...Patrícia Lage was competing as a black belt, at the 1998 Brasileiros (as noted on the IBJJF site. As per J Sho's comment above. He also mentions three others in the course of this thread:

4. Kim Gracie (Rickson's ex wife), who might have been a black belt in 1997.

5. Maria do Carmo Paixao Teixeira, who appears to have been part of team 'Carmem Casca Grossa'.

6. Presuming she is a different person, Carmem Casca Grossa herself (this is the pic J Sho linked). He said she was De La Riva lineage, so as I'm interviewing De La Riva tomorrow, I'll be sure to ask him if he can remember any female black belts pre-1998.

slideyfoot said...

Unfortunately de la Riva doesn't remember the exact date of any female black belt (I mentioned Patricia Lage, Karla and Kim Gracie), although he did confirm that Carmem Casca Grossa only got her black belt two or three years ago, so she can't have been the first.

slideyfoot said...

Ok, I interviewed Mauricio Motta Gomes yesterday, and of course made sure to throw in the "who was the first female black belt" question. Like de la Riva and Carlson Jr, he wasn't sure, but he did say it DEFINITELY wasn't Karla (he's fairly certain it wasn't Kim either: he doesn't think either of them were black belts).

So, we can cross Karla off our list: she is Mauricio's ex-wife's sister. Therefore, he said he would have heard about it if she got her black belt. He also said that he was almost 100% certain Kyra was indeed the first woman in the Gracie family to get her black belt, though that didn't mean she was the first ever woman.

He also mentioned another contender, Alexandre Paiva's wife, as he does remember her getting a black belt. However, not sure if she was earlier than Patrícia Lage, who currently seems the front runner (as she was a black belt by at least 1998, as she competed as a black belt that year).

I can see a picture of Paiva's wife (I think her name is Daniella, or perhaps Danielle) wearing her black belt on the GTR site, here. That's apparently from 1999, but hard to know how long she'd had the black at that point.

slideyfoot said...

Oh, and just noticed that Lage has an entry on BJJ Heroes here, where the writer mentions that she is often wrongly regarded as the first female black belt, which indicates that he might know who the first one was.

I'm in contact with the BJJ Heroes guy, so I'll email him: Lage's email is on there too, but I'm not sure what her English is like.

Meerkatsu said...

Well done for keeping up the hunt Slidey!

slideyfoot said...

Another one I forgot: there is still the mysterious Vera mentioned above and in the Leka Vieira article on GTR. Vera was also the answer Abby got when she asked both Carlson Jr and his sister Karen.

Do we have any idea of Vera's surname or some documented mention of a black belt before '98? As like J-Sho said, she was apparently a purple in '95, so to go to black by '98 would have been fast.

slideyfoot said...

I got a quick response from the BJJ Heroes guy, André. He says that he has spoken to both Lage and Vieira. Lage got her black belt in 1995, but told him there were already two women in Sao Paulo with black belts before her.

Lage also said that when she registered with the IBJJF, they already had a female black belt in their records, but she doesn't remember the name.

So, couple more leads to go by there. I'll see if I can get in touch with Lage, as she does have her email on BJJ Heroes. We could also do with a contact within the IBJJF: maybe Mauricio?

Essie said...

So I asked Grandmaster Wilson Pereira Mattos who is from the FADDA lineage who just so happens to be staying with us at the moment if he knew. He recalls a woman in Brazil Iracema who if alive today would be about 60 years old. He said she trained with her husband and received her black belt. I think there must be a lot of unknown women out there like her who date back further than what we are aware of.

Meerkatsu said...

Wow thanks for the information Essie, much appreciated!

Can Sönmez said...

Quick update: this is being discussed again over on reddit.

Can Sönmez said...

And here's a discussion that has kicked off due to that cool tattoo of the First Lady in BJJ image you posted on Facebook.