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We’ve already discussed the ranking systems of several other martial arts and now it’s time we analyse the system in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, one of the most popular sports in modern MMA. Brazilian jiu-jitsu is a relatively new martial art compared to some Oriental arts and it is a rare example of a martial art that stems from South America, rather than Asia; you know that most combat sports stem form the West, while the East is known for its martial arts. As you are going to see, Brazilian jiu-jitsu is quite different than the majority of Oriental martial arts when it comes to belts and rankings, which merits this analysis. So, if you want to see how different it is – continue reading.
History of Belts in Martial Arts
Before we focus on Brazilian jiu-jitsu, we’ll briefly recapitulate the history of belts in modern martial arts. As we know, Oriental martial arts have been practiced in the Far East for centuries, but the belt system is a relatively new phenomenon, just a little over a century old. Before belts were introduced, martial artists handed out certificates (or diplomas) to students who had reached a certain level of knowledge and ability.
But, at the turn of the 20th century, a man called Jigorō Kanō, best known as the founder of judo, decided to introduce coloured belts in his art. This was not a completely original idea, as he was inspired by a similar system present in the Japanese board game of go (similar to chess), but it was a revolution in the world of martial arts.
The essential idea behind the belt system was to enable students to advance more rapidly, but also to enable fighters to quickly identify the level of knowledge their opponent has, thus leading to a more levelled field in potential combat. Kanō’s original colours were blue, white, brown and black, but as the years passed the system had become more sophisticated and included a larger palette of colours.
As for Brazilian jiu-jitsu, it’s generally presumed that the first belt system was introduced in 1967 in Rio de Janeiro, from where it spread to other schools and federations. Before that, Brazilian jiu-jitsu had a rudimentary belt system consisting of three colours – white for beginners, light blue for instructors and dark blue for masters. Since 1967, BJJ uses a more sophisticated system that can be divided into junior and senior belts, so we’ll analyse each of them in the following paragraphs.
Two Different Belt Systems in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu
We have seen that most martial arts don’t have a fully unified ranking system. There is always a general guideline, but some schools can alter it slightly and adapt it to their teaching. Brazilian jiu-jitsu is not an exception, as it has two competing systems.
One system is the Gracie system, founded by Carlos and Hélio Gracie and used by the Gracie family, and the International Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Federation (IBJJF) system, prescribed by the international governing body of Brazilian jiu-jitsu.
The two systems are similar, but there are some important differences, mostly in junior belts, which we will present to you in the following paragraphs.
Youth (Junior) Belts in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu
Children between ages 4 and 15 can receive belt colours that reward progress after a white belt but before earning a blue belt, which can only be awarded to students that are 16 or older. In 2015, International Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Federation specified 13 belts for competitors aged 4 through 15.
The group of three grey belts are for competitors aged 4 through 15 years old. The group of three yellow belts are for competitors 7 through 15 years old. The group of orange belts are for competitors 10 through 15 years old. The group of three green belts are for competitors 13 through 15 years old.
The Gracie system uses a different colour system. Namely, in the 1990s, Brazilian judo clubs began awarding grey belts for children advancing from white belt. In the same interest of providing children with more frequent rank promotion within Gracie jiu-jitsu, Pedro Valente Sr. and his sons proposed an adaptation to the youth belt system. It involved intermediate belts consisting of half-colours, awarded between full coloured belts.
Each half-colour promotion includes a colour previously attained, and the next full colour rank. This change provided a full ten belts (as opposed to the previous system of only four), allowing instructors to award children more frequently, and increase motivation among young students. The new system was approved in 2005, and he added that it was the most efficient and simple way to give children self-confidence.
Each rank has a recommended maximum age, beginning with the white/yellow belt at age 5 and under. Each subsequent belt has the recommendation for each subsequent year of age, ending with the green belt at age 13 and below.
Under this schedule of promotion, a junior student would receive a stripe roughly every three months, and a new belt after each year of training until the age of 13. After green, the next belt rank is blue, which has a required minimum age of 16 years Although typical, it is not necessary for a student to go through each rank individually.
Now, let us see the belts as prescribed by the IBJJF:
While the Gracie belts are ranked as follows:
Because there is a different number of belts in the two system, BJJ had to create a scale to compare and equalise the ranks in these two systems. It looks like:
When a competitor turns 16, he must move to the adult system of belts according to the belt that he has at the time. White belts remain at white belts. Gray, yellow or orange belts can turn to white or blue belt at the professor’s decision. Green belt can turn to white, blue or purple belt according to the professor’s decision.
Adult Belts in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu
The adult belts and colours are the same in both systems, so we can analyse them both simultaneously; there are some difference in the requirements, but you’ll see that as we continue our analysis. The system is a bit different than in other martial arts, so you’ll have to pay special attention. The colours are:
- White belt is the beginning rank for all Brazilian jiu-jitsu students. The rank is held by any practitioner new to the art and has no prerequisite. Some instructors and other high-level practitioners think that a white belt’s training should emphasize escapes and defensive positioning since a white belt will often fight from inferior positions, especially when training with more experienced practitioners. Most academies will additionally require that a white belt level practitioner works to obtain a well-rounded skills set, with a knowledge of basic offensive moves, such as common submissions and guard passes.
