Whenever people who are vaguely familiar with BJJ ask me about the art I usually end up having the following conversation at some point:

‘How long have you been practicing?’
‘A decade.’
‘So you’re a black belt?’
‘No. I’m a brown belt. One below a black belt.’
‘After ten years??’

At this point it looks to me as if they’re trying to decide if I really am just that slow or if the art is just that demanding. I imagine they’re thinking of weazened old wicked masters never letting their students achieve mastery or be acknowledged as a masterin their own right. That or me failing often and getting the stick constantly.

So yes, after ten years I am not a black belt and it does not bother me at all.It’s most important that we understand that a black belt in BJJ does not mean the same things as a black belt in many other martial arts. In BJJ you cannot even receive a black belt until you are 19 years old at which point you will have been practicing at least 4 years but most likely you have been practicing from a young age constantly. That is no small feat of dedication and it is a bare minimum!

In many other more formalized martial arts such as Tae Kwon Do, Kung Fu, and Karate, a black belt means that you have mastered the basics and that alone is what you are a master of.It can also mean that ‘now you are ready to truly learn the art’ and is a starting point for a dedicated and inducted practitioner in that art. This also helps explain why there are many more belts and ranks above black belt in these arts. In BJJ a black belt means not only have you mastered the basics but you have at least one response that leads to a definitive submission for any situation or position you find yourself in. Combine this with the fact that unlike many other martial arts, BJJ does not have a set cannon or number of ‘forms’ that must be memorized and that there are new moves that are continually being created and you have an astounding amount of information that must be absorbed and implemented for mastery.

Likewise, each belt leading up to the black belt in BJJ is no less a distinction of progress and ability. They are not marks of how many moves you know, how many times you can pull off your best move on how many people, or how beautifully you can put them all together. It is a mark of the ability to implement this knowledge in real time. The proof of this is watching a blue belt, the first rank you achieve in BJJ, handle a new white belt on the mats. Then watching a purple belt, the second rank you receive in BJJ, control that same white belt with ease. The difference between all three of these belt holders? Length of practice. Most find that BJJ has a quick application- moves can be broken down and easily described- but a long mastery- that point where the move becomes simple reaction, and are applied with little effort, proper timing, and perfect control.

In the early days of Jiu Jitsu, before there were enough black belts in the various weight and age categories to compete together in separate divisions purple, brown, and black belts were all combined in one division. In places where they are still developing the numbers of people that practice BJJ and even as recent as two years ago in the major tournaments for women you will still find the‘Purple to Black belt’divisions. The reason is that it is possible for a purple to compete ‘up’ a level against a black belt and though at a disadvantage, it is still a match worth having and seeing.

As an aside, there are three belts in BJJ that given beyond black belt- black and red, red and white, and red belt. They have the minimum age requirement of 50, 57 and 67 respectively and are given based on number of years you have held your previous belt.

So am I a black belt yet?

Shouldn’t I be?
Eventually, yes. I have no doubt.
Till then and beyond, see you on the mats!

-Ariadne Burkhart
Brown belt, Instructor, Women’s and Children’s Program Director
Gracie Sydney.