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The Most Influential Women Martial Artists on the Planet

the black belt list

Most Influential Women Martial Artists

In this list, we feature the most influential women in martial arts. The criteria were simple: everyone on the list is a master in their own right and made major contributions to what today is a thriving environment for women in the martial arts for teaching, professional competition, and the entertainment industry.

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These trailblazing women all did it with class, style, and skill.

Most Influential Women Martial Artists

Cynthia Rothrock

cynthia rothrock on black belt mag cover

Without a doubt, she is the queen of karate! Cynthia Rothrock has stood the test of time as a relevant figure in the martial arts world of entertainment and teaching. The former Scranton, Pennsylvania native made her way to the silver screen in the 1980s and never looked back. At one point, she was the most successful martial arts actress in the world with hundreds of credits to her name. She paved the way for women today and her work includes movies, television, books, and of course an acclaimed career as a five-time undefeated world champion and Black Belt Hall of Famer, a true most influential women martial artists.

Ronda Rousey

Ronda Rousey on black belt mag cover

Professional wrestler, actress, and former judoka and mixed martial artist. Ronda Rousey is a household name, known for her championship run in the UFC and then crossing over into the WWE. She was the first American woman to win an Olympic medal in judo by winning bronze at the 2008 Summer Olympics. She can also be seen in A-list movies like The Expendables 3, Furious 7, and Mile 22. 

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Gina Carano

Gina Carano

A pioneer in women's kickboxing who later entered the MMA world, Gina Carano along with Cris Cyborg were the first women to headline a major MMA event. Her career would later blossom into entertainment and she proved she could also compete at the highest level in Hollywood appearing in such big action productions like the Fast and the Furious and The Mandalorian

Graciela Casillas

Graciela Casillas on Karate Illustrated cover

When you think of the term "street cred," world champion, and master Graciela Casillas checks off all the boxes. She was the first woman to hold titles in both boxing and kickboxing, a feat that has, to this day, only been accomplished by a rare few. She did this at a time when only men fought in the ring. Graciela was respected among the men and inspired the women to enter the sweet science and the martial arts. Today, a grandmaster in Filipino martial arts and tactical combative self-defense, she indeed embodies the term walk-the-walk. Graciela Casillas is legend status.

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Cris Cyborg

cris cyborg on black belt mag cover

Undefeated for 13 years, Cris Cyborg is one of the greatest ambassadors for MMA male or female. The former Brazilian handball athlete turned professional fighter, continues to compete at the highest level and has now even ventured into boxing. What makes Cyborg one of the most influential women in martial arts is her inspiring perseverance which is seen time and again, both in and out of the cage. 

Amanda Nunes

amanda nunes

The recently retired MMA Superstar, Amanda Nunes is considered the greatest female MMA fighter of all time. Nunes dominated the UFC women’s rankings across two divisions for the majority of her career in the sport. The two-division champion beat every champion in either of those divisions including Rousey, Holly Holm, Tate, Julianna Peña, Germaine de Randamie, and Cyborg. Compare that to any fighter male or female, it’s clear she's the indisputable GOAT. 

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Kathy Long

kathy long on black belt mag cover

Kathy Long dominated women's kickboxing in the 1980s. She retired with an 18-1 kickboxing record. Long has appeared in multiple films and TV shows and still carries the passion of competition into her 50s. She is truly a champion's champion. 

On August 22, 2015, after a six-year hiatus from MMA, Long returned to MMA competition at age 51. She fought under the Ascension Muay Thai and Kickboxing promotion in Tijuana, Mexico against Mexican fighter Mixia Medina and won the fight by decision. She is now (2-0).

Linda Denley

linda denley on karate illustrated cover

Considered the GOAT of sport karate, Linda Denley is an American karate champion from Houston, Texas. She was rated number one in Sport Karate from 1973 to 1996. Her influence inspired a generation of women to compete in martial arts. 

