18 Apr 1999

Penny Thomas


Words by Seymour Yang, Photos by James Olouch-Olunya

Published: Fighters Magazine, Dec 2009

Penny Thomas is recognised as one of the world’s best female grapplers. She is a four-time Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) World Champion gold medallist, and the first person from Africa to become a BJJ black belt. Seymour Yang met up with Penny before her only UK seminar to talk about life, tournaments, and that all important question – would she ever wear a pink gi?

Penny Thomas is sitting in a West London pub giggling at having scored yet another victory – a full refund for being served a limp and undercooked vegetarian meal that was ordered over an hour ago. Fresh from her success at winning a silver medal at the prestigious ADCC submission wrestling tournament in Barcelona, the four times Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) World Championship gold medal winner is clearly in the mood for a fight.

Penny’s obvious good looks, easy-going personality and formidable competitive talents have made her a popular figure among BJJ followers. She is firmly established as one of only a handful of elite female grapplers, which include the likes of Hannette Staack (2009 ADCC champion), Kyra Gracie (three World BJJ titles), Leticia Ribeiro (five World BJJ titles) and Lana Stefanac (2009 World BJJ heavyweight and absolute champion).

She is also the first person, male or female, from the African continent to have earned the rank of black belt in BJJ. But her ability to walk, let alone compete at the highest level, was nearly taken away from her by a serious spine injury.

Breaking back

“When I was five years old I started training in gymnastics everyday – at weekends, after school, it was my whole life. By the time I was 12 I was part of the junior Olympic team but then I developed a severe pain in my back. My coach suspected I was just using it as an excuse not to train and just told me to sort it out, so I tried physio and traction but I carried on training basically with a broken back for about nine months.”

Penny finally had an X-ray that confirmed she needed urgent spinal fusion surgery, with the prognosis that she may never do sports again. One surgeon cheerily suggested that Penny could take up stamp collecting instead. Fortunately, Penny recovered well from surgery and returned to gymnastics but she never regained her early promise. Eventually she took up martial arts, spending time training in aikido and kickboxing.

It was during one of her kickboxing classes in 2001 that Penny was introduced to grappling and specifically BJJ. She recalls the moment when two men in her gym were demonstrating their new found sport:

“There was a guy called Micah Atkinson and he was rolling [sparring on the ground] with some other guys and the other kickboxers were looking on and saying how crazy and gay it all looked. So anyway a girl in my class really fancied the instructor but she didn’t want to go to the class on her own and begged me to come along with her. I did a couple of classes but I didn't like it at first because it was so frustrating with all the skinny guys getting me into chokes and locks, but soon I got the hang of it and started to really enjoy it. I even began tapping out these guys.”

With a lack of formal BJJ schools or qualified instructors in South Africa, training relied solely on the dedication of Micah, his brother Ivan and a few keen enthusiasts - and a collection of Gracie instructional videos. Micah and Ivan eventually travelled to London to train with Royce Gracie and gained their blue belts before heading back to South Africa to establish an official BJJ club and kickstart the sport in South Africa.

Penny progressed well in BJJ and competed at the prestigious BJJ World Championships, also known as the Mundials in BJJ's native Portuguese. Her dedication paid off with a gold medal in the womens blue belt division, and she repeated the success at purple belt - the next grade - the following year. But with success, came the realisation that she would have to leave South Africa in order to further her career in the sport.

Leaving home

“I was very much settled in South Africa with my job, my home, my long term partner but I said okay, let me just see, for six months, how I can do? So in 2006 I bought a ticket and did all the competitions in the States that I could for six months…and then I found Hawaii.”

A trip to Hawaii left Penny falling in love with the island lifestyle. She also found a BJJ instructor, 5th degree black belt instructor Luis ‘Limao’ Heredia, who was able to give her the training she needed to achieve her goal of becoming a black belt.

Under the tutelage of Heredia, Penny captured some of the most coveted titles in grappling, including gold at the ADCC, BJJ Mundials and Pan-American tournaments. But her best-remembered fight occurred at the Triple Crown grappling event in Oahu, Hawaii:

“I had been training real hard for this tournament but there were no women for me to fight, so I begged them to let me in and compete against the men. I was a brown belt at the time and they said okay, but I would have to fight at my weight division, not a lighter division. My coach was saying like ‘Oh I don’t know Penny I really don’t know about this’ but I managed to win my first round against a guy. I didn’t quite submit him but I was way high up on points. It was a tough fight, he was a strong guy but I was so stoked when they raised my hand up at the end”


Most of the world’s best grapplers tend to favour a certain style of technique – some are defensive ‘guard’ players, some are much more attacking and prefer to aim for mount or back positions. Penny is her worst critic when it comes to her very passive, waiting style of grappling:

“I’m very flexible so when people stack me, I can work these weird positions and I get a lot of triangle chokes because I am quite comfortable being upside down on my head. But I also get into bad positions a little more than I should. For example, in the Worlds last year against Ana Laura, I nearly got armbarred because I thought I could stretch my arms a little further than was possible."

