BY HEATHER RAFTERY · KINGZ KIMONOS
Even if you’re brand new to the sport of jiu-jitsu – or martial arts in general – you know that the BJJ belt color means something. Thanks to The Karate Kid, at the very least you know that a white belt is a beginner, and a black belt is a not-so-beginner.
But what do all those other colors mean? Is it like other martial arts? And how does one “level up” from white to black belt?
Never fear, my dear white belt (because if you’re asking yourself those questions, you ARE a white belt), all your questions will be answered here… or at least a few of them. No guarantees.
BJJ Belt Colors in General
Like other martial arts, BJJ belt colors signify where one is at in their progression from beginner to master level. However, not all martial arts use the same colors.
Specifically, in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, the standard progression is white, blue, purple, brown, black, red and black, then finally red. Oh yes, there are indeed belt levels past black. And that’s just the adult belts. Kid’s belt levels include gray, yellow, orange, and green – and variations between – but we won’t be getting into that.
The time between belts are also unique to Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Unlike in karate, where you can blaze your way to black belt in as little as two years, BJJ takes much more time. But this also depends on your academy, whether you’re a competitor or a hobbiest, and how often you train. Some jiu-jitsu artists have received their black belt in as little as three or four years, but most practitioners earn it after eight to 15 years of training.
From the moment you step on the mat for the first time, you are a white belt. The absolute beginner. Lowest of the low. Just kidding, kind of. You are the lowest rank on the mat. But good news: everyone has been there.
Most people stay at white belt anywhere from six months to two years. The variation among white belt is always very interesting. A lot of white belts have no previous martial arts background – or even experience in sports of any kind – and thus spend a lot of their time developing body awareness and learning how to move properly. Then there are some white belts who come from wrestling or other martial arts background, and just plow their way through the rank.
But don’t worry, one of the beautiful things about jiu-jitsu is that the competitive edge between former “athletes” and non-athletes tends to level out later… especially for those who follow these tips.
Blue belt is the first big moment in your jiu-jitsu career. For many, this is the point at which they say to themselves, “Welp, that was fun,” and call it quits forever. For others, it’s the much needed “you don’t suck” boost they needed to keep at it.
This belt has probably the widest disparity in skill levels… which becomes most obvious at tournaments. Part of the reason is that blue belt is typically the first grown-up belt for youngsters, who could easily already have eight plus years of training. Essentially, you could have some decently-in-shape 30-something with a job and several kids with a year of jiu-jitsu experience face a 16-year-old beast who has been training longer than some black belts. Fun, huh?
Expect to spend anywhere from two to four years at blue belt. During this belt, your primary mission will be to accumulate an understanding and solidify your knowledge of all the major positions and primary submissions. You can think of it like building a house. White belt is where you poured the foundation, and blue belt is where you start framing it out. You can still see lots of open air, but you can start to see that, yes, this is the beginning of a house.
If you’ve made it to purple belt, the odds of you sticking it out to black belt are pretty high. Not 100 percent, mind you. There are plenty of BJJ purple belts out there still using the “Yeah, I’m a purple belt” line to impress girls at bars, despite not having stepped on the mat in ten years. But the odds are better than they were when you received your blue belt.
Purple belt is fun. Enjoy all that it has to offer. This belt is when you start experimenting with techniques, figuring out what you like and don’t like to do, and start shaping “your game”. Yes, it will likely still be a lumpy semi-humanoid shape that only a middle-school art teacher would love, but it’s a start.
Purple belt will also offer plenty of frustration, too. Up until this point, you’ve become used to learning and growing nearly every step of the way. Now, you’ll start to see some stagnation. It’s not that you’re getting worse. As your techniques settle into your game, or you ignore some tried-and-true techniques to focus on the fancy new stuff, those signs of improvement will be more subtle.
