I get asked a lot what my criteria is for belt promotion, and it’s always a struggle to explain concisely.
It’s a very attractive idea to lay out a universal standard for rank promotion, as in theory that ought to both raise and maintain standards. In reality what generally happens in many martial art systems is that belt criteria gets distilled down to a syllabus- a checklist of techniques known and practiced. Good in theory, but in practice it often leads to a lower standard of practical ability when used as the ‘be all and end all’ of promotion criteria. Now, I’m not against a syllabus based lesson plan if it works for your academy. However, I’ve torn up multiple attempts to write up a comprehensive list of techniques for belt levels. The scope of Jiu-Jitsu techniques and variations in body type and inclination amongst practitioners, even of equal level, leaves the syllabus model at best as an equivocal guideline for graduation.
Whilst a broad, overarching knowledge of Jiu-Jitsu positions is, and should be part of the criteria for advancement, it’s quite clear on the mats that simply ‘knowing’ a technique doesn’t necessarily secure a victory over a less knowledgeable opponent. When I first went to Brazil, in the pre-YouTube days, I was the instructional DVD guy. I had pirate copies of everything on the market. I recall one day back in 2013, getting triangled about 10 times from my mate Juninho, a brown belt, with the same basic setup, before he asked me what I meant by ‘X-guard’.
My mate ‘Napao’, then a purple belt, would sweep me with the same pant leg/armbar threat combo time and again, even though I knew it was coming. It was basically the only serious sweep and/or Submission in his arsenal, but he killed everyone with it consistently. Actually, he was so good at it that he used the gi specific sweep without the gi, to the extent that he beat 2 black belts from BTT Niteroi with it in a Submission wrestling tournament we entered. (I got soundly trounced that day by the black belt Edson ‘Sururu’ of Draculinho team, entirely with techniques I was perfectly well aware of.) In fact, Napao arrived at the mount off the back of his preferred sweep, and not having much game from there to offer a black belt competitor, elected to deliberately roll back over to his closed guard….and hit the same sweep again in order to score once more.
So, anyone who has spent any serious time in Jiu-Jitsu will have noticed that breadth of technical knowledge doesn’t necessarily equate to effectiveness. The ability to ‘funnel’ opponents into your preferred pathway, and having deeper, more nuanced ability in fewer techniques often garners better results. That then leads to the question – when to specialise and when to experiment? What is the belt of experimentation and what is the belt of refinement? Again, not as simple as many articles on the subject would like to suggest. The process of experimentation and the process of refining the ‘A-game’ begins at white belt and never ends.
Roger Gracie is probably the best and most familiar example of a player that uses ‘basic’ techniques. Time and again he’s won world championships with the classic techniques one might have learned in the first months of training, but executes them with an extraordinary level of understanding of the nuances and layers of detail.
Variation and innovation are useful and even critical to both the individual and the art as a whole, but far from the whole story.
A complicating factor in the belt system is that it serves as a competitor classification as well as a denomination of rank within the academy. If everyone was obliged to compete against other academies, that would perhaps make things simpler, but would alienate a huge number of people from the art that don’t care to participate in the sport aspect.
Even then, when it comes to sport BJJ, which we generally consider these days to be IBJJF rules as standard, it’s not so simple. It’s not a bad guideline, if the blue belt consistently wins his competitions or at least arrives on the podium regularly over a reasonable period, he’s probably ready to progress. The competitor has his own issues to contend with though-
Is he a dedicated regular competitor?, or a club player who likes to compete occasionally? Is he an older guy who is contending with a full time job and family commitments?
Does he have access to regular local competition without unreasonable costs for travel and entry? Is he forced to compete as an adult because the smaller competitions can’t fill the masters brackets? Is he winning but the competition is scarce or poor quality in his region? It’s not as simple as – medal = progress a rank.
