I’m in a highly privileged position – I don’t promote folks; I don’t have plans to promote folks; the classes I teach are not an appropriate environment to even consider promoting folks in; Mike as head instructor gets to deal with that. Having said that, I still need to consider when to mention to Mike that someone is doing well and should be evaluated. Ranks are probably the most baffling aspect of jiu-jitsu, even as someone who’s been doing this for over a decade.

Ranks matter. They matter in competitions where they’re an approximation of skill for dividing folks. They matter in class where our position in the hierarchical line is effectively a status symbol within the group. They matter because we make a big deal about them when someone gets promoted – clapping, cheering, congratulating them. They matter because we all have expectations for people of a given rank that causes us to be upset when someone who doesn’t meet those expectations has been promoted or when someone who far exceeds them is still competing at a rank lower than we would expect (i.e. sandbagging). Those expectations drive impostor syndrome and you end up with skilled folks who explicitly don’t want to be promoted because it could be called into question if they’re “legit”.

Ranks are made up non-sense. They’re subjective to the instructor and any personal expectations or hang-ups you have are your own. There’s no objective test that everyone agrees on that if you pass you’re a blue belt and if you fail you’re not. They don’t represent who can beat whom, how much someone knows, or how long someone has been training – they’re at best proxies for those, and those are hopefully things that are considered when an instructor is promoting, but they’re not guarantees. Not all black belts have been training for over a decade. Not all black belts will be super knowledgeable in a given area of grappling. This is the pretense of the “ranks don’t matter” speech that you’ve either given or received at some point when discussing that controversial promotion.

Ranks are a useful tool. Hierarchy and stratification are useful tools. Having a new student be able to walk into a class and know the darker the belt the more likely that person can help answer a question is super useful. Having a system where you can know when you have been deemed to have enough experience to teach and potentially evaluate others for ranks is useful for maintaining the system. Having relatively accurate approximations of skill for the purposes of competitions is useful, and let’s face it, helps bring in more money by making the events accessible to a larger pool of people. Ranks give people relatively short-term goals to focus on and stripes (as a sub-rank) let instructors give someone a physical representation that they’re making progress to help them emotionally when they don’t feel or can’t see the progress they’re making.

We attach a lot to ranks; way more than they’re probably intended to represent, but that’s the rub – they mean what we let them mean, what we make them mean. We are emotionally invested, for better or worse. That’s why we tag our flair on reddit. That’s why we invest in the nice belts. That’s why everyone will be impatient when they join BeltChecker. Ranks are baffling – 1.5″ of stitched fabric determines who you compete against, what your place in the hierarchy of the gym is, what others knee-jerk expect from you, and how seriously someone is likely to take your opinion online, but what constitutes which color you wear is entirely subjective.

For the record: I think a blue belt is someone who can demonstrate chill and an application of the fundamentals; a purple belt is someone with enough knowledge of the fundamentals to confidently teach and begin debugging their own grappling; a brown belt doesn’t necessarily know all of grappling, but has an answer for any given situation and is just missing some details before they have a mastery-level knowledge; a black belt is someone who has a mastery-level knowledge. Those are all very purposely super broad. I don’t give a shit if you can demonstrate 1000 techniques if you can’t show chill when rolling. I’m also not in a position to promote, so I can be entirely wrong and everything will still work out fine.

Belts & Belt Checker

There are a few big aspects of BJJ ranks that I have a major problems with. The dependency on lineages, the way we enumerate black belt ranks, using ranks to separate competitions to the extent that folks aren’t allowed to compete up, the very notion that there is a “blue belt world champion”, the lack of standardization in expectations; I could go on.

Black belt rank enumeration is probably the easiest one to gripe about. A “third degree black belt” in any other martial art refers to the third rank of black belt – a sandan in judo terms. Ordinals are not indices and I die a little inside every time someone refers to something as “zeroth” – that literally means it’s before the first in the series, which by definition means the first isn’t the first. Yes, arrays start at 0, but no, counting does not. A black belt followed by a first degree black belt makes no sense. There are bigger fish to fry though.

So many folks are outside the purview of the IBJJF and we accept ranks not registered with the IBJJF as a community, so it’s influence really isn’t on the level of being a universal governing body. And while JJIF (with UAEBJJF) and SJJIF would each love to lay claims to being the official governing body of BJJ as a sport, neither of them have enough clout in the community to make those claims. You probably had to go to Duck Duck Go to look up SJJIF while reading this to verify I didn’t just think there was a sub-body of JJIF, if you even knew about the JJIF. There’s no one body you can go to and check out most folks ranks, or that can advise on what the criteria for ranks should be that we all accept. There isn’t a system for a promotion board in the area that signs off on all ranks and vets instructors’ ability to evaluate and promote.

Instead, we’re reliant on the concept of a lineage. Helio taught Rickson who taught Luiz who taught Thales who taught Mike who taught me… Except that falls apart really quickly. I trained all four stripes of white with Justin, almost all of blue belt under Wade, the later part of blue belt and about half of purple belt with Thales and Mosquito, the rest of purple and all of brown so far with Mike. A lineage doesn’t really reflect who I’ve learned from. Similarly, while Thales promoted Mike to brown and black, Mike was a purple belt long before, so Mike’s lineage and now mine, are a reflection of only the last couple of years of training Mike did before being promoted to black belt. And then there’s the whole situation where due to politics the head of an affiliation promotes someone at a specific school even though they’ve never met them. There are enough people that there needs to be something else. Lineage, in my opinion, is a system that’s rapidly losing its meaning.

Enter BeltChecker.com – Christian’s attempt at a BJJ rank database. It’s not perfect, even the concept has its own flaws, but it’s something. It’s not the IBJJF; there is a route to validity even if you’re coming from an unrecognized background; it integrates with platforms like SmoothComp so you can see competition history; it even has features for you to note other experience like judo, Sambo, or wrestling if you’re clever about it so folks can see why you might have only been a one year blue belt. I don’t think it solves everything, but it’s nice to have an earnest alternative that’s largely based around the reality of BJJ – you’re a black belt if someone who is a black belt says you’re a black belt – in this model the community can check your work and the people who know you personally can vouch for your skills. And it’s public. You can see who voted for me and who I voted for.

BeltChecker.com isn’t going to revolutionize BJJ, but I think it’s a good project. If you found this blog because you know me, I encourage you to sign up, fill out your profile in full, verify your identity, and start getting voted on. It will take time to be verified, but be patient. If we can have something where everyone shows their work publicly, we can move beyond the lineage system to something that better reflects the who, how, and why that go into rank without having to scrap together a governing body and promotion board; but it’s only going to work if enough of us adopt it that the votes mean something and people only speak to the folks they know.