The Conundrum Of BJJ Belt Ranking

BJJ Belt

Ranking standards in Brazilian jiu-jitsu today are part of a never-ending debate among its practitioners and professors. Much like every other aspect of our society, opinions differ based on culture and personal beliefs.

When I first began training in BJJ in the mid-1990’s, the art was in its infancy in the United States and highly regulated, primarily by the Gracie and Machado families. Their standards for belt promotions were high and the main focus was on self-defense. The early UFC was essentially an infomercial to show the effectiveness of jiu-jitsu against all other martial arts in a real fight. It did that in a huge way and revolutionized martial arts almost over night. That was over two decades ago, and it has transformed dramatically since then.

Today, in the USA and around the world, this explosion of popularity has caused BJJ to become unregulated. It’s often difficult to even trace lineage back to many of today’s black belt instructors.

Each instructor has their own way of promoting students, which often is based on convenience and lower expectations to improve student retention.

More often than not, students are promoted based upon one of the following criteria:

1) Number of classes or months attended

2) Winning a tournament decision

3) Dominating live wrestling in the academy against similar belt ranks

The problem with not testing students is it creates a different standard not only among all practitioners around the world, but also within each academy. If a student is being promoted based on time or attendance, it fails to consider aspects such as natural talent, learning comprehension, and hard work. I’ve seen students attend the same number of classes where one was ready to be promoted in six months but another was not ready for six years. Should they be promoted anyway?

Winning a tournament can also be inaccurate. One competitor may face one mediocre opponent and win while another may face one or more tough opponents and barely lose. Does this mean the one who won is more deserving of the next rank?

Dominating students at their own academy is a bit better for helping an instructor decide if it’s time for a student to be promoted. However certain considerations should be made. Is the student using good technique or strength and size to dominate? Are they one-dimensional or do they display versatility from all positions. For example, an experienced wrestler that holds down smaller blue belts and has one submission but cannot fight off their back does not deserve a blue belt. He or she is simply a good wrestler with one submission.

In the attempt to appeal to a broader range of clientele, many schools put little or no emphasis on self-defense for their students. This carries over to a serious problem in ranking students who know little or nothing about how to strike or defend against strikes but are being ranked in a “martial” art. I have personally witnessed many high-ranking Brazilian jiu-jitsu practitioners and even instructors who have absolutely no experience in actual self-defense scenarios. This is disturbing and could be dangerous to students who initially began training to learn how to defend themselves but instead were misled to believe what they have been learning could easily and seamlessly be converted to work in a self-defense situation.

At my academy I must see the students proficient during live sparring. At that time I will tell them to prepare to be tested on their specific and lengthy belt curriculum. The curriculum covers: self-defense, takedowns, throws, offense and defense from all standard ground positions and escapes.  They must perform these techniques with a score of 85% or higher. I always review and fix any mistakes during the process so they can note and fix any errors. Every student after passing has remarked that they come out having better comprehension and confidence. Every single student is held to the exact same standards and curriculum knowledge base as the ones before. There are no questions or uncertainties of what is required.

In a society of instant gratification and participation trophies, I believe the true value of what rank is really about is quickly being lost. Too much emphasis is being put on what color belt is around your waist, which, unfortunately, is the focus of the majority of students these days. I’ve even had a handful of students leave because they were so sure they “deserved” to be promoted and knew better than me. They went somewhere else with lower standards for belt testing or were promoted by a friend.

The belt should be used as a personal tool to set short and long term goals for students to monitor their own improvement of both curriculum knowledge and live application. When students don’t have set guidelines to improve, it is like building a house without blueprints.

Don’t be in a rush. Just focus on self-improvement. Take advantage of all the benefits of training BJJ and enjoy the ride.

Scott “TNT” Tannenbaum

Owner/ Head Instructor of TNT MMA Training Center (Phoenix, AZ)

BJJ Practitioner for 24 years /
3 Degree Black belt under Rigan Machado


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