Is he a full time elite competitor? A ‘professional’ so to speak. It’s tempting to deny that a two-tiered system ought to exist, but it simply does. We then have to consider the issue of ‘sandbagging’, and properly define it. In essence it means to gain an unfair advantage over opposition by holding someone back into a lower belt class. When we’re dealing with hobbyist competitors with nothing on the line but their own gratification, then it’s simply that. When we’re considering elite competitors- those with great potential and those fighting for the money that sustains them, holding back belt progression is not necessarily ‘sandbagging’, but rather good business and proper career management. You might have a world champion purple belt on your hands, and it would seem logical that they ought to be promoted on the podium. The shrewd coach has to consider- can they replicate that achievement in 12 months time against next year’s crop of brown belt standouts? If the answer is no, the smart trainer/manager will keep them in the same division to cut their teeth further and develop into the product that can, assuming that’s the intended trajectory of their career. That’s where the physical or athletic factors, and the psychological, come in to play once again. That’s why we see examples of lower belts defeating black belts in no-gi and open class competitions. It may or may not discredit the belt of the losing party, but most often it simply illustrates the two-tier system, and the complex cocktail of physical, psychological and stylistic factors that weigh up in the sport and art.
When the answer is yes, they can potentially achieve gold in the next major tournament, that’s when the tradition of ‘time-served’ can be broken. The 2 year minimum between belts was a standard created when Jiu-Jitsu was an entirely amateur game, and whilst another useful guideline and important tradition, it was never created to allow for athletic phenoms who need to be in the ‘money’ divisions whilst still in their athletic prime. Hence we see world champion black belts defying the 10 year minimum standard of yesteryear more regularly. It’s important to note that whilst said individuals may have accelerated the process in terms of years on the mat, it’s very unlikely they have racked up less hours. With greater access to information and more mat time available than previous generations had, it’s more reasonable that graduations are considered due to mat hours served than years since previous promotions. In fact, the more truncated the timeline, likely the greater consistency of said individual’s training, a well known indicator for progress. Sporadic or few sessions per week can at best only maintain the individual’s standard, rather than lead to improvement.
Again, that doesn’t discredit the 2 year minimum standard tradition, but rather lends greater credence to the idea that belt promotion is an individual thing. Having said that, fast track promotions should always be the exception, for exceptional individuals, rather than the new rule.
In addition, competition results as the primary criteria puts a lot of weight on athletic ability, and performing under a specific rule set, which at once limits the scope of what Jiu-Jitsu is whilst simultaneously forcing innovation and the pursuit of excellence.
There are two major aims for the growth of Jiu-Jitsu- one being greater spread and emergence of BJJ in terms of volume of people involved and academies spreading over the world, and the other being the greater pursuit of excellence and technical development. The two are interwoven, but not mutually exclusive. If we mute all promotions that don’t adhere to the standard of top international competition, then we inhibit the growth of Jiu-Jitsu in terms of it’s availability, and limit the talent pool that feeds back to the top of the game.
Whether competitor or club player, the belt can become either a psychological barrier or motivator when it comes to performance. Just as higher grades fear to submit to a lower belt, the player may come to feel comfortable in allowing themselves to be dominated by a higher grade. When a mediocre purple belt gets graduated to brown belt we often see a spark of motivation that forces them to raise their game and drives them closer to achieving black belt status. Likewise, some individuals are crushed by the expectations on them from a belt promotion and may even be driven to quit the sport altogether. Once more, the onus is on the coach to understand if a promotion incentivises a player to improve or crushes their self esteem – an issue made more complex for a competitor, who will inevitably suffer losses they would otherwise not have contended with in a lower classification.
My teacher Crezio, famous for his great orations at seminars and graduations, gave this insight during a visit to the U.K.
“Receiving the next belt does not mean you have attained the level there. It signifies that you are finished with the journey of the previous one. Upon receipt of the new rank, you begin the arduous task of ‘hardening’ the belt.”
Accounting for attributes
Closely related to competition results, it would be pleasantly simple to say – if ‘X’ can regularly submit, or otherwise get the better of the other belts of his own grade or higher, then he ought to be promoted.