Her fight with Ana Laura Cordeiro was one of the highlights of the 2008 World BJJ Championships. After six minutes of a typically tight defensive game from Penny, Ana Laura’s constant attacking pays off - she frees Penny’s arm loose and extends it for an almost certain, match-winning, armbar lock. Penny twists and turns but Ana Laura tightens her grip and straightens the arm into a physically impossible angle. Penny refuses to ‘tap’ and somehow, on the brink of a potential broken arm, manages to escape and free herself. It’s a remarkable, if eye-watering, moment that had the crowd on their feet. Penny lost her final on points but not without showing what an incredibly tough competitor she is.

Life for the full time athlete

Since turning professional, Penny has worked hard to maintain the jiu-jitsu lifestyle. Holding down as many as four jobs at a time, she agrees that life is tough at times:

“It is difficult. We don’t get much support, especially the girls. The contests that do pay us, only pay one eighth of what they pay the men, I mean it’s real hard. Sponsors are few and far between and even most of the men have to cross over to MMA to make any money. BJJ is really something you do not do for the financial rewards, you do it for the love.”

MMA is certainly something that Penny has been considering. Events such as the UFC and Pride can offer rich rewards for those that are successful and interest in womens MMA is growing with the success of Cristiane ‘Cyborg’ Santos, Erin Toughill and Gina Carano. For now however, Penny is still keen to focus on her grappling career, and avenging her defeat to Hannette Staack in the final of this year’s ADCC tournament.

“I was looking forward after this ADCC to taking a break from competing but now it’s like 'no way!' There is nothing like a big loss for someone as competitive as me to make them want to come back and train again.”

During her semi-final ADCC match with the MMA cage-fighter Cristiane ‘Cyborg’ Santos Penny was surprised at how good her purple belt ranked opponent was both technically and physically:

“Oh man, she is a tough and intimidating opponent. During the fight, she elbowed me in the face and was deducted a point, then she had a point taken away for a knee to my head… but I would definitely not walk around saying like ‘Yeah I won I’m so stoked’, oh no, it was more a case of ‘I survived’ that match!”

“And with Hannette, she was just grinding [her fist and forearm] across my face so hard across my lips that my mouth was bleeding inside!”

Naturally, it is no surprise to find that Penny is not one to offer small-talk to her rivals before a competition:

“I don’t have a really aggressive game, I’m really passive and defensive, so if I’m gonna compete against someone, I don’t want to be friendly with them otherwise it would be more difficult for me to be mean when I am fighting.”

Women’s image

Now based in San Diego, Penny has witnessed the explosion of BJJ around the world and in particular, the rising number of women who take part in the sport. But it seems that women who compete at BJJ, MMA and grappling are still judged on their looks rather than their skills. One only has to perform a google search on Kyra Gracie or Gina Carano to see the type of comments they get. Penny offers her thoughts:

“All those girls you mention are super talented. They’ve all got really good technique, all train really hard, they’re all dedicated to the sport, they get out onto the mats and a lot of guys couldn’t achieve what they have achieved so I would say they are great role models. It’s unfortunate we live in a society that judges on looks, but well, it’s the way of the world and girls in any sport have to deal with that. Maybe you just have to work with it to your advantage as much as you can, why not?”

Would Penny want to have kids one day and if so, would she continue to compete and fight at tournaments?

“Oh yeah definitely I want kids, I mean I’m already 30 so I can’t leave it too much longer, so yeah, gonna make me some jiu-jitsu warriors! And yes I definitely want to still compete after kids. I mean look at Luka Dias, Megaton’s wife. She’s an inspiration to me. I mean she’s what, 47, and she’s won the Pan Ams, she’s won the Worlds, she’s still out there competing I mean she’s incredible!

I’ll be training forever! I’ll be doing jiu-jitsu when I’m old.”

As our interview wraps up, we chat about how some women find the marketing of pink BJJ uniforms as a bit naff while others seem to love the ‘girly’ aspect. I ask her if she would ever wear a pink gi? Penny thinks for a second, perhaps contemplating sponsorship offers, and replies diplomatically,

“Well I do have a red one, does that count?”


Seymour Yang is a BJJ purple belt and writes the BJJ blog: www.meerkatsu.com

Further information:

Penny’s website: www.pennyfighting.com

About the Author


Author & Artist

Meerkatsu is the artist name for BJJ black belt Seymour Yang.


Andrew Harvard said...

A great article about an ex-Durbanite who I never met face to face but heard about. I'm not a BJJ practitioner but my interest was aroused when I saw a lady grappling against a man in a local tournament


© 2015 - Distributed By Free Blogger Templates | Lyrics | Songs.pk | Download Ringtones | HD Wallpapers For Mobile