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Combat Ju Jutsu

Black Belt - Significance in the Modern Era

by Kevin O'Hagan

In this article play Devil's Advocate to look at the two schools of thought on the above question and also then give my own opinion on a debatable and controversial topic. When I first started my martial arts training back in 1975, my goal was to own the then coveted black belt. This was an era of Bruce Lee, Kung Fu and wild, crazy stories of magical martial arts feats and I saw the mythical black belt as an answer to all my prayers. In the 70s black belts were still a rarity and those that had achieved black belt status were looked upon with much reverence and respect. These individuals were legends and thought to be deadly warriors with the power, skill and technique to dispatch anybody with one merciless blow of their hands or feet.

For me I felt that when that black belt had been tied around my waist it would banish al my worst fears and nightmares, that I also would be transformed into a deadly warrior, a 'killing machine' that feared nobody and would be able to see off all corners without losing a drop of sweat! When I did finally achieve the black belt grade, it was a very proud moment in my life.

I had worked extremely hard for it and I felt I had earned the right to wear the grade. But I have to say it didn't transform me over night into a fearless warrior! It certainly was a step in the right direction for me. It did improve my fighting abilities, it did improve my self-esteem and confidence but it didn't give me that magical quality I thought it would. But then I was still a young 21-year-old man, who may have viewed it all naively and was probably expecting too much. I can still recall the day that I achieved my 1st Dan in 1982 and exactly what I had to do and I remember vividly all my other black belt gradings, all the way to the present and the 6th Dan grade I now hold. So how do I view my black belt grades now in comparison to all those years ago?

Firstly I am a lot older and have gained plenty of experience, I am a much wiser person than that young buck of twenty one. I see and view the black belt in a much different way these days. I see my black belt grades now as a landmark and a measuring stick to gauge how far I've come in my martial arts journey and of what I have achieved. It goes beyond just whether I can have a fight or not. As I have got older that isn't what drives me these days. The black belt to me is an award, the same as a doctor, dentist or lawyer may have a certificate hung on their office wall to say they are qualified to practice in their chosen field.

The black belt is a Martial Arts symbol of a certain level of knowledge or competence. But in some quarters of the Martial Arts world the black belt has been promoted as the highest of accolades. It suggests that any black belt is a fighting machine, a master the best of the best! As with the reference to a doctor, dentist or lawyer they are all certainly qualified to do what they do. It's just that some can do it exceptionally well, others are good, some are average and some are poor.

That's life! So why should it be any different in the Martial Arts world? Martial Arts has itself to blame, brain-washing the general public with outlandish claims and mythological stories. I as a young man swallowed those stories, hook, line and sinker. But it was those stories and claims that drove me, ironically ever forward to keep training and achieve black belt. Every business or product has line rites to poetic license sometimes!

The bottom line is that a black belt grade doesn't make you a master. In Asia the black belt is a symbol of having learnt the basics and that the following Dan grades will really show you your chosen art. To them it is a foot on the bottom rung of the ladder. For most people in the Western world it is the top of the ladder. Many give up training in martial arts once they have reached black belt, thinking that they have learnt it all. I tell my students that once they have achieved their 1st Dan, it may be another 18 months or so before the grade sits comfortably with them. It is like passing your driving test. You have the piece of paper to say you are competent to drive the car but it may take you many months to be comfortable with driving. I have found over the years that I have trained many noticeable differences in the standard of black belt in different martial arts, associations and clubs. It is all down to standards and instructors.

In some arts it can take you two years to achieve black belt, in others five. Some arts syllabuses are extremely lightweight and shallow, others are in-depth and intense. You can only set your own standards within your clubs and not be swayed by other issues. Some associations have made millions by dolling out black belts like smarties to below par performers. Others set the standards so high that only a few will achieve it. you have to ask what your black belt means to you an what does it signify?

As previously mentioned you could have a room full of black belt level martial artists and the standards can be glaringly different, yet they all have a certificate to say they are black belt. Take the football premier league. Every player in that league is a professional footballer, but there are many different standards. The cream of the crop are exceptional, yet every player is still licensed as a professional footballer. Some will always be better than others, same as the black belt. I try to concentrate on my own standards in the clubs and not worry about others. I set my grading criteria on my own past experiences and my time coming up through the grades. I didn't have any easy passage nor had any grades handed to me. So I keep the same goals for my students.

Times have changed though and so have martial arts training. In this day and age it is more scientific and we are now developing martial arts athletes. In my era for example it was frowned up on to stop and take water while you trained. Infact it was a positive no-no. I have trained in seminars non-stop for 4 hours without any water. Of course today we know better and water is encouraged to enhance performance and duration.

Do todays Martial Artists have it easier; are they spoiled and pampered too much, unlike the Martial Artists of yesteryear? Who knows? Things just change and maybe the value of the black belt have changed with it. Todays' training is all about a realistic application. If it doesn't work in a fight its 'rubbish.' If you haven't stepped in the ring, cage or contest mat you are not worth a light. A lot of modern systems have done away with the grading structures and many do not wear belts. The black belt is a belittled and many claim it meaningless. I am myself a realistic who trains in modern combat methods but I still have a syllabus and grading structure in my combat Ju Jutsu classes and I always wear my belt. If I am training in MMA or street Combat I don't. Its not because I don't believe in it or see that it has no worth. Why should I? I have invested a lot of time, effort and money into climbing the Dan grade ladder so why rubbish the grade? I do again tell my students that you don't wear a black belt on the streets or in the ring, so your black belts worth is from inside you. Its from your heart, spirit and soul. Its in the way you carry yourself and your beliefs.

The black belt itself is only a cosmetic outside symbol to what you have earned. Does the black belt make you a fighter? Not always. If you train in a system that doesn't have practical application as its top priority then no, you are not going to be a great fighter. Could a savage street brawler beat you in a fight? Yes, quite possibly. But for these types of Martial Artists if practical application isn't their main concern and they know their limitations, then the black belt will mean other things to them. As long as they don't presume they can take on everybody and his dog and win, then it isn't a problem. Does the black belt grade have to signify we can hold our own in a fight? Who said so in the first place?

Back to Combat Ju Jutsu Articles | Part 2



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