karate

Choki Motobu - Brawler, Ruffian, Master.

**Today's blog post was written by PMA FILKENJUTSU Black Belt, Gary Hall. Today also happens to be his birthday! This was written by Sempai Gary in preparation for his Black Belt Test this time last year. This is a longer post, but a great look back in history at a prominent martial arts figure. As we have discussed in previous posts, our Kenpo lineage traces back to a man named James Mitose, and many believe Choki Motobu to have been one of Mitose's teachers.

Sempai Gary does a great job of bringing his story to us - enjoy!

- SiFu David


Brawler, ruffian, master. Choki Motobu has to be considered one of the most unconventional karateka luminaries of his very special time.

EARLY LIFE

Choki Motobu was born on April 5, 1870 in Shuri, Ryukyu Kingdom (now Japan). His father Choshin was a descendant of the sixth son of the Okinawan King, Sho Shitsu, namely Prince Sho Ko, also known as Motobu Chohei (Iwai 1994). Due to this lineage, the male members of the family were permitted to retain the "CHO" character in their given names (Sells 1996).

Young Choki, as third son to Choshin, was regarded by the Okinawan culture of the day as the rough equivalent to a feudal lord in social status. It has been stated by the noted historian Kinjo Hiroshi that although Choki was fathered by Choshin, Choki's mother was not his wife, but a courtesan. Choki was thus only a half-brother to his elder Choyu, the eldest son in the family. It has been further suggested that he was constantly reminded of this fact as a child, and this may have contributed to his rather stern temperament. Choki's eldest brother Choyu, in the Okinawan tradition, was given a fine education. He was also taught the family's secret "Ti" (fighting art) tradition that was only passed on to the eldest son. Young Choki was never allowed to participate. By some accounts, however, Choki secretly looked on at his elder brother's training and picked up many rudiments of the art. (Ross, 2012)

MArtial Arts background

The background of these Okinawan fighting arts can be traced from their origins elsewhere up to and through China. With the coming of the Bronze and Iron ages, weaponry and the means for employing such weapons improved. Early Greece (approximately 700 B.C.) recorded a systemized and cultivated form of self-defense called pyrrhic and pankration which utilized kicking, punching and wrestling in combat. In India, around and about 1000 B.C., the warrior class Kshatriya was believed to have a martial art skill known as vajramushti. 

China’s introduction to the martial arts is somewhat vague, but according to historians, it is widely accepted that Boddhidharma, an Indian monk and first patriarch of Chan or Zen Buddhism traveled by foot in the sixth century across the Himalayas into China’s northern province of Hunan. There, he settled in the Songshan mountains at the Shorin Ji (Shaolin temple) and introduced to the priests in the monastery 18 exercises and 2 sutras called Ekkinkyo and Senzuikyo. With the passing of time, these exercises of Boddhidharma (called Daruma Tashi by the Japanese, also known as Tamo by the Chinese) which represented the movements of animals, both real and mythical, were furthered refined and developed into a fierce form of self-defense known as the Shaolin temple fist method (shorin-ji-kempo). Thus, the shaolin temple is believed to be the birthplace of systematized martial arts. This is especially significant to the development of Ryukyu martial arts, as generations of secrecy have created a veil of mystery around the development of Okinawan karate. It is known that this Chinese method of self-defense flourished throughout Asia and eventually found its way to Ryukyu archipelago. 

okinawan history

History has recorded that in 1392, 36 families emigrated from China to Okinawa for cultural exchange. It is known that among the 36 families were experts in the martial arts who solidified the growth and interest of Chinese Kempo in Okinawa. Since the Ryukyu people were able seafarers and traders who frequented foreign ports, wares purchased in Indonesia and Southeast Asia were brought to Okinawa and were reshipped to China, Korea and Japan. Through this extensive trading and foreign contact, the already existing methods of self-defense in Okinawa expanded. The establishment of the Sho Shin ruling dynasty in 1477 brought about a ban on weapons across Okinawa. This move to more completely control the citizens became a very important development in the refinement of both armed and unarmed combat.

The year 1609 remains one of the most significant in Okinawan history. The outcome of one of the many Japanese civil wars of that time saw the Satsuma clan of southern Kyushu defeated by the Togukawa clan. As per the customs of the day, close governmental scrutiny was maintained over the losing (Satsuma) samurai. By decree of the ruling Togukawa clan, the Satsuma was permitted to march against the Ryukyu islands. This was done to both punish Okinawa for its refusal to provide with materials needed by Japan for an earlier attack on China and to remove the Satsuma’s samurai from the Japanese homeland because of the persisting armed threat they posed. This military expedition effectively took away Okinawa’s independence, making way for complete Japanese control.

