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The Black Belt and What it Means Today

For those people are not directly involved with the martial arts, when they hear someone has a black belt, they immediately assume that person possesses some advance and cunning skill of potentially deadly self-defense. For the person who is involved with the martial arts, when they think of the black belt, they see it as a goal but from there the degrees of that black belt, and the stripes on that black belt, must go up exponentially if they hope to compete in a world of the massive amount of so-called advanced black belts that exist in the world today.

During the late 1960s and early 1970s, via people like Chuck Norris and Bruce Lee, it became quite acceptable for people to study and train in varying forms of the fighting arts. Though this certainly moved the evolution of the martial arts along rapidly, there also came to be a problem with this method of intermingling. Previously, up to this point in time, a person studied one form of the martial arts from one instructor or within one organization. From this, an individual’s actual understanding and necessary advancement within the art could be correctly assessed. When an individual was ready to earn a black belt, they were tested and upon passing that test were awarded that belt. When they were ready to move up another dan, (degree), after additional years of training, they were tested and if they passed that test they were promoted. It was all done via a very defined and pronounced method. What happened with the modern intermingling of the arts was, however, that defined ability became lost to eclecticism. Thus, what was once an expected definition of technique and/or ability became muddled.

Certainly, when the martial arts became widely accepted and taught in the West, traditions began to be lost. As the western mindset commonly focuses on self-advancement, business ownership, and self-adoration, numerous schools, new styles of the martial arts, and organization were given birth to. In many cases, these groupings lost contact with their Asian origins. From this, again, tradition was lost.

I am often reminded of a conversation I had with pioneering western martial artist, Bill, “Superfoot,” Wallace, when I was asked to write an article about him for a magazine. He profoundly stated, “Back in the day if a person was a 1st degree black belt they were impossible to touch. If they were a 2nd degree black belt, forget about it, they would tear you apart. Now, everyone is an 8th, 9th, or 10th degree black belt and they are terrible.” This fact has become a byproduct of the modernization of the martial arts, particularly in the western world, and why the entire definition of what truly is or is not a black belt has come to be less understood. As I often say, “Change does not necessarily make something better, it just makes it different.”

I remember beginning in the 1960s, one could purchase black belt training courses in magazines. Upon the completion of this course one would be awarded a black belt diploma with no testing required. Certainly, an intermediate or advanced practitioner of the martial arts, with a lot of actually physical training under their belt, may learn from written and/or illustrated material but for the novice that is virtually impossible. And, to earn a black belt via this method is perplexingly unrealistic. Yet, how many people earned a black belt in this manner?

As the 1970s dawned, and more and more westerners became black belts, the need for advancing one’s black belt dan ranking continued to rise. Again, initially via magazines, numerous organizations arose that offered various forms of un-tested promotions. All of the organizations looked and sounded official. The diplomas they issued were well printed, making the barer appear to be all that they claimed to be.

These traditions of intermixing the martial arts, defining new systems of the martial arts, and creating new organization to back up the credentials of practitioners has continued forward onto today. What has been created? From my perspective, an eclectic mess of people marketing themselves, their schools, and their systems to the masses but possessing little true relevance of authenticity.

Remember, a diploma does not make a person a black belt. In fact, diplomas declaring a person’s martial art ranking are a relatively new chapter in the very long history of the martial arts. Who and what a person is on the inside and how they treat and interact with other people on both a physical and a humanitarian level is what defines a true black belt.

So, what does this leave us with and how should the black belt be viewed in this modern, (particularly western), world? The answer is not entirely clear. But, what must be understood is that someone claiming to be a black belt today no longer means that they are truly that advanced master of physical movement that the wearing of the black belt once defined. Moreover, as more and more of the modern martial arts have placed their focus on the kill-or-be-killed mixed martial arts orientated physical moments, it must be comprehended that just because someone has learned how to beat someone up does not mean that they possess the advance understanding of human movement that the true, traditional, martial arts provides the practitioner.

In closing, the true martial arts are about physical mastery and advanced mental awareness. They are not about ego. They are not about what degree black belt a person claims to hold. In fact, a person’s black belt degree should never be the reason you do or do not study from them or define how you evaluate them as a human being. The holding of a black belt or the degree of the black belt a person claims can only be truly defined by who and what that person is and what they do for the greater good of the martial arts and society as a whole.

Judge any person by the goodness they say or do, not by whether or not they claim to be a black belt.

The true black belt gives without taking. They help without hurting. They give instead of receiving. They compliment instead of claiming.