Brianna Ste-Marie: ‘We deserve just as much of a platform as the men’

In an exclusive interview with Grappling Insider, Brianna Ste-Marie spoke about her run through the ADCC West Coast Trials, establishing herself as a world-class competitor, and her frustration with the small women’s divisions at the ADCC Championships.

Brianna Ste-Marie has taken the grappling world by storm over the past year.

An accomplished competitor at the colored belts, Ste-Marie burst onto the elite competition scene in 2021, winning titles in combat jiu-jitsu and gold at the ADCC East Cost Trials. In January of this year, she picked up an impressive win over Amanda “Tubby” Alequin at Who’s Number One.

Ste-Marie’s crowning achievement, though, would come in early April when she defeated six opponents to win the ADCC West Coast Trials, officially punching her ticket to the 2022 ADCC World Championships later this year.

“It definitely feels amazing,” Ste-Marie told Grappling Insider. “I worked for so long with ADCC in the back of my mind as the ultimate goal, so I’m really happy to finally earn my spot.”

Like countless other competitors, Ste-Marie sees the ADCC Championships as the top of the proverbial mountain. Although she won the East Coast Trials, that is not a qualifying event for women, who are represented with only two eight-woman divisions at the ADCC Championships.

Ste-Marie’s only chance to qualify for the ADCC Championships would be the West Coast Trials. She came into the tournament as the top seed and understandably felt pressure to succeed.

“I think the pressure came more from the fact that I just wanted that spot at ADCC so badly and I didn’t want to miss this opportunity, especially with ADCC being only every two years… Also, there were so many great names signed up, so I knew that it was gonna be a difficult path to the top, and even with that number one seeding, I’d have to face some pretty good names to get to the podium.”

Indeed, Ste-Marie’s path to the final went through world-class competitors. In the quarterfinals, she faced three-time no-gi world champion Raquel Canuto. After that, in the semifinals, Ste-Marie squared off with no-gi Worlds and Pans champion Nathalie “Tata” Ribeiro.

“That’s just a testament to what a crazy Trials this was, because I fought Raquel, and I’ve been watching her since blue belt days. I fought her as a quarterfinals match and then I fought Tata — again, an athlete who I have admired for a while as well — that was my semifinals match. Both of those could have easily been finals for me… It’s really cool that I earned my spot against such good competitors.”

Ste-Marie feels nerves and anxiety just like any other competitor. Ironically, she’s able to calm those nerves by reminding herself just how talented her opponents are.

“Right before the competition, I’m incredibly anxious, and I definitely have those thoughts of ‘why am I doing this to myself?’ If I take a sip of water back stage, my hands are visibly shaking… I just think ‘this is such a cool opportunity, I get to fight someone else who is my exact weight class, who is committing just as much time to jiu-jitsu as I am.’ So it’s really nice to have the opportunity to really, truly, test my skill level. That part really excites me. I get excited to fight certain women that I’ve been watching and I want to see how my jiu-jitsu stands up against theirs.”

With her wins over Canuto, Ribeiro, and in the final, Jasmine Rocha, Ste-Marie not only secured a coveted spot at the ADCC Championships, but also established herself as a mainstay of elite scene, a proven world-class competitor.

Ste-Marie recognizes that simply “arriving” as a legitimate professional grappler is an accomplishment in and of itself. And while her rise to the top of grappling may have been relatively quick, it certainly wasn’t easy.

“I’m so happy to finally be having the matches that I’ve wanted for all these years,” she said. “I used to kind of say yes to everything. I never turned down an opportunity, even if it meant cutting a bunch of weight that I didn’t necessarily want to cut. So it finally feels like, having said yes to everything, even things that I was a little bit less into for a long time, it’s finally paying off. Now I have these opportunities to not just fight whatever event is available, but I get to fight in these events that I’ve always wanted to fight in against opponents I’ve always wanted to fight against.”

In September at the ADCC Championships, Ste-Marie will face the best of the best. With just seven other competitors in her division and just two weight divisions, Ste-Marie is thankful for the concentration of talent in a single bracket. But her appreciation for the low female representation at the ADCC Championships ends there.

Whereas the male competitors have five weight divisions with 16 grapplers in each, there are just two female weight divisions and eight competitors in each division. Ste-Marie believes it’s time for that to change.

“I think that the women have proven that we deserve just as much of a platform as the men. We saw at the Who’s Number One Championships, they had a heavyweight division and a 115 division. And both of those divisions were absolutely stacked. There was no one in those weight classes that you thought were just a filler…

Those women, for example, who fight at 115, if they want to compete at ADCC, they have this 20 pound weight disadvantage. Or if you look at someone who fights middleweight, you have so many amazing women who fight around 150 pounds, but the weight classes are literally below 132 or above 132. So those women, let’s say they fight a woman who weighs 180 pounds, they have to accept that disadvantage. And not only that, but there’s only 8 spots in those two weight classes…

I just think at this point, the women have made it clear we’re not a side attraction to ADCC. Having only two divisions of eight females really feels like we’re made to be this side attraction to the main show.”

Ste-Marie’s division at the West Coast Trials was larger than some men’s divisions, making the smaller women’s divisions at the ADCC Championships seem all the more absurd.

“It’s to the point to where it just seems a bit ridiculous right now,” she said. “I can’t really fathom why that hasn’t changed. Maybe 20 years ago there were a lot less females in the sport. That’s clearly not the case any more. Maybe it’s because ADCC has been around for so long, that it’s that some things that have been around for longer are a bit stagnant to change. I don’t know if that’s a factor.”

As frustrated as she is, Ste-Marie is optimistic change could be around the corner.

“I know [ADCC organizer Mo Jassim] has been a big supporter. He has publicly said that he would like to see four divisions of 16 women, and it’s kinda cool to see someone at the top pushing for that, so I have high hopes that next ADCC there’s gonna be more weight classes and hopefully more competitors per weight class.”

For now, Ste-Marie will be competing in an eight-woman bracket that is densely packed with the planet’s top competitors.

Always grateful for the opportunity to face the best, she is looking ahead to potential opponents with a sense of excitement and anticipation. As Ste-Marie lists off dangerous opponent after dangerous opponent, she sounds like a kid on her way to the candy store.

“I was looking at the women who have already been announced for my category,” Ste-Marie said. “You have Ffion [Davies], who’s an absolute powerhouse, amazing passing, good stand-up. I would love to test myself against her. And then you have Mayssa [Bastos], who has to be one of the most technical grapplers I’ve ever seen, male or female. You see her crazy back attacks from the guard, but then she’s just as much of a savage on top. And then there’s Bea Mesquita who’s the all-time great and won more world championships than I can count. You have Bia Basilio, who destroys everyone’s foot in the game.

“I honestly couldn’t pinpoint one more than the next. I’m really pumped to test myself against these women.”

Ben Coate

Ben has been involved with grappling, whether through wrestling or Brazilian jiu-jitsu, essentially his entire life. After wrestling throughout his childhood, Ben found Brazilian jiu-jitsu as a young adult and quickly fell in love. He has been training for over ten years and currently holds the rank of brown belt, and remains involved in both the MMA and BJJ scene. Ben has been writing about combat sports since 2017. He has interviewed and profiled some of MMA's biggest stars, including multiple UFC champions.

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