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  • Writer's pictureJackie Bradbury

A Black Belt is a Black Belt is a Black Belt?

A friend and I had a conversation the other day that amounted to the both of us landing on the opinion that basically, you're a black belt in a martial art, or you aren't.

My friend is one of those folks more oriented to the combative sport arts - MMA, Muay Thai, BJJ, Boxing, and so forth.  Long-time readers know I am not one of those people - I don't really even watch UFC matches - and I tend to gravitate toward weapons based and traditional arts.

But both of us ended up with the same basic opinion.  You're a black belt, or you aren't.

All of the ranks before that rank - and all of the ranks after - are really not terribly necessary in the overall scheme of things.

If a black belt rank in an art really is "someone who has mastered the basics" and now is skilled enough to do the real learning - and I believe this is true - then yeah, after you earn a black belt, after that, it's just a matter of continuing to learn and grow after that.

I know that I am a different black belt now than I was when I was first promoted, that's for sure.

Where my friend and I diverge, though, is that he is stuck on the idea that a black belt has an objective meaning.

He thinks that if you have a black belt, it should represent a certain objective standard (and one that, from his point of view, is oriented towards combative sports).

The problem is - it doesn't have an objective meaning, and it can't.

"Basics" and "mastery" are so different from style to style and art to art and organization to organization that they have zero objective meaning.

What my friend is actually looking for to have some sort of quality control across the entire martial arts community.

He's not unique in this. I bet most of us agree with this on some level, usually more intensely around frustration of fake grandmasters being exposed, fraudulent lineages and claims being revealed, or after yet another news story of a martial arts teacher engaging in criminal conduct.

As you know, if you read this blog at all, I am VERY sympathetic to that frustration.

But I don't see a way to have this overall quality control my friend is looking for that would be supported by a large enough portion of the martial arts community to work.

There is an idea some quarters that there should be a governmental agency or process by which martial artists have to earn a certification from a governmental exam board, pass background checks,and so forth, in order to teach.

The immediate problem with this is that who decides what the standards are - for example, which version of taekwondo is "legit" in the eyes of the government? And why? And how did they get the right to make that determination?

Which FMA style(s) will be the objective standard that the rest of us have to conform to? I promise you, whoever it is, they will be a minority in the overall community and that idea will go over like a lead balloon.

I think government boards and standards is an incredibly bad idea (and I don't think it'll work), and do not support it in any way, shape or form.

Not only would it not be very effective (as most government licensing programs are not quality control anyway)... how do you enforce it? Will there be Dojo Cops storming underground dojos and arresting unlicensed teachers? Is that what we want?

If you think martial arts training is pricey NOW, just wait until the government gets involved!

I do support the idea of doing background checks to at least make sure known criminals and sex offenders aren't in our martial arts schools. It'd be through an organization that would be similar to the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval in the martial arts world.

Even though a lot of the folks caught abusing students had no prior record, it's better than nothing.

Other ways that my friend was thinking about quality control was in the ring itself - your win/loss record or something along those lines.

I don't think this necessarily works well either, as there are a number of factors that go into winning and losing a fight, and that would automatically make people who are not perfectly physically fit and healthy ineligible to earn the rank, even if they have all the knowledge necessary.

It would also be very, very difficult to do this for lots of the weapons arts.

So we're left with the fact that black belt is a subjective measure, not an objective one.

"Mastery" is a subjective measure, what "basics" are subjective, and what is needed to teach is subjective.

We have to accept the fact that the fakes and the belt mills that produce "inferior" black belts - whatever that means - exist and will continue to exist, as frustrating as that is for all of us.

There is a reason we call it a martial art.

As an aside... you guys calling it martial "science"... I want to how you've validated what you are teaching using the scientific method, please, and your test results, against what kind of control group you maintained, and where all this was independently peer reviewed, thanks a bunch.

What does "black belt" mean to you?  Is there a way you think it can be more objective as a measure in the martial arts?  I want to know what you think!

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