Black Belt – What does it Mean Today?

Back in the day, a black belt was like a superhero. He could break bricks with his hand, concrete slabs with his head, and boards with his fingers all while yelling a gut wrenching sound from his diaphragm with a piercing look in his eyes. Just by seeing his amazing power, focus, and control, you knew that this person could drop any punk who was dumb enough to attack him. Aside from his ability to break things, he could do splits, kick above his head with no effort, and had a confidence that spewed from every pore of his body. It was awesome.

In the old times, there was only one belt – white, and its purpose was to hold your uniform top together. The practitioners found that after all the years of training, the white belt turned black from sweat and dirt, which then symbolized that if you were wearing a black belt, you had been doing it a long time, because it took years for it to get that dirty. Later, a color belt system was created to show the different levels. It gave students a sense of achievement and a way to set short term goals. The reality was that most students would quit if they were a white belt for several years and then had only the black belt to be promoted to.

The black belt symbolized an advanced practitioner – someone who had mastered the basics and stood above all others under him. A black belt was tough, but kind. He could fight, but avoided them. He could break bones, but would rather shake hands. He was a warrior, but stood for peace. A black belt was EARNED and RESPECTED. Is a black belt viewed the same way nowadays? Not hardly, but it depends on who is viewing it and who the black belt is.

Non martial artists view a black belt one of two ways – either the fallacy that the black belt is someone you don’t mess with because he is unstoppable, or that having a black belt doesn’t mean anything when it comes to fighting. So you have two extremes – either a black belt is indestructible, or isn’t tough at all. Usually, however, many non martial artists are in the first group viewing black belts as nobody to mess with. The non martial artists in this category primarily base their belief off the movies they’ve seen. They saw Chuck Norris kick the crap out of eight guys at once in an episode of Walker Texas Ranger so they believe that’s what black belts can do. Sorry, but it’s a television show. Think about it: do you really think anybody could take out eight guys by himself? Although there are ways to get out of that situation, even by taking out two or three of them, but to beat the tar out of all eight guys and the black belt walking away unharmed? Not going to happen, unless he is armed.

Those on the other side of the coin, who view black belts as nobody’s, are usually ego driven tough guy wannabe’s who call themselves street fighters and are infatuated with wanting people to think they are tough. Other possibilities include: they saw a black belt get beat up by someone and the belt lost all validity; they saw that the black belt didn’t look like a black belt when throwing punches and kicks (in other words the punches and kicks looked horrible); or, they saw the black belt doing acrobatics and using unrealistic weapons like fans and swords, which made them realize that the only place that kind of stuff works is in the Dojo (training hall) when the training partner stands there for you with no resistance.

In the martial arts world, however, the black belt is viewed in several different ways. Most students have a goal of becoming a black belt. It’s a great achievement if you actually earn it. The problem is, nowadays, a black belt isn’t what it used to be. First off you have little kids getting them – something that is completely bizarre. No offense, but what is a 6 year old black belt going to do? He wouldn’t have a prayer of defending himself against an older punk – let’s say 10 years old – who decides to push him around, unless luck took over.

What I’ve found in today’s society is that 75 percent of black belts are not qualified to wear that rank – in my perception of what a black belt should be. The other 25 percent make up what a black belt should be (physically and mentally), in my view. The black belt has lost validity due to children getting them and due to people buying them and not earning them. Many instructors will promote people up through all the ranks quickly for the money. They end up with black belts who not only look horrible, but also couldn’t protect themselves if their lives depended on it. Not to mention, these so called black belts have a false belief system of actually thinking they are capable of defending themselves in any situation. The instructors who foolishly promote people like that are setting so many students up for failure and could possibly get them killed someday.

