Ranks and Titles, Part 1

Possibly one of the most confusing things for new students in the martial arts are ranks and titles. What are they? What do they mean? How do you get them?

Last week a historic promotion was made in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu when Grandmaster Rorion Gracie promoted his brother, Rickson Gracie, to 9th degree Red Belt and Grandmaster. Let’s talk a little bit about what that means, why it’s important, and how ranks and titles are used at Progressive Martial Arts Academy.

First, let’s discuss the belt (obi). In most martial arts, belts (just a long piece of cloth) are worn around the waist tying the top of the uniform (gi) together. It is said that originally these belts were colorless, and over time dirt and sweat would turn a belt darker and darker. When it became necessary to find a way to differentiate between instructors and students, or advanced students and beginner students, many arts decided to use colored belts. They kept the tradition of having the colors progress from white to darker, with most arts having Black Belt be the highest rank.

It is important to understand that the colors are not all the same in each art. Therefore a Blue belt in one art is not necessarily at the same place in his training, as a Blue Belt in a different art. For example at PMA, we teach two martial arts that use a belt ranking system: Kenpo and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.

Kenpo Belt Color Order:

Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Belt Color Order:

Notice the Blue and Purple belts are switched in Kenpo and Jiu Jitsu. I know, it can be confusing!

Wait, what about the Red Belt?

In both Kenpo and Jiu Jitsu and some other arts, the red belt is often reserved for the masters or founders of the art (usually 9th or 10th degree, and can be worn at their option). But in some other arts (Korean arts for example), the red belt is one of the regular belts on the path to Black Belt.

This past week, when Grandmaster Rickson Gracie was promoted to 9th-degree red belt, he responded with surprise and initially did not want to accept the promotion. His resistance has led to some discussion in the Jiu Jitsu community about whether he should accept the promotion or not and what the standard should be. This discussion can help us understand more about the importance of ranks and titles.

Rickson has been working on trying to get a uniform set of guidelines for all Jiu Jitsu academies to use when determining how long it should take to reach each promotion. Rickson’s stance was that by his count he had been a black belt for 40 years, and in the standardization guidelines that he has put forth, it should take 45 years to get to 9th degree. He didn’t think he should be an exception.

The argument to this, and why his brothers, among other famous Jiu Jitsu practitioners, thought that this should be overruled is they believe longevity is a major factor, but should not be the only criteria for promotion. The argument is that merit, growth, contributions, and achievements should also be considered. 

Rickson was considered to be the Gracie family champion for many years in both Jiu Jitsu and Mixed Martial Arts competitions. Therefore these individuals thought the promotion was a no-brainer. While it is not my position to decide what the criteria should be, I do believe longevity should not be the only factor. There are many examples of individuals who have been Black Belts for a long time, but have not made any sort of effort to continue their personal training and growth or contribute/progress the art forward in any way.

One of the things I appreciated most from watching his promotion, however, is Rickson’s humility. While accomplishing more in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu than virtually anyone, Rickson still did not place too much importance on his rank.

I grew up in a martial arts family. Great martial artists surrounded me as a kid. And truthfully, I don’t remember ever seeing any degrees or stripes on anyone’s belts. I didn’t understand what the degrees or “dans” even were. I was raised to believe that once you earned your Black Belt, you just continued to train because you needed to, wanted to, and loved to. Not for your next promotion.

The degrees or “dans” are used to classify students, instructors, and masters that wear the Black Belt. They were traditionally used in Japanese, Okinawan, and Korean styles, but in America, many Chinese styles (kung fu) even have even adopted a similar system to that used in Japanese arts such as Karate and Jiu Jitsu.

As our family grew in size, the need for degrees and a system to classify the Black Belts also became important, and we began to emphasize our ranks and promotions after Black Belt too.

(However, at our academy, you will often still see high ranking black belts both in Kenpo and Jiu Jitsu wearing a plain Black Belt, despite holding a rank higher than that.)

In both Kenpo and Jiu Jitsu, there are 10 degrees that are awarded after Black Belt. We do not typically use the Japanese Dan rank titles and opt to just say "1st degree" rather than "shodan", but they are as follows:

1st degree - shodan
2nd degree - nidan
3rd degree - sandan
4th degree - yo(n)dan
5th degree - godan
6th degree - rokudan
7th degree - shichidan
8th degree - hachidan
9th degree - kudan
10th degree - judan

It is important to note that there are not any unified governing bodies in the martial arts as there are in academics, and other professions. Therefore, it is important that someone senior in the art to yourself gives the promotions. Self-promotion is not a reliable evaluation of one’s abilities but unfortunately, runs rampant in the martial arts community. There are a large number of high ranking black belts whose only achievements have come through self-promotion or rank. In some rare instances when a high ranking black belts' instructors or those senior to him have passed away, a group of designated individuals lower in rank together may decide to make the promotion.

Now that we understand a little bit better how ranks/belts work in the martial arts, next week let’s discuss titles and the criteria to be an instructor of the martial arts. This too is a major problem in the martial arts community, with many individuals who have never been qualified to teach martial arts, opening schools and teaching with no training or credentials to do so.