We live in the era of fake news, so it’s natural that we feel a certain level of skepticism towards any claim. However, when we see a black belt on a fighter, we tend to take it is a read that they are a highly skillful martial artist. How good are black belts in real life? Can black belts REALLY fight?
All black belt practitioners can fight but not to the same extent. If the black belt is earned as a symbol of excellence, it’s fair to say that he or she can really fight. If the black belt is earned for mere competence, then he or she have achieved a certain level of mastery but may or may not ‘really’ fight.
It comes down to the particular martial art and its school. Let’s take a look at the black belt and what it means and look at some scenarios which might help to understand its value better.
Where Did The Belt System Come From?
As you might expect, the first martial arts’ belts were awarded in Japan. What might surprise you though is that they are a relatively recent invention – the first belts, used to denote martial arts prowess as opposed to the first belts used to hold up trousers, were awarded in the 1880s to Judo practitioners.
Before this time, there were still gradings in Judo and other martial arts but instead of receiving a belt to showcase their abilities, practitioners would receive a certificate detailing their rank.
There were, however, at that time only two belts. White and black. Another curiosity, from this era, is that the “gi”, the standard Judo garment, wasn’t available to Judo practitioners of the time and their belts were used to hold a kimono shut, instead.
It was in the early 1930s when additional color gradings were added to martial arts belts. Jigoro Kano, the founder of Judo, introduced red and white panels for black belts of the 6th, 7th, and 8th degree These colors were chosen specifically because they represent Japan.
In 1943, an optional red belt was created to signify the 9th and 10th degree.
The additional color belts were not invented in Japan. They were introduced in Europe by Mikonsuke Kawaishi as a means of enticing Western students to stick with Judo because they could chart their progress against each other.
How Significant Is Black Belt As A Rank?
It is commonly understood within martial arts communities that becoming a black belt is not a symbol of absolute mastery of a discipline. Instead, it means that the bearer of the belt has achieved a strong level of competence in the martial art and can faithfully execute its basic techniques and principles.
There is an exception to this rule, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu’s black belt is considered to be a statement of mastery and it typically takes twice as long to become a black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu as it does in other martial arts.
So, you might think of a black belt, in terms of educational degrees, as your bachelor’s degree in most martial arts. That is, you know more than most people do, but you have not yet distinguished yourself in your field of study either.
In most martial arts there are rankings above the black belt beginning with “shodan” (which means first rank – “sho” + “dan”) through to sometimes tenth dan or more.
In Judo, for example, many thousands of people have achieved the black belt but in history, only 15 have obtained the 10th dan. It’s interesting to note that there is no limit to the gradings in judo, while no-one has ever achieved 11th dan, it is theoretically possible to do so.
Does A Black Belt Mean Anything?
In general, if you are awarded a black belt it accords you a certain status within the martial arts community and you will be worthy of respect from your peers.
Sadly, there are some schools which guarantee black belt status in exchange for a certain amount of time spent practicing or a certain amount of money paid. The schools which do this are known mockingly as McDojo’s by the rest of the martial arts community.
A black belt which is bought, rather than earned, will not earn the wearer much respect in the martial arts community.
Higher Gradings And Black Belts
In most martial arts, additional gradings above black belt are simply marked as stripes on the belt. If someone has three stripes, they are typically 3rd dan, for example.
However, in some, there comes a point (as with Judo, which we mentioned earlier on) when a black belt is replaced by one of a different color. Judo uses red and white check and then red, some Jiu-Jitsu schools offer top ranks a purple belt, and so on.
It’s worth noting that all of these belts are still considered to be “black belts”. The dan ranking is a grade above proficiency and not a replacement for that proficiency.
How Easy Is It To Become A Black Belt?
This is a tricky question to answer because firstly, becoming a black belt requires different levels of proficiency in different martial arts and secondly, because there’s no requirement for martial arts schools to share their black belt gradings with any official body and no requirement for them to register their total student numbers, either.
Keeping that in mind – in sports where a black belt is deemed to represent competence it typically takes between 3 and 6 years to earn your black belt. That’s a reasonably long time commitment and thus, it seems unlikely that anyone would consider this “easy” to achieve.
In other sports, where a black belt represents mastery in that art form – it can take 6 to 12 years to obtain a black belt. This is a huge time commitment and ensures that in those sports, even fewer people will ever qualify for the belt. It’s certainly not easy.
The Japanese Martial Arts Center in Ann Arbor estimates that of their students only 2% will ever become a black belt in a martial arts discipline. This is quite incredible because as they note, their students are more likely to obtain a PhD from the University of Michigan than they are to get a black belt in a martial art.
The Bad News About Black Belts
It is a significant feat of personal discipline to obtain a black belt from a top martial arts school and you should be justly proud of doing so.
However, there is absolutely no guarantee that a martial arts school knows what it is doing. Anyone can start their own school and/or martial art and indeed, many people with no skills at all (or with skills of dubious value) have done so.
There is no quality control body from any government as to what awards a martial arts school may give to its students.
It would be entirely legal to create the “Online School Of Supa-Street Fighting” and claim that “Supa-Street Fighting” was a brand new martial art and to award a black belt in it for watching a 10 minute “instructional video” which consisted of the latest Bruno Mars song overlaid on a clip of people dancing Swan Lake.
This means that if you want your black belt to mean something, you need to select the dojo you join and the martial art you undertake with a certain amount of care. In particular, you might want to look up their reputation online and see if their black belts are competing successfully in tournaments.
What Being A Black Belt Ought To Mean To Students
We’ve looked at what being a black belt means to other people, but we think it’s also important to acknowledge that being a black belt ought to mean something to the people who’ve attained the belt too.
We think it’s a symbol of commitment to the martial art in which you have gained the belt and at the same time it is an admission that there is still much to learn. A black belt is not the end of your martial arts journey but rather a waypoint on the map.
You should be proud of the hard work you put in and feel confident that you can fight using your martial art but humble enough to realize you are not yet “the best there is” either.
Assuming they’ve worked and trained for a black belt and not bought one from a McDojo, yes, black belts can really fight. They may not, yet, be the absolute best in their discipline but they will have attained a level of competence and proficiency in that martial art that far surpasses the average person’s fighting skills.
Fumon, Tanaka; Samurai fighting arts: the spirit and the practice, Kodansha International, 2003 ISBN 9784770028983 p25
Ohlenkamp, Neil (March 25, 2007). “The Judo Rank System”. JudoInfo.com. Retrieved 2019-28-11