Another thing to ponder is that there are ten degrees of black. This means when you first get your black belt it’s actually a first degree black belt. Down the road you will get a second degree then third, fourth, etc. With that said, what I have seen quite often is rank jumping. I’ve seen unworthy instructors go from 4th to 7th completely skipping over 5th and 6th. I’ve also seen 3rd to 5th, 5th to 8th and 7th to 10th. Funny thing is, most of these people aren’t even good enough to be wearing a 1st degree black, in my opinion. If you are a Jiu-Jitsu 3rd degree black belt you shouldn’t be screwing up basic arm bars. If you are a Taekwondo 7th degree black belt, you better be able to kick above your waist. There is no excuse for jumping rank. Personally, to me, a black belt is a black belt, and I feel you will either continue to grow or you won’t. That’s where the other degrees come into play. If you continue to grow and mature as a martial artist you deserve to get higher degrees. If you don’t grow, you don’t deserve higher degrees. Since unworthy black belts keep getting higher degrees, nowadays, being higher ranked doesn’t make you better. I’ve seen several 6th and 7th degree black belts who aren’t as good as some 2nd and 3rd degrees I’ve worked with.

I’ve also noticed in a lot of cases that the higher up in the degrees people go, the less they do and the worse they become. If you are worse now than you were two years ago, you don’t deserve being promoted to another degree of black. You don’t deserve birthday cake rank – just because you got another year older, so another year IN the art. The thing is there is a huge difference between being IN the art and being AT the art. Someone who is IN the art for 10 years is nowhere near someone who has been AT the art for 4 years. Paying your monthly fee on time, and showing up to class once in a while doesn’t mean you are doing what you are supposed to do and doesn’t mean you will be ranked every 3-4 months. Yes, most schools will do that, but those are the schools that end up with horrible black belts. Also, as an instructor, just standing in front of class barking orders all the time and never training yourself, is not setting a good example. By training, I mean actually breaking a sweat. I train everyday. I train with my students. Yes, I teach them, correct them, assist them, and motivate them, but I still work out with them, partner up with them, spar with them, etc. What better way to set the example and for them to believe in you than by you showing them by being able to do everything you are asking them to do?

Personally, I don’t base my opinion of somebody according to belt color. I base my opinion according to her character and her actions. If I see a black belt on the mats, I pay attention to how she carry’s herself. Is she helpful to the under ranks or is she strutting around acting better than everybody? Is she working out or just standing around? Is she a talker, or a doer? I love black belts who talk but never do. The one’s that talk like they are great, but will never spar, or never roll (Jiu-Jitsu). For example, if you tell me you know Jiu-Jitsu and hold a pretty good rank in it, but you won’t roll, you are full of it. The old adage, “actions speak louder than words” comes into play here. I see it all the time.

Back to the question, what does a black belt mean today? In my view, the black belt doesn’t mean anything unless you earned it. If you’ve worked as hard as you are capable of working for several years accumulating some bumps and bruises along the way – possibly even shed a few tears, and pushed yourself to never settle for where you are at and to always strive for improvement, then that black belt is something you deserved. Now that you are a black belt, your training begins.

I’ve noticed in a lot of cases that once people are promoted to black belt they think they have reached the top. Some think they don’t need instructors anymore and others think now that they are black belts they don’t have to train anymore. Why is it in most schools black belts just stand around while everybody else works out? When you are training it is a journey, not a destination. I know for me, I work harder and harder every year. I gain more knowledge and try to improve my physical skill daily. And, it’s not for rank. In my heart and in my mind rank doesn’t mean a thing. That is just my opinion for my personal life. I had a goal of becoming a black belt and it was an awesome accomplishment; but since I have become an instructor and have traveled all around the United States training with the top martial artists in the world and teaching at seminars, rank has lost value for me. In fact, most of the time, I don’t even wear my black belt. I usually teach in Gi pants and a Miller’s Dojo t-shirt with no belt. I put the full uniform on and wear my belt only once in a while at my school, and anytime I teach seminars at other schools or attend seminars. Don’t get me wrong, I’m proud of who I was promoted under for my degrees of black and I know I earned every one of them, but I’m more interested in knowledge and skill – not belts. I’ve fought in the ring and protected myself several times on the street and my belts had nothing to do with it.

