Written by: Natalie Whitson


The Pan Jiu-Jitsu IBJJF Championship is one of four IBJJF ‘Grand Slam’ events, which also includes Europeans, Brazilian Nationals, and Worlds. As in many years past, this year’s Pans was held at the Bren Center, a spacious sports hall with room enough for 5,700 howling fans to enjoy the combats taking place on the 12 bright yellow and blue grappling mats below.


Brown _ Master 1 event

(Brown Belt / Master 1)

However, this year, the excitement began long before the actual fights, as the women – both long-time competitors and newcomers alike – arrived at the Bren Center and scanned faces in the crowd to connect with other Masters women they had previously known only through social media. Everywhere – except when the women were actually fighting on the mat – they were busy celebrating their presence at the venue already a victory for women’s Jiu Jitsu.

Thursday, March 8, International Women’s Day, saw the first competitions made possible by this year’s expansion of women’s events, namely the hosting of the women’s white belt Master 1 and 2 events, where a total of 36 women climbed the podium. By late Friday, when Lisa Albon took a group photo of all the available athletes outside the Bren Center, an additional 98 blue belts and 87 purple belts had won gold, silver, or bronze in the Master 1-7 women’s categories.

One woman who could really appreciate this historic event was Kris Shaw, one of the so-called Dirty Dozen, referring to the first 12 women black belts outside Brazil. Kris roamed the halls and floor at Pans all weekend, documenting this year’s tournament for BJJ Legends Magazine, which she founded in 2007. Kris also took several informal group photos of newfound Masters friends hoping to memorialize the event, and otherwise generously provided encouragement to the Masters women she met.

 By Saturday, the mood at the venue had become more intense, with Masters 1-7 brown and black belts scheduled to compete. Here were true champions of our sport, most having practiced the Gentle Art for at least a decade. In several of the matches, the skills of the upper belts allowed the smaller opponents to hold their own. Such could be seen in the brown belt Master 1 open weight class, with the top three medalists also winning gold, silver, and bronze at feather weight, light weight, and light feather, respectively, in their own weight classes while beating a woman who had medaled in the super heavy class.

By Saturday afternoon, the room was standing room only. Rebecca Lee Varady (Gracie Humaita) fought Andreia Midori Sumida (G13 BJJ) in a brown Master 3 light-feather match which saw a highly dramatic takedown attempt, fighting from the guard, side control, mount, and back mount with hooks, with Andreia eventually breaking out, although losing to Rebecca on points.

 In the Brown Master 1 lightweight event between Vanessa Marie Retes (Guerrilla Jiu Jitsu) and Mary Trimigan Holmes (Team Royce Gracie), the match – won on an advantage point by Vanessa – was characterized by active guard passing and inverted guard play. In the brown Master 2 open weight class event, lightweight gold medalist Jessie Chen (Ribeiro Jiu-Jitsu) vanquished her middleweight fighters Gabriela Dolores Muller and Gina Sanchez, both from Alliance.

 Some women experienced dramatic comebacks. Brenda Marie Soto (Paragon BJJ Academy) lost on points in the brown belt Master 3 medium-heavy event to gold medalist Marie Bober (Alliance) but returned to win gold in the open class event, in a match full of energetic standup grip-fighting, rubber guard, and body locks. Other matches saw great sportsmanship, with brown belt Master 5 lightweight fighter Karen Peters (Coalition 95) having her hand held high by her gold medalist opponent Cynthia Fink (Alliance) after her loss on the mat. 

Brown _ Master 5 Cynthia A Fink - Alliance  vs Karen Peters - Coalition 95.jpg

Throughout the weekend, athletes also could get their photos taken with the adult women black belts who were competing, coaching, or watching the action up close. These included Gezary Matuda (light feather gold medalist this year, and feather Pans champ since 2011), Beatriz Mesquita (light weight gold medalist this year and Pans champ since 2011), Karen Deisy Antunes Girotto Borges (feather gold this year), Angelica Cabral Firme Galvao (gold middle weight this year), Nathiely Karoline Melo de Jesus (medium heavy champ this year), Maria Malyjasiak (heavy gold champ this year), Claudia Fernanda Onofre Valim Doval (super heavy champ this year), Luiza Monteiro Moura da Costa (open class champ this year), Bianca Basilio (bronze medalist this year and 2017 feather weight champ), and Talita Alencar (bronze medalist this year and 2107 light feather Pans champ). Also enjoying the fights on the floor were Mackenzie Dern (former Pans and World champion, and current UFC fighter with a 6-0 professional MMA record) and UFC fighter Marion Reneau (BJJ black belt with a 9-3-1 professional fight record).

Luka and Natalie

Elevate Mag writer Natalie Whitson meets her heroine Luciana “Luka” Dias, a several time Pans champ from 2001-2009  

On Sunday, in one of the only Masters black belt events held for women that day, Denise Houle (Brasa CTA) fought in the black belt Master 4 middle weight event, where she lost on points to Sonya Plavcan (Alliance), in a match which saw knee on belly, fighting out of the guard, take downs, and inverted guards. She then fought and beat Deanna Lynn Yohe (Gracie Barra). In this round robin-format, Denise again fought Sonya, losing on points to win silver. Despite setbacks, Denise felt this was a very special tournament, competing as she did for the first time ever as a black belt as well as for the first time in her own age division. In the only other Master black belt event held that day (black belt Master 4 open weight), Sonya Plavcan ended up winning gold, Leah Rae Mancillas (BJJ Revolution Team) ended up with silver, and Deanna Lynn Yohe and Kristin Sommer (Gracie Barra) tied for third.

 Although the Pan Jiu-Jitsu Championships are now in the books, many competitors and coaches have said that this was a different event than in past years, thanks to so many people coming together from so many backgrounds to improve our sport. As stated by Professor Carlos Melo, post-Pans, “Some of you won. Some of you lost. Some of you were injured. Some of you were not planning on competing (but did). Some of you couldn’t afford to come, but still did. You guys showed up, competed hard, and showed the world you deserve your place on the mats. Without the community coming together, things wouldn’t have changed”. We join Professor Melo and his student Karen Peters in expressing excitement for the future regarding Masters 2+ Women’s Jiu Jitsu. The best is yet to come!

Credit photos in article by Mark Whitson