Did you know that the United Arab Emirates regards jiu-jitsu as its national sport? Jiu-jitsu, which originated in ninth-century Japan and whose style was later adopted and modified in Brazil in the 1920s (hence the name Brazilian jiu-jitsu), has been a compulsory subject in the UAE’s public schools since 2008. It is now integrated into the programs of its military and police forces.
To further push the growth and development of the sport across the country of around 9 million, the UAE regularly hosts the International Jiu-Jitsu Federation’s World Championships and makes sure its own jiu-jitsu federation is fully funded in order to provide its young citizens an opportunity to compete globally. It has also successfully partnered with other jiu-jitsu federations worldwide.
It is thus not surprising that in the Asian Games held in Hangzhou, China, last Sept. 23-Oct. 8, the UAE topped the overall jiu-jitsu rankings: Its team reaped a total of 10 medals, including three golds in the men’s under-62 kg, men’s under-85 kg and women’s under-52 kg categories.
Imagine if even a fraction of such a support structure exists in the Philippines, a country with 12 times the number of the UAE’s population.
‘We can be formidable’
“We can be formidable considering what we have been accomplishing in this sport for years despite the challenges,” Annie Ramirez, who ruled the women’s under-57 kg category in the last Asian Games to capture one of the Philippines’ four gold medals in the biennial event, told CoverStory.ph in a phone interview.
A three-time gold medalist in the Southeast Asian Games, Ramirez, 32, defeated Vietnam’s Le Thi Thuong, Singapore’s Fiona Toh, and the UAE’s Shamsa Alameri to advance to the final where she scored 2-0 against Kazakhstan’s Galena Duvanova.
Her victory came just a day after fellow jiu-jitsu standout Meggie Ochoa, 31, captured the gold in the under-48 kg category after downing the UAE’s Balqees Abdulla. Last year, Ochoa remained undefeated in all her four matches en route to capturing the gold in the women’s adult under-48 kg category of the 2022 Jiu-Jitsu International Federation (JJIF) Jiu-Jitsu World Championship held in the UAE. In that same competition, another Filipino, Kimberly Anne Custodio, also bagged the gold in the women’s adult under-45 kg category.
Of the eight Filipino jiu-jitsu players sent to the 19th Asian Games, Jenna Kaila Napolis is the other one who bagged a medal when she edged out the UAE’s Hessa Alshamsi for the bronze. To add to her triumphs, Napolis captured the Philippines’ first-ever gold medal in the World Combat Games in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on Oct. 26. The 25-year-old native of Muntinlupa City outlasted France’s Annael Pannetier, 2-0, to rule the women’s 52 kg newaza division.
Ramirez, who rose to prominence after bagging her first gold in four years at the 2019 Abu Dhabi World Professional Jiu-Jitsu Championship, hopes that their recent successes at the Asian Games would finally make Philippine leaders realize that jiu-jitsu could be more than a source of international pride. “Jiu-jitsu gave the country two golds and one bronze in the recent Asian Games,” she said. “This is significant because it’s not easy to win in the Asian Games as we face world-class fighters fully supported by their country.”
Not their original sport
What’s more remarkable about Ramirez, Ochoa and Napolis is that they did not start out in jiu-jitsu.
The five-foot Ochoa was with the Ateneo de Manila University’s track team. After graduation, she took up judo and, later, mixed martial arts. But because she had very few or no opponents in her weight class, she switched to jiu-jitsu where she soon found challengers.
Napolis, on the other hand, initially started with judo and turned to jiu-jitsu at 16, after her older brother convinced her to try the sport.
“In my case,” Ramirez said, “I was originally with the University of Santo Tomas’ swimming team.” She later joined the university’s judo team, where she eventually became a two-time collegiate most valuable player for the UST Lady Judokas. It was only in 2014 when she switched to jiu-jitsu, where she won golds in the 2014 Asian Beach Games held in Thailand and in the 2016 edition held in Vietnam.
“I should thank John Baylon, the legendary nine-time Southeast Asian Games judo gold medalist, who took me under his wing and guided me throughout my judo and jiu-jitsu career,” she declared.
According to Ramirez, if one wants to be successful in jiu-jitsu, one needs to join a club dedicated to it. “There are no training schools at the grassroots level or any local government-funded training facilities like what can be found in other countries,” she lamented. “It would be wonderful and ideal if jiu-jitsu were incorporated in the school curricula—similar to the ROTC (Reserve Officers Training Corps)—since this sport also instills discipline and focus, coordination and body awareness, confidence and self-defense.”
Unfortunately, despite jiu-jitsu’s popularity over the last decade with the rise of the Ultimate Fighting Championship and mixed martial arts competitions, jiu-jitsu is not yet an Olympic sport. The International Olympic Committee requires a sport to have a unified governing body or organization, which jiu-jitsu still lacks. Also, because jiu-jitsu is similar to judo in terms of techniques employed aside from the latter already being an Olympic sport, the IOC will need a lot of convincing for it to include jiu-jitsu in future Olympic competitions.
Meanwhile, perhaps the Philippines should look to the UAE for inspiration. In the early 2000s, Sheikh Tahnoon bin Zayed Al Nahyan, a member of the UAE’s ruling family and an avid martial arts enthusiast, recognized the value of jiu-jitsu. He invited several renowned Brazilian practitioners to the UAE to teach and train local coaches, laying the foundation for the growth of the sport in his country.
The UAE prioritized the grassroots development of jiu-jitsu by introducing it into its school curricula in 2008, with the aim of instilling the values of discipline, respect, and self-confidence in practitioners at a young age.
Take it from the gold-medalist Ramirez herself: Jiu-jitsu is unique in that it can be executed by anyone regardless of age, size, gender, or physical limitation.
“Jiu-jitsu was designed and developed so that even a smaller, less strong person can defend himself or herself against, or even defeat, a larger and stronger opponent. Any person can utilize the techniques of jiu-jitsu, and reap the benefits of its practice,” she said.