Changing Times : The Blue Belt Instructor PART 1
By David Karchmer
I guess I feel old when I recall being in my mid-20s when I witnessed the officially landing of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu in America with Royce Gracie’s first victory in UFC 1 in November 1993. After the Ninja craze of the 80s, the buzz about BJJ was very real and exciting. But at least in my area in New York, it would be several years before I would even find anyone that actually trained Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, let alone knew what it was.
I was fortunate enough to get my first exposure to Brazilian Jiu Jitsu from Royce Gracie himself. A seminar attached to the grand opening of a Gracie Academy in Thornwood, New York gave me the opportunity to meet and train with the legend himself. Like many there that day, it was a life altering experience, and one that started my path through BJJ.
Upon reflection, one of the most interesting parts is the fact that my first instructors were all blue belts. But understand, being a blue belt in New York in 1998 was an elite group. My instructors trained directly with Helio, Rorion, and Royce through frequent pilgrimages to California. But the knowledge that they had was so far above what anyone else knew about BJJ in the area that people clambered to train with them.
Fast forward to 2013, and you might ask yourself would anyone train with a blue belt instructor today? After all, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu has long since made its mark on the martial arts community in North America, and high ranking instructors, particularly black belts, are not as hard to come by anymore. So, I wanted to give some thought into what reasons people still can find value in training with lower ranks without necessarily feeling obligated to search out ‘masters’ of the art.
What does it take to get blue belt today?
Firstly, the BJJ ranking system is treated differently than other martial arts. There can be no 7-year old-black belts like in other traditional systems. In fact, you need to be 16 just to receive a blue belt. And if you don’t know, blue is the first colored belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, followed by purple, brown, and then black belt. There are commonly 4 degrees at each belt level as well. There are also age minimums attached to other colored belts, and you have to be 19 years old to receive a black belt.
Your belt progression is somewhat mandated as well, with the progression from white to black belt taking a minimum of roughly 5 years. Certainly there are exceptions, with some phenomenal students achieving black belt in as little as 3 years. Likewise, depending on age, number of training times per week, athleticism, and aptitude, it can take some student 13-15 years to reach black belt. Typical training from white to black belt is a 7-10 year investment.
So going back to blue belt for a moment, typically a student today will have at least one year of solid training. But, my recollection of belt promotion a decade or so ago was that it could be much slower progression, as many of the Gracies did not promote students very quickly at all. And even if you progressed to blue belt fairly quickly, you were destined to spend at least a few years as a blue belt, and purple belt was a very serious milestone. A BJJ purple belt is comparable to a black belt in other martial arts, when you compare time, experience, and skill levels.
The deceptive blue belt
Refereeing so many tournaments has exposed me to a lot of different competitors. Often I am amazed to see a highly skilled, advanced division no-Gi grappler go grab his Gi and put on a blue belt. But how could this be? It made me wonder what might be different about the modern blue belt.
Firstly, I think that North Americans have in some cases drawn a distinction between Gi and no-Gi that may not have existed in previous decades of BJJ. The popularity of no-Gi competition and MMA have led to some grapplers never even putting a Gi on or training in it rarely. With few exceptions, most BJJ schools do not offer no-Gi or MMA ranks, so without some serious Gi training, it’s unlikely you will get promoted. ( Granted, there have been several cases where high level MMA fighters have been promoted to black belt without ever having put the gi on, but this is the exception, not the rule. In fact, it created quite a bit of discussion in the BJJ community. )
Additionally, the cross-training associated with MMA encourages many newer martial artists to train several disciplines at once. Naturally, this is different than someone who has developed a high level proficiency as a grappler or striker, and then going on to cross-train other martial arts to become better-rounded. So even someone training 6 days a week, it would be slower to progress in the BJJ aspect of your game, and thus you may not see promotion very quickly.
Sometimes, grapplers from other sports/martial arts find BJJ later in life. Perhaps they had experience through high school and college wrestling, or maybe they did judo since they were a kid. While they start out as white belts like the rest of us, they have a great deal of experience with leverage, body positioning, take-downs, and even submissions. By the time they are blue belts, they can be very formidable. They may even have ‘black belt’ knowledge of certain aspects of BJJ, particularly take-downs and throws.
But, there is a flipside. I do not believe that all blue belts are created equal, and can be very different than the types I previously explained. In some cases, traditional martial arts schools have wanted to add BJJ programs, and have sought out rapid methods of knowledge and promotion from well-known BJJ schools. Some programs even exist online, where you can receive your promotion by video – certainly not something available or even conceivable a decade ago. We can save the argument over the validity of these types of programs for another discussion, but the skill level of these types of blue belts can vary greatly, and are usually not highly regarded by the BJJ community as a whole. Ironically, these types of blue belt ‘certifications’ are most often acquired by people who want to teach a very specialized segment of BJJ, like self-defense.
Also, with the growing popularity of BJJ, it has spread across North America to even the most remote areas. Sometimes people start clubs at colleges, local athletic centers, or do good old garage training ( more than a few great academies have sprung from such humble beginnings ). In these remote areas, it’s not always possible to have a black belt or high rank, and sometimes just the guy that knows more than the other guys is the instructor. I think you can find a lot of value from a blue belt in an area where there are few academies to train, especially without a lot of options.
David ‘Silverfox‘ Karchmer is a black belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu under 2nd Degree Black Belt Steve Kardian, and has been training for over 13 years. David’s martial arts background spans over two decades, and includes a black belt in Tae Kwon Do he received in 1993. His BJJ journey began at Gracie Thornwood in 1999 after he took a seminar with Royce Gracie and knew he was hooked on the art. In addition to training and instructing, David has focused the last five years on officiating grappling competitions and has officiated nearly 2000 gi and no-gi matches for multiple organizations. He is a certified referee for Grapplers Quest, IBJJF, ADCC, Copa Nova, and US Grappling organizations and routinely officiates these events around the country.