Whilst good Jiu-Jitsu is always effective grappling, effective grappling is not always good Jiu-Jitsu. Presumably you’ve met the Division 1 wrestler or international Judoka, or perhaps the powerlifter or Crossfitter, who knows little, even nothing about Submissions or the positional hierarchy and scoring criteria of BJJ, but is just basically impossible to finish. They might do everything ‘wrong’ and yet you still can’t isolate that arm or get your hands around their neck. That doesn’t mean they deserve a higher grade. If their use of force doesn’t abide to the principle of maximum efficiency and leverage, then it’s not good Jiu-Jitsu, even if it’s effective grappling. There’s an abiding myth that a Judo black belt is automatically a BJJ blue belt, but rather the rule is that a Judo black belt may not compete as a white belt in Jiu-Jitsu. The semantics are critical. Outworking and outmuscling the next man might be laudable, especially in a competitor, but can’t be the whole story, especially when the individual can’t recognise their defects or inadequacy in a particular position because of their attributes. Good Jiu-Jitsu should have the physical output in synch with the practitioners capacity to generate force over a long period of time, far longer than competition rounds demand.
The flip side of it is that the Jiu-Jitsero should be in shape. Neglecting the physical is as bad as neglecting the technical, and both aspects ought to be in harmony. I wouldn’t personally give any belt out to a person who didn’t have reasonable fitness, or was too overweight to move the way they need to for their weight class.
As both a martial art and a sport, the expectations of teachers are very different from other sports, even combat ones. Nobody in their right mind would have discredited Cus D’amato because he didn’t put his gloves on and spar Tyson, but we’ve all seen ruthless criticism for that black belt “that won’t roll”.
There’s a clear segregation of trainer and training partner roles in sports that are not also considered martial arts. In Jiu-Jitsu there’s really no end to the responsibility to prove it yourself. The weight of the belt never comes off the bearers waist. A retired Boxing champion is considered a ‘former’ champion. The obligation to defend a championship belt comes at a set time against the number 1 challenger, and upon retirement all obligations are alleviated. A black belt may never be ‘former’. Even upon retiring from sporting competition, the expectation to train with one and all never disappears. Even while active, the idea that any newcomer can step into the ring and take a shot at the champ would be laughable in a boxing gym. Conversely, a Jiu-Jitsu black belt that refuses to roll is going to be subject to criticism.
Take the controversial case of Enson Inoue’s curious self demotion, and subsequent auto re-promotion from and back to black belt after a lengthy layoff. Aside from just being a weird promotional stunt, it garnered a ton of applause for the ‘humility’ to recognise that he was sub par at black belt, but not so much, publicly at least, criticism for having slipped in the first place.
Truthfully, nobody is afforded the right to demote or promote oneself, and every individual has the responsibility to sustain the belt once awarded. Each belt is in fact a burden as much as it is a reward.
Some efforts have been made to denote the competitor vs. the ‘professor’ at black belt, with the all white bar vs. the red bar, but it’s far from universally standard.
As in other sports, we can cite numerous examples of mediocre, or even poor or non-competitors that become world beating trainers and coaches, just as we can see the reverse. There are numerous examples of great competitors in all sports that have outright failed to replicate their own results with others.
Still, because Jiu-Jitsu is so intensely knowledge based, every individual in the academy will have some responsibility, however great or small, to share said knowledge with their training partners. While we may joke or gripe constantly about the curse of the ‘professor Faixa Branca’, there is an absolute necessity for most individuals to take some degree of teaching role, be it the odd tip or pointer after rolling, all the way a fully fledged class schedule.
