BJJ Superstar Jessa Khan’s Journey From Struggling Black Belt To Historic ONE World Title Shot
Fresh off a gold medal performance at the 2023 IBJJF World Championships, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu phenom Jessa Khan is now ready to make her long-awaited ONE debut.
On September 29, at ONE Fight Night 14: Stamp vs. Ham on Prime Video, the 21-year-old black belt takes on former opponent Danielle Kelly for the inaugural ONE Atomweight Submission Grappling World Title in a matchup that has ground fighting fans gushing.
Known for her crispy BJJ technique and aggressive submission-hunting style, Khan is an exciting addition to ONE’s ever-growing roster of elite grapplers.
Ahead of her bout that airs live in U.S. primetime from the Singapore Indoor Stadium, here is the Cambodian-American’s journey to the world’s largest martial arts organization.
A Childhood On The Move
For Khan, it’s hard to pick just one place to call home.
Her father was in the Navy, and like many military families, the Khans rarely settled in one location for very long.
She told ONEFC.com:
“I was born in Texas. And then after Texas, I moved to California. And then in California, I started karate, and then I moved to Hawaii. And that’s where I started jiu-jitsu.”
A naturally gifted athlete, Khan recalls a childhood filled with sports. And because her family moved so frequently throughout her upbringing, the pastime often served as a source of stability.
“Growing up, I’ve always been involved in sports. My family is very big on sports. I did ballet, T-ball, soccer, jiu-jitsu, Muay Thai, wrestling, and judo.”
Finding Comfort In BJJ
Of all the sports and martial arts that Khan dabbled in, she found jiu-jitsu to be her favorite.
Ironically, she had started in the striking art of karate. But when her family moved to Hawaii and she joined a new dojo, she didn’t feel comfortable in her new surroundings.
“Initially, I was going to start training karate again but then I got kind of intimidated because, you know, in karate, kids tend to get their black belts a lot quicker.
“At the time I was, I think, only a yellow belt or something. So that intimidated me a lot, that the whole school was all black belts. So my dad ended up finding a jiu-jitsu academy.”
Surrounded by kids her age and skill level, Khan immediately felt comfortable in jiu-jitsu.
Now a kids instructor at the world-renowned Art of Jiu-Jitsu Academy in Costa Mesa, California, she does her best to recreate the same welcoming, supportive atmosphere that fostered her innate talent for BJJ years ago.
“I teach kids that are from 5 to 7 years old, and kids that are 8 to 13 years old. So now I understand because we get a lot of new kids and, normally, I work with them.
“The first thing that we try to work on is making them feel comfortable in their environment. So I think that’s what my old professor did with me, to make me comfortable to keep training.”
Overcoming The Black Belt Blues
Throughout her teenage years, Khan competed as often as she could, quickly establishing herself as one of the most promising up-and-comers in recent memory.
She racked up major titles at practically every skill level, including multiple IBJJF World Titles as a juvenile, a purple belt World Title, and a European Championship as a brown belt.
In late 2020, the then-19-year-old was awarded her BJJ black belt, and she expected to hit the ground running with the same kind of incredible success she saw at the colored belts.
But Khan struggled in her first year grappling at the highest level, experiencing for the first time the shock of being less skilled than many of her opponents.
“I felt like for me, it was a big change from, you know, being blue, purple, and brown belt, being in the colored belts. For me, while I was at those belt colors, I wouldn’t say it was easy, but my level was way higher than my opponents.
“But once I got to the black belt, then there were already people [who] had been there for years and [who were] black belt World Champions. So now when I fight in black belt, every fight, those are really tough compared to how it was when I was in the colored belts.”
Aside from finding the new level of competition difficult, the less experienced black belt in Khan simply wasn’t used to losing.
“I felt like that was a big change for me mentally because, you know, I [would] still train very hard. And then I did a few major tournaments that year, and it was really tough for me to take those losses because I just felt like I was constantly losing every single tournament.
“I had never experienced that before because normally I would be the one on top of the podium. So I feel like mentally, that kind of messed me up.”
But instead of accepting her fate as a mediocre black belt, Khan took a break, confided in those closest to her, and dove back into black belt competition with a renewed focus.
That brief time away from training served her well. In 2022 she earned gold at the IBJJF Pan-American Championships, and in June of this year, she reached the pinnacle of her career so far, winning her first IBJJF Black Belt World Championship.
Khan said of the achievement:
“At the end of 2021, I took a week-long break after the tournament. I talked to my professors and my family, just kind of thinking about everything that we could do to improve, to make the next year a little bit better.
“I felt like I definitely improved immensely. I was actually able to win the major tournament titles. So right there, that just showed me that I’ve definitely improved.”
Backed By Cambodia
Khan is proud to be of Cambodian descent.
And now that she’s signed with the world’s largest martial arts organization, the 21-year-old grappler is looking forward to competing in front of her growing Asian fan base.
“If ONE could go to Cambodia and host an event, yeah, I would love that. A lot of people in Cambodia, they’re very supportive of my jiu-jitsu, my journey. Whenever they heard that I was representing ONE Championship, they got super excited, because you know, [ONE is based] in Asia.”
A multiple-time BJJ champion at the South East Asian Games, Khan has made frequent trips to Cambodia.
And while she loves the country’s beautiful culture and people, she’s troubled by some of the poverty she witnessed. For that reason, she hopes to return to Cambodia to give back however she can.
“Even after I retire and stop competing for Cambodia, I said I’d still want to go back and try to help in any way I could. There’s actually this nonprofit thing we did back in 2018.
“I actually taught jiu-jitsu to some kids. Some kids were training jiu-jitsu already and they had gis, but some never even heard of it. They’re just wearing regular clothes. So I got to teach them.”