This is one I’ve been thinking about a lot. It would mean a lot more to address it after I get a black belt in something, but it’s a good topic of discussion regardless of who’s bringing it up. For those of you who aren’t too hip to the history of the East Asian martial arts, here’s a little secret: that gi and those colored belts you see everywhere, that was judo. The thing is, there’s a lot of perceptions about what a black belt is, and they vary.

So let’s start by discussing expectations. Remember when you started your first martial art? You thought a black belt meant that person knew everything. That faded black piece of stitched cotton meant they could kick your ass by looking at you. That’s pretty much how someone in mainstream society looks at a black belt – a battle hardened killing machine who knows everything there is to know about the art they practice/teach.

Then there are the so-called “traditional martial arts” or TMA. This is really just a term for East Asian martial arts because since the 90’s BJJ made us realize wrestling and boxing were martial arts too – we just always called them sports instead. TMA’s are famous for what we call “McDojos” or “belt factories” where someone comes in, pays each month, and every 3-4 months gets a new rank. By-and-large the MA community makes fun of this model of ranking because a black belt means you showed up for 4 years. To be fair, it’s a perfectly legitimate means of ranking someone – you’ve shown up for four years, congratulations, you’ve graduated. Outside of martial arts we call that model “high school.” A black belt in these systems is someone who’s been around and in enough classes that they could teach one, and it’s likely they know all of the basics and can show these to others. They’re clearly not well-oiled murder machines, but then again, who said they would be?

Then there’s the judo model. This model is used by other TMAs, but quite frankly judo is a sport and is definitely not what people think of when they think TMA. In fact, if I was allowed to kick the ass of everyone who went “Oh! JUDO CHOP! That’s like karate right?”, I’d be ankle deep in blood pretty much forever. The judo model is terrible – there’s no standard for any rank below black because none of them matter. Yep, that’s the sad truth. Every rank below black in judo is made up and doesn’t mean a thing. Literally a dyed piece of cotton on your waist to make you feel good about how long you’ve been showing up and how hard you’ve worked. Granted, at brown you can start reffing and get to fight the black belts, but it’s arbitrarily given based on competition experience, how long you’ve been coming to class, and a non-standard level of aptitude. You don’t even get issued a passport when you move at a kyu rank. You’re pretty much just someone who has a gi so the instructor can assume you know how to fall. By the way, that’s what the belt color system is – a series of kyu ranks (below black) which count down, followed by a series of dan ranks (degrees of black belt) which count up. Fun fact. Even the arts which aren’t Japanese and don’t use Japanese terminology really use this same system. BJJ is a great example. So is TKD (which even splits grades into dan and kup). If you’re not sure if you follow the kyu-dan system just ask yourself – do we have colored belts followed by black? Do we have an X degree black belt or Xdan? If the answer is yes, congratulations, someone ripped off judo at some point in the history of your art. So here’s the secret as to why every rank below shodan (black belt) is worthless: the expectations for a black belt aren’t that high. The average person can get one in 6 years, and if someone gets one in 4 years it’s really just a sign that they did well in competition as opposed to the school being a McDojo. Seriously. Look at the requirements put forth by the USJA, USJI, and USJF. Those black belts are internationally recognized by the IJF and it’s assumed that the standards in every country with a NGB will be similar to those. You’re probably shitting yourself now upon realizing that the requirements are pretty much knowing 40 throws, one kata, some ground work, and maybe winning a couple of tournaments. That’s it. Minimum time in rank for the whole thing is 4.25 years according to the USJF numbers (if you win five tournament matches at each rank). It’s a year and a half if you can win three tournaments of at least five people at each rank. Dead serious. Look it up. Time for non competitors is like 7 years.

The point here is really, for almost every martial art, the concept of a black belt is someone who’s been around for a little while and knows enough to lead classes. The analogous rank in BJJ is blue or purple depending on your association. We’ll say purple to make me feel better. That’s it. The universal expectation of a black belt is someone who has a grasp of the basics and is ready to start learning the art. In BJJ we tend to think of the basics as something that’s learned over the course of the white and blue belts, and then at purple you’re intermediate. Brown and black are considered more advanced ranks for the average practitioner while everyone else has their ranks structured so that a black belt is the rank an average practitioner can just expect from hanging around and doing some competition.