Role in the gym
Like it or not, what makes one person the blue, purple, brown or black belt is not the same as the next. A person’s potential has to be factored in at some point. A student that overcomes physical or mental limitations is more deserving of promotion than the gifted individual that coasts to the same level of performance. Just as in weighing up competition career strategy and teaching abilities, what that person means to the team, the spirit of the academy and how they interact with the others around them will weigh in on their promotions. It ought to be a lesser factor, certainly, than ability, and you certainly cannot use the reasoning that a person is well liked and useful to excuse substandard technical capabilities. However, a person who shoulders responsibility for the academy and team is a more likely candidate for promotion than the gym hopper that comes from elsewhere to collect skills without commitment to the individuals in the gym or the group as a whole, irrespective of their abilities. Which brings us the next consideration-
Every time a black belt is in the news for some sort of misdemeanour of serious crime, the news source reports that they are indeed holding a black belt; inferring that they’ve not only violated the law and our general social and moral codes, but that whatever their offence was is somehow doubly egregious for having transgressed against the nebulous code of modern day bushido that sort of goes along with it. That is of course a symptom of the farrago of sport and art that the system of belts represents.
Nobody but nobody is shocked to discover that the professional footballer is a philanderer, domestic abuser, drug user etc. etc., and nor does anyone seriously feel that that their personal lives have much reflection on the integrity of their sport. Quite the opposite with Jiu-Jitsu. So you can’t have it both ways. You can’t have a disconnect between a man’s personal life and their professional life or pastime and judge their right to hold a rank solely on practical ability without reference to their character. We are wedged uncomfortably between the premium on athletic and technical ability and the supposed values of ‘martial arts’, whether we like it, concord with it, or not.
Now, most creatives, most fighters, certainly virtuosos in any field are difficult and deeply flawed individuals in some regard. If we had to wait for every belt candidate to be proven a Saint then we would have some very empty divisions at the mundials. It is however the responsibility of the teacher, he who grants the belt, to accept that the bearer is a reflection of them, not just in terms of technical ability but also with respect to their nature and behaviour. While that may not play into any technical criteria for belt promotion, the giver of the belt must consider that their name is forever after inextricably linked to the actions of the recipient, for better or worse.
It’s going outside of the remit of this article to enter the boring old debate over ‘self defence’ once again, but it boils down to this –
A heap of the ‘old school’ Gracie self defence side of Jiu-Jitsu more or less amounts to a bit of naive Krav Maga coupled with some sub-par Judo. It’s quite clear to anyone who has had to actually defend themselves in any real way that drilling basic handfighting and throwing is only really any use, and much better, once you’ve done a load of sport sparring anyway.
The term ‘self defence’ is essentially just a way to couch ‘street fighting’ into acceptable terminology. Just imagine the pure whoppers you would attract to your Jiu-Jitsu academy if you advertised that you taught ‘street fighting’?
Having said that, I won’t give a blue belt to someone who couldn’t defend themselves well enough to get out with their consciousness intact, in a one-on-one punch up in a taxi queue or kebab shop against an unskilled attacker of somewhere near the same size. If you’ve spent any serious time in reality martial arts, you’ve probably abandoned wild fantasies of trouncing with your bare hands the gang of seven guys with baseball bats and blades. Still, I’m a firm believer that you should be able to handle yourself, even if your primary focus is sport. I grew up in the post Karate Kid era, where everyone had Daniel Larusso pyjamas as children, then as teenagers saw the local Karate black belt get his jumper pulled over his head and get hockey punched into oblivion by a guy who’d never set foot in a dojo in his life. Having been attracted to Jiu-Jitsu in the first place because of the post UFC 1 guarantee that a BJJ black belt was a hard, hard man that would wreck you in a square go, it would be a tragedy to see Jiu-Jitsu become a laughing stock among the unskilled.
Then again, if you’re submitting everyone in your blue belt division but couldn’t put the cat out when it comes to real life, then fair play to you, if you can live with that. Who am I to question the credibility of your blue belt? It’s just a shame, and it wouldn’t take much work to rectify unless you’re a wimp.
