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Under The Table Belt Promotions in BJJ

For two years I studied and practiced Kendo when I was in my teens.  I was diligent and worked hard at it.  I really enjoyed Kendo.  Every once and a while the president of the Rocky Mountain Kendo Federation would come out and we would test.  Each time it would take months to get test results.  We never received a certificate or any thing other then word of mouth about the results and our new rank except from our, aged and well loved sensei.  RMKF happily accepted our testing fees and the money we paid for them to visit and do the testing each time.  So if I were to start Kendo again would I be accepted at the rank I was told I had?  I doubt it.  I doubt there is any record of it.  I don’t have any documentation.  My sensei has since died.  It has left a bad taste in my mouth.  I spend time and money to earn that rank.  It would be the equivalent of a associates degree with no proof.

So when I tested for my blue belt in BJJ I thought things would be different.  I went to a local affiliate school.  I didn’t have a intermediary.  I would be talking directly to the person testing me.  The test result I knew would be delivered at the end of the test.  I paid my testing fee.

I passed the test.  I was given the blue belt on the spot.  Things were looking good.  I left the test elated that after 2 1/2 hours of testing I had passed.  That was the end of the warm fuzzes.  I neglected to ask about documentation.  Later when I realized that, I started by sending e-mails asking about a certificate.  My e-mails to the testing school had been answered before but this time there was no reply.  I asked my instructor if I should have received a certificate. He said they were usually mailed to the school.  I waited and nothing came.  I asked my instructor again about it.  He made a call to the testing school and left a voice mail.  I waited and time passed.  I forgot about my quest for legitimate rank. 

A new set of white belts in my school had matured and were sent for testing.  They returned and my thoughts turned back to finding documentation.  I asked one of them if they had received a certificate.  Maybe I was just the odd man out.  He said no.  Something seemed fishy now to me and I began to get that old feeling from the Kendo days.  I went to the affiliate website and found that I had to pay $50 a year for official membership that would allow me to obtain rank under this organization.  If I paid the membership and tested at an affiliate school I would be listed on the website with my rank.  I couldn’t find anywhere on the site that had any listing of anyone’s ranking but the "Professor’s" or the head of the school.  I decided to pay the $50 membership anyway.  Now there would be no excuse for not giving me some documentation.  When my membership kit comes I’ll start my inquires again.  I’ll start with a direct call to the person that tested me.

At this moment I feel like there are "under the table" belt promotions happening throughout the BJJ world.  Fees and belts are exchanged but without documentation it is all dust in the wind as my Kendo story points out.

Have you had a similar experience?

Jiu-Jitsu is Life and Life and Jiu-Jitsu

30 Responses to “Under The Table Belt Promotions in BJJ”

  1. At least you will be getting that awsome Pedro Saur official member card for your $50 a year. haha! Just flash that thing next time you are about to get in a fight and nobody will mess with you.

  2. At least in my experience, it is extremely common NOT to have tests, nor fees to some organization, to be promoted in BJJ. And the only rank certificates I have ever seen were for blackbelts. I think it is done on the honor system. People rely on your word as to who gave you what belt(s).

    Also, while there’s some variation amongst blues from school to school, for example, there’s also a certain amount of “put up or shut up” involved. If someone with bluebelt rank were to buy a brown belt from Jiu Jitsu Pro Gear and strut into a random academy, they’d be found out pretty quick. If someone’s a nobody they might escape notice through not training or teaching or competing. But it’s a tough crowd to fool, you know? That constant aliveness is what separates BJJ from TMAs in general, I think.

  3. Hmmm. In the UK, the BJJ scene is still young but fast growing. I would say pretty much nearly all academies have the informal handing out of belts by instructors when the student is deemed to be ready for the next rank up. But a newly formed bunch of clubs work under the WBJJA rules, and these seem to operate differently.
    If you have time, see how the WBJJA have stoked up a fire of debate on our UK forums:
    http://www.cagewarriors.com/forums/showthread.php?t=36999
    It doesn’t help your case I guess but highlights the things that are happening. Personally I see no problem paying for a special ‘grading day’ where a senior instructor visits from head office to oversee gradings, so long as the main instructor is the one who has the say so of who gets graded. Only he/she will be the best judge of who is ready or not. As for actualy gradings where you have to perform certain techniques and sparring infront of a panel before ‘passing or failing’ well that seems to be one of the things that drew me away from TMA and towards BJJ. But it’s not to say the system can’t work, I just prefer the informal approach.
    It’s a bit like dad, upin my 18th birthday, surprising me and saying Son, you’ve done well, here’s a car I bought for you. It’s time, you’re ready. How cool is that?

