I’ve been practising mixed martial arts for a few years now. I’ve been lucky to have trained in schools and gyms all over the world, including some well-known ones that are household names. (Though some of my favourite experiences have been with the small gyms!)
In this time, speaking with many coaches about it and seeing the way schools use belts, I’ve formed the strong opinion that the importance of belts will disappear in modern Jiu-Jitsu, though remain in what will become traditional schools that teach in the gi. Here’s why.
In a nutshell:
- Modern “no-gi” Jiu-Jitsu, which is incorporating grappling and wrestling, will split away from Brazilian jiuijitsu in the gi. The belt is deprioritised in no-gi as one doesn’t wear it.
- Other sports practised by MMA practitioners, including boxing, Muay Thai, kickboxing, and wrestling, don’t have belt systems.
- There has not been a consistent effort to standardise belt grading system, and it’s left to the discretion of individual schools.
- MMA is the fastest-growing sport that includes jiu-jitsu, so many jiu-jitsu coaches come from that discipline. They don’t care about belts, so don’t encourage anyone else to.
The Future Split of Go and No Gi
The sport of jiu-jitsu, usually known as Brazilian jiu-jitsu, has been around for a hundred years or so. It was started in Brazil by some practitioners who learned it from Japanese travelling coaches.
The Brazilian practitioners focused on ground grappling or “newaza”, and less on the throws and strikes of Japanese jiu-jitsu (柔术). jiu-jitsu in Japan then evolved into judo (柔道), removing the strikes and focusing on throws, with ground work a second priority. Judo continued to evolve on its own, becoming the more specialised Olympic sport it is today. (The history is well told in the Wikipedia article on the evolution of Brazilian jiu-jitsu.)
These days, there are three kinds of Japanese grappling martial arts in the gi: judo, BJJ, and “traditional” jiu-jitsu, which is still taught in some schools (it looks really fun!). (There’s also Aikido, which for most people is less a martial art and more an art form, and Karate, which does have some grappling. There are presumably others, too, so I’d be happy to hear of yours if you want to mention it.)
This evolution and splitting is the biggest indication that further splits will happen. Some people love the gi and will keep practising and teaching it. It may become an Olympic sport. And so belts, a natural part of the uniform and a strong part of the culture, will remain there.
But since nobody wears a belt in no gi, and people even rarely wear “ranked” rash guards (even if they do, they often wear an old ranked guard well into other grades), the culture of belts and grading is likely to vanish there, too.
There is already a strong drift away from “traditional” martial arts values in Western cultures. In BJJ gyms, people used to observe formalities like bowing onto the mat, lining up at the wall in order of belt rank, or bowing to partners. These days, modern Western gyms see almost none of that.
Other Sports Don’t Use Belts and are Fine
A common refrain I encounter in defence of the belt system is that it’s a good level set for competitions.
But other competitive sports, including boxing, Muay Thai, and wrestling, don’t use belts – and have many amateur competitions.
All sports have amateur leagues. This is also true of jiu-jitsu. It’s natural to want to progress through the leagues, and competitors do so with experience. There are leagues with weight classes and age groups, which are already massive differentiators. You can layer on top of that a general “experience” level – amateur, pro amateur, semi-pro, and professional, with different rule sets.
There’s No Standardisation of Belts
If this sounds like chaos to you, I have news for you — it’s already chaos. There’s no standardisation of belts. Some schools will give the first belt to students after a year or two of training. Other competitive schools give it after up to five years (which is sometimes considered sandbagging). There’s a huge difference between a competitive white belt with five years of experience and an amateur with one to two years.
Further, in competition, you can sign up to compete in other belt classes. I have a purple belt friend who competes at the black belt level. He wins, sometimes. His general skill, athleticism, and attitude are all much more determining factors than a piece of cloth one of his coaches ceremoniously wrapped around his waist.
Anyone can abuse a competition. A pro fighter can sign up for amateur leagues and demolish newbies if they want. It’s frowned upon, and a little weird, but they can. Belts don’t stop that.
The way in which belts are awarded in different schools differs by a huge degree. In some schools, there’s a grading. Sometimes there’s a written exam! And in some schools, a coach will award a belt whenever they feel like it, surprising the member. Sometimes there’s a “shark tank” ceremony, sometimes a ceremony of being whipped by people with their belts, and sometimes nothing. It’s all up to the school and coach — which is fine.
MMA coaches Don’t Care
Sometimes I train at MMA schools. At these schools, the coaches are often MMA competitors who train on the side.
And while a lot of MMA athletes have trained in BJJ, once they start competing in MMA, they stop caring about belts — if they ever did. Mixed martial arts tournaments don’t use any kind of ranking to separate competitors other than amateur, professional, and everything in between. World-class competitors often are not black belts, for example, and the ones that are aren’t always the winners (or even the best grapplers).
So when I train at MMA schools, the coaches rarely ask me about my belt, and when they do, it’s only a curiosity. They also don’t really think about how good the students are getting and wonder if they should move up a belt. Nobody’s wearing a belt — so out of sight, out of mind.
So What’s Wrong with Belts?
Nothing! There’s nothing wrong with them. They’re a mark of respect awarded to you by a coach, and accepting them is a mark of respect for the coach.
None of this is to denigrate the belt system. Children, especially, really respond well to rewards and recognition. I’m no child psychologist, but it’s easy to see that it’s still a good idea there. Even adults respond well — we all have a bit of kid in us.
But the most powerful thing anyone ever told me about belts is that each person’s belt is their own, and relative mostly to themselves. For me, at the time of writing, I’m a blue belt. But it’s what comes before and after the belt that matters more. I’m a non-competitive but athletic 80kg / 180 lb blue belt in my forties. While I respect the belt my coach gave me, the other stuff is a stronger indication of my ability level.
So I have nothing against belts and ranks. But since they’re best used a marker of individual progress, and since their importance is diminishing as MMA gains popularity, I don’t see them having a place in modern jiu-jitsu.