The beauty of martial arts can be found in its level of inclusivity to practitioners of all genders and ages. There are few sports out there that have produced female household names as regularly as the martial arts, and for every Bruce Lee there’s a Keiko Fukuda, and for every Conor McGregor there’s a Ronda Rousey.
Women have made their presence felt across virtually all concentrations within martial arts, whether they’re fighting in front of over one million pay-per-view customers in MMA, or winning Olympic gold medals in Judo, we’re never too far from inspirational woman martial artists trailblazing their own path in the sport.
With this in mind, let’s take a deeper look at some of the most iconic female martial artists to ever adopt the sport. As their influence reaches across the world within many different concentrations, it would be unfair to seek to rank them. Let’s simply enjoy reminding ourselves of some of the greatest women to take to martial arts:
No list of great female martial artists could be considered credible if Keiko Fukuda isn’t present. Fukuda was born in Japan to an upper-class Samurai family. It was highly unconventional for women to practise martial arts when Fukuda was growing up in the early 20th Century, but she felt a strong connection to her grandfather, who had been a master of jiujitsu. When one of her grandfather’s old students, Kanō Jigorō, invited her to join a class for a brand new martial art he invented called judo, Fukuda jumped at the chance. So strong was her eagerness to learn the emerging art that Fukuda used to navigate the bomb-shelled streets of Tokyo during World War Two in order to ensure she was punctual to classes.
Impressively, Keiko Fukuda became a leading figure in judo despite only standing at 4’ 11” and weighing less than 100lb.
Women are often faced with glass ceilings in many aspects of life, and Fukuda spent much of the 20th Century breaking down barriers in martial arts. After a letter campaign, Fukuda and her senpai, Masako Noritomi, successfully became the first women to ever be promoted to 6th dan by the Kodokan – a feat that was previously prohibited for women. On the 29th July 2011, Keiko Fukuda was promoted to 10th dan by USA Judo – the highest rank possible.
While ranks and accolades help to quantify the brilliance of Fukuda, they fail to fully portray a woman who dedicated her life to judo – setting up multiple schools in the process. She never married, but was lovingly known as Mrs. Judo. When she died at the age of 99 years old in 2013, Fukuda was rightfully recognised as a martial arts trailblazer. Her motto, ‘Tsuyoku, Yasashiku, Utsukushiku’, translates in English to ‘Be Strong, Be Gentle, Be Beautiful’.
One of modern martial arts’ household names, Ronda Rousey has become one of the biggest names in MMA. Before going professional as an MMA fighter, Rousey was a highly decorated judoka athlete.
By the age of 16, Rousey became the youngest woman half-middleweight to be ranked number one nationwide, while in 2004 she won back-to-back gold medals at the World Junior Championships and Pan-American Judo Championships.
In 2007, Rousey became the first American woman to win a medal at the World Judo Championship in 12 years and battled through a knee injury to win another gold later in the year at the Pan-American Games.
In 2010 Ronda Rousey entered the MMA scene and won her first amateur fight in the first round. After three consecutive first-round wins, Rousey decided to go pro. Two years on she won her first title fight in the first round again.
Rousey went on to fight in the coveted UFC and became the first female UFC Bantamweight Champion. She was known for winning fights in stunningly short times, and holds the record for the shortest fight in the entirety of UFC’s history, having taken 14 seconds to force her opponent into an armbar submission.
At her peak, Ronda Rousey became one of UFC’s biggest celebrities and gained a huge following worldwide. Between 2013 and 2016, over six million pay-per-view customers tuned into Rousey’s various fights. Rousey surged to 12 straight wins during her MMA career, and it took over four years for her to taste her first defeat.
Rousey’s fame has since seen her launch a successful movie career, and she remains one of the most recognisable faces in the whole of western martial arts.
Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Ziyi
Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Ziyi played the female leads in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, the most successful foreign-language film ever made to date, and recognised as one of the greatest martial arts films of all time. Both Yeoh nad Ziyi wowed audiences with their technique and finesse throughout the film and became icons in their own right.
Their successive victories against multiple male martial artists proved inspirational for many women around the world and really helped to open the door to a more inclusive perception of the sport.
Michelle Yeoh, in particular, boasts an extremely successful track record in the martial arts world and is just as recognisable to many fans of the sport as the likes of Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan and Jet Li. Yeoh became famous for performing her own stunts, and Jackie Chan was known to be a fan of her work.
Zhang Ziyi went on to star in the acclaimed films, House of Flying Daggers and Memoirs of a Geisha.
Rika Usami is famously referred to as the Karate Kata Queen and is an accomplished Japanese martial artist. She is most famous for her performance at the 2012 World Karate Championship in Paris, where she performed the Kata Chatanyara Kushanku. Her kata was found to be so riveting that Usami was given a standing ovation from the 12,000 onlookers.
Usami trained in Goji-ryu karate from the age of 10 and has since participated in several competitions and claimed the title of world champion repeatedly.
Another talented star of both the mats and silver screen is Lucia Rijker, who is recognisable for her role in the Oscar-winning film, Million Dollar Baby.
Born in the Netherlands in 1967, Rijker went on to enjoy a 12-year kickboxing career where she recorded 37 wins, zero losses and one draw. Following on from kickboxing, Rijker tried her hand at boxing in 1996. She went on to win 17 consecutive bouts over an eight-year period before retiring to focus on a career in Hollywood.
Cris ‘Cyborg’ Santos
Cris ‘Cyborg’ Santos is one of MMA’s trailblazers. She was so dominant during the early stages of her career that Strikeforce MMA couldn’t even find opponents for her.
Cyborg’s MMA career stands at 22-2 – an amazing record over a 15-year career, and she holds two IBJJF World Jiu-Jitsu Championship gold medals too, for good measure.
Hailing from Brazil, Cyborg stands as a black belt holder in Muay Thai and a brown belt holder in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Her honours are too long to list in their entirety and are spread over a vast array of concentrations, but Cris Cyborg has notably won two World MMA Female Fighter of The Year awards, a UFC Women’s’ Featherweight Championship (defended two times) and a series of Female Featherweight of The Year MMA awards.
Cyborg is still active as a fighter today, and is looking to further bolster her impressive MMA record away from UFA, with Bellator.