Under: martial arts
16 May 2010


I don’t know about you but I came of age in the 1970’s. At that time the Kung Fu TV series was airing and the most popular karate movie was Enter the Dragon! It is against this backdrop that I started taking karate lessons. First Okinawan karate at my jr. high school and later I took a couple of years of Lima Lama. I attained my first rank in Lima Lama – ultimately becoming a Blue Belt. Later I went on to learn Kenpo Karate and attained many degrees of Black Belt.


By now most people understand that belt ranks are analogous to grades in school but do the belt systems hold any real value to martial arts students today? That is the question I will ask in this post along with some examination of the expectation and meaning of “attaining rank” in today’s modern fighting systems.


First off, here is a video depicting the belt requirements of some martial arts.





Martial arts belt systems have gone from no belts to very limited belts (white, brown, black), to what we have today. Every system has their own grading and criteria that makes it hard for anyone to know what a belt means.


When I was growing up I thought a black belt was the baddest person on the planet! I grew up watching martial arts movies where the masters (the red belts) would fly through the air and fight. I did not really believe that they could do that but I was still in awe of the possibilities.


I remember talking to one navy guy who confided in me after he drank a few beers, that if someone tried to punch him – he would block with a chop (breaking his arm) and karate chop the neck. The same for a kick (chop the leg (breaking it) and counter chop the neck!


As a teenager I bought into the whole mystical karate master thing. I had one doubt though when I watch Tarzan beat a 10th degree karate master in a fight – I chalked that up to Tarzan being a muscle man… and the king of  the jungle!




Other martial arts, broadly interpreted include; boxing, wrestling, kick boxing, MMA and even street fighting (although this is not formalized) do not included belt rankings. You have to know the person, his or her record, or get into the ring to find out how good he is (his rank).


I have a brother in law who was taking karate lessons as a kid and got challenged to a fight. My wife told me before he would fight he told the guy to wait a minute. He ran into the house and suited up in his karate gi and belt! I don’t know if he won or lost. :) 


Will your karate or judo belt (or kung fu sash) help you in a fight? Will the simple knowledge that you have a black belt strike fear into an attackers heart? Will a mugger bow out to you and not attack? Will women (or men) throw themselves at your feet when you walk into a room (ok – I’m getting carried away)?



NO! (but wouldn’t that be nice) :)


Take a look at this guy’s perspective on what the belt rankings represent and I will give you my thoughts.



This guy makes some good points but having said that – it does not preclude “systems” from creating grading standards and holding their students to them to attain rank.


Schools have to teach something to their students and have a way to tell if the student is advancing. Or at least this is the schools’ argument on this matter. How would a school keep a student’s interest if he or she were not granted privilege and respect for having advanced? 


While I have bought in to the whole belt system thing as that was the era I grew up in; if you wanted to learn how to kick and punch – the only real arbiter of martial arts is your ability to FIGHT!!!


I have always believed that to be a black belt, you had better be able to fight your way out of a paper bag! I don’t care how much kata, basics or how long you have tried to learn karate, but only if you can fight or not.


I have watched with distaste (toning down my feelings and vernacular on this matter for public consumption) as some schools publisized10 or 12 year old black belts? What! Talk about cheapening the already watered down public perception of what a black belt is – I do not agree with any other standard for testing a black belt other than fighting ability. To me – the katas, basics, and techniques are all fluff (important for the schools grading criteria but not in the real world).


Ok – off of my soap box but I had to get that out.  If I was a kid growing up to day, my guess is I would be enthralled by MMA! Just like if I had come of age in the 80’s (I might have gone right into kickboxing) or the 90’s (I might have gone straight into jiu jitsu) I would have been highly influenced by the flavor of the day martial art.


So do I think belt rankings are important? No but I think whatever martial art you take – you should know how to fight. While I like kata ok and understand that many traditional schools (and still a lot of non-traditional schools) teach formalized moves to keep up student’s interest and have a measure for martial arts grading – I don’t think it is the only way to do this.


Especially today when it should be more apparent than ever, that there is no one “best” style and belt ranks do not equate to fighting ability (and perhaps never did). A person’s ability and work ethic is the most important thing when it come to the only true measure (my opinion) of a martial artists rank – FIGHTING ABILITY!


I hope you have enjoyed my perspective on martial arts belt rankings and take it with a grain of salt. I am a Godan, master of kenpo karate and I wear a black belt with a red stripe down the middle. I’m not taking that belt off any time soon. :)


I’ll close with this song that has always resonated with me about the importance of teaching our children.


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12 Responses to “Martial Arts Belt Rankings; Are They Worth Anything Today?”

  1. Tweets that mention My Self-Defense Blog » Blog Archive » Martial Arts Belt Rankings; Are They Worth Anything Today? -- Topsy.com Says:

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  2. Dr. J Says:

    Hi John!

