When I first started training in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, over a decade ago, reaching the level of black belt was a goal I had not seriously considered as a possibility. The few black belts I had encountered were so far above my skill level that it seemed inconceivable to me that I could one day reach the same level as them. I just trained and loved learning a new form of self defense that seemed way more practical and efficient than anything I had seen prior. Back then as a brand new white belt, the skills needed for earning a “Faixa-Preta” seemed unobtainable and almost mystical in nature. These guys were larger than life and when they entered a gymnasium or academy, they instantly gained the attention of everyone around. I remember the first time I saw Renzo Gracie walk into a tournament, and the buzz he created amongst all the competitors. Back then, the black belts that I had seen in person were so fluid in their movements, with such a huge base of knowledge and seemingly unbeatable presence on the mats that I never really focused on getting to be as good as they were, I just liked coming in a rolling each day and thought it was cool when I started to learn new moves and positions. I was happy when I could pull of a submission on another white belt. At most I thought that the black belt was an eventual outcome and product of my efforts that would one day just “happen” if I didn’t quit the sport. I suppose that ignorance is bliss as I now know that to earn a black belt requires more than just a solid attendance record at the academy. It takes a combination of practice, patience, perseverance and persistence. Loyalty to the academy, participation in competitions and teaching responsibilities are usually required of a student serious about the art. Access to proper training facilities, serious training partners and legitimate professors to guide you from start to finish will give any student a chance at reaching their goals within the sport. When asked, the majority of jiu jitsu practitioners feel that the rank of black belt is considerably more difficult and longer to reach in our art as compared with many other traditional forms of martial arts, which makes it so much more rewarding when we finally reach our goal of BJJ black belt. I had a student tell me that their former karate instructor had reached the rank of 3rd degree black belt in 4 years. Not to diminish the accomplishments and legitimacy of other martial arts, but the idea of being considered an expert in any field seems to require more than 4 years of training. I look back now at what I was capable of in jiu jitsu after only 4 years and compare it to what I am capable of doing now and it amazes me how far I have progressed. For those who have reached the rank, it is something that we can truly be proud of. Over time I developed a new understanding of what the black belt meant. Its symbolism represents different qualities for different practitioners of the art, but most black belts share a common definition and understanding of what the belt means to them. Back when I first began Jiu Jitsu, I looked at black belt instructors and competitors as simply, jiu jitsu machines. The wearer of the black band was larger than life. They were modern day “supermen” with such superior fighting skills that they were incapable of being defeated by anyone. But eventually over time my understanding of the black belt began to change and grow with each new belt promotion and ultimately I realized that being a black belt means more than just having top level jiu jitsu skills, but also having moral and personal characteristics that exemplify the importance and magnitude of one of our arts highest honors. In my opinion, without these traits to go with the skill, the rank is significantly diminished in its role, prestige and meaning.
In order to get a better appreciation of what being a black belt means, I asked several of the world’s best black belt coaches and competitors to finish a simple sentence. “Being a Black Belt means…?” The answers were an insightful glimpse into what the rank means to some of the best jiu jitsu fighters and coaches the sport has ever known. Answers were often as unique as the jiu jitsu styles of the individuals responding but all shared a strong common bond in what they felt the significance that their rank represents. One such theme shared by many black belts is the idea of respect. Carlson Gracie 6th degree Black Belt and legendary professor Ricardo De La Riva shared that “Being a Black Belt means respect, responsibility and dedication.” This is a similar sentiment felt by 5 time Black Belt World Champion Robson Moura who said “Being a Black Belt means a lot of dedication and respect.” The respect a Black Belt possesses should carry over to all aspects of their life. The respect must not be solely for their rank, school and accomplishments, but for the art itself and all other people whose lives they touch regardless of their belt ranking or even if they are affiliated in BJJ or not. Respect transcends through all areas of their existence. Bruno Frazzato a PAN, Brazilian National, European and World champion from team Atos said “Being a black belt means to have great respect and responsibility within and outside of the tatami. Ossss!!!!!” All three answered the question in a similar way, that the idea of the black belt is not about getting respect from others but rather giving respect to them. As black belts we have a responsibility to give back to the sport and our students for all that it has given to us.
