Lineages: Competing Up In Rank

I follow reader comments actively and often respond because it helps me get the writing creative juices flowing. If you (the reader) ever have ANY ideas feel free to hit me up on Facebook.

One of our readers, James, made a very astute comment responding to my recent article discussing belt legitimacy and the dangers of fake promotions, and I’m going to go ahead and share some of my thoughts.

Firstly, here is James’ post:

“I wholeheartedly agree that having a lineage is important and I do believe ranking can truly help with people being driven to progressing. My question is, what are your thoughts on people who don’t have a belt ranking but have competed in something for so long and did train to improve and can compete at the highest level. Just because they do not have a belt does not make them any less legit, right?”

James makes a very valid point.

Back in 2009, Josh Barnett, unranked at the time in BJJ, won No Gi worlds at the black belt level. After that tournament strict measures were put in place to prevent people from competing at ranks not awarded to them by traceable lineages, specifically, lineages with affiliation in Brazil. This was a move specifically to withhold access to IBJJF tournament from people unranked in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.

So what are the benefits of limiting entry to BJJ competition to people with verified rank? For starters if the black belt division is open to anyone many people will enter it just to say they’ve competed against a big name. The result will be black belt divisions full of people who aren’t black belts trying to make a name for themselves and it could potentially sway high level black belts away from those competitions. Also many competitions allow free entry to verifiable black belts, this can be very attractive. At Submission Addiction (a Sub only tournament I did last month) they had one such bracket that featured Vitor Oliveira, Vincius Marinho, BJ Nelson and my coach Pablo Angel Castro III, that was an amazing bracket to watch and they were able to attract those names with a hefty cash prize coupled with free competition. If they were letting just anyone enter that bracket (and not offering that cash prize) it is very likely that none of those guys would have competed. By forcing competitors to verify their rank, competitions gain legitimacy and can attract potentially better practitioners.

photo by: Tatame
photo by: Tatame

What are the benefits to allowing anyone to enter any division?

Guess what? BJJ is NOT the only grappling art out there. Josh Barnett is very capable of hanging with BJJ black belts at any level, and he’s not the only one. There are plenty of grapplers of various pedigrees who would be considered white belts in BJJ but can beat BJJ black belts, just ask Jon Jones (after he gets out of jail of course.) These are people who deserve to compete just as much as anyone else and are 100% legit.

I think there is no good answer to James’ question. There are tournaments that allow anyone to compete up in skill level, and I would encourage people to go to these and compete at the highest skill level they are comfortable with. I’ve seen some white belts do very well against upper belts in these sorts of comps, and for a good reason. A BJJ belt doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to be the baddest kid on the block, and it doesn’t discount other people’s talents and training. There are some competitions that will not simply let you enter whatever category you want to enter as they want to protect their interests and attract high level competitors. Unfortunately this is an unanswerable dilemma.

Thanks again, James, for the wonderful idea, and I’d like to reiterate if you have any ideas that you want to see explored in a Jiu Jitsu Times article please contact me on my Facebook and I’ll be happy to entertain your ideas and possibly follow up with an article exploring them.



Emil Fischer is an active blue belt competitor under Pablo Angel Castro III training with Strong Style Brasa and is sponsored by Pony Club Grappling Gear and Cruz Combat. For more information, other articles, and competition videos check out his athlete pages at and



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