When I was younger, I used to think that all martial arts used the same belt system. I was under the impression that a white belt meant you were a beginner, a black belt made you a master, and there was nothing more to it. I was wrong.
For one, it’ll never be as simple as that. In some martial arts, even the individual colors have different ranks within them. For another, different martial arts have different grading systems and therefore different belts.
The BJJ belt system is a graded one. While some aspects of it are similar to karate, there are some key differences.
The Origin of Martial Arts Belts
There are many rumors as to the origin of martial arts belts. Some people believe that they’re an American invention. The logic behind it is that Americans were unlikely to participate in the disciplines without the promise of reward. That’s not true.
My favorite story is that students refused to wash their belts, and so the amount of dirt, or dark color, represented how hard they worked. This is also false.
It’s Jigoro Kano, the same man who invented judo, is responsible for its use in martial arts.
He didn’t invent it, however. Rank in sports was nothing new and had been in place for a long time before he adopted it. The system he used was much simpler, and naturally, with time, it progressed into the standard.
Their original purpose was to class fighters of similar skill with each other to ensure a fair fight. That still stands, but not all belt systems are the same. The BJJ belt system, like many others, follows its own order.
How are BJJ Belts Different?
There are two important uses for the BJJ belt. The first is that it holds your gi closed (it is a belt after all). The second is that it denotes rank.
In a similar fashion to what you may be familiar with in karate: white designates a beginner and black signifies proficiency. The colors in between, which you’ll get a closer look at shortly, are blue, purple and brown.
Note that the colors only apply to fighters aged 16 and up, as children are graded differently. Children begin with a white belt, as anyone would, and then progress to gray, yellow, orange and green. There are degrees in each, and typically, children experience a lot more promotion between them. This is because they respond to reward more intensely than adults do.
After black belt, there is a red belt, which signifies mastery. Red belts are extremely rare and it’s unrealistic to assume you will be awarded one.
Another characteristic of BJJ belts is that they’re thicker than traditional striking arts belts. Grappling forms require heavier belts because of the pressure that’s placed on them. This also means that a BJJ belt is stronger than a karate belt, and is often made from higher quality materials.
The BJJ Belt System: Grading
Since BJJ is graded, there are a few rules that coincide with the BJJ belt ranks. The IBJJF (International Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Federation) sets rules that all academies should abide by, to unify and regulate the sport.
What follows applies to young adult and adult fighters.
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Belt Specs
White to brown belts should be between 1.38–1.77 inches in width. The belts should feature a black bar that is roughly 3.94 inches long, placed between 0.79 and 1.18 inches from one end of the belt. A black belt should instead feature a red bar of the same size.
Outside of colored belts, BJJ belt ranks can also be denoted by degree stripes within a certain grade. For example, a white belt with two degrees is higher ranked than a white belt with one, or none. It’s common practice for each color, from white to brown, to require four degrees before a new color is awarded.
Black belts are split into six degrees. Multicolored red and black belts are considered as the seventh-degree black belt, while multicolored red and white are the eighth. Red belts represent the ninth and highest degree.
You might feel that you’ll be awarded a higher ranking once you are good enough for it, but there are limitations. Before you can qualify for the next grade, there are regulations on how much time you should spend at each one. For fighters 18 and older:
- White belts have no required minimum so you can progress at your own pace.
- Blue belts: 2 years.
- Purple belts: 1 year and 6 months.
- Brown belts: 1 year.
For black and red belts, the duration specified are not minimums but are, instead, the exact amount of years you need to stay on each color according to IBJJF.
- Black belts: 31 years.
- Red and black belts: 7 years.
- Red and white belts: 10 years.
Since red belts are the highest honor, there is no set amount of years to keep them.
On top of the minimum experience required, there are also age regulations placed on BJJ belts. The minimum age for each belt is as follows:
- White: No minimum.
- Blue: 16 or older.
- Purple: 16 or older.
- Brown: 18 or older.
- Black: 19 or older.
- Red and black: 50 or older.
- Red and white: 57 or older.
- Red: 67 or older.
How a Brazilian jiu-jitsuka is promoted is entirely the decision of the academy or instructor that they train with. There is no standard, and graduation may be a casual handing-over of a belt or at an award ceremony.
It’s fairly common for belts to be awarded at the end of a lesson, or after a victorious competitive match. Some members of the BJJ community are campaigning for formalized and official procedures, but no laws are in place to define this.
There is no syllabus for BJJ belt ranks, and promotions are awarded at the discretion of the instructor.
Are Belts Awarded in No-Gi BJJ?
Belts belong to a gi, so no-gi BJJ fighters are not graded and won’t receive the traditional ranks. Some no-gi academies will designate rank using different colored rash guards or shorts, but this is not official. The only way to obtain a BJJ belt rank is to don a gi and earn one as it’s intended.
Previous skill in no-gi BJJ won’t automatically place you at a higher rank. If you switch from no-gi to gi, you will begin as a white belt and will need to work your way up, just as everyone else does.
BJJ Belt Controversy
Although the BJJ belt system is largely based on honor, it has a flaw that has led to some suspicions of corruption within the sport. Since instructors award BJJ belts as they please, within age regulation, some observers have theorized sandbagging.
Sandbagging is a suspected practice of highly skilled BJJ fighters masquerading as lower ranks for easier victories. It can be achieved by lying about your belt rank or by instructors deliberately holding students back.
There is no way to prove that instructors do this, but evidence has surfaced of jiu-jitsukas fighting with skill far above their belt rank. Sandbagging, if it exists, is unfair and does a disservice to the martial art as a whole.
What Do BJJ Belt Colors Mean?
There are some theories that the colors of the various BJJ belts are symbolic. As far as I can see, there is no evidence to prove this, but it’s still a lovely thought. Regardless of color associations, you can tell a lot about a fighter based on the belt that they wear.
White belts are thought to symbolize birth and represent a jiu-jitsuka who has just begun their BJJ journey. White could also symbolize innocence or even emptiness — a blank canvas waiting for knowledge.
Some instructors believe that white belt training should place an emphasis on defensive techniques and escaping. This is because white belts are at a disadvantage in skill, and will typically find themselves in uncomfortable or inconvenient positions while sparring.
Most academies won’t only teach defense. The only way you will ever progress is if all your bases are covered; in this case, both attack and defense. Either way, it’s universal that the white belt is one of discovery and excitement.
Blue is said to represent the sky, and that the fighters progress upward in rank, towards the sky.
At this rank, the fighter should have a fair amount of knowledge of technical BJJ. They should also be able to fight effectively on the mat.
Blue belt is said to be the rank in which students learn the most. It’s considered the belt of exploration, development, and experimentation.
With a blue belt, a fighter has progressed from the foundation of white and can now build upon it further.
Purple is often seen as the transition from novice to seasoned fighter. It symbolizes the change from lighter and brighter colors, to the higher ranks designated by brown and black.
Purple belts have extensive knowledge of BJJ. In fact, in other martial arts forms, fighters with the same level of skill, experience, and knowledge are considered black belts. Purple belts are regarded as qualified and should be proficient fighters on the mat.
Some are under the impression that, by purple belt, a fighter has been exposed to everything that a black belt has, and so will know all the techniques. The only difference is that a purple belt has a lesser understanding of each technique and is still in the process of perfecting them.
Purple belts also spend a lot of time strengthening their weaknesses and correcting flaws they may have in their fighting.
Brown symbolizes maturity. Fighters who wear brown belts are close to becoming experts. Most academies approach brown belts as a rank that works mostly on perfecting and refining techniques, rather than learning new skills.
This is the final rank that a student can be on before they’re capable enough to teach. This means that any mistakes they still have in their form should be done away with, and so the pursuit of perfection begins.
If brown belts do still have room to learn, it’s in employing advanced techniques that they were maybe not accomplished enough to perform before.
Black represents mastery in almost all martial arts and shows that the fighter has enough knowledge and experience to teach others. It shows that the fighter is proficient in all areas of BJJ and has years of experience to their name.
Although black belts are officially considered at Master level, most black belts will deny the title of Master or won’t see themselves as one. It’s not uncommon for black belts to believe that their journey truly starts at black belt and that they still have a lot to learn.
No one will ever be perfect, but the black belt is what most fighters aim for.
Red belts are so rare that we can only guess as to what the color may symbolize. Those who wear red belts are considered Grand Masters and are the most skilled and knowledgeable fighters in the entire sport.
Considering that a red belt can only be awarded from age 67, Grand Masters can be considered as possessing a lifetime of wisdom and experience in BJJ.
Eyes on the Prize
There is nothing wrong with taking an interest in martial arts because of their belt systems. It’s extremely rewarding to have something to show for your efforts, and no one should stop you from wearing a belt with pride.
That said, if you are only participating because you crave the belt and not the knowledge behind it, you’re doing it wrong. Brazilian jiu-jitsu is so much more. A white belt with the right spirit is leagues better than a black belt with the wrong heart.