    I came up in the martial arts when there were much fewer belt colors than today. I have to say that the first, green, and the last, black meant the most to me. I never striped my black belt, always feeling that black was enough. Jim used to say that time in grade was what really mattered. A five year white belt could destroy a 2 year black belt. One last thing, actually having a belt can be a useful weapon in a fight, color not so important unless your opponent worries about such things :-)
    .-= Dr. J´s last blog ..The Biggest Loser Couples Run a Marathon for Charity =-.

  3. John W. Zimmer Says:

    Hey Dr J!

    I used to have a western belt with one of those heavy belt buckles… man that would hurt if anyone had to poor judgement to try and stick me (I’d just let my belt do the talking). :)

  4. pat Says:

    I have to agree with you as far as how much power a child has as compared to an adult. That belt they wear or put on a karate belt display to show it off, is only as good as the person that earned it. Take for example, the new movie with Jaden Smith. That boy is probably very talented but needs some mass to do any real damage.
    He could do something in a few years but right now, he is a little boy. I have watched the trailers and every time I see it, I wonder how such a little guy is going to pull off, such a big role as the karate kid.
    .-= pat ´s last blog ..Karate Belt Display updated Sun Mar 7 2010 6:29 pm CST =-.

  5. Andrew Says:

    This is funny, this post is the third post in the past two weeks that have talked about belts, rankings, and what they mean in today’s world.

    I myself wrote an article pertaining to that.

    One question. I understand that your point is having the ability to fight is the most important of any body doing ANY martial art, what are your views on ‘winning’. I usually associate fighting with winning.

    I have no problem with getting myself into a fight if need be, mind you. But just asking.
    .-= Andrew´s last blog ..The End is only the Beginning =-.

  6. John W. Zimmer Says:

    Hi Pat,

    I agree that a kid, however talented, could not back it up against an adult. It makes for good movies though. :)

    Hi Andrew,

    I took at look at your blog and added it to my “interesting blogs” section.

    As far as fighting and winning – winning is always the goal and if one know how to fight properly – winning is achievable. However I have seen plenty of people promoted in my years in karate that have not been comfortable fighting but promoted because they have learn all of the material.

    I for one might favor a fighting promotion rather than an academic one but my brown and black belt fighters had to be good fighters (to get the rank from me).

    I guess I am assuming if one is a good fighter, he or she will probably win an altercation.

  7. Tim Says:

    Interesting. I just wrote an article on McDojo’s today. check it out here: http://stoneybrookkarate.blogspot.com

  8. Over Half Way There… « On My Own Two Feet Says:

    […] Martial Arts Belt Rankings; Are They Worth Anything Today? (myselfdefenseblog.com) […]

  9. Steve Says:

    I have held a 1st dan for over ten years and I am happy to leave it that way as I see some political josling within the senior belts and want nothing to do with it. The fighting element is important in some martial arts if you are to wear a black belt, however self defence is a different story again. You do not have to have full contact fights to gain self defence skills. The many years of training is designed for maybe the one or two times in your life you may need to escape an attacker or defend yourself and physical reaction should become second nature. The mind I believe is more important in these situations as this is usually a huge factor in any confrontation but in a self defence role it is vital you understand you are fighting to defend your life nothing less. Sure you can do better if you spend hours having full contact sports fighting but martial arts in the general sense is for protection of normal everyday people who are house wives etc and may not like violence but have the desire to protect themselves.

  10. John W. Zimmer Says:

    Hi Tim,

    I agree that a black belt ought to be able to hold his own in a fight. The Kenpo style I’ve learned and applied is semi-traditional. We have all of the forms, self-defense techniques, and fighting of traditional and competed at tournaments, kick boxing and nowadays even incorporate jiu jitsu. I think today the McDojo question is not as important because from my point of view – the only thing that matters is fighting – not lineage or tradition. I’m glad the traditional has survived but I like non-traditional martial arts just as much. Thanks for commenting.

    Hi Steve,

    Totally agreed that self defense and sport karate is different and you bring up a great point about the likely use of karate (hopefully) as most people will be exposed to fighting/self defense.

    I think from my point of view – so long as the karateka views his/her training as applicable to fighting or self defense and not a type of ballet… Even if untested – I think we are of a like mind. Thanks for your comment Steve.

  11. Modern Karate Arts Says:

    Should MY Black Belt Mean Anything To You?…

    The Black Belt! The Impossible Dream These days it seems to be the Holy Grail for many karate-ka…The Black Belt. …even the most dedicated karate-ka is left with the question: “What’s next?”  It stands as the goal they stri…

  12. Wingchun London Says:

    Will, there some disciplines doesn’t requires belting. BUT, it is a tradition of other disciplines. We should respect it. and respect is one of the most important rule of any Martial Arts.

    Belting is also a symbol of what status you have in Martial Arts. By this way, you know who are the seniors. Others, counted how many matches(not fights)you win or how do master the art in years and by practice.

    But what matters most is that we love martial arts as our way of life. Not just a sport or a discipline..
    Wingchun London recently posted..Our GalleryMy Profile