She was still in high school when she qualified for the Olympics in five track and field events, but because of her professional winnings on the karate circuit, she was ineligible to compete in the Olympics. She graced the covers of numerous martial arts magazines and was featured in local newspaper articles and TV programs. She worked with Jackie Chan in Armour of God and with Chuck Norris in Sidekicks. Norris even grabbed her for a role in the 1995 Christmas episode of Walker, Texas Ranger. 

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Michelle Yeoh

michelle yeoh

Beauty pageant queen, movie star, Bond girl and Academy Award winner, Michelle Yeoh embodies the word "superstar." But her entrance into the silver screen started in martial arts action films. In 1985, she and fellow newcomer Cynthia Rothrock rocked the world with the Hong Kong blockbuster Yes, Madam. The film that launched both of their careers! Michelle grew up practicing ballet at the Royal Academy of Dance in London. Although she never formally trained in martial arts she relied on her dance skills to perfect the movements that have become so iconic on the screen today. 

Cheng Pei-pei

Cheng Pei-pei

She is the original. Cheng Pei-pei is a legendary Chinese actress, acclaimed for being one of the earliest female action heroes ever to grace the screen. Her work dates back to the celebrated Shaw Brothers Studio during the 1960s.

Cheng was catapulted to stardom after taking on the lead role in the 1966 King Hu-directed masterpiece Come Drink with Me. One of the greatest and most influential Hong Kong martial arts films ever made.

She’d go on to star in numerous other action flicks throughout her career, and in 2000 she played the role of Jade Fox in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

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Angela Mao 

Angela Mao on fighting stars cover

Angela Mao was born Mao Ching Ying in 1950. She was the third of eight children, born into a family of performers for the Peking Opera House. She had a successful career as a Chinese Opera actress, where her flexibility and martial arts first developed. She made her mark and martial arts history by playing the younger sister of Bruce Lee in the film Enter the Dragon, and was truly one of the first female martial arts superstars to grace the screen inspiring women around the world to do martial arts.

Meiko Kaji 

Meiko Kaji 

Meiko Kaji is a prolific Japanese actress and singer, who was best known for playing tough outlaw-types. She first rose to prominence in a string of 1970s girl gang flicks.

Kaji went on to star in the 1973’s Lady Snowblood. A highly influential exploitation cult classic, Lady Snowblood redefined the samurai genre open for women in starring roles. Lady Snowblood films and characters would serve as a direct inspiration for Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill saga.

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Etsuko Shihomi 

Etsuko Shihomi 

Etsuko Shihomi now known by her married name Etsuko Nagabuchi. Etsuko was a member of "Japan Action Club" (JAC), and appeared in several film and TV productions with legendary Sonny Chiba. She is most famous for her roles in Street Fighter and Sister Street Fighter. Appearing in over 100 film and television shows, her work still inspires a new generation today.

Pam Grier

Pam Grier

Pam Grier is a pioneer for women in action cinema, known for her starring roles in popular films from the 1970s.

After making her screen debut in a small role in the 1970s Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, Grier quickly made a name for herself, taking on starring roles in cult favorites such as Coffy, The Big Doll House, Women in Cages, and Foxy Brown

Making her even cooler, her high-kicking and deadly beatdown-dealing weren’t all for show, Grier has trained in a variety of martial arts since she was young, including aikido, karate, and jiu jitsu. In addition to her success as a ‘70s superstar, the highly-skilled fighter and captivating actress saw a career resurgence in the late ‘90s and into the 2000s with her starring role in Quentin Tarantino’s critically acclaimed Jackie Brown.

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Malia Dacascos

Malia Dacascos

Senior Grandmaster Malia Dacascos Bernal was a world champion in forms and fighting in the 60s, the first woman to compete in the men’s division, and the first female competitor to grace the cover of Black Belt Magazine. Over the years, she earned a 9th-degree black belt in Wun Hop Kuen Do, and she was the very first woman to own a martial arts school in Hamburg, Germany. As a martial arts instructor and coach, she has tutored many of the top world champions in forms and fighting and her legacy can still be seen today. 

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