A number of prohibitive ordinances proclaimed by the Satsuma warlord,  Shimazu, addressed a complete ban on weapons by the Okinawans. Arms found in their possession were immediately confiscated and the owner severely punished. Many clashes ensued, with the Okinawans being forced to utilize any and all weapons available. These weapons often took the form of hands and feet as well as agricultural and fishing related. Several failed attempts of disunited resistance led to the various kempo and tode societies banning together to form a unified front. The result was a new fighting style that was simply called te and was translated as hand

During the early years of development, te was shrouded in secrecy due to draconian laws addressed at eradicating all semblance of any Okinawan martial art. Eventually, Japanese occupation ended with Okinawa becoming an official part of the empire. However, the centuries-long underground training and application of te did not end overnight, it was too ingrained. However, the passing down of these necessarily brutal techniques had been done without being committed to writing so they were effectively only handed down to a select few. With the occupation lifted, the martial art now known as karate (the name having been changed from te sometime in the 1800s) was now the fighting art of Okinawa. Methods or systems began to evolve and became categorized as different ryu (styles). These ryu took on the characteristics and thinking of those destined to become the masters of that particular system. By 1903 karate had become more or less standardized into these ryu, many of which are still being taught today. (McCarthy, 1987)

Motobu's Style

Against this history, Choki Motobu’s personal fighting style was primarily his own invention rather than a reflection of any established system of the time. He learned some of the Motobu family style by watching his brother practice and utilized the knowledge by bullying others into street fights so that he could test his techniques in action. He had a great deal of enthusiasm for the martial arts, but most Okinawan masters refused to teach him for fear he would certainly misuse the skills (Wilson, 2010). McCarthy seeks to debunk the entirely self-taught notion to some degree, “Although he was reputed by his detractors to have been a violent and crude street fighter, with no formal training, Motobu was a student of several of Okinawa’s most prominent karate practitioners. Many teachers found his habit of testing his fighting prowess via street fights in the tsuji (red light district) undesirable, but his noble birth may have made it hard for them to refuse him instruction (McCarthy, 2002).

In 1923, perhaps in an effort to find greener pastures, Motobu moved with his family to the city of Osaka on mainland Japan and was hired as a night watchman at a textile company. ( Iwai, 1994)     One day he attended a series of exhibition matches by a Russian (or German) boxer who had been touring Japan as part of a cultural exchange program, fighting Japanese jujitsuans and other martial artists (karate was then unknown in Japan). Motobu, though 52 years old at the time, could not resist entering the competition. He is said to have simply dodged and blocked the Russian’s punches for the first round, without countering. In the second round the Russian charged in and was abruptly stopped by a front kick to the solar plexus, then felled by a single strike to the temple (or under the nose). The Russian was knocked unconscious—some say he never fully recovered—to the great astonishment of the audience, who had never seen such techniques. (Wilson, 2010). This great victory, however, was the catalyst to what some martial artists would characterize as one of the most famous conflicts between leading exponents of their art, the two Okinawan karate masters who helped pioneer the introduction of karate into mainland Japan (Apsokardu, 2012).

motobu and funakoshi

As background, Funakoshi Gichin is the founder of what is now called Shotokan Karatedo. He is commonly referred to as the father of Japanese Karate, and rightly so. No one did more to bring karate to the forefront in Japan, and Funakoshi's efforts to get karate recognized by the Japanese Butokukai (the Japanese organization established by the government to oversee, preserve and promote martial arts in Japan) were immensely impressive. Interestingly, among his peers and teachers, Funakoshi was never considered a dominant fighter or technician. He gained his reputation as a gentleman of elegant thought; a man of philosophy, linguistic skill, political acumen, and of course karate talent.(Apsokardu, 2012) Standing in stark contrast to this elegant and culturally polished rival was the practical and pragmatic Motobu (his detractors were in the habit of referring to him by a childhood nickname “Saru” or “ the Monkey”. Which interestingly enough was a nod to his unusual agility).

