Belt Ranking in BJJ
Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ), like Karate, and Tae Kwon Do, are martial systems where practitioners in competition or simply in their academy are organized by a ranking system. Instructors award different coloured belts based on skill level, and it is a very exciting time for students who are due for a promotion. Everyone gathers together and we celebrate as a team and congratulate those that received a promotion with various traditions that can range from a ceremonial belt whipping to being tossed by your instructor.
BJJ has relatively few belts on the road to the coveted black belt. All students start with a white belt before moving on to blue, purple, brown, and black. Do not be fooled by thinking that the few amount of belts leads to a speedy ascent to black belt mastery. Even a dedicated practitioner who is at the academy 3-4 times a week may take 10 years to earn the coveted rank. Professor Amir Yafawi is the first Kombat Arts student to begin his BJJ journey as a white belt and go on to be awarded his black belt (2013) being Kombat Art’s first awarded black belt. He is now the sole instructor.
So where did the belt ranking system come from? Originally there was only white belts used and it was believed that after years and years or training hard, the belt got dirty and turned black. While this is a beautiful metaphor for hard work and dedication, from my research it is just that, a metaphor. Jigoro Kano, the founder of Judo in Japan, noticed that high school swimmers were ranked by ribbons to separate advanced swimmers from beginners. In Judo, Kano would separate advanced students from beginners using only white and black belts.
The founders of BJJ, Carlos and Helio Gracie noticed this and included a belt system not for fighting skill but for teaching skills. All students would wear white belts while students who were in the process of becoming instructors would wear a light blue belt. Upon completion of the instructor’s course they would be awarded a dark blue belt; there was not even a black belt yet. Royce Gracie to this day can still be seen wearing a dark blue belt in some public appearances.
With the creation of the international federation of BJJ came the first use of the black belt as well as the bar system. Each belt has a black bar to distinguish BJJ from other martial arts. This bar is so that the instructor can award stripes for a total of 4. These stripes indicate where the student is within the belt, so a student with no, or one stripe, is at the beginning of that belt, while a student with 4 stripes will receive their new belt soon. This came around the same time that all the belt colours were introduces so that students would stay motivated by more frequent promotions.
Today academies are organized by the belt system so that if you wish to compete in a tournament you will not find yourself competing against much more advanced students. Students should be encouraged not to focus on the belt they have or the belt they want. People often say it doesn’t matter what belt you have, it is just used to keep the Gi closed. Keep training hard and you will look down and see your belt magically change colour. Good luck and keep rolling!
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Special Thanks to Kombat Arts Training Academy Member Igor Osowski for this great history lesson!