by Evelyn Sutton / Photos supplied
Amanda O’Connor, the Miami-born 20-year-old rising star in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, lives by the mantra ‘Train until your idols become your rivals.’ This phrase perfectly encapsulates her competitive mentality as she blazes a trail through the South Florida nogi circuit. With unwavering determination, she aims to one day confront some of the high-level Jiujiteiras she admires.
However, Amanda’s ambitions extend beyond personal success. She also seeks to be a voice for women in Jiu-Jitsu, actively contributing to the growth of the sport and inspiring more girls to embrace the art. As a brand ambassador for Girl-Jitsu, she embodies victory not only through her skills but also in her style.
In a recent interview, we had the pleasure of meeting this talented Jiujiteira, who exudes both fun and inspiration in her approach to the sport.
JM: Tell us about yourself.
AO: I’m from Miami. I’m 20 years old and I’ve been doing Jiu-Jitsu ever since I was a kid. I started around 10 years old then I took a little bit of a break and I’ve been back for almost two years now. Jiu-Jitsu is what I want to do for the rest of my life. I want to become a professional athlete. I’m also a college student studying exercise science which helps me with my training.
JM: You started training Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu as a child, was that something you wanted to do or did your parents encouraged you to pursue?
AO: My parents were the ones who encouraged me to train. That’s how it started. I was going into middle school at the time and they wanted me to have a decent amount of self-defense skills because in middle school there’s bigger kids around and you never know when you may need to stand-up against a bully. I ended up falling in love with it. But I was also doing gymnastics at the same time and had been for quite a while. I was training Jiu-Jitsu three days a week and gymnastics the other three days. As you can imagine, my schedule got pretty hectic. I told my mom that I wanted to stop gymnastics to focus on grappling full-time.
JM: How do your parents feel about you being a Jiu-Jitsu competitor now?
AO: My mom is my biggest supporter! She is my best friend, my biggest fan, and she gets super emotional after my matches. I’m winning and I’m doing great, and after the match, she’ll be like, “oh my God, my little girl”, she is really, really proud of me. She just wants me to be happy and this is something that I want to do, Jiu-Jitsu is my passion. I told her, “mom, I truly want to become a professional grappler”, and she said: “okay, I’m right here with you. I’ve got your back.” I’m lucky to have such a good support system.
JM: Do you see any parallels between your gymnastics training and Jiu-Jitsu?
AO: I actually talk about this all the time. Gymnastics has definitely had a huge impact on my Jiu-Jitsu, and not just the physical aspects of it, but also the mental aspect. Gymnastics demands rigorous training and being comfortable with that has really helped me push myself in Jiu-Jitsu. I’m used to a high intensity level, I’m disciplined and gymnastics also helped develop my mobility and flexibility, which I use constantly in my game when it comes to inversions and whatnot.
JM: Where do you currently train?
AO: I train at Mortalis Jiu-Jitsu. I’m super happy there. I love my team and my coaches. One of the best decisions I’ve made has been coming to Mortalis.
JM: What is it about Jiu-Jitsu that made you fall in love with it?
AO: That’s such a difficult question. There are so many parts of the sport that I love. I like how strategic it is. I like that you can be any size, any weight and you can be good at it. Jiu-Jitsu doesn’t discriminate. It doesn’t matter what you look like or where you come from. Anybody can participate in Jiu-Jitsu. Anybody can benefit from it as well. I really don’t see any cons in the sport whatsoever. Even if you’re training just as a hobby, it still benefits you. I also find it very therapeutic. You have a bad day, you go to the gym and roll a couple rounds and you will feel 10 times better afterwards. It’s a great workout and super good for your mental health.
I also find that, at least where I train, the environment is very welcoming. I feel at home there. Being on the mats gives me a sense of peace. As far as the sport, there’s a lot of room for growth, especially now and that makes me happy. Hopefully more and more people will get to know about Jiu-Jitsu and become interested in training.
JM: How do you feel about being a woman in Jiu-Jitsu and having young girls look up to you?