So that’s the thing – for a McDojo a black belt is the sign that you’ve been around long enough, for a more traditional sense the black belt is the point that you’re ready to start learning, and for BJJ it represents the point where you’re advanced. That’s the summation of my whole rant. When someone says they got a black belt in four years, ask what style, if it’s BJJ feel free to judge them, if it’s judo understand that they’re still going to throw your butt-scooting ass, and if it’s karate just nod and smile and act like it means more than having colored a picture and put it up on the refrigerator. Ranks are arbitrary, and for most arts they don’t mean what you want them to mean. It’s like how I got the blue and felt like I knew so much and then six months later I’m stripping my game.

So, ranks higher than black is really another rant. Strap in. In BJJ a 9th degree black belt (red belt) is the highest anyone can ever expect to get who doesn’t have a last name starting with “G”, but pronounced like it starts with “H”. I remember being told that and laughing. This was years before I would learn of Franca and really understand that BJJ has the same politics judo does, but are driven a little differently. In judo the rule is that you can get a judan (10th degree black belt), but it’s never going to be recognized by the Kodokan if you’re not a Japanese national. That’s part of the whole reason even though Helio Gracie is considered the founder of BJJ to whom almost all of our lineages can be traced back to, he’s only a 6th degree black belt by Kodokan standards. Yeah, the founder of your art was pretty good, he beat some good judoka, but he’s only like a rokudan. You can aim for the stars, but politics will always keep you down. For fun, here’s a list of everyone with a 10th degree black belt in judo. Keiko Fukuda is probably the perfect example of this phenomenon – she’s a 10th degree black belt as far as the international grading scale is concerned, but she’s only a 9th degree black belt as far as the Kodokan is concerned. Without a doubt she is one of the greatest and most influential female judoka to have ever lived. My understanding is that’s what 10th degree black belt is. I’ve been raised in judo with the understanding that the dan grades represent different levels of knowledge, but the 10th degree black belt is really the recognition of major contributions to the sport/art. In reality, it’s a political rank based on the status quo. Past some rank it’s less about ability and almost entirely about the decisions of those in power.


I’m in a state of transition – in my game, in my life, in my gym. I’ve largely wanted to keep personal stuff out of the blog unless it pertained directly to my training because, well, this is a blog about grappling (riddled with poor grammar and spelling errors – I’m an engineer by education if you haven’t caught that yet). I’m going to share some of those details because I think it establishes a nice context for where I’m at. It’s also relevant to how since I won’t be training my posts will either trend more towards the grappling community or just reduce in frequency. We’ll start with the game because, well, this is a blog about grappling.

Last night was the first night of the parsed down positions. I didn’t worry about my 3 sweeps, 5 submissions, etc. I just focused on getting butterfly, half, or full guard any time I was on my back. It felt great. I don’t know that I preformed well, but there definitely were no moments of hesitation – my leg is going here, I am sitting up into you, and I am establishing my underhook. You are going to deal with it. It was nice having that level of confidence. It’s the level of confidence I have in my top game. If you have a lower belt who’s struggling (or if like me you are one), have them try this. You saw my thought process. I’m pretty sure you can deduce why I chose the three guards I did. I explained why I chose the techniques I did. If they’re struggling on the top I’d have you cut everything to side control and mount. This is definitely one of those “Shit, it’s that simple?” times in my training.

When I did jujitsu the only two kinds of guard we had were open and closed. When people are dumbfounded by this I always feel like I’m playing out the scene in Hot Fuzz where Simon Pegg tries to order wine. It works though. I’m definitely finding that two or three forms of guard is really all I need and the rest is entirely optional. I’d like to pretend this is the epiphany everyone has at higher levels of play where they realize all the fancy techniques they do from the guard aren’t practical after people see them hit it at one or two major tournaments. I’d like to pretend that I’ve somehow jumped the gun and this is how you get the super traditional black belts who only do like four styles of guard and still kick people’s asses. It’s not. It’s really more a continuation in the lesson of being too big for my britches. I’m a blue belt. I can invest in working on a solid foundation now or I can suffer for it later. Today, right now, at this point in my life, I’d definitely rather be practiced with 40 basic techniques that cover 99% of cases than be half-assed in 1,000 techniques that cover 99.99%.

Details of the personal flux period after the cut. Continue reading

The Most Team Oriented Sport?

If you attend the judo club in Madison enough you’ll eventually hear Anders’ spiel about how judo is more a team sport than the sports that people think of as team sports (i.e. soccer, baseball, basketball, etc.). He tends to make a pretty good case too.

