There’s a video bouncing around on Facebook and the interwebs over the past few days. It’s pretty short and there is no sound, and it features a young kid at a BJJ academy in Texas. The reason it’s caught so much attention is that it seems the boy in the video has been promoted to 7th Degree Black Belt. It’s got a lot of people in the BJJ world riled up.

Here’s why it’s got people so angry. One of the major points of pride amongst BJJ / Brazilian Jiu Jitsu students and academies and the community is that we have worked very hard over the years to avoid this phenomenon of senseless, meaningless, rapid promotion. Many other styles of martial arts, once they have become established in the US have not. It is not at all uncommon to see a 9th degree black belt in any old Karate or Tae Kwon Do academy in any town in the US. In fact, I just googled a random, non-BJJ academy here in Denver. I’ve never even heard of it before, and it’s a traditional, stand-up striking martial art. Their list of instructors has one 7th degree, one 5th degree, one 4th degree, 3 3rd degree, 4 2nd degree, and countless 1st degree black belts. If this was a BJJ school, it would easily be the most famous BJJ school on earth. People would travel from all around to train there. This is not, however, a super famous school. There are exactly 21 9th degree black belts in Brazilian jiu jitsu in the world. That’s it. This is not meant as disparaging of martial artists who have put in time at this or any other school. It’s meant to call into question the idea of standards. More specifically, what exactly does a black belt mean, and what does it take to get one? If there are so many super-advanced black belts at this one school here in Denver, what does it say about how hard it is to achieve that rank?

If you think about martial arts mastery, it often conjures up images of aged masters from the far east. I don’t think it’s particularly important that these masters are from somewhere else, but I think there is something to the aged piece. Martial arts, like anything else difficult, meaningful, and transformative, is a long-term process. A very long-term process. It is and should be filled with years of struggling against challenges. This is why martial arts study is so often associated with calm and peaceful people. Think of David Carradine’s character in Kung Fu or Mr. Miyagi, played by Pat Moria, in The Karate Kid. Mr. Miyagi is a cool as a cucumber all the time, and he does his best to impart that to Daniel-san. That coolness comes about through long-term struggling against a difficult challenge. In his case, Okinawan Karate. Long-term struggle has a humbling, ego-defeating effect, and this yields peacefulness. Ego wants to be rewarded quickly, constantly, and easily. When a student of martial arts is advanced quickly and easily, it does nothing to break down the ego. In fact, it builds it up, over and over.

The real danger here is that a student who has advanced very quickly has likely not really learned anything very useful. I have trained in Brazilian jiu jitsu for 7 years now, and I can honestly say I am just starting to understand some of the basic principles. The average person takes at least 12 years to earn a black belt in BJJ. My Judo sensei told me once that he did not really learn anything useful about Judo until he was already a 3rd degree black belt, and he’s seen many of his colleagues go through the same thing.

As an instructor, if I give someone a black belt after only a few years, it makes several statements. For one, what I am teaching them is total garbage and is not worth learning. Nothing that can be mastered in 2 or 3 years really requires much mastery to start with. Secondly, as an instructor of martial arts, I must not truly value the health and welfare of my students if I have so poorly prepared my students to defend themselves. Self-defense is integral to martial arts, and when it disappears, the art is useless. It is not hard to find “black belt tests” that look like this one. These “black belts” have no idea what it’s like to actually kick or punch someone, because they train all the way to black belt with no contact. As a result, they don’t even have the sense to keep their hands up and protect their head at all times. This is rule #1 in self-defense: protect your head at all times, because anyone can get knocked out. The instructor of these students has sold them a bill of goods, and I hope they are never put to the test.

So why does it happen? For one reason: money. The only argument to promote someone quickly or falsely is money. There are lots of ways schools make money from promotions: belt testing, charging for the actual belt, charging for a special diploma that goes with the promotion, requirement to join a “black belt club”, admission to advanced classes, which requires higher tuition, etc. Out of these, a test to go on to the next belt is reasonable and fits with the tradition of martial arts academies. I think it’s fair for there to be some fee for the testing, because if done well, it’s very time-consuming. I had to test for my purple belt, and it took 3 hours. My teacher should get something for his time. Beyond that, the rest of these charges are just profiteering. Once a school has realized that it can be more profitable by associating money with moving up in rank, all sorts of doors open. For kids, they can create new belts to test for, or new stripes or “tips” for these belts. I often see kids with a belt that is itself two colors, e.g. blue with a yellow stripe. On that belt may be several white or black stripes, as well as stripes of various colors and patterns (camo, tiger) denoting who knows what. I don’t so much have a problem with giving a kid a stripe for good sportsmanship that is a piece of tiger-stripe tape. That’s fine. But you don’t need to charge for it. Because then you just keep inventing new stripes. For adults, schools often will monkey with established belt systems to expand them, adding ranks where none existed before, or “degrees” of a belt where it did not exist before. Or they will simply rush people to black belt (because black belt has a BIG belt fee associated with it) and then just keep testing/promoting them until they have an exalted rank that is far out of line with the reality of their abilities.

Which brings us back to the young man in the video above. To be clear, he has done nothing wrong. He’s a child, of course. It’s not his mistake. However, people are upset about his belt promotion because it undermines the integrity of the martial art of Brazilian jiu jitsu. Our community has worked harder than any other to retain the power of the black belt, and the belt system in general. There are only 5 belts in BJJ: white, blue, purple, brown, and black. While the promotion to any of the belts before black is under the individual discretion of the instructor, the promotion to black and above is very tightly regulated. There are no children’s black belts. Children cannot graduate from the kid’s belt system into adult belts until they are 15. Assuming they have attained the highest children’s rank (green/black belt), they receive a blue belt on their 16th birthday or thereabouts.

This is an important point: the system of techniques that we teach to children is the same system we teach to adults. The belt system is a continuous hierarchy, ending at black belt. BJJ does not have a “junior black belt” like other martial arts do, because our version of mastery is much more realistic. When I watch this black belt test video , I really have no idea what they are proving they can do. The techniques are non-contact and unrealistic. It looks a bit silly because it is. These folks sadly have a worse chance of surviving a real attack than an untrained person, because an untrained person is under no misconception that they have any useful skills. They are more likely to comply and keep themselves safe. These poor guys think they can defend themselves. In much the same way, giving a kid a black belt implies a level of skill and execution in the real world, against real attackers. That is simply unrealistic for a child of 11 or 12. There’s only one BJJ. There is no separate kids’ version. We want the child to understand where they are at in the spectrum of development of Brazilian jiu jitsu. We don’t pat them on the back with a fake “master” belt. That’s not good for anyone.

That’s the biggest difference between a BJJ belt and a belt from any other system. Any BJJ purple belt, for example, should have the same level of knowledge, roughly, as any other. They should be well rounded in their technique, with both good offense and defense. They should understand the fundamental principles of BJJ and be able to apply them against anyone, at any level of training. They should be fully in control and dominant against white belts, but also dangerous and skillful enough that a black belt cannot brush them off. When I watch that video, I don’t see how those guys would be dangerous to a real master of Tae Kwon Do. Sadly, I don’t even think they’d be dangerous to an aggressive youngster who watches boxing infrequently.

What it boils down to is integrity. Martial arts have had and will probably always have a problem with charlatans – people teaching garbage and charging good money for it. There’s a whole website devoted to rooting it out, but it will likely go on. The BJJ community has worked very, very hard over the years to prevent charlatans. The backlash against this child black belt, the ridicule that black belt test videos like the above face, and the adherence to a very standardized, well-publicized belt promotion system are all facets of that pursuit. they are all efforts to root out the fakes and protect students. We’ll continue to protect what we have. We’ve got a good thing going.

 

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