  4. i think the testing system is bunk.
    – Im being tested by a guy who has never really seen me roll or participate in class.
    – The testing instructor is testing about 10 different people at 1 time. There is no possible way he can tell if all 10 of us actually have the techniques down or not.
    – I paid 50 bucks for a sub standard belt which i have already replaced.

    – I could have gotten a blue belt easier with this “testing” system than if my usual instructor were allowed to “promote when I am ready”. He has the best idea of how my skills are, he has the best idea of what level I should be at.

    I personally dont give a damn about having a blue belt “certificate”. I can show most people im blue belt just by rolling with them and so can you.

  5. there was an independent school here in my town that, pre-affiliation, was run by a “legitimate” two stripe blue and his two stripe white student. they wanted more name recognintion in order to gain more students, so they decided to affiliate with a very well-known and well-respected bjj organization (one of the ones not named ‘gracie’). they paid an enormous amount of money, got the main guy to come in and hold an opening/seminar, and overnight the blue became a brown and the white gained near purple status.

    strangely they will not roll with anyone, nor do they like to do tournaments. i am not against documentation, carlson gracie used to do this (might still). but it is more of an american add-on, than anything else. regardless, i hope you get something for your $50.

  6. I’ve decided to ask FightWorksPodCast.com to do a poll on it. I talked with a friend in another school after your post and found that they get a certificate for each belt. I am really beginning to wonder what “reality” is out there.

  7. I agree with the “passing or failing”. I like the more natural test, meaning when you are ready you will be given the belt. I still believe it should come with documentation. You may be able to “prove” it on the mat but lineage means something I think in BJJ and without documentation its can get murky. I also understand that if you want to play in the big league tournaments you need documentation of your rank (Not that I plan on entering and taking on Roger or the like any time soon :)). I liken this all to a college degree. No one would go to a college that didn’t document your degree. What if for a job interview I had to have the employer call the college and ask the dean if he remembered me and I had the degree I was claiming? Its true they check now but its all documented. If you are proud of your students you claim them. If you don’t really want anyone to know they are from you then leave some wiggle room. I’m rambling now. I’ll stop.

  8. This is the kind of stuff that gives BJJ a bad name. We have one here that claims black and has started his own school. I know a legitimate black that has rolled with him and says he couldn’t be. The story goes they called who he claims awarded him the black belt but from there it becomes unclear as to if he is a purple or black. This would all be solved if at his school where he teaches he could have a framed official document of his rank from where it was awarded. Its true that even that could be forged but it weeks out a certain level of fraud.

  9. Belt “testing” is uncommon in most Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu schools. At the Academy where I train you simply receive your belt when the instructors agree you should receive it. No one can walk through the door, request a “test” and expect to receive a belt. Most schools operate this way. There are a few organizations out there that will promote to blue via a quick “test but it is nearly always done only at blue belt, very rarely at purple and never at brown or Black Belt.

  10. You say:
    I also understand that if you want to play in the big league tournaments you need documentation of your rank[.]

    This is not so.

    I am a blue belt under Phil Cardella/Relson Gracie. I have no documentation whatsoever. None. I competed at the Pan American Jiu Jitsu Championships (one of the biggest and most prestigious of the international tournaments, run by the IBJJF) this year and needed NOTHING to prove I am a blue. Why would they need documentation? If I want to pay my several hundred dollars for airfare, hotel, entry etc and enter in any division I want (I could have entered purple were I suicidal, or brown if a comedienne) then I can. The end result is me getting my ass beaten into a very small pile of dust, wrapped in a piece of colored fabric.

    As a black belt, now you need an IBJJF membership card. It is not certification of your rank, however– just proof you’ve paid your membership fee. Politics.

    There is a great website called Bullshido.net and they have an investigative arm. I am one of their investigators. When we hear of a school or instructor with improbable claims (black belt in 12 different arts, SEAL/military/Special Forces service, etc etc) we’ll look into it and if necessary, disprove their falsehoods. Bringing martial arts frauds to light is deeply satisfying! So, admin, give me or us a shout if you want some investigatin’ done on that mysterious purplish-black belt.

    Certificates can be forged or created on any home computer. Certificates mean NOTHING. The bond that is forged between instructor and student (even at big big schools) is something that won’t be forgotten. I have no doubt that, if need be, 20 years from now someone could call Phil or Christy or any of the people I trained with and be able to verify that yes, Georgette was a blue belt. Anyone who is even sketchy about acknowledging someone else as a blackbelt under them immediately raises my warning antennae.

