Grace Gundrum Is a 12-Year-Old Grappling Prodigy Who Can Kick Your Ass

The jiu-jitsu champion is "all business" on the mat, but at home she's just a little girl who likes to play <i>Minecraft</i>.

Tess Barker

Tess Barker

10th Planet Jiu Jitsu in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, sits in a small strip mall next to a sandwich shop. It's a one-room gym lit with fluorescent lights and there's a box of sweaty gloves that you can borrow for kick boxing. In the back, there's a futon where co-owner Zach Maslany used to crash when he first opened the place with partner JM Holland two years ago. Here, 12-year-old prodigy fighter Grace Gundrum trains twice a day, six days a week, preparing for matches like the one she fought on the 22 of this month, at the Eddie Bravo Invitational, one of jiu-jitsu's most widely watched events.

Grace, ten pounds lighter than her opponent Alyssa Wilson (who is considered by many to be the best in her age in the world), was an underdog. When she stepped out into the bright lights onstage at the Orpheum Theater, it was not hard to imagine her, with her understated gait, staring down as she walked, as an underdog. Wilson, on the other hand, bounced into the match with a half-shaved haircut and plenty of eye contact with the crowd.

"She's just a quiet kid and doesn't like to be the focus of a lot of attention. This is all weird for her," said Grace's mom, Mary Jo Gundrum, three days later, back at the gym in Bethlehem. "The venue was gigantic and huge. I don't know if she was as worried about the match as she was about the venue and Pay Per View and this huge theater with all these people staring at you, and lights and cameras, and I think that was the most stressful for her. I was nervous just being there. She didn't really say anything about it. Not 'I'm scared, I'm nervous.' She sort of processes it all."

At the start of the match, Alyssa swiftly took down Grace, but Grace immediately and calmly regained dominance, holding Alyssa down with an almost perfect stillness.

"We call her the Silent Assassin," said Maslany, because of what he, Holland, and Mary Jo all refer to as her "all business" attitude on the mat.

As Alyssa pounded Grace with a series of fast motions to pry herself away, Grace held still, without a single discernible change in emotion. "She'll be able to sit in a move or just get stuck in a move and stay patient, hang out, really not show any emotion, and then eventually work her way out and get to a better position," said Maslany. "I think that's something that sets her aside from a lot of people—her patience. She taught me that. Usually, I would just do something dumb, jump into a move."

Maslany and Holland began the slow and exhausting process of running their dream business two years ago when they quit their day jobs to focus on the 10th Planet gym full time. The duct-taped mats of the office space gym are now constantly crowded with men and women in the Bethlehem area, who show up for Maslany and Holland's rigorous but lighthearted classes. Rap plays softly over small speakers as the adults pound their work week and past due bills into punchbags. They have tattoos and a habit of cussing, and among them, always, is Grace.

She has to train with the adults, since there is no one else at her level. "There are no girls in the area that we can just be like 'Hey! wanna come train with her? Or even boys. It's tough. That's why she trains with the men a lot," said Maslany.

Grappling with the men has earned Grace the unusual role of being both their little sister figure and their inspiration. In order to cover the cost of getting Grace and her trainers and family to Los Angeles for last week's match, the team set up a GoFundMe account, which was funded in large part by local businesses and members of the gym. "She was kind of weirded out about it. She's like me. I don't like taking things from people. I don't like taking money from people," said Maslany.

"Everyone knows how hard Grace works. They see her at the gym all the time," said Holland. "They got the Pay Per View, having drinks and shit. People were telling me they were at home watching it if they weren't there. They were all into it."

Throughout the regulation time of the EBI match, Grace's devout training kept her neck and neck with Alyssa, who matched Grace's slow and calculated moves with rapid fire displays of strength and speed. The match was so close—Alyssa's agility perfectly foiled by Grace's stability—that broadcast announcers were quick to call it "the fight of the night" on a card of primarily adult fights, before noting that "both of these girls regularly beat up boys all across the country. That's what jiu-jitsu is all about."

"Little girls are way smarter than little boys," said Holland. "I've never met a boy who listens like Grace does." Her focus and discipline extend so far beyond the mat that it's hard to spot a 12-year-old girl anywhere between those intense and nervous eyes. According to Mary Jo, "She's motivated in lots of different aspects of her life. She's type A, like, 'I want to get it all done, I want it set up a certain way.' She's very organized, disciplined, that's just her personality."

Unlike many kids her age, Grace "doesn't care about Facebook, Twitter, pop music people, anything like that." She has harnessed all of her pre-teen enthusiasm into a quiet and steadfast drive that keeps her drilling without complaining and patiently accepting the sport's lessons as they're pummeled, sometimes aggressively, into her body.

"She's not lost the same way in a match again," said Mary Jo. "If someone's caught her at something it hasn't happened again. She will be upset, but then she shakes it off. It's all part of it." Still, Grace has little to say when it comes to articulating what drives her passion for the sport.

"I don't know really at all," said Grace, when pressed about her motivations in the sport. She's a little more animated when it comes to Minecraft, the world-building video game that she plays constantly, including in the hours leading up to a big match like EBI. "You can just build a bunch of creations...There isn't really a goal, you can just do whatever you want in the game."

In the first round of overtime after regulation, Alyssa got Grace into an X hold that left Grace on her stomach, a position the announcer's described as "the dead zone." Grace's face became red and strained, but her eyes betrayed no frustration or defeat. Alyssa then flipped Grace around and smothered her face in a face crank. For a handful of drawn out seconds, Grace made slow and ineffective attempts to pry herself out from Alyssa's grip, enveloped in her muscle mass like caught prey.

She escaped, not in one climactic release, but slowly, over the course of a minute, in barely visible motions.

Grace started the next overtime round on Alyssa's back, but was unable to hold what seemed like a substantial lock on her when Alyssa quickly released herself using her speed and unfettered strength.

As the yin and yang match rolled into its third round of overtime, Alyssa started behind Grace, who calmly allowed Alyssa's arms to wrap around her neck. Taken to the mat and stuck in a hold by Alyssa, Grace's face, once again, became bloated with tension. Her teeth stuck through her tightened lips. She slipped out from Alyssa's grip, surprising everyone except herself.

During her turn to start behind Alyssa, Grace used her slight body to pounce on her into a body triangle, pinning her down with her legs. Alyssa, her confidence unbroken, continued to make breakneck attempts to pry herself away from Grace's grip.

Then, Grace, who had laughed with disbelief when she was told she'd been invited to EBI, flipped the reigning world's best grappler and got her into a choke hold. After flashing an involuntary disappointed grimace that reminded everyone that for all her confidence, she was still also a 12-year-old girl, Alyssa tapped out.

The crowd, finally able to breath, was swept to its feet.

Grace, looking relieved and shocked at the same time, shook Alyssa's hand. Alyssa nervously tugged at her hair and shirt before flashing a professional smile as Grace was officially named the winner of the match.

Officials shook Grace's hand and crowned her with a cap that said "Choke."

Grace's smile was small, but it was genuine.

Follow Tess Barker on Twitter.