Conquering a Brave New World: The Hillary Williams Story

Shawn SmithCorrespondent IOctober 30, 2009

With a nickname like “Duff” (get it? Hillary Duff!) one may tend to overlook the accomplishments and tenacity of the new kid on the block Hillary Williams. Although fairly new on the Jiu-Jitsu scene with only three years experience and a purple belt from Roli Delgado, Williams has emerged as a rising female star on the circuit. So...what's the big deal about Hillary Williams?

The big deal is that Hillary Williams is one of the first American stars to emerge in a sport that has been relatively dominated by men since its inception decades ago. The big deal is that Hillary Williams represents the new generation of Jiu-Jitsu practitioners that are doing their best to continue spreading the word about the sport we love.

The big deal is that Hillary Williams will likely be the face of female Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu for years to come and a potential role model for any girl out there who’s interested in entering the sport but afraid because of the overwhelming amount of testosterone in the gym.

So whats the big deal you're still asking yourself? Last month, Hillary Williams had the unenviable task of facing the female MMA and grappling icon Megumi Fujii in the first round of the Abu Dhabi Submission Grappling Championships.

Few gave Williams a chance against the legendary competitor and most wrote her off because of her lack of experience on the big stage. To the surprise of most, Williams stunningly defeated Fujii to move on in the tournament.

Although Williams ended up finishing third in the tournament, the victory over Fujii sent shock waves through the grappling circuit and definitively put Williams name on the map as a female grappling up and comer.

So the question is, with so many hotbeds for Jiu-Jitsu around the world, how does a girl from Arkansas decide on Jiu-Jitsu of all the sports available?

“It was quite by accident, actually.  As a kid I went to a bunch of hardcore/punk shows and a friend of mine just disintegrated in front of us.  He lost 100 pounds in a year, and would rave about something called Brazilian jiu jitsu.  I went and tried out a class and was hooked.

"I played softball for 15 years, golf for 10, and volleyball for 7.  That much time in sports where the rules are static and most of the 'plays' don't change, and you start to learn all the ins and outs.  Every practice was the same, and I felt like I'd reached a peak.  BJJ was something completely new and different. 

"Every class, every practice, there's something new there waiting for you.  It's constantly evolving, with new techniques being brought in and old techniques being modified that you can't really reach the peak knowledge.  I loved that it's so hard to be good at.”

Most fighters have nicknames, its just apart of the sport. Some are ferocious, some intimidating and some are down right scary, but yours on the other hand does not fit into any of these categories. Would you kindly explain why you chose “Duff” as your nickname? You don’t seem like the Hillary Duff type.

“Wow, I wish that would go away, haha.  Most of the nicknames that stick were never chosen.  After my first class, Roli (my coach) had forgotten my name. 

"I told him kindly that it was Hillary, and he blurted, 'Oh, like Hillary Duff?'  I gave him a look that bluntly said 'go to hell' and the name stuck.  Since then random nicknames pop up from time to time (Killary, Mongoose, Paquita, Gringa) but non of them seem to stick.”

We’ve seen you be successful both with and without the Gi (a pink-Gi at that!) Do you have a preference of one over the other?

“I prefer the gi.  There are so many more options.  So many more beautiful sweeps and subs can arise when you use the gi that the person is too slippery or the grips aren't right with no-gi. 

"At the same time, I think I'm better no-gi.  I still have a lot of technical holes and my strength and athleticism allows me to get the advantage no-gi.”

Many use a base in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu as a launching pad for future mixed martial arts dreams. You have one amateur MMA fight under your belt which you won via first round submission. Can we expect to see you inside the cage again sometime soon or would you prefer to stick with grappling?

“I enjoyed MMA but my heart is in BJJ.  It's really difficult to excel at both aspects of the game, so until I've reached a high goal in BJJ I'll be focusing on it rather than MMA.”

Last month you competed at the bi-annual Abu Dhabi World Submission Grappling Championships in Spain. This is the most prestigious no-gi grappling tournament in the world. Can you tell us a little about the experience of competing on the biggest no-gi stage?

“It was quite terrifying and awe-inspiring.  I was on the plane, at lunch, hanging out with, and sharing tatames with the best grapplers in existence.  And I did it in under three years, I couldn't believe it.  One day I hope to be one of those seasoned veterans, unfazed by the environment and able to think clearly.  This time I was incredibly nervous. 

"I tried my best to fake that I wasn't, but I was (especially on Sunday) and allowed it to affect my performance.  Not to take anything away from my opponents, who are amazing grapplers, but I feel like I could have brought more to the table with a clear head.”

In the first round, you drew Megumi Fujii. For those who do not know, Megumi Fujii is widely considered one of the greatest female grapplers and mixed martial artists on the planet. In your blog, you stated that you were a huge fan of Fujii’s. What was it like to face someone you looked up to and how did you deal with the nerves?

“I had kind of prepared myself, actually.  About a month earlier I had sort of figured out the brackets in my head and assumed that I would be paired with Megumi or Kyra early.  When I saw that I was with Megumi, I had to pretend that I had no clue who she was, that she was just another girl. 

"I went out there with the mentality, 'Okay, I don't have half the technique of her, this probably won't end well for me, but I'm gonna give her hell.'  I don't know how to lose, so I went out there super aggressive and it ended up well for me.  I was shocked, as anyone who watched the video could tell, but that doesn't change anything about the fact that I look up to Megumi.”

You, of course finished third in the tournament due to a loss to. Despite the third place finish, were you happy with your performance overall?

“I'm happy with my first and third matches, but confused how I let myself get so nervous in my second.  That's something that only mat time can cure, so I need to get out there and compete as much as possible. 

"I learned a lot of mistakes and I'm very excited that I got the opportunity to see how much technique I lack before I can do well in the top divisions.  It was a great learning experience."

The No-Gi World Championships are now less than a month away. Can we expect to see you competing?

“Absolutely.  I'll be competing in the blue/purple middleweight division and the absolute, and I've got two golds in site.  After that I'll rest until January, give myself a much needed break from competition.”

What else is in the immediate future for you?

“I've got a lot of training trips planned as well, so in the next couple of months I should be in LA, Houston, New Jersey, and Miami.”

I’d like to end the interview by asking a few non-fight related questions to let our readers get to know you better.

Favorite movie?  “Big Fish.  It reminds me so much of my dad.“

Favorite song/ album? "Charlie Brown Jr.  - 'Não Viva em Vão'"

Hobbies outside of competing? “Horseback riding, painting/drawing, learning other languages."

Last but not least, anybody you’d like to thank?

“Matt (Hamilton) and Roli (Delgado), my coaches, because they've supported me through everything and were the most patient teachers and coaches.

"MTX Audio for supporting me immensely since I've gotten their sponsorship, allowing me to compete at Pan Ams, Worlds, and ADCC.

"Gilberto from Jiu Jitsu Pro Gear, Kirik from, Bill MacPherson, Kipp and the crew from NAGA, Rio Sports Tours, MMA Girls, and Fight Soap for all their help and sponsorship.

"All my homes-away-from home that have opened their doors to me (40 something gyms at this point), especially Renato Tavares, Memphis BJJ, Fight Sports, and BTT Long Beach in the USA and Gama Filho, Nova Geracao, and Akxe in Brazil.”

* Only days after conducting this interview, Hillary Williams received her Brown Belt from her instructors Matt Hamilton and Roli Delgado. On behalf of the Bleacher Report, I’d like to congratulate Hillary on this huge accomplishment.


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