  11. Thank you, Georgette for joining in. As a legal professional I value your point of view when it comes to documentation most of all. It has given me food for thought.

    This is good that all this is coming out. I am finding it very interesting how everyone approaches this.

    I’ve now got conflicting stories on the IBJJF so I decided to e-mail rick@ibjjf.com concerning membership at a black belt level. The IBJJF webite only give his e-mail address for inquires.

  12. My school does not do belt testing. When my instructor thinks you are ready for your next belt he tells you, and you are promoted at the next belt promotion. There is no schedule. When two or three people are ready to move up, there is a belt graduation and they move up. The end. No fee, no certificate, no documentation, no nothing. (And I don’t agree with the idea of fees for belt testing either. Why should I have to pay to prove my skill level?)

    And to be honest, other then black belts (or at least black belts who wish to open a school and teach), I don’t think there is a need for certification. If someone questions your belt, get your gi on, and get on the mat.

    I will add however, that I am still a pretty big newb to the whole world of Jiu-jitsu and this is just my opinion on the matter. =)

  13. Stephanie, I feel like a noob too. It nice to be able to express my opinion also and get so many insights.

  14. As a lot of people have said so far, most schools don’t have the elaborate testing procedures of Pedro Sauer schools. A lot of places think testing for belts is shit (not necessarily my opinion, I’m “Switzerland” in this one). It depends on how you roll, and most instructors award rank based on this. That’s why the “black belt” you referenced has been exposed by so many people. What good is his black belt?

    As Royce said, “A belt only covers two inches of your ass. You have to cover the rest.”

  15. I never did a test, but I do have a certificate stating I got my blue belt from the Roger Gracie Academy (here). Of course, I had to ask for it a few times, eventually getting hold of the certificate a while after I got my blue belt. My actual promotion was in the typically informal style of most schools, which like Meerkatsu is something I much prefer to a test.

    I get the impression most people don’t bother asking for a certificate, but I like to have some kind of documentation.

  16. I’ve come to the conclusion if I pay a testing fee I should get a certificate. No fee, no certificate. I ,like you slideyfoot, tend to put more faith in something I can hold in this case.

  17. I think certs are important. I been in the game long enough to see why. Most people think that they will be remebered years later and people can contact training partners etc etc to verify who ranked where etc. This is often untrue as more than probably 80 percent of people in any given school will be so far removed from martial arts later in life, they will just not be found or even remember much at all.Belt testing is a good thing, but not neccessary. I have a similar problem u have, i was training with a not so legite BJJ guy for years, however me and several classmates were legite because we rolled often with people from other schools etc. But my rank did not serve much purpose as the teacher who gave that one to me wasnt legite in his resume. Then in order to get legite rank, i have to join another school and start over. Its not a biggie because once i can tap guys at a certain level i will get rank again. But as i get older and time is tight, if i never train again its as if i never had rank in that art, so for 6-7 years of getting injured and blood sweat and tears, later in life it doesnt matter much at all(as far as rank)So in my opinion lineage and rank do matter especially for longevity if you want it to hold up in a decade, cert maybe doesnt matter but a list om people promoted by the teacher should be found somewhere etc. Good luck. Who is the teacher you tested under or what org was it?

  18. […] might remember on 22-JUL-2010 I posted “Under The Table Belt Promotions in BJJ”.  In that post I talked about paying the $50 membership fee.  I did that on that very […]

  19. Dan, read my latest post titled My Membership in the Pedro Sauer Assoc.

  20. i checked it, and as i replied their, usually no certs are given, but a teacher who passes you should sign your belt maybe.The memberships are open to anyone, so no rank is needed etc

  21. That is the first I’ve heard of signing belts. Do other schools do that a lot?

  22. not sure how many schools do it, but i Know Professor Sauer does it, and he does have a great org, He usually will recognize rank someone else gave you, and possibly even sign your belt when he feels you have standards to be what he considers a blue belt etc. If I were you I would just go to him, go to the source he is the most upstanding guy i have ever met in BJJ. try to find something negative about him as a person on the web, (i doubt you can find anything). Im not ranked by him so have no interest in promoting him other than personal experience with him many years ago….

    I think certs are important but if someone signs a belt,takes a pic giving the belt etc,is a great source of being valid if you never compete.If you compete of course you get recognized by what division etc.