The actions of a black belt reflect not only who they are as a person, but are reflected upon the entirety of the Jiu Jitsu community as well. Whether you or on or off the mat, your actions speak volumes of who you are as a person. Rolls Gracie black belt and leader of the perennial powerhouse, Team Alliance, Romero “Jacare” Cavalcanti shared… “Being a black belt means that you have to have good behavior in and out of the mats.” Unfortunately, not everyone who wears a black belt deserves the respect that they may be shown. It’s who they are as person that garners such adulation. A black belt should treat a day one student with the same regard and consideration as a higher ranking training partner that they’ve known for years. Rigan Machado Black Belt, John Will, one of the first 12 non Brazilians to achieve the rank of Black Belt in BJJ stated once…“A belt shouldn’t engender respect or admiration – that is a misguided concept; ultimately, it is the person wearing the belt that earns or fails to earn, respect and admiration.”
The respect that a student praises upon their professor is equally valued and returned to the student by the professor. Where a Black Belt was earned by the individual who wears it, the respect others show them must also be earned through dedication to the students and the sport. When you appreciate the thoughts and actions and efforts of others on and off the mat and treat them with dignity, fairness and compassion, you will define “respect” through your behavior and represent some of the hidden qualities valued by Black Belts. Often people view and regard black belts for their jiu jitsu abilities but those truly respected in the art that are held in the highest esteem because of their personal character. To truly be a black belt requires respect. Murilo Bustamante is one of the original founders and current leader of Brazilian Top Team. He is a former UFC champion and 5th degree Black Belt and shared his feelings with this response…“Being a Black Belt means that I have to be concerned about my behavior and to do my best to be a good example to people that are starting BJJ and also those who look up to the Black Belts, knowing that I am representing BJJ wherever I am, so I have to do the right thing to show how good my sport is to everyone that doesn’t know it well. In the end it means a lot of responsibility, and the Black Belt that doesn’t know that, doesn’t deserve to be a Black Belt.”
To obtain the highest ranks in Jiu Jitsu obviously requires a tremendous deal of technical knowledge of the art itself. All of the respect in the world will not get you past your white belt if you don’t learn and train, however, by having respect for the discipline and learning process as well as your professors, you will be able to advance quickly and proficiently. The concept of lifelong learning is a theme that has come up several times among the Black Belts who have answered what it means to be a Black Belt. There is a general understanding that once the rank of black is achieved, the learning must continue…there is never a period in which you can stop learning. The process only gets more difficult, but you are now armed with the tools needed to study the art in greater detail and therefore be more capable of understanding it and teaching it to others. There is no easy path to take to achieve your goals and advance in Jiu Jitsu. Team Paragon instructor and champion competitor Sean Apperson from Hollywood BJJ sums up this philosophy nicely. He said “Being a black belt means that the journey is just beginning. Pass on what you know and remember that there is no short-cut to anyplace worth going.” It takes years of hard work, blood, sweat and toil to achieve that which is worth working for. If it was easy, every school would be full of black belts and the achievement would seem less prestigious. Once you get there, your responsibility to your students and training partners is now even greater and you’ll need to share your wealth of knowledge. Tim Peterson, co-owner and head instructor of Robot Brazilian Jiu Jitsu in Los Angeles California tells us that “Being a black belt means my hindsight can be another's foresight.” This attitude is instrumental in passing knowledge to others and helping the sport grow through competition, instruction and training. Without the proper teaching, leaning, training and effort, there will be glaring holes in your game and it will transfer over to your students. The idea of lifelong learning in jiu jitsu and life is mirrored by Superstar World Champions Guilherme and Rafael Mendes when they told me… "Being a Black Belt means the way of our life. When we got the black belt we knew that we were in the beginning of our life in the martial arts world, because the learning never stops, we will be eternal students. When we got our black belts, it was a dream, because we worked so hard to arrive there, but we know that we will be always learning, it's amazing!" The first American to win the Brazilian nationals at black belt and world champion heavyweight, Rafael Lovato jr. adds “Being a Black Belt means constantly being a student, being a positive influence on those around you, and being the best person you can be on and off the mat.”
