Are you ready for even more inspiring and influential women in martial arts?
Last week, the AWMA Blog kicked off Women’s History Month by taking a look by looking at five women who have made their mark on sword fighting, Kung Fu, Karate, Boxing, and Jiu-Jitsu — and the world at large — from the Goujian of Yue period (496-465 BC) to the turn of the 20th century in England.
This week we’re continuing the celebration by looking at some of our favorite heroines of modern day martial arts.
As we said in our last blog, this isn’t a comprehensive list. Women have made their mark on every martial art in almost every country in the world. And, thanks to their groundbreaking efforts, even more women are continuing to chart their own paths and empower future generations. It would be impossible to highlight everyone who deserves recognition in a couple of blogs.
But we hope our lists of women who are making powerful and exciting contributions to the present and future of martial arts inspires you to learn more.
Let’s take a look at some of the women who are making martial arts history right now.
When she was 14 years old, Yvonne Duarte followed her older brother Pascoal into Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu training. From the very beginning, she had to pave her own way. Many influential instructors were against training women at all, and she was the only woman at the Osvaldvo Alves Jiu-Jitsu Academy when she first signed up. But Duarte remained undeterred. When she wasn’t putting in hours of training — and even more hours of cross-training — a day, she was lobbying local Jiu-Jitsu federations to include women’s divisions in the tournaments.
It took years, but her hard work paid off when the Rio de Janeiro BJJ federation allowed women to compete in 1985. Duarte competed and took her division. It was the first of many groundbreaking wins, including six golds in the Brazilian National Jiu-Jitsu Championship.
A few years later, Duarte founded the first BJJ academy run by a woman. In 1990, she became the first ever woman to earn a black belt in the discipline. And in 2021, she became the first woman to earn a coral belt (7th degree). She is currently the highest ranked woman in the world.
In high school, Fredia Gibbs earned the name “The Cheetah” for her incredible performance as a track and field athlete. She also received a scholarship to Philadelphia’s Temple University for the sport — and a second scholarship for basketball. While she was thriving in athletics, though, Gibbs had some issues in other areas. Struggling with her self-esteem as a result of bullying, she started taking martial arts lessons in high school to help her rebuild her self-confidence.
It was the beginning of yet another successful athletic career. Gibbs was soon racking up Tae Kwon Do championships while still competing in track and basketball. Then she took up kickboxing and Muay Thai. As a professional kickboxer, she became the first African-American woman to win an ISKA World Kickboxing Championship. She also held belts in the WKA and WCK World Kickboxing Championships before stepping away from kickboxing with a record of 17 wins (15 by KO) and 1 draw. A year later, she added Boxing to her already impressive resume, where she earned a record of 9 wins, 2 losses, and 1 draw.
In addition to being “The Cheetah,” Gibbs is also known as “The Most Dangerous Woman in the World” thanks to a 1994 upset over then-champion Valérie Wiet-Henin at The Battle of the Masters. She remains one of the most dominant champions of all time.
In 2014, Angela Hill, a 29-year-old professional animator and former WKA Champion with an undefeated kickboxing record, kicked off her professional MMA career with a TKO victory. Hot on the heels of her debut, she was selected to be a cast member in the 20th season of The Ultimate Fighter, aka The Ultimate Fighter: A Champion Will Be Crowned. Although Hill was eliminated from the tournament by eventual winner and inaugural UFC Women’s Strawweight Champion Carla Esparza, her appearance on the show was a major step forward for women’s MMA. Hill had officially become the first Black woman to compete in the UFC.
In 2020, Hill made even more history when she became the first Black woman to headline a UFC card at Fight Night: Waterson vs. Hill on September 12. Her bout against Waterson also took home Fight of the Night honors.
In the mid-1960s, 19 year old Karyn Turner began to study Tae Kwon Do and Kung Fu. A decade later, she embarked on a four year competitive run that would establish Turner — aka The Queen of Kata, First Lady of Kung Fu, and The Mother of U.S. Kickboxing—as an all-time great and put women’s martial arts on the map in the United States of America.
Turner earned an impressive number of tournament wins and history-making moments between 1975 and 1979. She became the first woman to win both Kumite and Kata at the International Women’s Karate Championship in 1976. She went on to become the first women to enter the men’s divisions in Kata and Weapons at the World Championships. She also became the first woman to win both men’s categories at that tournament. In 1978, Black Belt Magazine declared her the “most outstanding woman in the history of martial arts.”
After retiring from competition, she continued to make history behind the scenes, working as a promoter with her own Superfights, Inc. to bring more money and eyes to Kickboxing on PPV and lay the groundwork for mixed martial arts’ expansion.
As a child, Michelle Yeoh dreamed of becoming a dancer. She began taking ballet lessons and moved to the U.K. to study at the Royal Academy of Dance as a teenager. When an injury put an end to her prospects as a professional ballerina, though, Yeoh began to adapt her training for a slightly different kind of choreographed performances. A legend was born.
In her early 20s, Yeoh began working as an actress in action and martial arts films. Thanks to her talent and her willingness to do her own stunts, she quickly made a name for herself and was already receiving top billing by her third feature. After a brief retirement, Yeoh made a triumphant return to the screen with a string of instant classic performances in films like Police Story 3: Supercop (1992), Tai Chai Master (1993), and Wing Chun (1994).
In 1997, she made her Hollywood debut as the most butt-kicking Bond girl yet in Tomorrow Never Dies. Three years later, she starred in Ang Lee’s boundary-breaking, Oscar-winning wuxia crossover hit Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. She’s continued to work and innovate in film and television ever since. Just this week, in fact, she was busy making history once again when she became the first Asian woman to win Best Actress at the Academy Awards for her amazing turn in Everything Everywhere All At Once.