Ultimately, there is no self-defence. Either you can fight, or you can’t. MMA fighters complicate matters immensely. The Demian Maia’s and Jacare Souza’s of the world of course wear unassailable faixa Preta’s on their waists, but what to do with those who don’t transition after a storied BJJ career but rather train in the kimono as a supplement to their MMA fighting career? When you see the articles like ‘Demetrius Johnson receives BJJ blue belt’, you know that he would trounce a huge majority of black belts, in a no-gi fight at least. When you see another UFC fighter who’s never fought a gi match receive his black belt from a ‘celebrity’ black belt trainer, the reaction is overwhelmingly that it’s a publicity stunt and the belt is forever considered dubious.
Carlson Gracie’s award of the black belt to Vitor Belfort was considered controversial at the time that ‘the Phenom’ was tearing up the fledgling international MMA scene. The story goes that one of the established Black belts approached Carlson and stated that it was broadly felt that the promotion was not deserved. Carlson replied “Sure, you’re right. He’s over there in the ring. Go and take it back off him.” Of course, nobody attempted.
Though the story may be apocryphal, it makes the point succinctly about the awkward relationship between the sport, art, and the less abstract forms of fighting.
Overhaul the belt system?
While grappling is as old as human history, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu as we know it is a remarkably new sport. It has undergone enormous development since the current belt system became the standard and it’s beginning to look like the available divisions don’t perfectly reflect the needs of the participants.
Some schools have tried to address the difficulty faced in the early stages – the lengthy wait between white and blue belt that disheartens so many practitioners, like SBG’s white and blue belt, or use of the children’s green belt as an intermediary adult grade. I have no strong opinion one way or the other about individual schools or franchises adopting non-standard belt systems, but ultimately they’re problematic in that they’re not recognised in competition. If the current belt system has not kept synch with the development of BJJ, radical changes to it would create greater problems, so it’s not likely to shift too severely any time soon.
The belt criteria is then inevitably different for each recipient, and for each black belt who gives a belt. Standards for dispensing them always have and always will be mutable and nebulous things. Anyone who achieves the rank of black belt and is allowed to award promotions ought to have been around enough to have experienced what club and competition standards are at different levels. They will have seen enough people come and go, graduate, and either thrive or falter, to know when to give and when to withhold.
If you are in the right place for you, then the coach you have chosen has your best interests at heart and is awarding you the grade that’s suitable for you.
An entirely uniform standard for each and every belt would be not only impossible, but actually undesirable. Trying to create a definitive parity between each and every school’s standards would stymie the growth of individual academies and the right to express oneself through Jiu-Jitsu.
Standards will rise naturally as the art spreads and develops, and further flung regions will catch up to the pace of the more established ones organically on the whole. Standards will change over time, and oblige individuals and academies to keep pace. There will always be centres of excellence and always be those lagging behind. As long as a minimum standard for each belt is broadly observed then smaller variations by region and by the individual’s potential and limitations aren’t really all that problematic.
Click bait articles of the ‘10 Top black belts lay down what to do to get your next belt’ type, are attractive, yet any attempt to spell it out in words is destined to miss the mark. Statements like ‘the blue belt must have a basic grasp of the major positions’ are positively Delphic, as one man’s definition of ‘basic grasp’ looks to another like positive mastery.
Like most teachers burdened with the responsibility of graduating, or not, I’ve both lost students who felt they ought to have received a promotion and gone elsewhere to receive it, and also been lambasted for proposing others for promotion.
Mistakes are inevitable, and it’s often a delicate gamble between letting a student become complacent as they languish too long, and burdening them prematurely. For the practitioner that has administered their life perfectly, achieved equilibrium between their training and other pursuits, and conquered the podium consistently – congratulations. In the majority of cases though, I give the belt with the admonition that this is a challenge, not a reward. Don’t let me down.
The professor that signs off each belt must profoundly know both the individual, as well as the art and sport. Granting the right to wear the belt should be a celebration, but one done with a solemn and earnest conviction. The black belt must have that experience, education and most of all – intuition, to know the correct belt to put around the student’s waist.
It’s a cliché attributed to many individuals on various BJJ memes, that “the belt only covers 2 inches of your ass – you have to cover the rest.”
In the end, the belt means nothing….and everything.