Almost all martial arts systems have a grading system through which students move. BJJ has a grading system but it works a bit differently to the way a lot of other systems work. First let’s look at the belts that are available:
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 emphasise 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 this level, students gain a wide breath 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. However, as of 2022, the IBJJF allows coaches to ignore this minimum time-requirement if the practitioner has won an adult world championship at blue belt.
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 a practitioner remain a purple belt for a minimum of 18 months prior to achieving a brown belt. However, as of 2022, the IBJJF allows coaches to ignore this minimum time-requirement if the practitioner has won an adult world championship at purple 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 a practitioner to train at the brown belt level for a minimum of one year before ascending to black belt. However as of 2022, the IBJJF allows coaches to ignore this minimum time-requirement if the practitioner has won an adult world championship at brown belt.
In Brazilian jiu-jitsu, the black belt denotes an expert level of technical and practical skill. BJJ black belts are often addressed as “professor” or “coach”, although some schools and organizations reserve these title for the more senior black belt instructors. 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, similar to the dan in traditional Japanese martial arts, 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 for the first 3 ranks. Ranks 4, 5, and 6 require 5 years from the previous rank.
As with most things in jiu-jitsu, there is no standardisation 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. Royce Gracie and the Valente brothers started a black belt with a blue bar to honour the legacy of Hélio Gracie, but this has not been widely adopted. Royce Gracie now wears a navy blue belt without rank insignia following the death of his father.
Red / Black belt (Coral belt)
When a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt reaches the seventh degree, he or she is awarded an alternating red-and-black belt similar to the one awarded fourth degree black belt by very few judo bodies such as the USJA. 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.
Red / White belt (Coral belt)
The International Brazilian jiu-jitsu Federation in 2013, amended the graduation guidelines with respect to the transition between seventh degree and eighth degree black belt. In short, a practitioner who has achieved the rank of 8th degree black belt will wear a red and white belt similar to the one worn on formal occasions by sixth to eighth degree holders in judo 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.
Francisco Mansor wears his 9th degree red belt. According to Renzo and Royler Gracie, 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 Helio. The highest ranking living practitioners are 9th degree red belts, as there are no living 10th degree red belts.
How grading happens
In a lot of martial arts gradings happen via specific tests. There are several problems with this: 1. People can train specifically for the test, pass and end up over-graded. 2. People can screw up on the day under pressure and end up under-graded. 3. People are lucky on the day and end up over-graded. So grading tests are not a good way of assessing a student’s ability.
In BJJ gradings are conducted informally, certainly at the lower grades. When you are fighting at blue belt level that is when your professor will upgrade you to a blue belt for example. It means that when you move up a belt you have definitely earned it and you are definitely at that level.
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