THE BLACK BELT.
Deep within many martial arts communities, there oftentimes exists a popular, yet unproven, bit of folklore surrounding the attainment of this rank that is synonymous with fi nality and expertise: Legend has it that all black belts started with white belts, as any other student would. However, upon years of training without being washed, the belts would gradually accumulate dirt, sweat, blood, and other fi lth associated with fi ghting, which would slowly darken them to the point that each artist could be ranked according to the colorful tale that each belt told. The darkest belt — the black belt — would stand at the top of this fi ctional hierarchy.
Ask any combat sports enthusiast what a black belt stands for, and chances are they will be emotionally whisked back to childhood, when the notion of obtaining this simple, yet meaningful, piece of cloth could be tantamount to the power afforded someone wielding a gun. Simply put, there is no other piece of clothing that silently exudes the ideals of discipline, honor, and an ability to instantaneously tap into any number of deadly techniques that the holder possesses. And perhaps nowhere is this notion more renowned than in the art of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ)—an art similar to wrestling that puts less emphasis on strength and pinning an opponent, and instead utilizes leverage and technique to joint-lock or choke an enemy through opportunities that are available from nearly every position a person could fi nd themselves to be in during a fi ght.
Now that BJJ has long since been unleashed in America by the Gracie family via the UFC (which the Gracies also had a hand in creating), it seems that the idea of becoming a black belt is once again at the forefront of many minds, most notably those looking to use such a profi ciency to excel in MMA fi ghting. That being said, let’s take a look at the stories, insight, and history of four prominent BJJ black belts living throughout the nation, all of whom use their skills specifi cally for teaching BJJ to MMA hopefuls. Through their words, we will gain knowledge on what it takes, and what can be expected, when seeking a black belt in the fi ght-worthy art of BJJ. These men are Dave Camarillo, Eddie Bravo, Marc Laimon, and Ricardo Liborio.
Nowadays anyone with cable television or the Internet can be easily exposed to BJJ, whereas in the past one had to either be born in Brazil, witness the fi rst UFC event, or fi nd themselves amid the BJJ landscape that began fl ourishing in California after Rorion Gracie’s arrival in order to encounter the art. For the Brazilian-born Liborio, and Camarillo, a man raised in a family obsessed with judo — BJJ’s forefather — the draw to Jiu-Jitsu seemed natural. But it’s with Bravo and Laimon whom many Americans can identify, as it was seeing Royce Gracie using Jiu-Jitsu to slay the competition in UFC 1 that fi rst sparked their interest.
“I always wondered what worked in a fi ght, and I saw Royce in the UFC,” says Laimon, recalling the day he met his calling. “And when I saw Jiu-Jitsu was a system of moves that had a means of ending a fi ght and how to get there, I found that fascinating.” Adds Bravo: “Like most of the guys in the ’90s who were into Jiu-Jitsu when it fi rst exploded, seeing Royce was what got my attention, too.” Interestingly all of these men, except Liborio, started their BJJ training somewhere in California, which served as the hotbed of BJJ before catapulting the art eastward.
When starting the journey in Jiu-Jitsu as a white belt — before progressing to blue, purple, brown, and then black — practitioners are met with the task of trying to survive in a world in which they don’t belong, where joint locks, choke holds, and positional dominance function to humble any beginner. Much like riding a bike, this is where even eventual black belts will make basic mistakes that they can usually look back on with a laugh. Whereas Camarillo admits having lacked a method to open his opponent’s guard even as a blue belt, and both Bravo and Laimon often underestimated the power that having an opponent’s back, Liborio was what many overeager beginning students are : A spazz.
“I used to rush and jump from position to position and go for crazy submissions,” Liborio says, smiling. “Carlson would yell at me that I needed to hold position, and I’d say, ‘But I don’t know anything! I don’t know what is what!’ and he’d laugh at me. But it takes time to learn.” After a few months, to a year or more, of diligent practice, techniques are learned through repetition, things get easier, and soon seasoned practitioners have something else on their minds — promotion to the next belt level, which is where things can start varying from school to school.