It’s hard for me to put into exact words, but it comes down to coaching, teaching, and training philosophy. In a sport like judo you’re only as good as your training partners allow you to be. There’s a lot to being a good training partner, a good instructor, a good coach. You should strive to be all three. Even if you don’t have aspirations of coaching or teaching, all three are connected. A good training partner is someone who by practicing with and rolling against you improve your skill level. A good instructor is someone who can demonstrate or explain techniques to you in a way that just clicks. A good coach knows the rules and your game so well that they have the exact piece of advice you need in a competition situation. A great instructor who over-corrects you during drills is a lousy training partner. A great instructor who doesn’t know the rules of the competition is a terrible coach. If you’re a good training partner you’ll be able to feel what they’re doing wrong so you can make more directed advice as an instructor. If you’re a good instructor you’ll be able to give the explanation or demonstration to correct what they’re doing wrong and help them grow as a partner. If you’re a good coach you know their game and you can give advice in both situations about attack chains or the elements they should work on for the next competition.

We are a team sport unlike any other because what we put in to our partners is what we will get out of ourselves. If I half-ass my practice I don’t just hurt myself – I hurt everyone I work with that day. If I perform sloppy sweeps and let myself be choked out by shoddy submissions I hurt the individual who needs me to push them to grow. When you’re on the mat you’re on your own save a coach, but before you even set foot to mat you’re the culmination of your whole team. You have Junior’s seoi otoshi because he showed it to you. You have Tanner’s triangle choke – and you have the defense his triangles forced you to learn. You aren’t just one person fighting one person, you’re a whole gym fighting a whole gym.

Any time you think grappling is about the individual remember that it takes a whole team to raise a fighter. Any time you feel pride for a great victory remember that it is a victory for everyone who trained you.


It amazes me how time spent off the mat can be just as important as time spent on the mat as far as learning the craft goes. If you’re a programmer, this is a familiar article. I remember being given it by a professor in college. There’s that figure of 10,000 hours of mat time, but to be honest, I don’t really believe it. I learn better when I have time to internalize. A measure of time also doesn’t necessarily measure the quality of work we’re doing. Here’s some math.

Continue reading

Bare Bones

Yesterday I talked about how I was going to strip my training plan down to what I consider the bare bones foundation of my game. I’m not changing the top. The top is golden if I just stick to basic chokes and arm-bars. The bottom will be parsed down to three guards (full, half, and butterfly). From any other guard I’ll either do the same moves or go back to one of these three while I’m re-establishing my fundamentals. The list is after the cut, and feedback is always welcome. I’ve included other names and Japanese where possible in case the name I’m giving isn’t standard.

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We all want to believe that we’re better than we are. It’s pretty natural. You have something you’re comfortable with and you catch people with it, and all of the sudden it’s your signature. You finish people with it almost unconsciously. My current game isn’t chess. My current game is nature. I do what comes naturally. I don’t force or impose, but rather go along with what I feel. I end up sliding my leg in here or there when I feel I’m losing what I consider to be a good position and this is typically how I end up with the leg-lock positions. My legs go between yours and I roll or you bridge me and I turn to recover and it’s there. Sometimes there’s not always something there so I grab the leg for control and try to figure out what I can do. I don’t “go” for leg locks. I take what’s there and bluff or hold when nothing is immediately present. Very rarely is there a plan. My stand-up is the same way. I don’t bait certain throws or have pre-planned combinations. A lot of people do. Ippon Seoi Nage > O Soto Gari > Uchi Mata. That’s just not me. There is an exception – my top game. I’ll bait positions and submissions and as stated a million times before – kesa gatame. One arm hugging their neck, the other gripping their tricep. My top game is the most polished and well-rounded aspect of my grappling. I’m not sure if I have a plan because of that, or if it is that way because I have a plan.

In general though, I don’t have plans, I have tendencies. This weekend was a valuable life lesson in fixing those tendencies. When people get used to your game they can crush you very easily. That was me this weekend. Ken’s game has stepped up. Wade is… well, Wade’s the black belt. He has a lot of games he can play with us. So I got a lesson in humility. I got a lesson in they’ve learned when I’m ending up in a leg-lock position and because I’m going by feel they can beat me out of it before I feel that I’m in it. To me, being beaten so easily like this was a wake-up call to correct bad habits.

I know I have a lot to work on. I usually make a point to list the one thing I want to work on next practice, but this goal is loftier. I want to strip my game down to the bones and rebuild it on a better foundation. We’ve been doing a lot of half-guard. It’s most of the curriculum for blue to purple. I want to go back to the white belt curriculum and merge it with the blue to build a better game.