AO: I feel proud to be a woman in Jiu-Jitsu. I definitely see that there is plenty of room for growth. It is still a very male dominant sport, but it’s growing and today there are many more girls training Jiu-Jitsu than when I started. My advice for those younger Jiujiteiras who look up to female competitors is to not get discouraged. Maybe you’re the only girl in the room and the guys you are training with are stronger, bigger, faster, it doesn’t matter. Just keep training hard and consistently because at one point, your training and your technique will trump all of that. Keep showing up to the mats!
JM: Who are some of the women in Jiu-Jitsu that you look up to and have inspired your journey?
AO: I love Fionn Davies and Bia Mesquita. I know that’s a little bit of a rivalry right there, but Bia Mesquita is definitely super inspirational. Elizabeth Clay is another one also because of her size. She’s built a lot like me so I look at her game a lot. Those are my top three high level Jiujiteiras who I follow.
JM: Besides being a professional Jiujiteira, what other ambitions do you have with Jiu-Jitsu?
AO: I want to grow the sport and I want more girls to train. That’s definitely the biggest thing. Obviously, I want to be a professional grappler, compete at the highest level and win. I want for women to be better respected in this sport, to have the same opportunities as the men and for more girls to feel confident joining the sport. Because it’s very intimidating, not just the overwhelming amount of men in the sport but Jiu-Jitsu itself is very intimidating. It’s intimate, it’s combative, it’s very up close and personal. Some people do not feel comfortable with that. I would like to be a voice that advocates for the sport and help more people realize that Jiu-Jitsu is legit and not just some like ground stuff that you see in UFC.
JM: Do you train both gi and nogi?
AO: I used to train a lot of gi and I’ve taken a little break from that game because I’m competing in nogi mostly. Right now, I’d say I’m strictly nogi, but I am not opposed to the gi whatsoever. I still think, it’s a huge part of Jiu-Jitsu. If you’re going to do one, you should do the other. Especially if you’re going to be competing, even strictly nogi, you never want to lose those grips you practice in the gi.
JM: We’ve heard from other competitors who believe nogi is the evolution of the sport and that in the near future nogi would be more popular and prominent than gi, especially in high level competition. What are your thoughts on that?
AO: I think the nogi game is more realistic when it comes to self -defense. I also believe that a lot of the well-known high level grapplers are currently competing more in nogi and that’s where they are getting their highlights from which will naturally cause the style to evolve faster and become more popular. People are looking at Who’s Number One, ADCC, Medusa, EBI, these tournaments are setting the example by showcasing grappling super stars and bringing nogi to a much larger audience than traditional IBJJF events. Based on that alone, I would say that I do believe nogi is the evolution of the sport of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.
JM: What do you consider some of the stronger points of your personal BJJ game?
AO: My game changes constantly and I’m still in a phase where I focus on one element for a couple of months, a certain move I like and then I deconstruct it so much and put it back together in a million different ways that I get to the point where I can say, “this now has a little kick to it.” I really like that. My main focus right now are leg attacks. I’m definitely big on leg attacks and so is my school. And my passing for sure, I’m always working on more efficient ways to pass guard. Wrestling is another big element of my game. I’d say my wrestling is pretty good. Those are the top three components I’m working on, always trying to be better.
Lately. I’ve been avoiding typical upper body attacks, like arm bars, triangles and things like that. And fine tuning my defense because I’m mainly a top player. I’m so used to dominating that sometimes I get caught and you have to be proficient in both attacks and defense. You got to play both sides. Difficult positions like bottom guard will help you know what to do when you get caught during a competition.
JM: In your opinion, what are the top three attributes an athlete must have to succeed in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu?
AO: That’s a really good question. I’d say the first one is patience. You can’t be too spazzy. You can’t get super frustrated in a position because that’s how you get caught. Definitely knowing when to move, when to camp, and when to just take a breather. You don’t need to be fast paced the entire time. There are little micro moments where you can rest, the key is learn to identify them so you don’t lose control.
The second one might be a bit controversial, considering I just taked about patience, but it’s aggression for sure. I’m a very aggressive grappler and also my just overall technique, you know, like the placement of my elbow somewhere to control my opponent. I like to take control of the match from the start. Aggression has served me well in this game.
The third factor is clean technique. I like to be super technical and very detail oriented about everything that I’m doing during a match. Always improving and making things more efficient.
JM: What can we expect to see from you still this year? Are there any competitions on the horizon?
