“A Belt Covers Only 2 Inches of Your Ass. You Have to Cover the Rest.”
This sentence, written in various ways across the internet, is one of the most famous quotes by BJJ and MMA legend Royce Gracie.
In this post, I want to dive into BJJ’s belt system and some problems that might arise with it.
Just a little disclaimer: What I am saying in this blog post is obviously my personal and humble opinion and might very well be wrong.
Unlike in many other martial arts, the Jiu Jitsu belt (mostly) directly translates to how savage you are on (and off) the mats. In other words, you usually do not only get promoted for knowledge, but for actual skill.
Most Jiu Jitsu schools do not have a test for each belt level, but give out the belts ‘randomly’. By ‘randomly’, I simply mean ‘as soon as the professor thinks a student has reached a certain level of expertise’. Amazingly, no matter where you are in the world, the belt levels are about the same.
In Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, just like in almost every other martial art, beginners start with a white belt. The white belt is followed by three coloured belts (blue, purple and brown), which are followed by the black belt. After the black belt, you can, in theory, achieve a number of belts up to a red belt.
Jiu Jitsu belts have bars on one of their ends. This bar is usually black, only the black belt has a red bar (yes, some black belts have a white bar and even some coloured belts have differently coloured bars). As Jiu Jitsu has a relatively small number of belts one can achieve, in comparison to i.e. Judo, a practitioner can achieve ranks in between the belts. These ranks are expressed with white stripes on one’s bar. Per belt, a practitioner may achieve four stripes. However, stripes are usually not mandatory. Thus, one may get promoted to a new belt without having a single stripe.
As there are almost no standardized tests or curriculums for the belt levels, it might be tough to say when a practitioner is ready to get a new belt (or stripe). Even though the level of expertise at each belt is fairly equal among schools worldwide, there is a discrepancy between elite level academies and your common BJJ gym. Furthermore, most people only do Jiu Jitsu for fun or to exercise, while other practitioners are high level athletes and competitors. Naturally, there might be a difference in skill between a recreational practitioner and a competitive athlete, even though they have the same belt colour.
Another huge factor in this is the age of a practitioner. Jiu Jitsu is a relatively new martial art. Thus, many people only discovered it fairly late in their lives. A 70-year old purple belt obviously might be outclassed by a 17-year old blue belt who has been training since he could walk.
All that leads to the claim by many martial artists that the Jiu Jitsu belt system is vague and random.
Interestingly, more and more schools implement curriculums with certain techniques a practitioner must know for each belt level.
Nonetheless, you have to see every Jiu Jitsu practitioner as an individual. Every person has certain goals: Some people just want to get in shape, others want to defend themselves, others want to compete, become full-time athletes and/or MMA fighters, and so on… Thus, naturally, the skill levels per belt in one single academy may vary greatly. If you look at all practitioners, there might be even bigger differences.
Ultimately, If you got promoted to a certain rank in Jiu Jitsu, you most likely have the skill and knowledge you should have and you can and should be proud of that!