Female athletes have often been told that their contributions to their respective sports are less valuable than those of their male counterparts. They’re told (by both official representatives and random people on the internet) that they aren’t as “exciting” as the men, or that “no one cares” about watching them play.
In jiu-jitsu, too, the struggle to help women reach the same level of notoriety as male athletes has been long and arduous. Only recently (and only after a tremendous effort) has the IBJJF begun to offer the same number of Master divisions for women and men. Many tournaments and promotions have previously or currently failed to offer equal pay for their male and female athletes… if they’ve even featured female jiu-jitsu practitioners on their cards at all.
Any woman who’s ever stepped onto the mats understands that jiu-jitsu, like virtually all martial arts, is a male-dominated sport. But after years of seeing and experiencing unequal representation in competitive BJJ, a different, more disturbing message starts to take form: “The best you can hope for is to be tolerated.”
Over the past few years, though, a change has started to take place in professional jiu-jitsu events, and while some may argue that the sport is just finally catching up with the times, it wouldn’t be a reach to say that Fight 2 Win has spearheaded the movement. Since its inception, the promotion has made a conscious effort to include and celebrate women on its cards, and the results have given women in jiu-jitsu a lot to look forward to.
Fight 2 Win will host its 115th event tonight, but back in 2016 when the promotion was still young, Daniels made a point to highlight how women had shapes his own martial arts journey. “I grew up respecting female martial artists,” he told the Jiu-Jitsu Times in an interview three years ago. “When I was four, my dad brought out [judoka and mother of Ronda Rousey] AnnMaria De Mars for a seminar. I’ve gotten my as* beat by women like Hilary Wolf and Ellen Wilson. I was raised to respect people for their skill set, so I push hard to get more women on our cards.”
In 2019, with promotions like EBI featuring female-only cards and plenty of other events actively searching for female competitors, Daniels’ quote seems self-congratulatory. But even just four years ago, the competitive jiu-jitsu scene was very different for women. While some promotions like Polaris had openly committed to their inclusion of female matches, we were still just a year out from Ralek Gracie saying that signing more female athletes to Metamoris wasn’t financially wise. For a promotion like Fight 2 Win to come along almost every week and not just feature female matches on the card, but make them the main event was a huge deal, and it continues to be a huge deal now for women and girls who are hoping to succeed competitively in the sport they’ve dedicated so much to.
Of course, getting women to sign up to compete at both professional events and local tournaments alike isn’t always easy, and Daniels has been open about the fact that he’s struggled to get women on his cards before. But when you look at the way jiu-jitsu is marketed toward women, it’s no surprise that the female competitive pool is relatively shallow. When you ask men why they began training in jiu-jitsu, a very common response is, “I liked to watch the UFC and wanted to try fighting.” For women, the answer is often, “I wanted to learn how to defend myself.” While self-defense is a perfectly good reason to learn jiu-jitsu (and, in fact, it’s why I got into it in the first place), women aren’t really told that this could be an opportunity for them to get into competitive athletics. Combined with the relative lack of attention that female BJJ athletes receive from promoters and the media, it’s no wonder that competing in jiu-jitsu is something that many women feel simply isn’t for them.
Here, again, is where Fight 2 Win succeeds. As the promotion travels from city to city and competitors encourage their friends and family members to come watch, spectators are shown that jiu-jitsu can be exciting… and that female BJJ athletes are more than worthy of the spotlight.
F2W 115 will feature multiple-time world champion Nathiely de Jesus vs. ADCC veteran Jessica Flowers as the main event. Last week, they had an unbelievable female lineup that made up both the main and co-main event and included Gabi Garcia, Ffion Davies, Catherine Perret, Claudia do Val, and more. Whether you were a little girl looking for strong role models, a twenty-something-year-old hoping to compete in sports again after college, or a middle-aged mother looking to test herself, you could look up on the F2W stage and see that, yes, women can succeed in this sport, too.
Fight 2 Win wasn’t the first jiu-jitsu promotion to give professional opportunities to female BJJ athletes. But by making the effort to give women the opportunities and equal pay they’ve so often been denied, they’ve reminded the jiu-jitsu world every week that women don’t merely deserve a place to roll in professional BJJ — they deserve to be the star attraction.