AO: I have a few lined up and I’m still deciding if I’m actually going to register for them but they are definitely on the backboard. I want to stay active. My goal is to do at least two to three competitions a month. It’s really pushing it, but I know I can do it.
JM: How did it come to be that you became a brand ambassador for Girl-Jitsu? And what is it about the brand that resonates with you?
AO: I actually found Girl-Jitsu in your Jiujiteira Magazine IG. I saw a post and I followed them and I believe I reached out. We had a phone call and it was a great conversation, they were super professional. When it comes to nogi gear especially for girls, there is a huge hole in the market. Most don’t fit right. I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve ordered a rash guard, typically a men’s rash guard or a unisex one, and the sizing is completely off, the fit isn’t right and it’s something that I wouldn’t feel 100 % comfortable training and competing in. When it comes to training, particularly as a woman, you have to feel comfortable in what you’re wearing. You’re doing such odd movements already. The least you could do is make sure you feel comfortable and confident in your clothing. And Girl-Jitsu gets that. They have definitely filled that void when it comes to that hole in the market. After our initial conversation I received their gear and it was perfect! I knew then that Girl-Jitsu was the brand I wanted to work with and help promote.
JM: If you could go against anyone in Jiu Jitsu, man or woman, who would you pick?
AO: That is such an amazing question. I have to think for a second… I’m going to have to go with one of my favorite grapplers, Elizabeth Clay. We’re close in size and shape, I also feel like our games are so different that it would be really fun to see how we would interact. I would love to go against Elizabeth Clay. That’s my top one. I’m diligently working my way through the trenches to reach the point where I have the opportunity and the honor to go against these high level grapplers.
JM: How do you feel about the local Jiu-Jitsu scene in Miami?
AO: I recently did a competition in Chicago that gave me some contrast. I went to Midwest Finishers and that was an awesome match! Their game was really different from Miami’s, even the way the athletes look, they’re so tall and lanky. In Miami we are a bit shorter and a bit stubbier. I have gone to open mats all over Miami. And as far as the quality of the Jiu-Jitsu scene, I honestly think that we have some very talented grapplers here and there’s a lot of potential for high level development based on who I’ve had the opportunity to roll with, the amount of schools to train at and the coaching. I definitely think Miami is an incubator for up and coming grappling talent. I just hope that we get some more recognition because nobody comes down to Miami for big competitions. I really hope that we get some more traction over here because I do think we’ve got some amazing schools and big Jiu-Jitsu names. I definitely hope to see some more premier grappling action happening down here. I know it’s a little hot but that will make your cardio even better. And then hopefully ADCC at some point, will be doing something big in Miami.
JM: What would you say has been your most memorable moment so far in a competition?
AO: My best moment is definitely going to be at Combat Sports Coverage in Miami this year. I won my match via knee bar and I was so nervous because it was my first competition on FlowGrappling. I was freaking out! I also had the opportunity to do the commentary with another really high end grappler. So I did the commentary before all of my matches and then I was like, ‘Ok, I got to go. Let me go do my match and come right back.’ That was really, really cool. And then getting a compliment from that high end grappler that my knee bar was good absolutely made my night.
JM: That’s pretty cool. And what would you consider your toughest one, perhaps your toughest opponent to date or most challenging situation you have found yourself in during a competition?
AO: My toughest opponent to date, I would have to say, was at a White Lion match. I won against this girl from Fight Sports and it was definitely hard. I actually won that match via overtime and I was saying the entire week, I’m not going to get to overtime. I’m not going to get to overtime. I’m going to be done fast and I’m going to be out. But some things don’t go as planned, yet I still won the match. But it was definitely tough. There was a big size difference. I don’t really take that into consideration, though. There’s an entire division dedicated to size differences, so it doesn’t matter to me. But that was my toughest match because she was so good positionally and she really knew how to hold me down and slow me down. And that’s super important in Jiu-Jitsu. She knew how to take away the pace that I was trying to force. I had never met a match like that, it was my first time experiencing it, and I’m glad that I did. I learned a lot from that battle and I’m still so grateful it happened. Those are the matches that I love to have, those tough matches that I’m like, ‘dang, like that was really tough. I’ve got a lot to do when I get back to training.’
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