When the aforementioned boxing event was reported in a 1925 issue of Kingu, (a popular national magazine),  it was Funakoshi's image, not Motobu's that appeared, although Motobu's name was correctly reported. Some have suggested the reason for this error was purposeful, the articles having been authored or information augmented by Funakoshi's students. Another explanation is that image of Motobu just was not available and the magazine just substituted an image. Whatever the reason, this event exacerbated a rivalry that was really based on professional and personal animus. The differences between Funakoshi and Motobu weren't just theoretical; they encountered and disliked one another. Motobu considered Funakoshi to be rather soft and superficial in his understanding of karate. He observed the changes Funakoshi was making (considered school karate) and decried them as moving away from the true core of Okinawan karate that he had seen and experienced.

Funakoshi on the other hand looked upon Motobu with disdain due to his constant rough behavior and his apparent lack of social grace.  Funakoshi did not believe Motobu was a proper representative of karate. Perhaps this was only natural. Funakoshi was a natural politician. He was also organized and philosophical. He had been an Okinawan educator, taught Okinawan school karate, was fluent in Japanese and its social customs, and was comfortable as a karate educator in Japanese society. Motobu, in contrast, had avoided formal schooling on Okinawa, thus never became fluent in the Japanese language or its culture. Motobu's karate was also somewhat self-developed, partly from experience in small personal classes by his karate instructors, partly self-taught in challenge matches the back streets of Okinawa. In personality, Motobu was also much more direct, outspoken and opinionated. 

What is without question, is the popularity generated by this unexpected victory propelled both Motobu and karate to a degree of fame that neither had previously known in Japan. Motobu was petitioned by several prominent individuals to begin teaching. He opened a dojo, the Daidokan, where he taught until the onset of World War II in 1941. Motobu faced considerable difficulties in his teaching, chief among those was his inability to read and speak mainland Japanese. As a result, much of his instruction was through translators, which led to the rumor that he was illiterate. This rumor has been largely discredited by the existence of samples of Motobu's handwriting. Motobu was active in the martial arts until his death on April 15, 1944 in Shuri, Japan. It is worth mentioning that his legacy is being carried on by his third son, Chosei, who at age 91 still teaches his father’s style, Motobu-Ryu.

My introduction to the life of Choki Motobu has brought me back to what FILKENJUTSU SiJo Bruce Corrigan has said on more than one occasion (I will paraphrase): “We know what we teach works, the history of martial arts is populated by some rough individuals, but as a consequence of their lifestyle these techniques are street tested”. Choki Motobu was a fascinating figure to research: practical, pragmatic and dedicated to his craft. 

Gary Hall, February 2017

Gary Hall (1st on the left, back row) is pictured here after receiving his Black Belt in FILKENJUTSU Kenpo - February 19, 2017.

Gary Hall (1st on the left, back row) is pictured here after receiving his Black Belt in FILKENJUTSU Kenpo - February 19, 2017.


Works Cited

Alexander, G.W. Okinawa, Island of Karate. Lake Worth: Yamazato Publications, 1991. Print.

Apsokardu, Matthew. Funakoshi vs. Motobu. Fighting Arts. 2012. 11 Feb 2017.

Bishop, Mark. Okinawan Karate; Teachers, Styles and Secret Techniques. London: A. & C.                  Black.  1999. Print.

Iwai, Tsukuo. Koden Ryukyu Karatejutsu. Tokyo: Airyudo, 1994. Print. (Partial translation by    Joe Swift)

McCarthy, Pat. Classical Kata of Okinawan Karate. Valencia: Black Belt Communications,    1987. Print.

McCarthy, Patrick and Yuriko. Motobu Choki: Karate, My Art. International Ryukyu Karate                    Research Group. 2002. Print.

Ross, Tom. Choki Motobu: Through the myth to the man. Fighting Arts. 2012. 11 Feb 2017.

Sells, John. Unate. London: W.M. Hawley, 1995. Print 

Wilson, Wendell. Essays on the martial arts. Mineralogical Record. 2010. 11 Feb 2017.

FAQ - What is a Red Belt?

One of the purposes of this blog is to answer some of the frequently asked questions from our students, parents, and others interested in the martial arts, self-defense, or just health and fitness.

In the martial arts world, one of the things that people are often most curious about is the belt system. What do the different colors mean? How long does it take to get them? Why do various arts have different colors?

Today, let’s take a minute to clear up the Red Belt.

In some Korean martial arts, you will see a red belt used as one of the standard colors leading up to the Black Belt. That is not the red belt that we are discussing today. The red belt that everyone is curious about is the one you see the “old guys” sometimes wearing.

Different martial arts use it in different ways, but most commonly, you will see the red belt worn by someone who has reached 10th degree in their particular style. 10th degree is the highest rank achievable.

