25 Women Who Have Made Martial Arts History

0 Posted by - March 11, 2024 - Martial Artist
Angela Mao in When Taekwondo Strikes

March is Women’s History Month. To celebrate, are putting together a list of some of the great women who have made—and are still making—incredible contributions to martial arts.

This isn’t a definitive list. It would be impossible to highlight and pay proper tribute to all of the amazing women who have left their marks on the martial arts and combat sports that we love. But we’re hoping this look at 25 brilliant women who broke ground in every aspect of martial arts from ancient Chinese warfare to to 20th century action films, to modern day MMA will give you an idea of just how diverse and powerful women in martial arts are and have always been.

Laila Ali

Considered one of the greatest female boxers of all time, Ali did her father, the great Muhammad Ali, proud with a professional boxing career that included WBC, WIBA, IWBF, IBA, and IWBF title runs and a perfect 24-0 record. 

Laura Bennett

Born to a women’s boxer and vaudevillian in 1889, Laura Bennett learned to fence, box, and wrestle with her sisters as a child. She went on to become the most dominant women’s wrestler on the American vaudeville circuit in the early 1900s. 

Honor Blackman

Best known in the US as Pussy Galore in the 1964 James Bond film Goldfinger, the Judo-trained British actress made action history in England when she demonstrated her martial arts background as part of her role in the 1960s spy show, The Avengers. She also wrote a book on self defence. 

Barbara Buttrick

4’ 11” “Battling Barbara,” aka “The Mighty Atom of the Ring”, left her mark on women’s boxing history in a number of important ways. In 1954, she participated in the first women’s boxing match ever broadcast on American TV. She became one of the first women’s boxing champions three years later. And in the 1990s, she founded and funded the Women’s International Boxing Federation. 

Maggie Cheung

The now retired Hong Kong actress once told the LA Times that she didn’t consider herself very good at Kung Fu, but she happened to exceptional at portraying it on screen in iconic martial arts and action films like Police Story, Hero, and Irma Vep

Maggie Cheung in Irma Vep

Yonamine Chiru

The wife of famed 1800s Okinawan Karate master Matsumura Sōkon was a passionate and effective sumo fighter and martial artist in her own right. Some martial arts historians believe that she was also instrumental in developing a form of the Seisan kata. 

Yvone Duarte

One of the most decorated and groundbreaking women in the history of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, the six time Brazilian National Jiu-Jitsu Championship gold medalist was the first woman to earn a black belt in the martial art and the first woman to found her own BJJ academy. In 2021, she also became the first woman to earn a coral belt. 

Stamp Fairtex

Thailand’s Nadthawan Panthong, who fights under the name Stamp Fairtex, is a Muay Thai and MMA fighter who is making history in multiple martial arts. The current ONE Women’s Atomweight MMA World Champion has earned belts and medals in MMA, Kickboxing, Muay Thai, and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.

Megumi Fujii

Japan was a pioneering market for women’s MMA and Fujii was a pioneer within that groundbreaking scene. With a background in Judo, Sambo, and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, she became a dominant force in Smackgirl and Shooto. She also made her mark in Bellator in the US. She retired with a 26-3 professional record in 2013. 

Keiko Fukuda

When Fukuda started taking Judo lessons as a young woman in early 1900s Japan, her family thought that it would be a good way to find a husband. What she did instead was become the highest ranked female Judoka of all time and an influential instructor in her own right. When she passed away at 99 in 2013, Fukuda held a 10th dan black belt in Judo. She was the last living student of Judo founder Kanō Jigorō. 

Keiko Fukuda in 2012, Source: Wikipedia

Edith Garrud

The British suffragist was the first woman to teach jujutsu in Britain. She and her students used these techniques to defend themselves and fight for their cause. She was the trainer behind the Bodyguard unit of the Women’s Social and Political Union. 

Fredia Gibbs

High school and college track star turned groundbreaking women’s striker Fredia “The Cheetah” Gibbs was the first African-American woman to become an ISKA World Champion in kickboxing. Sometimes referred to as The Most Dangerous Woman In The World thanks to an incredible boxing match upset in 1984, she went on to have dominant careers in both boxing and kickboxing. 

Tomoe Gozen

A famous and powerful Onna-musha (a female warrior who fought alongside her male samurai counterparts) in 12th century Japan. She is still celebrated in art, poetry, stories, and songs to this day. 

Pam Grier

The first—and still one of the best—female action stars to appear genuinely tough in American movies, Pam Grier started training in martial arts as a child. She has a background in Karate, Aikido, Kung Fu and Jiujitsu—and she also picked up some tips from watching martial arts movies with Bruce Lee’s good friend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. 