Expect to spend anywhere from a year and a half to even four or more years at this belt. I’ve known plenty of academy owners who really like to make their purple belts wait. Or they want to allow them every opportunity to hit the top of the podium – even if means being accused of sand-bagging. And sometimes it’s just that purple belts are bouncing around to different academies, trying to find one that fits their goals better. In doing so, this will add time onto their belt, until their new instructor gets a better sense of who they are and where they’re at in their journey.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of “What Do the BJJ Belt Colors Mean”…
Welcome back. I felt it was necessary for that initial knowledge of what the BJJ belt colors mean to settle in. Because at this point in your jiu-jitsu journey, blue and purple are tangible, within reach.
Now let’s talk about the much more coveted brown, black and red belts.
Before I go on, I must note that just because someone has a higher belt than you do, does not give them any special power. They might be better at jiu-jitsu than you are, but that’s simply a matter of time on the mat. It does not make them a better person than you are. It does not give them the right to treat you poorly. Having a black belt on the mat does not mean that person is a black belt in life. Keep that in mind.
Brown belt is the last colored belt before black belt in the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu system. At this belt, you’re both excited about being so close to black belt, but also terrified to become one.
Having your brown belt is like being a lieutenant in your jiu-jitsu academy. You have enough experience that the other belts look up to you for guidance and inspiration. You may even teach classes and privates. On a personal level, you’ve found your “game”, and you will spend much of your time perfecting it, in addition to collecting more high-level techniques. You’re now able to string together more complex techniques and experiment with different ways of advancing through positions.
At this point, you’ve probably been training for five to eight years, and you’re looking at another one to four years at brown belt. Don’t rush it. Enjoy brown belt. You’re in that perfect position in the academy where you can tap most of your training partners, but you’re still getting your ass kicked by a few others – notably the black belts. This keeps you honest, and keeps you growing.
For many, black belt is the goal. Everybody wants to be a black belt. The thing is, once you get there, you realize just how much you still have to learn.
After anywhere from six to 15 years (or more… there’s no judgement), you become a black belt. Some receive their black belt in less time, but those are very few exceptions. Why such a range? Because every jiu-jitsu practitioner’s path to black belt is different and unique. Those who compete tend to arrive at black belt earlier. This is because there are more opportunities to gauge that individual’s progress relative to those from other academies. If that person is absolutely killing it on the competition scene, he or she needs to move up a belt level. Another reason for this is – in my opinion – is that every tournament is also worth about three months of training. The more you compete the easier it is to see where you need to grow.
But not all jiu-jitsu practitioners choose to compete. And that’s totally okay. Their journey to black belt will be a bit slower, and will be determined largely through their performance on their home mat and the contribution they make to the jiu-jitsu community and the journeys of others.
What must be emphasized is that just because you become black belt, doesn’t mean that you know everything. Or that you are expected to. And a black belt on the jiu-jitsu mat doesn’t mean that person is a black belt in life, at work, in relationships, etc. There will always be opportunities to learn and grow. That’s the beauty of jiu-jitsu.
Right up there with unicorns, dragons and mermaids is the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu red belt. Most jiu-jitsu practitioners will never receive their red belt in their lifetime.
Once you receive your black belt, stripes are awarded approximately every three years, regardless of how little or often you train (unless you completely quit jiu-jitsu altogether). A black belt can have up to six degrees. According to the IBJJF system, it takes approximately 31 years to transition from black belt to red and black belt, and you cannot become a red and black belt until you’re the age of 50. No telling if this may change… as more and more people are becoming black belts before the age of 20.
One spends approximately seven years at red and black belt, before receiving a red and white belt. He or she will then spend approximately 10 years there, until finally, ultimately – maybe – receiving the highest belt awarded in the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu system: red belt. This belt cannot be awarded to anyone younger than 67 years old.
How many Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu red belts have there been? According to the most recent list published by BJEE in 2019, only 55. And several of them are no longer living.
For most in the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu community, jiu-jitsu is more than a sport or a hobby. It becomes a life-long obsession, a lifestyle, a part of their identity. The BJJ belt level ranking system is just one thing that illustrates that.