2015 was a landmark year in jiu jitsu, particularly for the women’s division where we experienced the breakthrough of more exciting competitors than ever before. Rikako Yuasa, Dominyka Obelenyte, Karen Antunes, Amanda Santana, Tayane Porfirio are just a few of names included in this year’s boom.
This healthy moment we are experiencing is also owed to the warrior performances put forward by some of the sport’s former leading athletes, who paved the way for the present generation of extraordinary grapplers. Many of these brave women are now stepping towards mixed martial arts, while others made the switch long ago seeking financial stability. This is the reality of our sport. Still a niche activity without the backing of big investors, the jiu jitsu athlete is set for a life of financial struggle, one for which many did not account for prior to taking the “plunge” into a full time commitment.
This adversity is reinforced if you happen to be a young girl trying to break through in this male dominated sport, as it was for 8x IBJJF World Champion Michelle Nicolini, who made the decision of turning pro at the age of 22, as a purple belt.
According to Michelle, the burden of doing jiu jitsu full-time was greatly carried by her parents, who although supportive of her decision, would rather have seen Nicolini finish her degree. Regarding that life changing moment in which she chose the path of BJJ, Michelle mentioned “I had no idea of the hardship I had ahead. I was young and jiu jitsu wasn’t as popular as it is today, it didn’t carry any respect by the general public the way it does now (…) but I was blindly in-love, addicted to training. So addicted I couldn’t focus at school.”
Although Michelle found a part time job to cover her expenses while she got started, many others require full financial backing from their parents. A typical pattern followed by most youngsters trying to break through regardless of gender. The adversity endured by many female jiu jitsu athletes, however, often goes well beyond their pockets. When asking about this subject, 100% of the female athletes interviewed for this piece mentioned male “ego-trips” as one of their biggest problems. Training partners who will go 100% regardless of their size, just to “save face” in a roll, or worst, when tapped will make an effort to hurt their female training partner.
Michelle Nicolini comes across this very issue regularly while on her post-season seminar tours around the world. The way she handles the situation seems simple enough: “I usually say that when I am travelling I am not fight-fit. If you really want to test me, the address is Rua Henrique Soler 290, Santos, Brazil (Laughs). I train there every day from 11am-1pm and 8-9pm, you can come and we will go as hard as you like (…) I never ask anyone to go light, but I make myself understood I am travelling and not 100%.” Though she believes this was not a problem restricted to women, “happens everywhere, not just with me or because I am a woman. Happens because people are insecure and want to prove something.”
When overpowering a smaller training partner is not the answer, others will seek refuge in risible tactics as mentioned by 2015 Worlds double gold medallist Dominyka Obelenyte: “I’ve had guys tap and then continue rolling when I’ve let go of the submission and am in a vulnerable position, stop me mid-training to let me know what I should be going for, even though I’m going for it anyway while also in a dominant position, or get so frustrated rolling against me they either quit, or go crazy.”
The struggle is felt by all, but from various different angles. Super heavyweight world champion Fernanda Mazzeli often experiences quite the opposite:
“In training I am sick and tired of men that will try to take it easy on me because I am a woman.” – Fernanda Mazzeli
But if the ego issue tops the “mentions board” of prejudice in the sport, this catalog certainly has much darker records in its file. Some along the lines of sexual harassment, a matter brought to light by the Team Lloyd Irvin scandal of 2013. Though the media has toned down on following the subject since then, the issue is still real today as Obelenyte reiterated: “One of my friends was pinned down and forcibly kissed, another forcibly groped, and they fear coming forward because they fear getting kicked out of their academies.” these events are told by others, from being verbally harassed at the gym, to being harassed through social media.
Although female only classes did not start due to this vile practice, harassment has certainly helped grow the trend. A trend that started in the United States with Leka Vieira‘s famous team of the early 2000s and has now spread across America, Europe and even Brazil, having a positive impact in the community and raising the numbers of “jiujiteiras”.
If the “female only” classes, gyms and workshops have been embraced and praised by the jiu jitsu tribe, the male equivalent did not fall under the same umbrella and for reason’s unknown, men only classes like the ones held at Carpe Diem in Japan, were not received as gracefully and deemed misogynist by some. Be that as it may, female camps such as the ones led by Letícia Ribeiro (Gracie Humaitá), Hannette Staack (Brazil 021), Michelle Nicolini (Checkmat), Ana Vieira (GF Team), Leka Vieira (Checkmat) and countless others are bringing more and more female soldiers through the ranks.
Though severe, the aforementioned issues are often overshadowed by another key element to the gender equality debate in jiu jitsu, which is that of pay. Although most jiu jitsu tournaments pay much less to female athletes than they do to their male counterparts, the disparity is followed all the way through to seminars (workshops) and sponsorships, from which most pros earn their living. One of the sport’s most iconic figures, Michelle Nicolini spends about 7 months of the year away from home, either in camps or giving seminars and believes the root of the problem is a cultural one: “I think people outside the country have more a culture of going to seminars, and are willing to pay what we deserve. In Brazil everyone wants to bargain for the cheaper price, they don’t hold the athletes in the same regard, for that reason I tend to work abroad. But I still insist on having my base setup here.”
Finding it hard to live from jiu jitsu, Fernanda Mazzeli opted to follow a career as a Councilwoman in her municipality, a job for which she has been praised for outside the mat. But many more women struggle to attain a worthwhile sponsorship. Dominyka Obelenyte illustrates this point: “One of my friends won No-Gi Worlds at black belt and the first thing she did in her interview was ask if anyone would sponsor her. It made me so sad for the state of BJJ. Of course there are many talented women with great sponsorships, but the thing is they almost have to be super elite to get a good deal, while there are plenty of male black belts, brown belts and even purple belts that obtain the same or better deals with less titles under their belts.”
Nicolini on the other hand, leaves an interesting piece of advice on the subject of sponsors: “To earn a good sponsorship you have to make yourself noticed. I think men do it better, they are strong and show their prowess at the gym, etc. Particularly the heavier guys. Women tend to be more reserved in this aspect, but we are here to change that way of thinking. Personally I think it is hard to post on social media without looking, vulgar, annoying (naggy) or too aggressive in the posts. For that reason I hired a company and they have been helping me out a lot, I really recommend it!”
But even with all its bumps and bruises, the female division is on the rise, and expect to see a bigger and more talent dense weight classes in the near future. Nicolini leaves the recipe for success: “Nothing is easy, living away from home ain’t easy, travelling, training hard for jiu jitsu or anything else. The main thing is you putting your dreams ahead of anything else and focus in marching forward and conquering it. I set out my goal to be a world champion and fought as a blue belt in 2002. I lost. I returned strong in 2003 and conquered my dream at 21. Then I changed my goals, raised the stakes.
Today I look at my titles and I feel proud of myself. But I want more, want to change direction. Do you think I am tired? Never! There is no age limit, no ‘sudden hiccups’, there is nothing capable of stopping you if you have this winning mentality in your head.
Show to the doubters you have the drive to conquer anything. And have a good attitude towards life from the get-go, because people will call you out on anything when you succeed further ahead. Practice a good posture in life, train hard and spread jiu jitsu. We still need it!”