Two of the primary martial arts taught at Progressive Martial Arts Academy are Kenpo and Jiu Jitsu. Specifically FILKENJUTSU Kenpo and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.

Kenpo has many different groups, and all have decided on different ways of using the ranks and colors. In our method of teaching Kenpo (FILKENJUTSU), we do not currently use the red belt. 

For example, the highest ranking Black Belt in our family, is my father, Bruce Corrigan. He is the only 10th degree Black Belt in FILKENJUTSU and is the founder of our method of teaching. He prefers to just wear the Black Belt with ten stripes (or even just a plain Black Belt!). He also has a Black Belt with a red border which denotes that he is the founder/head of the family.

In Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, at 7th degree the belt worn is red and black, at 8th degree it is red and white, and at 9th and 10th degree it is red. Check out this trailer for an upcoming documentary done by BJJ Hacks on the Red Belts - 

For more on belt ranks and instructor titles check out these posts:

Ranks and Titles, Part 1 - http://www.pmaoakridge.com/blog/ranks

Ranks and Titles, Part 2 - http://www.pmaoakridge.com/blog/titles

The Importance of the Black Belt - http://www.pmaoakridge.com/blog/blackbelt

The Black Belt Problem - http://www.pmaoakridge.com/blog/theblackbeltproblem

I did a breakdown of our different colors for our YouTube channel a couple of years ago too - 

At the end of the day, your belt is used to keep your gi (uniform) together. We often place a little too much importance on what color it is. And at a time when many martial arts have been watered down, and promotions have been sold rather than earned, what is most important is that you are training with a good teacher who also has legitimate training.

Wait, if you're reading this you are training, right? If not, please call me NOW at (865)481-8901 or email me at dcorrigan@pmaoakridge.com and schedule a FREE private introductory lesson. 

It is free, and there is no obligation to keep training afterward. Come see for yourself why this will be the best decision you've ever made.

That's enough for now, see you on the mat!

What are some of your questions? Comment on Facebook or email them to me at dcorrigan@pmaoakridge.com and I'll try to cover them in future posts!

2017 PMA Year in Review

The week between Christmas and New Year’s is one of my favorites of the entire year. After getting extra time with family for Christmas, we have a week to look back on the past year and plan for the year ahead.

This year was full of many good memories, but I’ll take just a minute to highlight some of my standouts and then the video can do a pretty good job with the rest!

February 2017 - Gary Hall and Linda Davis were promoted to Black Belt in FILKENJUTSU Kenpo!

April 2017 - We took our Youth Competition Team to NAGA Atlanta, and they earned 6th place at their first significant tournament!

May 2017 - Brittany Corrigan and Kristie Fox finished their instructor training program/test, and became official PMA instructors!

May 2017 - Brittany, Charlie, and I had the opportunity to spend 11 days in Brazil, with our close friends Felipe and Ana, and their son Bento. This trip will forever be one of our greatest adventures and favorite memories. We can’t thank Felipe enough for bringing us to his home and showing us his city.

July 2017 - PMA students took a field trip over to my Dad's dojo in Knoxville to surprise him during his class for his birthday!

September 2017 - My brother, Nick, and his wife, Kylie, welcomed their first child, RJ Corrigan, into the world!

October 2017 - PMA’s Youth Competition Team brought home 2nd place at the NAGA Tennessee Grappling Championship out of 38 teams!

November 2017 - Sempai Madelyn Fowler competed in her first tournament and brought home the silver medal at the NAGA North Carolina Grappling Championships in her No-Gi division, and the gold medal in her gi division!

I liked competing when I was a child and young adult, but it never became a love of mine. However, coaching Jiu Jitsu has genuinely become one of my favorite aspects of my life. This year, we have had some incredible performances from our students (in both wins and losses), and I couldn’t be more proud!

December 2017 - Progressive Martial Arts Academy turned 15 years old! And December couldn't have been a better month. Brittany Corrigan and Kristie Fox were promoted to Black Belt in FILKENJUTSU Kenpo! And Austin and Eli Fox were promoted to Junior Black Belt, along with many other students earning their next rank this month. We closed out the year with a wonderful holliday party, and some fun last classes of the year. For the kids class, we had 60 kids out on the mat together! 

