Belt promotions are a hot topic in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Hang around the mats and changerooms of any BJJ academy and you’ll hear lots of talk about who does and doesn’t deserve a promotion. Stories abound of instructors who intentionally delay promotions with the intention of giving their students the edge in competitions. But what does a belt really mean? And where did the colours come from?
This is a timely topic because I was recently promoted to purple belt. It was a funny experience because while I’ve always been the first person to downplay the importance of promotions, it would be a gargantuan lie to say that I wasn’t stoked to have my instructor call me up to the front and pull out that belt.
History of Belt Levels in Martial Arts
Most of us have heard the old story that in the old days you’d start with a white belt and over the years it would get dirtier until it was finally black, at which point you’d been training long enough that you’d probably reached black belt. There’s great symbolism in that, but my Internet search didn’t turn up any confirmation that seemed reliable so I turned back to the conventional sources.
Since Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu’s origins are in judo, that’s where I started. According to Neil Ohlenkamp’s article “The Judo Rank System” from the excellent Judo Info Site, Mikonosuke Kawaishi introduced colored belts to judo in 1935 when he began teaching in Paris because he thought that the westerners would be happier if they had more frequent progress markers.
Donn Draeger’s article “What is Rank? The Matter of Integrity of Judo Ranks” was originally published in the 1970 edition of the AAU / USJF Handbook and gives a historical perspective on the judo ranking system.
“Belt Colors and Ranking Tradition” is a detailed article written by Don Cunningham, the founder/director of Edo Machi-kata Taiho Jutsu, an organization devoted to researching, training, and teaching taiho jutsu (traditional Japanese arresting arts).
In his awesome book Jiu-Jitsu University, Saulo Ribeiro has an interesting breakdown of belt levels in BJJ:
- White – survival
- Blue – escapes
- Purple – the guard
- Brown – guard passing
- Black – submissions
After reading those articles, I put down a few random musings:
Belts Don’t Matter
If you have BJJ training partners whose combat sports backgrounds are in boxing or wrestling, you’ve probably heard this one… Q: What’s a belt for? A: To hold up your pants. In a practical sense, this is 100% true. You’re as good as you are, no matter what belt colour you happen to be wearing.
On the other hand, saying that belts don’t matter is pretty insulting to your jiu-jitsu instructor, who has devoted hours of their life to helping you improve your skills and is staking their own reputation on you by promoting you.
Belts are important for newcomers to your Brazilian jiu-jitsu club. I’m often amazed at how confidently some white belts will give bad instructions to other students. If a beginner has a technique question and they see a purple belt sitting there, they can be pretty sure that they’ll get good information from them.
Belt levels are also an important factor in the development of the large-scale Brazilian jiu-jitsu community because they encourage more BJJ practitioners to compete. Who wants to compete if you’re continually being smashed by higher belts? Exactly. When competitions are split into belt level categories, more jiu-jitsu players are likely to attend competitions, meet members of other clubs, and be exposed to different styles. Improving your competitive game is a huge motivator to fine-tune your favourite techniques and experiment with new ones.
Don’t Worry About Getting the Belt. Be the Belt
Many Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu students fixate on possession. How often have you heard a training partner say wistfully, “I can’t wait to get my blue belt”. Wrong angle. A more realistic attitude would be, “I can’t wait to be a blue belt”. See the difference? Which leads us to…
Let Your Instructor Make the Decision
You’ll hear the discussions at every BJJ academy. This guy should be a blue belt because one time he tapped out a blue belt. That guy did well in a competition and needs to be promoted. Buddy over there got his purple belt but still can’t sweep that white belt wrestler guy. But there’s a lot more to it than that. Technical knowledge is a huge part of the Brazilian jiu-jitsu game, and who has the experience to recognize the subtleties present in everyone’s techniques? Your instructor (hopefully).
Forget About Belts
At the end of the day, forget it. You want to work on one of your weaker positions but think you’ll lose face if people see you in a bad position against a lower belt? Quit being a weirdo. If your instructor gave you a blue, purple, brown, or black belt you probably deserve it, so put that thing on, forget about it, and get rolling.
The Fightworks Podcast polls gives points for further contemplation:
- Do you deserve your Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Belt?
- Should the IBJJF mandate belt promotions after set timeframes?
- Don Cunningham. “Belt Colors and Ranking Tradition”. http://www.e-budokai.com/articles/belts.htm
- Donn F. Draeger. “What is Rank? The Matter of Integrity of Judo Ranks”. http://www.usadojo.com/articles/whats-rank.htm
- Neil Ohlenkamp. “The Judo Rank System”. Judo Info Site. http://judoinfo.com/obi.htm
- Saulo Ribeiro. Jiu-Jitsu University. Victory Belt Publishing. 2008.