Several of the respondents bring up the notion that being a black belt means you are a role model both on and off the mat and must set an example for not just other fighters, but everyone you meet. Your black belt means that you are now a representative of the sport and your actions will influence the perceptions that others have of not only you, but of other black belts, fighters and the sport itself. Head IBJJF referee and 5th degree black belt Alvaro Mansor gives an answer that reflects his years of wisdom when he tells us… “Being a black belt means you must have honor, knowledge to pass, not only within the Tatami but outside too, as a way of life… and we must never forget, that a black belt is a reflection upon many others, so we must always be careful with our attitudes.”
A few of the black belts that I spoke to brought up the idea of being a black belt “as a journey” of sorts in their answers. They stated that the belt was a goal and once they achieved it, they realized that it was not the end of their journey but rather, the beginning. Brazilian Top Team Melbourne instructor and 2010 European Champion and Worlds medio-pessado competitor Pedro Lima told me that “Being a black belt means love, dedication, sacrifice, respect and a new beginning” In Jiu Jitsu one must make great sacrifices to achieve their goals…they do so out of love of the sport and respect for their instructors, teammates, family and friends who support them. All of these people are instrumental in helping one down the road we travel when studying jiu jitsu. American Top Team black belt and UFC veteran Din Thomas stated “being a black belt means the beginning of a journey. Life is merely a road trip with no final destination, but countless destinations that are determined by ones appetite and appreciation for life. The day I received my black belt is the day I actually stepped outside and started making moves. Anything prior was just packing my bags and planning my route.” Once one has reached the goal of black, a spiritual transmogrification has occurred and the artist and the sport have become one. American standout and Lloyd Irvin phenom and perennial championship finalist J.T. “The Spiderman” Torres says…“Being a black means that you have passion for a martial art/lifestyle that requires years of dedication. You have put in hard work with a mixture of love and the final result is you becoming a Brazilian jiu jitsu black belt. You are now Brazilian jiu jitsu.” This is easy to understand as when one goes to a website or opens a BJJ magazine, the faces of many of the superstars are what we see and associate with the sport. These same faces live and breathe jiu jitsu. Every day revolves around training in BJJ, eating for BJJ, teaching BJJ and living your life in a manner that will promote your growth and success in BJJ. This type of dedication is never one out of necessity, but rather out of a true passion for the art. This dedication and sacrifice is forged out of love and desire. The fruits of your labor will be the success you achieve on and off the mat and the progress and achievements of your students. The black belt journey is not one that you take alone, but rather with those you help and who help you along the way. These people will become more than just teammates; they will become friends and even family to you. Gracie Barra black belt and medalist at the Europeans, Pan and Worlds, Victor Estima shares his views on what it means to be a black belt when he tells us… “When most people start training they think that being a black belt is their maximum goal. But as time passes by they discover that it's not the main one. The friends we make become family, the life style we have… it's healthy and exciting. When time comes the get the black belt you realize that you still feel the same way as you did when you started but with so much to learn still, but obviously with a sensation of “job done” . Being a black belt means that you are a family to your team mates, you are a role model to lower grades, you are tough and smart to have reached such an achievement.”
There is a certain satisfaction that comes with a black belt and one of the most memorable days in a person’s life is when they finally get handed the illustrious rank from their instructor. The pride and confidence that one gains from such an honor is something that most black belts will agree is a unique experience second perhaps, only to the birth of a child in how monumental such an achievement is in one’s life. When asking OTM co-founder and Head instructor at Heroes Martial Arts in San Jose, Alan “Gumby” Marques what it means to be a Black Belt, he gives us this gem…” Plenty of different ways of answering this, but I always think about what my instructor (Ralph Gracie) said at the ceremony I got my black belt at, "there are a lot of different black belts out there, but if you got a black belt from me it means that you could walk through hell, and the devil himself would be afraid of you." Such self assurance in one’s abilities is developed through thousands of hours spent on the mats, pushing your body to the limit in training to progress slowly over time in the sport. It takes a special person in the right circumstances with the right attitude to get there. And Finally we are reminded of this lesson with the reply received from world champion and Gracie Elite Team Black Belt Caio Terra who said…”Being a black belt means that I haven’t quit.
Written By BJJ Black Belt Tim Bruce from Gracie Barra Delray Beach