I’m in what I would have initially thought was a unique position – I came to BJJ after a couple of years of Waboku ryu jujitsu and shortly after starting I added in judo. I’ve been exposed to a lot. My situation isn’t unique. We have an overload of techniques. YouTube videos, blogs (shameless plug for the updated blog roll – please feel free to make suggestions to me also), magazines, and DVDs allow everyone to get exposure to thousands of techniques and variations. Exposure like I came in with IS the norm. But exposure isn’t enough. Yes, I’ve seen that guard pass before. I’ve done it maybe 20 times over 3 classes. That doesn’t mean I know it or that we should rep it 10 times and move on. I think we have too many techniques.

How Anders treats judo snaps together nicely with exposure. I really miss that style. It’s one of the things I look foward to most about my return to judo. He’ll show us one or two throws and we’ll rep them, but we also have designated time to practice whatever throw we want within  limits. He’ll call out – pick your favorite foward throw and do uchi komi of it. That’s open license to try out that Sambo variation I saw the other day and do 20 reps right away to feel it out, then another 20 once it feels good to really drive home how it should be executed. So in the hour of warm-ups, drills, and practice we do like 3 throws, and 1 or 2 ground techniques (usually one submission and one sweep/escape). The emphasis is on standing so it works out great. Then the last 30 minutes is a mix of rolling and randori to practice your game openly and try to add the new pieces you’ve worked on that day into it.

We don’t really do that in BJJ. We’ll do a ton of techniques and then guard pass drills and then roll. That’s how BJJ has always been for me. Regardless of the instructor or school (with the exception of a shark-bait school which did 5 minutes of one technique and then rolling forever after), this is how BJJ has been presented to me. I don’t blame the instructors. I could invest more careful time into repetition. I’ve learned that if I can’t make it work in a drill situation I don’t want it, and if it does work against most people in drills it must be close enough to right. I get corrections during techniques. I get advice on what to focus on after a roll. There’s just not adequate time in this structure (for me personally) to ingrain the good habits and to work on the technical aspects. Doing 40 arm bar switches for a drill makes me worry about speed, not technique. The drill isn’t to do 40 great arm bars. More and more I feel like it should be though. Or at least some variation. Do 20 solid, picture-perfect arm bars, then do 10 for speed, then five as fast as you can do them perfectly, then five as perfectly as you can do as fast as possible. I think building good habits means stopping and doing it right first, then adding speed, then reducing speed to make corrections, then doing speed again. I guarantee you arm bar number five of the last set will be at least as good of arm bar number 10 of the first 20. You just did 40 armbars, and 25 of them were about technique so your body has adapted accordingly. I think training like that builds a better foundation than many of the competition based drills we do in grappling sports in general. I think back to the judo instructor whose training methodologies I disagree with. Why wouldn’t I apply what I love about judo to BJJ to build a better base? Training like that has made my throws for demonstration amazing, and by doing competition drills only for the throws I’ve mastered in demo-mode I’ve ended up with a well-rounded competition set of things I feel I can hit more times than not (which is really all you can hope for against people of the same size and skill level).

So the take aways from this long rant:

  1. In addition to all the little goals I have an underlying principle goal for my training.
  2. I have an actionable plan for meeting this goal (review the curricula, select techniques, do the 40 reps I’ve laid out above for each)
  3. It’s important to get knocked down a peg by people figuring out your game so you can improve as a grappler. Humility is a gift, not something to get upset about.
  4. Check out the new blog roll. I guarantee you every blogger on there has more of a clue about what they’re talking about that I do.

So I found this gem…

So I found this gem in one of the Fitocracy Martial Arts groups (there are two with identical names).

I can’t help but LULZ at so many of the answers – choking is dangerous, lifting heavy weights will make you slower, etc. The concept is reddit-esque – users up-vote or down-vote replies. The problem is, it looks like there’s 4 or 5 guys asking and answering all of the questions.

There’s a level of tension when you see bad advise in an area  you have some level of expertise on. In the end, it’s probably best to just walk away. Someone is wrong on the internet. People aren’t going to get too hurt by not weight lifting, assuming being choked out is going to kill them, or that they need to be able to run a mile before their first judo competition. In the end, the only really detrimental part about advice on the internet is that someone’s going to believe it and say it elsewhere on the internet and the chain of bad advice continues.

Maybe someone should just write a definitive book: Martial Arts Myths – No, that won’t kill a man.

I really need to find a camera. Doing foot locks it came up that a lot of people are doing a straight ankle lock as an Achilles crush instead of in a way that could cause damage to the joint. To me, a joint lock should lock the joint (and if done with force should break bones), not just cause pain. The way I do a straight ankle lock it ends up structurally the same as a toe hold or heel hook (rotational force). Maybe I just have a fundamental misunderstanding of how people want to attack each other though. Maybe I’m the one that’s *gasp* wrong on the internet.