An Open Letter to the BJJ Community – by Ryan Kellar
Over the past few years, I have been noticing a trend arising, a trend that worries the s**t out of me.
THE PATH SHOULD BE RESPECTED
I have been smashed. I have donated cups full of blood and buckets of sweat. I have been battle tested. Hands cracked and broken; nails ripped off; ankles and knees blown out. Thousands of hours of drilling. Early mornings and late nights obsessively attempting to perfect a single movement. Pushing it to the limits, vomiting and going unconscious. Fond memories of saunas and running at midnight before a tournament to make weight. Hours and hours of pain and suffering to adapt and grow. For the teacher, for the team. For the medal, the belt and the sword. The joys of victory and sorrows of the loss. Years of reflection, learning how to teach and transfer knowledge to others. I have stood across from the best in Canada and beyond, never backed away. Each belt…blue, purple, brown and black…Earned… never bought.
ENTER THE CON-MAN
For me, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu had a draw of being legitimate, something you couldn’t fake….I mean, you can’t fake your way out of a bow & arrow choke. You either know what you are doing, or you don’t. I find that most of the Americanized martial arts have been hijacked. Martial arts such as Karate and traditional Japanese Jiu-Jitsu systems that we see here in North America have been co-opted by money-centred charlatans; martial arts that often hide behind kata and demonstrations. These are the guys who are famous for “breaking” pre-broken boards; giving black belts to ten year olds; and even claiming to have mystical powers. These are the guys who build a culture around themselves in a foolish attempt to appear as more than they are, as if to create some sort of religious dogma.
From a personal appraisal, I see these people misleading and taking advantage of unknowledgeable and well-meaning people. And now it seems that our walls of legitimacy have been penetrated by such con-men.
TIMES, THEY ARE A CHANGIN’
I remember a time in my town when a black belt meant something. If you had a black belt, or even a brown, there was no questioning your legitimacy. You would be a terror on the mats and in competition; you were seen as highly knowledgeable; and even if your adversaries didn’t like you, they at least respected you.
Recently, my city has had a sudden influx of black belts. These black belts appear out of nowhere. Over the last decade, there has been a scramble to snatch up all of the available BJJ affiliations by all the traditional Jiu-Jitsu, Karate and Kung Fu schools. Seriously, almost every BJJ affiliation exists in my city. The distinction is, these are not BJJ schools lead by qualified teachers. They are Kung Fu schools, Karate schools and traditional Jiu-Jitsu schools with a BJJ program lead by an unqualified self-appointed instructor(s). These instructors, (although are affiliated) have no ongoing personal contact or mentorship from qualified teachers. The trick appears to be to find the right affiliation and provide the right amount ($) of motivation. Although they are willing to pay their way through the ranks, someone out there is willing to accept, and sell-out, all in the name of expanding their reach, spreading their name and lining their pockets.
After a while, you can generally watch even a few second of someone rolling and give a reasonable appraisal of their skill level. The sad thing is, watching the most recent black belt additions in the area, they resemble between a low-blue to a low-purple. However, the majority of these phonies shy away from any public demonstration of their ability. As much as the remainder of the black belts in the city may know where they stand in terms of quality, many others don’t. However, legitimacy or ability or knowledge was never the goal for these shysters. They simply were looking to acquire the black belt as soon as possible, to go along with their several other black/red belts in the several other martial arts that they are apparently experts or masters in. These people are also known as “belt collectors”. Such promotions might be able to be swept under the rug for say, as blue or purple belt. However, the problem that arises when someone is given a black belt is the level of (perceived) power that accompanies it.
Seeing all of this causes many legitimate black belts to shake their heads in disapproval. However, a new student looking at BJJ for the first time has no frame of reference. To them, a black belt is a black belt. The reality is that this dilutes the gene pool, as the “McDojos” continue to co-opt the BJJ community.
WHO’S TO BLAME?
I know that these phoney black belts are partly to blame. After all, many of them are simply trying to run a business and that is all that they have in mind. To them (much like a sociopath) they probably don’t see it as taking advantage of a new student who doesn’t know any better, as they don’t even question if there is an ethical concern. They are simply thinking how they can get what they want. The other part of the blame needs to be pointed at the affiliations themselves. I feel that more mutual involvement needs to be required when an affiliation branches out. The problem with any business that over-franchises is that unless there is a solid system in place allowing the company to have close tabs and ongoing communication with their franchisees, things begin to fall apart. Using this analogy for BJJ, what you end up with is a game of broken-telephone where the message (originating from the affiliation) becomes muffled, with significant information being lost in the end.
When I see a black belt who clearly hasn’t trained with their affiliation during their brown and black promotions, I am simply amazed. Even attending a yearly weekend training camp doesn’t cut it. It makes zero sense for these local clubs to affiliate with a random BJJ instructor who lives in another country that they may see for one or two weekends per year. An affiliation to a major camp in another city nearby would be much more rational.
I have no delusions that this is a localized phenomenon. I am sure that such practices have infected the waters of many far away lands. I feel that these (for lack of a better term) “McDojo” clubs need to be identified and called out on their practices, as do the affiliations that do next to no research into who they sell their name/lineage to. In the end, my comments have been less out of frustration and more out of sheer compassion for the welfare of unsuspecting students who are truly being misled. I only hope that the bastardization of the belt system comes to an end.
With the love and affection of an obsessed Jiu-Jitsu player,
Mine was conquered on sweat and blood. For it I had to go away from my family and my home country. Those were no easy choices. I had to walk a slippery road, I had to swallow prejudice and accept dirty looks. For it, I dedicated my whole life, gave all my loyalty to a lifestyle that nowadays is misrepresented by mercenaries. But I’m sure that whoever buys it is even less valuable than the one who sells it. For buying a track, you become a lie because you won’t have a history. “The true ones know the ones who are fake!” – Nino Bezerra