From No-Belt To Black Belt: My Arnis Belt System.
White-White Stripe-Yellow-Yellow Stripe-Orange-Orange Stripe-Green-Green Stripe-Purple-Purple Stripe-Purple Two Stripe-Blue-Blue Stripe-Blue Two Stripe-Blue Three Stripe-Brown-Brown Stripe-Brown Two Stripe-Brown Three Stripe-Brown Four Stripe-Red-Red Stripe-Red Two Stripe-Red Three Stripe-Red Four Stripe-Red Five Stripe-Black.
With the modern-day commercialization of martial arts, there are oftentimes a myriad of belt colours which one must pass through in order to achieve a “certifiable” understanding in any art. So much so, that it can become quite daunting for any practitioner to even hope to achieve their Black Belt — let alone, save up the inordinate sums of money which they would need in order to continue their “years of training”. Yet, in the end, what will that long-time practitioner really have achieved? A colourful set of belts alongside a wobbly foundation for actual knowledge on how to defend themselves, perhaps?
With the advent of the UFC, the world was enlightened to the fact that a smaller, weaker person could defend themselves (much less, win) against a considerably larger opponent using solely technique. What we got to see in the UFC was Royce Gracie*, son of originator Hélio Gracie*, take on several goliaths in a cage and come out relatively unscathed. All of a sudden, everyone just had to learn this seemingly superhuman art!
However, that isn't where the story of Gracie Jiu Jitsu began. It began back in Brazil in 1914 with an expat named Mitsuyo Maeda*. Maeda, a longtime prizefighter in no-holds-barred competitions held around the globe, was a skilled practitioner in the art of Judo; passing away with the official rank of 7th Dan Black Belt. In trade for asylum in Brazil, Maeda offered to train Gastão Gracie’s* sons, Hélio and Carlos, in the art of Jiu Jitsu. It should be noted that, in order for Maeda to not have disgraced the name of Judo during his prize fighting days (he was known for employing some of Judo’s not-so-favourable techniques, such as eye-gouging and small join manipulation), Maeda went by the name Jiu Jitsu instead of Judo. That's also why it would later become Gracie Jiu Jitsu and not Gracie Judo...
Flash forward some years later, when Hélio and his brother (also promoter at the time) Carlos followed in the footsteps of their former teacher; taking on domestic prize fights in Brazil, so as to establish credibility for their familial art — now named Gracie Jiu Jitsu (or GJJ for short).
Only losing one battle against the world champion of Judo at the time, their art became an esteemed resource for learning effective self defence techniques. Hélio then went on to host both private and group classes in order to instruct various pupils on his family's art. So, how many ranks were there, you ask? Three. White, Light Blue and Navy Blue. White was reserved for all standard practitioners of the art, Light Blue was reserved for all Assistant Instructors, and Navy Blue was reserved for Professors (or Instructors of the art). How, then, could you differentiate one White Belt's level over another? Skill.
Let’s examine the art of Judo (the original style of GJJ). In Japan, Judo is (even-still) a pivotal part of Japan's educational system; such that, everyone (at some point during their scholastic career) will have practiced Judo. How many belts were there originally before adopting a more commercial approach? Two. White and Black. White for basic learners and Black for someone who has understood the core principles of the techniques. It's only now, in an effort to "hook" students and keep them coming back to Judo clubs around the globe, do you see up to 14 divisible ranks* being used. What differentiated one White Belt from another before the employment of so many different belt ranks? Skill.
How about perhaps the most famed military experts, quite often romanticized about in history, the Samurai? There were no beginner or intermediate-ranked Samurai; you either were a Samurai or you were not. How about in more formalized education systems? Can you be a Purple Belt Doctor? A Yellow Belt Lawyer? A Brown Belt Nurse? No, you either are it or you’re not.
In an attempt to purify my own art, and follow in the footsteps of those who had inspired me throughout my previous and continued marital arts journeys, my Arnis style only comes down to two ranks: No-Belt and Black Belt. Does the student show competence in wielding a stick? Can they spar without landing a fatal blow on their training partner? Do they carry themselves with the confidence of knowing how to defend themselves? Can they apply what they have been taught to medium-blade, short-blade, innocuous looking objects, and unarmed combat? If so, then they are certainly worthy of the rank of Black Belt in my eyes. Which Black Belt is the most skilled? Test them and see.
How about degrees? I see that you have 4 Degrees and that you can earn up to 8 Degrees in total. Degrees, as explained to me by my teacher, are signifiers of not only years of practice, but one's effectiveness as a teacher. When do you get Degrees? Perhaps right away, or perhaps over time… It really depends on how well you know the art and how well you can pass that knowledge on to another. Perhaps you are an amazing teacher and can convey your message accurately and effectively. Then you are certainly above the rank of others who are also on the path of teaching. Or maybe you’re a bit “rough around the edges” and fumble over your explanations on how the style works. In that case, you may have to wait a few years...
Ultimately, Degrees should only be seen (much like Degrees given out in Gracie Jiu Jitsu) as signifiers of teaching ability and years of practice. Typically, as passed down in my own lineage (Black Scorpion Arnis*), teachers receive an automatic Degree every two years up until their Fourth Degree (Mastery). After that, one must wait three years each until their Eighth Degree. If you look at it, that’s 20-years of teaching and practicing the art. With 20-years of practicing and teaching under you in anything, how could you not be considered a Master*? Degrees may also be given out in advance by someone of up to Two Degrees higher than the recipient for special circumstance or achievement.
With regards to giving away Black Belts, like it was afforded to me by my teacher and like it is customary in the art of Judo, a Black Belt may be given out by another Black Belt in order to assert that the person you have trained is of equal caliber to yourself. Though, like in the art of contemporary Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, it’s not really about having received a Black Belt, but who you received that Black Belt from. Anybody down the street from you can give away a Black Belt like it’s a piece of candy. However, Black Belts given under persons such Renzo Gracie*, John Danaher*, Faras Zahabi*, Duane Ludwig*, Matt Hume*, Jean Jacques Machado*, Eddie Bravo*, and Greg Jackson*, all come with the quality of merit behind them.
Though, in the end, it’s really not about the Degrees, the belt, or even the status. A Black Belt, really, is nothing more than something which covers “only two-inches above your waist.” What truly matters is who you are, what you believe, and how good you are at your craft. Because, you see, when you take your belt off at the end of the day, we’re all just White Belts anyways…
Helio Gracie on the Jiu-Jitsu Belt System
The history of the Gracie Jiu-Jitsu Belt System
Rickson Gracie - Red Belt Promotion
Valente Brothers TV | Rickson Gracie Red Belt
What Does a Judo Black Belt Really Mean?
What EXACTLY is a Jiu-Jitsu Blue Belt? (Gracie Breakdown)
The Toughest Man Who Ever Lived and "Brazilian Judo"