There always seems to be a great deal of preoccupation with belts in the martial arts, regardless of which one it is. It tends to be the first thing you notice about a player if they’re wearing it. Lost of gyms have line-ups at the start and end of class, and where you stand in the line is dependent on your belt colour. These are the markers of (supposedly) how dedicated you are, how good you are, and the level of bragging rights you should have over the newbies. Okay, that last one was said fairly tongue-in-cheek, but as someone who was new to the martial arts world not all the long ago, there is a certain sense of awe when someone says they’re a black belt in something.
But what does that actually mean? And specifically what does that mean in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu?
I know this is a fairly controversial topic, and lots of people have lots to say on the matter, some I agree with, some I definitely don’t. I’ll say right now, and you should know this anyway as you’re reading my blog, I am a white belt. I am at the bottom of the food chain, the minnow in the shark pond if you like, so therefore some people would question my legitimacy to write about this subject at all. Nonetheless, I’ll give it a crack.
There are “only” five belts in adult Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu; White, Blue, Purple, Brown and Black. I mean technically there’s a red belt in there somewhere, but as it said in article I read the other day, don’t even think about it man. The IBJJF guidelines on belts suggests that someone needs to spend something akin to fifty-one years as a Jiu-Jitsu practitioner before being awarded their red belt. So therefore it’s not really a thing. Or at least if it is, it’s something that us mere BJJ mortals don’t need to concern ourselves with. There is also a stripe system in place with belts (where white strips are added to the tab on the belt), but this is much more fluid. Some Academies and gyms award them, others don’t. I quite like the idea of stripes, because it gives you an idea of how far you are away from your next belt, where you are in relation to the competition etc. etc. Maybe it is a mark of me being a relative BJJ newbie that I care about such things! As far as I’m aware you can have pretty much as many stripes as you want on your belt, although common practice is to go up to four before being awarded your next belt. The IBJJF also has outlines in which it suggests how long you should be spending at each belt. The rough guideline is that it should be at least two years in between. Of course there are prodigies like Caio Terra, who I think went from white to black in about three years, but he is clearly the exception to the rule. Some people get promoted faster than others, some people stay at the same belt for many many years.
Again, this is where BJJ differs from other martial arts. There is no (as far as I’m aware at least) strict syllabus as to what you need to be able to do at each belt before being promoted. Unlike my short foray into Judo, where there was a list of set techniques that needed to be achieved before being awarded the next belt, BJJ doesn’t have that kind of guideline set. There is no technique rule book (at least not one that I’ve seen). My understanding of it is that in order to be promoted to the next belt, you need to be damn near the top of the pool, if not the top, of the one you’re currently at. What’s the point of being promoted to purple belt if you’re still being crushed regularly by blue belts? None whatsoever. Okay great, so you can do a inverted-helicopter-guard-back-take-into-a-flying-rear-naked-choke (I just made that up), but if that’s the only thing you’ve got in your high level arsenal, then are you really x belt? Theoretically this is what other martial arts grading systems should achieve as well, but because they’re more tickboxy, perhaps it’s easier to move up the system. I suspect that statement will cause an argument, but hey ho.
This system does have its pitfalls though. Due to the fact there is no strict system means that students can get away with languishing at a belt that they should have long been promoted out of. At competition this is known as sandbagging, and can get teeth grinding all across the BJJ community. If someone is consistently cleaning up at blue belt level, why have they not been promoted to purple? If you’re beating the same people again and again in competition, is there anything left to prove? Go and give the bigger boys a shot. Either way, the lack of checkpoints means that it is a lot easier for sandbagging to occur and for people not to be held to account for it (question: should they be held to account for it?). One of the checks that is in place (supposedly) is that anyone who is a black belt in Judo, is a pro-MMA fighter or who has sustained wrestling experience, is not allowed to compete at white belt level. How this is consistently checked, however, I’m not sure.
There is also a lot of difference across the BJJ world in terms of skill level, which again is down to the lack of checkpoints for the next belt. There is little consistency in what each belt actually means, except that you are generally supposed to be better than the one below. Having said that, I’ve seen blue belts at my gym beat brown belts. My coach, Michael, is a purple belt, and yet I’ve seen him take on black belts quite comfortably. I have met a few blue belts in my time who I’m fairly sure I’d stand a legitimate chance against. So, in that respect, does the belt even matter? If people can cross the dividing lines so easily, why do people get so het up about it? I think it’s because of what the belt is supposed to represent. There is meant to be a level of respect that comes attached to each belt, the sense of awe that I mentioned at the beginning. But something I have come to realise, and perhaps it’s a product of the gym that I am lucky enough to train at, is that respect in BJJ is earned, not awarded. There are white belts out there who I greatly admire for their skill and dedication, and there are blue belts who I think are idiots.
It gets even more complicated when you introduce the idea of no-gi into the mix. At the moment I train predominately no-gi, but have just started gi training a little more. Does this mean that I should have different skill markers for each type of BJJ? Or should they be the same and I get promoted according to the one I am “worst” at? Most of the skills in no-gi BJJ are transferable to gi, and vice-versa (although I’m fairly sure there are people out there who would argue ’til they’re blue in the face that this is incorrect). Yet if someone has trained their whole life in the gi, and is say, a purple belt, and then decides to compete no-gi, with their lack of grips and manoeuvres based on that, is their technique base still going to be purple belt level? Perhaps some coaches have their students be different ranks in the different disciplines, but it is not something I have come across as yet.
Perhaps it’s a little difficult to reach a solid conclusion one way or the other on this subject matter. Belts clearly do matter, especially at competition. It would be daft having someone who’s been training for ten years pitched against someone who’s been doing it for ten weeks. Having said that, trying to pin down exactly what each belt means is very difficult, due to the fact that such a wide range of players take part in the sport, and therefore there is going to be no uniform standard across the board.
Anyway, what are your thoughts on the matter of belts?