    I have seen guys names erased off of list by teachers years later because of friendships or relationships going sour, etc, so a picture is worth a thousand words, not just some seminar pic, but a pic of the guy awarding your belt. and again any school you go to regularly will award your belt if your tappin guys at your level, so its should never be an issue to get someone to recognize you.

  23. I have had a similar experience outside of BJJ. I paid several hundred dollars in testing fees for my black belt. There was a pre-test, the actual test, and boards. Not to mention passport photos for my application, and application fees. A year after I received my black belt, there was still no certificate. I’ve since moved on to BJJ, and there are no tests at my BJJ school. The belt is handed out in class when the instructor thinks you are ready. I have seen certificates for some of the blues and purples. I don’t know how they got them. Sometimes I think of testing fees as hidden fees, or rather shady business practices. I hope you get your cert. Good Luck!

  24. my master is aware of what rank his students deserve. for some proving themselves on a competitive venue is the path to graduation. for others its display of technique and dedication to the lifestyle. the belt just holds up your pants if you have real skill then you dont really need a piece of paper to prove it to others, and if you have real skill you dont have the need to prove it to others. if anyone wants to know what ive got then there is only one place to find out. ON THE MAT! dont be fooled by people trying to take your money. oossss

  25. You are missing the point of studying martial arts if you are entirely caught up with rank. Rank is only a matter of importance for the study in your current school. Comparing an achievement in martial arts to an associates degree is far from correct.

    However, it usually takes dan to understand this.

  26. Jake, I assume your are dan then? If that is the case I don’t understand why everyone uses belts at all until dan. Why even have them if the teacher (presumably a dan) understands this and communicates it to his students?

  27. Rank I have seen purple belts tap black belts I have seen Black belts that couldn’t tap blue belts. None of this maters some are great competitors other are not. I have trained with many different people. I have had Brazilian Jiu jitsu teaches that I trained with for a few years and then they leave and you never hear from them again. I have been belted by three different professors. I have no certificates and only in the last few years thought to take any pictures just in case. I have sustained a serious neck injury and I’m sure I wouldn’t be able to prove much on the mats right now, should that mean I shouldn’t be a black belt or that it’s not legit? And this sport is just like anything else. Some people will bad mouth you and say your fake and some will love you. who cares if you love it do it if you’re getting better do it. Its been my experience that only as of late have any Brazilians been giving any kind of formal rank. I have a friend that’s a Black belt under Rigon Machado that has no certificate and I know he’s a black belt. Too many Americans are quick to try to discourage someone else just to make themselves feel better. I have never had my rank questioned by anyone Brazilian only Americans.

  28. After reading your comment it made me wonder why we even have rank or belts. I guess it really comes down to what direction you want to go with your BJJ. If its sport, don’t some tournament require documentation for specific levels? If its street or for fun, who cares. I guess it all boils down to the individual finding what they feel comfortable with. If you want a belt then you want to get it fair and square. No games or holding back to make money and no belts for just money. Like I said in a earlier reply. I have come to the conclusion that if I pay for testing I want a document to go with it and if not then I’m fine without.

  29. […] time ago I blogged about Under the Table Belt Promotions in BJJ.  There were some strong opinions on if you should receive a certificate or something […]

  30. No, I have never heard of any tournaments requiring documentation of your level. You have to understand, BJJ people get to know other BJJ people in the area, so unless you decide you really want to go win a tournament in a totally different geographic area by entering one or two belt levels below your own, you’re not likely to get away with it. And if you did choose that course, you’d feel like an ass, having a medal for the wrong belt division. Likewise, let’s say you’re a purple belt and you go to Worlds and sign up as a whitebelt. What are you going to tell your team when you come home? You can’t show video or stills, and they’ll look on the results webpage and see you entered as a whitebelt! You’ll be laughed off the mats. I’ve already discussed the silliness of signing up for belt levels above your own. So I think pragmatically speaking you’ll never sign up for the wrong belt division, therefore the tourney peeps don’t need “proof” you’re in the right one.

    Rank/belts is useful for predictability, imho. I can predict whether you’ll be a safe, enjoyable, learning experience for me– whether I’ll have to protect myself from unexpected thrashing around (whitebelt) or go into it thinking we might be evenly matched (blue belt) or know I’ll be a step behind unless I am extremely careful and you make a mistake (purple) or know I have to pay attention to everything you do and try to emulate it because you’re several steps ahead, and will (hopefully) be giving me a path to follow and things to learn from (brown and black.) It also helps academy owners predict who can safely be trusted to lead a useful warmup, teach a class, guide some noobs through standing-in-base, clean the mats, etc.