Here are our Top 10 songs played from 2017 at PMA (dominated by Imagine Dragons this year!):

1. Feel It Still by Portugal. The Man
2. Believer by Imagine Dragons    
3. Whatever It Takes by Imagine Dragons
4. Thunder by Imagine Dragons    
5. Shape of You by Ed Sheeran
6. Rise Up by Imagine Dragons
7. Stay by Zedd & Alessia Cara
8. Something Just Like This by The Chainsmokers & Coldplay
9. Hard Times by Paramore
10. Shine on Me by Dan Auerbach

You can listen to the playlist while working out this week and getting ready for the new year here: 

 https://itunes.apple.com/us/playlist/pmas-top-10-songs-of-2017/pl.u-LRyv4IBkmEE

We had a crew of senior students and instructors in over the holiday break helping us update the dojo a little bit, so get excited about a new look when you come in next week! Thank you so, so much to the people that helped us out with that - you know who you are! :-)

We expect incredible things out of 2018, and can’t wait to share it on the mat with all of you.

Now, enjoy this video to wrap up 2017.

Happy New Year!

David Corrigan
Owner/Chief Instructor
Progressive Martial Arts Academy

Martial arts and combat sports. Which is better?

At our academy in Oak Ridge, we teach a few martial arts. These arts, when combined, prepare a student for every empty-handed scenario (no weapons) that they could find themselves in if in a self-defense situation, and most attacks involving weapons too. Specifically, we teach FILKENJUTSU Kenpo, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ), Filipino Kali, Jeet Kune Do, and Kickboxing. Or as we like to call it a "Full House!" There are 3 K’s or Kings (Kenpo, Kali, and Kickboxing) and 2 J’s or Jacks (Jiu Jitsu and Jeet Kune Do), a "full house" in poker. 

This weekend I will be taking our Youth Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Competition Team (that's some of them in the picture above after our last tournament) to their next grappling tournament - a combat sport. So I thought I'd spend this post discussing the difference between a martial art and a combat sport. What are the pros and cons of each? By the end, I hope you can tell the differences between them and distinguish whether you’d prefer to be training in one over the other, or both!

We often talk about there being five steps to learning a martial art:

  1. Learn
  2. Practice
  3. Master
  4. Functionalize
  5. Maintain

Here’s a quick video briefly explaining each step if you want to learn more:

At the “functionalize” phase, sparring becomes a crucial part of training. This is when two martial artists engage in a "live" training exercise where they are both attempting to use their techniques on the other, simulating some element of a real fight. 

Since each art tends to focus on specific areas of the fight (punching, kicking, grappling, weapons, etc.), rules are put on these sparring drills to make them more focused on the techniques taught in that particular martial art. These rules can be both good and bad. 

The good is that the techniques themselves get much more refined and efficient for that specific ruleset, often leading to a more effective way of performing the technique. That is the core reason Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is one of the most effective martial arts on the planet - the heavy amounts of live sparring, or "rolling" as BJJ practitioners like to call it, has led to the techniques being refined and perfected generation after generation to an extremely high level of effectiveness. 

The bad is that sometimes the student becomes too comfortable with the specific ruleset for the particular sparring drills of his art.

In most cases tournaments start to pop up as a way for students of these arts to test their abilities against other martial artists that train in other places around the world. This provides a unique opportunity to not only test your skill set against other martial artists but, more importantly, to learn about yourself and how you handle stress and adrenaline. These tournaments have rules, and often the academies that participate slowly but inevitably adapt their curriculum and techniques to this specific ruleset to have more success at these championships.

This process has happened multiple times with multiple martial arts, and ultimately led to many “martial arts” being taught purely as “combat sports.” Tae Kwon Do, Karate, Judo, and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu are all perfect examples of this process.

 Interestingly, what sometimes leads to more success in the tournaments can bring an art’s “street effectiveness” down. How can this be? Wouldn’t it make sense that if the original goal of sparring was to be able to perfect or functionalize their techniques that it could only serve to make them more effective in a fight?

Unfortunately, no.

What happens instead is that over time the techniques themselves are adapted to fit the specific ruleset for the tournament they are fighting in.

For example in basic Tae Kwon Do sparring competitions the rules are:

“Kicks are allowed to the torso and head. Punches are allowed to the torso. Kicks below the belt and strikes with any part of the hand other than the knuckles are not allowed. Points are awarded for solid kicks and punches to valid target areas as long as the attacker stays on their feel (i.e., no falling down).”

This specific ruleset made the stance, movement, and strikes of Tae Kwon Do stylists adapt to being good for this format but extremely vulnerable to other techniques that wouldn’t be allowed in this form of competition such as leg kicks.

In Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, no striking is allowed - only grappling. And therefore, students that only train for this specific ruleset are often not prepared for the realities of a real confrontation when their opponent would be throwing strikes.

