Ranks and Titles, Part 2

Before you go on, check out last week’s post if you haven’t read it already!

Ranks and Titles, Part 1

So now, let’s talk about titles. What do things like “SiFu,” “Sensei,” or “Professor” mean? How does someone get these titles?

One of the easiest ways to understand this is to look at the traditions that are used in academics at colleges and universities. First off, back to what we discussed last week - a person cannot just attend college sporadically for 20 years and end up with a degree. They must complete a course of study that has been laid out by a professional and then pass all evaluation by a higher authority before earning an actual degree.

A degree from a university is much like a black belt. It demonstrates that a certain amount of knowledge has been acquired in an individual subject, or in this case a martial art. However, a degree does not give that person the ability to teach others and give out degrees. 

But why not?

A baccalaureate degree is not the end of someone’s path in learning that particular subject. In fact, in many ways it just allows them to begin. They can now pursue a career in which they will learn a tremendous amount more through experience, or maybe they will pursue higher education within that subject area. They cannot, however, teach others. At least not yet.

According to, if someone wants to be a professor at a university they should be prepared to do the following:

The minimum level of education required for college professors is a master’s degree, which can qualify an individual for work as a professor at a community college. A doctoral degree is typically required to work as a full-time, tenure-track university professor. You should be prepared to earn an undergraduate degree in your chosen subject area, go to graduate school, complete a Ph.D. program, conduct independent research, and write and publish articles in scholarly journals.

In addition, you may need to gain teaching and research experience as a graduate assistant, or gain work experience in settings like governmental, nonprofit, and the private sector related to your field of study. The key skills you want to build include critical thinking skills, communication skills, computer skills, and knowledge of classroom management.

The same is true in martial arts. 

A black belt does not stand as one's ability to teach, only as a testament to their technical accomplishment.

There is a multitude of examples of highly talented black belts who are not good teachers. In fact, some of the best martial artists on the planet are terrible teachers because the arts came naturally to them and they have difficulty getting someone that does not have natural ability to perform the techniques.

One of my good friends and teachers, Felipe Costa, is both a world champion and a great teacher. The reason for this is he lost over and over again before he ever won. He is at this time still the only person to win the Brazilian Jiu Jitsu World Championships in an Adult Black Belt division who did not previously win it at one of the lower ranks - he always lost. BUT, his losses gave him a greater understanding of the techniques than many other world champions and the patience and passion that a great teacher must have to pass on what they know to someone else.

Felipe Costa, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Black Belt World Champion

Felipe Costa, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Black Belt World Champion

The ability to teach is what makes a “sensei” or “sifu” (which both mean teacher, by the way -  Sensei is Japanese, and SiFu is Chinese). And just as we discussed with rank, it is important that these titles are bestowed upon someone by a higher ranking practitioner of their art. In the martial arts world especially, because there is not one governing body or accreditation system used universally, it is important that a prospective student does their research to validate someone’s background in the art they are claiming to teach, and that they have the authority to do so.

At Progressive Martial Arts Academy, we use Chinese, Japanese, and American titles to show the mixed origins of the arts that we teach. They are as follows:

Sempai (Japanese) - Senior Student - usually brown belt or senior. We bestow this title upon all of our Black Belts and instructors.

SiHing (Chinese) - Very Senior Student - usually brown belt or senior. This title is typically given to one student in the Academy and is senior to Sempai.

SiFu (Chinese) - Teacher - usually 2nd-degree black belt or senior.

SiGung (Chinese) - Teacher of Teachers - This is a very senior practitioner who is awarded this title by the system founder or head of the family - usually 7th degree or senior.

Professor - usually 8th degree or senior.

Grandmaster - 9th or 10th degree, can have more than one grandmaster.

SiJo (Chinese) - Founder of the system, or head of the family. There is only one head of the family.

That's it for this week! I hope this answered some of your questions about ranks and titles. Did I miss anything? Send me an email with any questions or topics you'd like to see covered on our blog at

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.