Truth is the concept of a black belt will never have a definitive definition. It’s a subjective thing – everybody will have different opinions about what a black belt should be and even martial arts masters will have their own opinions that differ from other masters. In a lot of schools, becoming a black belt is about how many Katas you have memorized, which has nothing to do with being able to protect yourself. In other schools it’s about who you beat in tournament sparring. If you are an orange belt and you beat a blue belt, you become a blue belt. The way some people get black belts is totally asinine, but again, the black belt will never be the same all around – it’s impossible, because there are so many different martial arts styles out there that a black belt can’t be the same all around. Aside from that, you could take 10 black belts in the same style or system, even under the same instructor, and you will have 10 different black belts. One may be better at point sparring, another may be better at full contact, another may be better at forms, another may be a better kicker, etc.

To me, as I mentioned earlier, the only way the black belt means something is if you earned it. My personal definition of a black belt is that she should be able to protect herself pretty effortlessly, be able to spar a few full-contact rounds without getting knocked out or giving up, be able to teach, have good character, respect all people, have glowing confidence, always stand up for what’s right, lead by example, always help others, be civic minded, have a teachable spirit, never stop learning, and have no ego.

It used to be that 1 out of every 100 students became a black belt, because it was so difficult to reach. Now everybody who sticks around and hands in a monthly check becomes a black belt. That should put things in perspective for you. It used to be getting a black belt was like getting a PHD. Notice not everybody gets a PHD; only those who put in all the hours of schooling and hard work by studying and getting good grades. Nowadays, getting a black belt is like graduating kindergarten – tough feat there; and the only PHD we would be talking about would be piled high and deep.

I know this was a long article that mostly covered my views of the black belt and belt rank in general from a martial arts expert viewpoint who’s honor, dignity, and integrity are more important than taking money to give away false rank. I came across a similar article about belt rank that I really enjoyed and I am going to share that with you now. It was written by a guy named Sami Ibrahim. Here it is:


One schools master is another schools novice. One studios black belt students are another studios orange belt students. Even within the same martial arts system and same organization you will see the inconsistency or disparity in equally ranked students. Even in the same school and with the same instructor no two students are the same in skill or understanding who have the same rank why?

Take for example a room of white belt students who are learning the Upper Block Basic. Each student sees the same move and works to get it right repeatedly in class, the instructor goes around making simple corrections until all the students are on the right track. If the upper block is a required basic for the next belt rank test, what is considered knowing it?

Is it simply that the student can make the motion that resembles the instructors motion superficially or does the student need to have all the joints at the correct alignment? Does the student have to demonstrate 1, 2, 3 maybe 8 applications with that basic? Is the student expected to know the when and when not to of that basic or do they have to show they can use it reflexively during a sparring portion of the test? Maybe some of those things will be required by the time they are third degree black belts or maybe not.

Some of those students will over the next few years put in countless hours of training at home while others will only train when they come to class. Some of those students will spend countless hours in research and experimentation with a given basic and others will never give it much thought. In the end some arbitrary test will award some token of progress. Later down the road the student or customer if you’re the commercial sort, who has met the tests and payment requirements can be given a teaching certificate that amounts to the instructor or associations endorsement that said individual is a capable of teaching the system.

The belt ranking system is idealistic in theory but not in application. In these modern times the value placed on the mighty dollar helps sway the vote, helps that instructor look at OTHER FACTORS…in promotion, such as well the guy lost weight and came to class on time, sure he still moves like a Yak but he quit smoking and he is such a nice guy, I guess I can overlook his lack of skill and award him a brown belt that he can grow into. Sure the boys still young but I can give him a Jr black belt after all his mom is rich and wants to take private lessons. In the end, the belt ranking system does help put food on the table or pay the rent and all those other things but as far as maintaining some kind of standard of measurement of skill or knowledge forget about it. These days all it really does is promote inflated egos and overconfident, unskilled teachers.

A belt ranking system is indeed a tool but for what true purpose lol (greed, control, bait, etc)