Some academies, such as Ricardo Liborio’s American Top Team (ATT), institute belt tests in which students must demonstrate a certain level of technical knowledge and application before they are promoted to the next belt level — defi nitely a remnant of Liborio having grown up in the structured system of Gracie Jiu-Jitsu, where belt promotion is a function of profi ciency and time studied. However, others, such as Eddie Bravo, judge belt-readiness another way.
“I keep it simple,” says Bravo, a man infamously known for his cut-through-the-fl uff attitude when it comes to grappling. “Jiu-Jitsu is the only art where you spar 100% every night, so I don’t think you need tests. If a white belt wants to be a blue belt, he’ll roll [the BJJ equivalent of sparring] with the blue belts and you’ll see how he’s doing. Is he tapping them sometimes? Is he getting wrecked by them? You’ll know when they’re ready for that belt because it’ll be obvious.” Similar to note are Laimon and Camarillo’s methods for belt promotion, which resemble Bravo’s criteria as well.
“There’s too much emphasis on [which belt should be able to do what], so I don’t agree with that at all,” says Camarillo, sounding a bit perturbed. “A competition purple belt will be different from one who works a 9-to-5 job, and I’ve seen white-belt MMA fi ghters beat noncompeting purple belts, even though the purple belt knows more than the white belt. It’s not a matter of ‘blue belts always beat white belts,’ and so on. People need to understand that this is a martial art and everyone is different and has different goals. I try to go on a case-by-case basis [when determining who should be promoted].” But once a student is ready to be promoted to the next belt level, what types of ceremonies can they expect to encounter?
In days past, and even in some places today, a newly promoted student could expect to fi nd themselves being whipped with the belts of other students — a somewhat good-natured “hazing” ceremony that most likely started in Brazil. But in the ever-evolving world of BJJ, it seems that this is no longer the norm, and short speeches and congratulations are usually given instead. While Liborio mainly cites legal reasons for avoiding such a ceremony at his school, Camarillo, Bravo, and Laimon all voice their distaste for such initiations, which Laimon explains in his sharp wit.
“I never understood the belt-whipping thing. … You know, I’m not a slave; I’m not being tortured or interrogated. I’m not Jesus. So I don’t think there’s any reason for me to get whipped, especially for doing something good. Being rewarded with a physical punishment doesn’t make much sense to me, so I don’t do that.” By and large, it looks as if belt-whipping is not an occurrence one has to be concerned with when pursuing a black belt — a process that can va
ry greatly, from less than 5 years, to more than 10.
When it comes to fi nally achieving the rank of black belt in BJJ, all four men agree that it is a very diffi cult, often timely, process that can be hard for casual martial arts fans to swallow. And although the black belt stands for the pinnacle of achievement — the tangible epitome of martial arts mastery — the steps needed to achieve black belt status are both specifi c and nebulous, according to each teacher. The reasoning behind the non specifi city of what it takes to earn a black belt has to do with the idea that there are no “secret moves” that are bestowed upon those in this elite club, as even the great Rorion Gracie told Aikido Journal in 1994, saying, “A person who has taken 40 classes knows everything I know. He doesn’t have the execution that I have, but he knows the same moves.”
Therefore, it seems that becoming a black belt is less a matter of quantifi able data and more so a combination of knowledge, performance, and dedication. But if there is one common piece of advice that each man offers, it’s a preaching of consistency and staying excited while remaining open to continual learning. And perhaps it’s this last tidbit that is most important to remember, as even Liborio, a man who’s had his black belt for more than 15 years, admits, “I still learn so much, even from watching [instructionals on] YouTube and reviewing fi ghts.”
And maybe that is the underlying message that BJJ hopefuls most need to understand about the black belt. Whereas it is by far one of the hardest belts to earn in any martial art, perhaps it is also surrounded by a realism that doesn’t transcend across the board, where the concept of a black belt is oftentimes paralleled to the idea of certain invincibility. The truth is, even a black belt never stops learning or evolving as a student of the art that he or she loves, just as is true in life: Even the wise man, who is slowly “darkened” and weathered by life’s experiences, never truly stops growing in his wisdom— no matter how separate he stands from the light and woeful folly of the fool.