Seo Hee Ham

This South Korean MMA fighter and Kickboxer is currently making history in the ONE Championship, where she’s their #1 ranked women’s Atomweight. She holds an 11-3 record in Kickboxing and a 26-9 record in MMA. Ham is sometimes referred to as “Hamderlei Silva” because her fighting style resembles the Axe Murderer’s in his heyday. 

Seo Hee Ham (right) fighting Mina Kurobe in 2017, Source: Wikipedia

Hattie Leslie

Buffalo actress and bareknuckle boxer Hattie Leslie was crowned the first female boxing champion after defeating Alice Leary in 1888. The match was held on a remote island on the Niagara River that briefly became a popular fight destination when prize fighting was illegal in New York State. It scandalized the locals. Leslie was arrested for her participation in the fight, but was later released. She continued to defend her title against all comers until her death in 1892. 

Angela Mao

Chinese opera actress turned international film legend Angela Mao was discovered by an action movie director when she was 17. With her background in Hapkido and ballet, she quickly adapted to the demands of being an action star ,and dazzled in films like Hapkido, Lady Whirlwind, and When Taekwondo Strikes. She played Bruce Lee’s sister in a small role in Enter The Dragon and is considered by many to be the female equivalent to The Dragon. 

Sarah Mayer

English actress Sarah Mayer developed an interest in Judo while visiting Japan in 1934. She trained with Ichiro Hatta while in the country and was promoted to 1st dan by Prince Nashimoto in early 1935. This honor made her the first non-Japanese woman to earn a black belt in the martial art. 

Amanda Nunes

Over the course of her 15 year career as a professional mixed martial artist, Amanda Nunes dominated every promotion she touched and earned almost every honor that an MMA fighter can earn, including multiple UFC Championships, Finish of The Night bonuses, and Female Fighter Of The Year awards. She is considered by most experts—and most casual fans—to be the greatest women’s fighter in MMA history. 

Cynthia Rothrock

Named Black Belt Magazine’s Most Influential Woman Martial Artists on the Planet earlier this year, Rothrock has made her mark as a competitive Karateka, martial arts instructor, and action star. Her large and diverse collection of accomplishments includes five world championships in forms and weapons, black belts in seven martial arts (including an 8th Degree Black Belt in Tang Soo Do), and roles in over 70 actions movies in the United States and Hong Kong. 

Cynthia Rothrock in Yes, Madam

Marian Trimiar

American women’s boxer Marian “Lady Tyger” Trimiar was a formidable presence both in and outside the ring over the course of her career in the late 1970s and early 1980s. After years of having to hone her skills in exhibition matches, Trimiar became one of the first women to apply for and successfully obtain a boxing license in New York State. Following her retirement, Lady Tyger continued to advocate for her sport and the people who participated in it, even going on a hunger strike to support better labor conditions for her fellow women fighters.

Shirley Tucker

“I’m no crusader for women’s rights, I just want to be somebody,” Tucker told Boxing Illustrated about her ACLU-backed fight against the California Commission to allow women boxers to fight for more than four rounds. “I want to prove women can box and don’t have to stay in the kitchen and cook. Quite a few people have tried to talk me out of fighting, but I tell them to just give me a chance, that’s all I want to become is a world champion, make enough money to buy a cocktail lounge, retire and tun the “Zebra Cocktail Lounge.”

Her battle was successful, allowing women in California to box as equals to their male counterparts. We’re not sure about the status of the cocktail lounge. 

Zhang Weili

Inspired by Kung Fu films, Chinese MMA star Zhang Weili began training in Shaolin Kung Fu  when she was six years old. This early training soon led to lessons in wrestling and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu as well. Then another cinematic influence struck. Seeing Donnie Yen in Flashpoint inspired her to try MMA and she made her professional debut in 2013. She’s now the most dominant star in a post-Nunes UFC and well on her way to writing the next chapter in women’s MMA history. 

Elizabeth Wilkinson

Considered one earliest known women boxers on record and one of the Georgian Era’s most famous prizefighters, Wilkinson was an English bareknuckle brawler with a background in small weapons training. She could also be considered a pioneer in trash talk, given her fondness for setting up fights by voicing complaints about her prospective opponents in newspapers. 


Perhaps the most influential martial artists to ever touch a sword, The Lady of Yue, sometimes known as The Maiden of the Southern Forest, was one of the greatest sword fighters in ancient China’s Goujian of Yue period (496-465 BCE). Using her background in philosophy studies and the sword training she learned from her father, Yuenü allegedly defeated 3,000 swordsmen to win a seven-day tournament run by the Zhou kingdom. Elements of her techniques are still taught today. So is her legend. 

Zhang Weili, Source: UFC