One of the most recent examples in the Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) community was a rule that fighters could not be kneed or kicked in the head if at least one hand was on the ground. This led to fighters intentionally putting themselves in positions that would completely expose them to a knee or kick to the head in a real fight, but their opponent couldn’t take advantage of them because of the rule.

Obviously, the rules are put in place to protect the athletes, but in doing so, they are also changing the way that participants will prepare for these competitions. That is neither good or bad, just fact.

Here is what’s outlined in the “Martial Arts Catalogue” on the difference between art and sport:

“Art, as the word applies to martial arts, is the specific application of skill in perfect traditional form. Sport, which has come to be considered the antithesis of art, is the specific application of skill to obtain effective results.”

So, what do you do about it? Is one better than the other? Should you train a martial art or a combat sport?

The key is to ask yourself first why are you training? 

For most individuals, a martial art is at least where they should start. They are often interested in learning to defend themselves, getting in shape, relieving some stress, maybe meeting some new people, and having fun. A martial art can be perfect for this.

Unfortunately, they have to be careful as many schools that claim to teach an art such as Brazilian Jiu Jitsu even, really focus the majority (or all) of their time on the combat sport side of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. Therefore a new student that is interested in learning to defend himself will be spending the majority of his time preparing for a ruleset that he doesn’t have any interest in trying to become a competitor in and not preparing for the realities of self-defense.

As an academy, we try to be very clear about what we teach so that the students are receiving exactly what they are looking for. 

This weekend, I’ll be taking our competition team to a grappling tournament (combat sport) that they have been training for separately from their regularly scheduled group classes in the martial arts that they are learning. Here's one of our kids at their last tournament in April. He's the one in the PMA gold shirt and is only 8 years old. Watch the determination and skill presented and imagine how talented he will be as an adult if he spends the next 10 years of his childhood perfecting these skills!

I hope this helps someone navigate the sometimes tricky path of finding a martial art (or combat sport!) to take up learning, and the right academy to do it at. I hate that martial artists feel such a need to put down one or the other, as there is a space and niche audience for both. Traditional martial artists like to point out the flaws in the sportive side for not being “street” enough, and sport practitioners often point out that traditional arts aren’t “live” enough. When in reality, there is a place for both.

We can all learn to be a little more understanding, compassionate, and open-minded towards others. Especially in this crazy world we seem to be living in right now. Let’s leave our egos behind, try to keep making the best decisions for our personal journey, and let others have the freedom to do what they think is best without your criticism.

There is nothing wrong with a healthy discussion or even argument, but this pick a side and be closed minded to anything that might potentially mean that we've been even a little wrong about something has got to stop. After all, do any of us really have all of the answers?

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:
White
Yellow
Orange
Purple
Blue
Green
Brown
Black

Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Belt Color Order:
White
Blue
Purple
Brown
Black

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.

What Style Do You Teach?

This is probably the second most popular question from prospective students walking into a dojo, second only to "How much do you charge?". At Progressive Martial Arts Academy, the easy answer to "What style do you teach?" is simple - Kenpo. At the heart of our method of teaching (FILKENJUTSU) is Kenpo. The thing is with Kenpo though, when you trace our lineage back to where our family of Kenpo (KAJUKENBO) got started, you find that even then they recognized one "style" didn't cut it. Hence the name KAJUKENBO, which is an acronym for many styles integrated into their method of teaching - KArate, JUdo and JUjitsu, KENpo, and Chinese BOxing.

While KAJUKENBO got started before Bruce Lee's heyday, Bruce Lee was a major contributor, if not the main contributor, to this idea of not being confined by your "style." Around his personal emblem or logo that he used for his method of teaching (Jeet Kune Do) were the words "using no way as way, having no limitation as limitation." He was one of the first to forget about trying to decide which "style" was better and just train to be the best martial artist you can be. This was the founding belief my father had behind both our method of teaching, FILKENJUTSU, and the name of our academy, Progressive Martial Arts.

So the next time you are talking to a friend, coworker, or family member and they ask what style of martial arts that you train in, you have to make a choice: "Should I give them the easy answer or the real answer?" Either one is okay! Decide which one they want to hear, and go with that. If you have the time to explain the above and tell them about all of the "styles" involved in our method of teaching, that's great. If not, just go with the easy answer and tell them Kenpo, Karate, Jiu Jitsu or something along those lines.

And if they have 30 minutes to spare, you can send them to the PMAOakRidge YouTube channel to watch my family's presentation on our method of teaching. Here it is if you haven't seen it yet: