The History of the Belt in Martial Arts and My Take on the BJJ Black Belt Kid

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Recently, news broke out about a young boy being awarded with a black belt in Brazilian jiu jitsu from school affiliated with BJJ legend, Carlos Machado. Believing BJJ to be one of the few martial arts left untouched by the phenomenon of the “McDojo”, the BJJ community responded with outcry.

McDojos
A McDojo is a martial arts school that provides belts or ranks based on fees paid, making it easier to advance in promotions, simply by paying for and attending more classes or in some cases, flat out purchasing the promotion. Although having a large set of ranks doesn’t necessarily mean a school is a McDojo, it is often indication, as more ranks usually means more profit, in return for the gratification and encouragement of a promotion. The most telling sign of a McDojo is thought to be kids with black belts.

To the general public, a black belt signifies great proficiency in a martial art and for a child to attain one can be sacrilegious, since children lack the physical and mental maturity to fully understand any martial art. It is especially odd for a child to receive a black belt in BJJ because BJJ relies heavily on practical application through full contact sparring.

The greatest problem with McDojos is the overinflated sense of technical proficiency and achievement, which can mislead a martial artist in believing they are well prepared for self defense. Sparring can reveal one’s true technical proficiency and conceptual grasp of BJJ, so it is rarer to see BJJ McDojos, compared to other martial arts.

Most members of the BJJ community, through a desire to maintain its traditions and through organizations like the International Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Federation (IBJJF), generally use the same system of 8 belts from white to red (for adults). This is the belt system most BJJ practitioners are familiar with; white, blue, purple, brown, black, red & black, red & white, and solid red.

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The IBJJF, created by Carlos Gracie Jr, organizes a majority of the major BJJ tournaments and as a result, it makes sense for most schools use the same system of belt colours for their students to be able to compete. In addition, the IBJJF also has minimum wait periods between belts. For example, someone must be a blue belt for at least 2 year before being promoted to purple belt. Ultimately, the earliest someone can attain an IBJJF-approved black belt is at the age of 19. However, this system of minimum wait periods only applies to competitors who register with the IBJJF, for competition and ranking, but it also acts as a general guideline for schools to use.

Many schools will also look at competition success, in-class performance, attendance, and character. Some even rely on tests to ensure their students are proficient enough with the set of techniques attributed to their rank. Despite guidelines from bodies like the IBJJF, the belt ranks and promotion criteria depends solely on the instructor of each school, or in many cases, the affiliation they are with.

In the case of the BJJ black belt kid, the school operates on a grading system that differs greatly from the IBJJF and most conventional BJJ schools, in which more belts exist and belts are given based on attendance. Many questioned how a legend like Carlos Machado could be affiliated with such a radical belt system. According to his response, the system was created by the instructor to further motivate his students, both children and adults, to stick with jiu jitsu, and was approved by Machado. Even the adults are graded on a different system, resulting in black belts that generally aren’t recognized by other schools or associations. As a result, this particular school also has an equivalency system for students that choose to join different schools (even other Carlos Machado affiliates) and for competition. A junior black belt is apparently equivalent to a purple belt, according to Machado, which is still odd considering how young the child black belt is.

So is the belt important? If so, why?

To answer that, let’s first look at the origins of the belt ranks.

Belt ranks in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu

Brazilian jiu jitsu originated in the early 1900s when judokas, like Soshihiro Satake, Geo Omori, and most famously Mitsuyo Maeda, brought the art of judo to Brazil. In teaching judo to Brazilians like the Gracie family and Luiz Franca, they sowed the seeds for Brazilian jiu jitsu. Back then, judo was very different from its modern iteration. In fact, it would’ve likely looked a lot like BJJ, combining throws (nage waza), grappling (katame waza – referring to all submissions and holds, even those performed standing, whereas newaza refers to solely ground techniques), and striking (atemi waza – which likely influenced the striking in BJJ self defense). Competitions were scored for throws, pins, and submissions within a 15 minute period. Only in recent years has Judo become the throw-based martial art we are familiar with today.

Helio Gracie adapted these techniques, mainly newaza due to his limited stature and physicality, as a self-defense system to overcome larger and stronger opponents. Interestingly, judo, meaning the gentle way, emphasized the same notion of efficiency. Even most of judo’s throwing techniques, when applied correctly, require little effort. Its parent art, jujitsu, meaning gentle art, believed in the same principles. Helio, further distilling the core tenet of efficiency, focused on newaza, potentially due to the great likelihood of which a real world self defense situation entered the realm of newaza and the efficiency of submissions.

As Pedro Valente explains in this video, BJJ started with two belts, a white one for practitioners and a dark blue one for instructors. Even as they progressed into a multi-belt system with more colours including the black belt, the ability to teach was important. Bars on the ends of belts were also introduced as a way to distinguish BJJ from other martial arts and to designate those who were taking or had completed an instructor’s course.

As BJJ continued to spread globally, it became commonplace for upper belts to teach, without taking an instructor’s course. In fact, many schools, affiliations, and lineages don’t have such a system. Instead the head instructor would designate instructors at their discretion. The introduction of a multi-colour belt system was likely also inspired by judo, but not as envisioned by Jigoro Kano, the founder of judo. It was Mikinosuke Kawaishi, a judoka who helped spread judo in Europe, who introduced a multi-tiered belt system in the early 1900s, supposedly to encourage students and establish a hierarchy of proficiency. This same approach was later adopted in mainstream judo and other martial arts like karate.

Jigoro Kano and the Belt System

Jigoro Kano

Jigoro Kano

The Gracie’s first iteration of a belt system was similar to that of Jigoro Kano’s. As judo grew in its early stages, Kano devised a way to separate his more skilled students from the others, using the dan. Students, who achieved the dan, meaning rank, were those who had a solid grasp of the fundamental teachings. This dan was indicated by a black belt, symbolizing the presence of knowledge. Conversely, those without a dan wore a white belt, symbolizing purity and the absence of knowledge.

Back then, the belt or obi was merely a part of the kimono, traditional Japanese wear, and not the gi/kimono of modern martial arts. In fact, Kano was also the one to introduce the martial arts gi. Before then, martial artists practiced in their regular clothes, typically the kimono. The judogi would later be modified and adopted by karate. Those without a dan were further divided into kyu, various grades leading up to the dan level. It is the kyu system that eventually became represented by the multicoloured belts introduced by Kawaishi.

The Black Belt
The black belt, or dan, however, did not signify the end of one’s martial journey, but rather the beginning. Despite popular legend, black belts were not attain though the accumulation of grime from years of dedication to a martial art, but bestowed as an indication of taking the first real step onto a lifelong journey. Kano awarded the black belt to those who had a sound understanding of the fundamentals and could then take those skills to further develop their own judo and judo as a whole. The shodan (sho, meaning first; dan, meaning rank) was actually the first step a judoka who take into developing themselves. From there, they would attain higher dan levels, up to 10 in modern judo, but limitless when Kano first conceived it. The kyu grades leading up to the shodan are merely the necessary foundations to begin to understand judo. In a sense, this system reflects the endless journey of martial arts, in which a black belt, or any belt, is not the end, merely a single step in the pursuit of always improving one’s self.

It is important to recognize that children were ranked using a different system, both in the days of Jigoro Kano and in the martial arts of today. As many martial arts did, Kano and the Gracie family after him emphasized the importance of character. Seeing martial arts as a way of life, Jigoro Kano named his iteration of Japanese jujitsu, judo. This change from jujitsu (the gentle art) to judo (the gentle way) represented the lifestyle and character Kano believed a martial artist should have. Brazilian jiu jitsu, however, retained the older name, because at the time of its formation, the name change hadn’t happened yet.

The Game of Go

goWhile Jigoro Kano introduced the kyu/dan system to martial arts, it actually originated from Go, an ancient Chinese military board game that later spread to Japan. Go’s original ranking system consisted of 9 ranks based on the nine-rank hierarchy for Chinese imperial court officials. These ranks would eventually lead to the formation of the dan for competitive play. The kyu ranks were used for those who hadn’t reached the level of the dan players. This structured system of rankings allowed competitions to match up opponents of similar skill level and for players of differing levels to play against each other with handicaps.


The Meaning of a Belt

A belt can mean many different things for different people. Part of that will come from the criteria your instructor chooses to reward them for. Some see the belt purely as an indication of BJJ skill and knowledge, others as a measure of your dedication and time spent devoted to the art. It’s a nod to tradition and also a representation of you, your instructor, and your school.

Competition
Perhaps, one of the most useful aspects of the belt refers to its origins in Go, the ability to separate individuals for competition. In this case, the belt is a denotation of skill. While there are exceptions, many martial arts without a belt system also use some sort of rank system, usually with certificates, to allow for fair competition. At the same time, open competitions bring people together to compete, regardless of skill or stature. Having a commonly accepted belt system allows members of different schools to compete with one another. A problem with such a system is sandbagging, the act of staying in a lower rank despite having the proficiency of a higher rank, which represents dishonesty and immaturity, fostered by the greed for the material benefits of winning.

Instructorship
Another important use of the belt system is that originally employed by Jigoro Kano and the Gracie family, to denote instructorship. The separation of unskilled and skilled practitioners provides a sign to students and the public of those competent enough to teach to art. The problem with this interpretation of belts is the reliance on a central governing body. Without one, people can hand out belts inappropriately to undeserving individuals, misleading students and the public. Again, this problem reflects a lack of character in those who seek profit off martial arts, at its detriment.

In modern day, all these uses of the belt system apply to the belts we are given. Giving a child a black belt is problematic because it doesn’t correspond to the widely accepted system of ranking, denote instructorship, or adequately reflect personal or spiritual development. In the original sense of the black belt in judo, as an indication of fundamental understanding, it is questionable whether a young child can reach it due to developmental limitations.

This incident of a black belt child should remind us that the black belt merely represents the first real step along a martial arts journey, not the end. It reflects the dedication committed to understanding the principle concepts of a martial art and the readiness to move forward for progress. In receiving a black belt, one received their shodan, or first ranking. Another interpretation of sho, is beginning, as in the beginning rank, and beginning to learn. In combat, a belt means very little as Royce Gracie explains:

“A black belt only covers two inches of your ass. You have to cover the rest.”