- Blue belt is the second adult rank in Brazilian jiu-jitsu at schools that do not use yellow, orange, and green belts for adults. At the blue belt level, students gain a wide breadth of technical knowledge and undertake hundreds of hours of mat time to learn how to implement these moves efficiently. Blue belt is often the rank at which the student learns a large number of techniques. The IBJJF requires a practitioner remain a blue belt for a minimum of two years before progressing to purple. Although many Brazilian jiu-jitsu organizations adhere to the IBJJF standard of awarding the yellow, orange, and green belt exclusively as part of a youth belt system (under 16 years of age), some supplement the time between white belt and blue belt with one or more belts of these colours with adult practitioners as well. The IBJJF requires that a practitioner be at least 16 years old to receive a blue belt, thereby officially entering into the adult belt system.
- Purple belt is the intermediate adult ranking in Brazilian jiu-jitsu. The purple belt level practitioner has gained a large amount of knowledge, and purple belts are generally considered qualified to help instruct lower-ranked students. The IBJJF requires students to be at least 16 years old and recommends they have spent a minimum of two years ranked as a blue belt to be eligible for a purple belt, with slightly different requirements for those graduating directly from the youth belts. The IBJJF requires a practitioner remain a purple belt for a minimum of 18 months prior to achieving a brown belt.
- Brown belt is the highest ranking colour belt below black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Progressing from a beginner white belt through to a brown belt typically requires at least five years of dedicated training. It is often thought of as a time for refining techniques. The IBJJF requires that students be at least 18 years old and recommends they have spent a minimum of 18 months as a purple belt to be eligible for a brown belt. The IBJJF requires a practitioner to train at the brown belt level for a minimum of one year before ascending to black belt.
- In Brazilian jiu-jitsu, the black belt denotes an expert level of technical and practical skill. BJJ black belts are often addressed within the art as “professor”, although some schools and organizations reserve this title for more senior black belts. To be eligible for a black belt, the IBJJF requires that a student be at least 19 years old and to have spent a minimum of a year as a brown belt. The black belt itself has nine different degrees of expertise, with rankings at seventh degree and eighth degree commonly denoted by a coral belt, and the ninth degree represented with a red belt. The IBJJF requires a practitioner to practice and teach at the black belt level for a minimum of three years before progressing to the next rank. As with most things in jiu-jitsu, there is no standardization from one academy or organization to another. This is also true for the black belt, as there is no set guidance from the IBJJF related to variations of the belt. However, there are three common variations of a black belt, each of which has its own general meaning: a black belt with a white bar generally indicates a competitor or practitioner, while a black belt with a plain red bar is the standard black belt (but sometimes differentiates a coach from a professor), and a red bar with white borders on both ends sometimes comes after at least a year or more of teaching as a black belt and can differentiate a professor.
- When a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt reaches the seventh degree, he or she is awarded an alternating red-and-black belt. This belt is commonly known as a coral belt, after the coral snake. Coral belts are very experienced practitioners, most of whom have made a large impact on Brazilian jiu-jitsu, and are often addressed within the art by the title master. The IBJJF requires a minimum of 7 years of training and teaching at the black and red belt level before progressing to the next rank.
- A practitioner who has achieved the rank of 8th degree black belt will wear a red and white belt, which is also commonly called a coral belt. The IBJJF requires a minimum of 10 years of teaching and training at the red and white belt level before progressing to the next rank.
- In Brazilian jiu-jitsu the red belt is reserved “for those whose influence and fame takes them to the pinnacle of art”. It is awarded in lieu of a ninth and tenth degree black belt. If a practitioner receives his or her black belt at 19 years old, the earliest they could expect to receive a ninth degree red belt would be at the age of 67. Brazilian jiu-jitsu red belt holders are often addressed within the art by the title grandmaster. The 10th degree was given only to the pioneers of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, and the Gracie brothers: Carlos, Oswaldo, George, Gaston and Hélio. The 9th degree red belt is the highest rank awarded to any currently living practitioner of Brazilian jiu-jitsu.
Now that we have analysed the belts and the colours, let us see how it looks in table form:
|Coral 1 (7)|
|Coral 2 (8)|
Unique Gracie System Belts
In some instances, practitioners within the Gracie system will wear belts not recognized or utilized within the greater jiu-jitsu community. Some notable black belt level practitioners, including Royce Gracie and the Valente brothers, have transitioned to wearing a dark navy blue belt in deference to the historical tradition prior to the coloured belt ranking system, (a white belt designated a student, a light blue belt designated an instructor, and head professors wore a dark navy belt).
For individuals who begin training as adults (automatically bypassing junior grade levels), the Gracie Jiu-Jitsu Academy and its Certified Training Centres around the world award a white belt with a navy blue center to students who are promoted from the solid white (beginner) rank.
This belt is referred to as a “Combatives belt” in reference to the Gracie Combatives program which serves as the foundation for all beginner students. This belt was introduced to serve as an intermediary rank for students who have completed the beginner curriculum, but still lack the level of experience commonly attributed to blue belt practitioners.
The Academy also introduced a pink belt for graduates of their Women Empowered self-defence program, a curriculum featuring a limited set of jiu-jitsu techniques specifically curated to defend against common sexual assault scenarios.
The special belts are:
And this is the story of belts and belt colours in Brazilian jiu-jitsu. I hope you enjoyed our newest piece and that you’ll be following us for more of the same.
If you are interested in belts and ranking system of other martial arts, take a look at articles we wrote: