Earning rank in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is perhaps harder to do than in any other martial art. It’s no secret that jiu jitsu black belts are considered to be among the toughest members of the fighting community, having put in thousands of hours over the years to obtain the rank. What’s not always as clear, however, is what criteria needs to be met to be considered a black belt, or any of the other ranks in jiu jitsu. That’s because there’s no clear cut system of moves defined per belt level like in other martial arts. Jiu jitsu has no katas, and most schools don’t do belt tests, it’s left to the discretion of the instructor.
Brazilian Jiu Jitsu’s belt ranking system used to be differentiated from Judo in that BJJ belts originally consisted of only 3: white, light blue for instructors and dark blue for head instructors. According to Professor Pedro Valente, the belt system of Judo was adopted by Elcio Leal Binda when he created the Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Federation in 1967. What’s unclear to me though is how that evolved into the current jiu jitsu belt system, as the judo belts are different than Brazilian jiu jitsu belts today. It sounds like the idea of different belts differentiating fighting skill may have been adapted from judo, but the actual colors/degrees of the belts were specific to jiu jitsu. If I find out for sure I’ll update this post.
There are 5 common belts in jiu jitsu for adults: white, blue, purple, brown and black. Within each of these belts students have the opportunity to earn up to 4 stripes on their belt at most schools (sometimes more), indicating progress within that belt. Though each school determines what constitutes the appropriate skill level per rank individually, I’ve heard it often described this way:
- White belt – A person who is a white belt starts as an absolute beginner in jiu jitsu, though they may have prior martial arts experience. Students with wrestling backgrounds tend to do well quickly, but all students at this stage will learn the basic positions and submissions of jiu jitsu, as well develop their jiu jitsu specific conditioning.
- Blue belt – Students that reach the blue belt level have reached a degree of proficiency with jiu jitsu where they can typically handle most new people coming in off the street, even if the new person is much bigger and stronger than them. They should be able to roll for longer periods of time without gassing out as much and can start to conceptualize sequences of movements. It’s often said that the blue belt is a time for collecting techniques, experimenting with them and starting to formulate their game. Most people I’ve talked to say that students stay in this belt longer than any other except for black.
- Purple belt – (Full disclosure, I’m not yet a purple belt so from here on out I’m going to have to talk about the belt ranks from conversations I’ve had with others.) Purple belts have gained a large amount of knowledge about jiu jitsu and are starting to figure out their game. They are getting more comfortable using techniques that match their size, strength and other attributes.
- Brown belt – The jiu jitsu brown belt is a time for refining techniques. They know a wide amount about jiu jitsu and can often be seen at the academy helping the lower ranks.
- Black belt – The black belt is the highest ranking common belt in jiu jitsu. I’ve heard black belts say that lower belts (even blue belts) might know nearly as many techniques as a black belt, but it’s at the black belt level that the techniques and timing have become refined. The movements have become more efficient, and it becomes clearer how to chain movements together to set up a system of attacks that are hard to defend against. Many black belts online and in person say that at this belt they really felt like they started to “get” jiu jitsu and in some sense felt like they were starting over again. In the black belt, stripes (or “degrees”) are no longer performance based but represent time in belt. There are 6 degrees for the black belt, each representing 3 – 7 years, depending on the stripe. IBJJF has a nice chart located here showing the belt progressions.
Beyond the 5 common belts in jiu jitsu there are 3 other special belts:
- Red/black (coral) belt – this is equivalent to a 7th degree black belt.
- Red/white (coral) belt – this is equivalent to an 8th degree black belt.
- Red belt – this is equivalent to a 9th degree black belt and is the highest rank achievable in jiu jitsu. According to the Gracie’s it is reserved “for those whose influence and fame takes them to the pinnacle of art”. If a student receives their black belt at age 19 then the earliest they can hope to get their red belt would be at the age of 67.
- Red blet (10th degree) – this belt is reserved for the founders of jiu jitsu: Carlos, Oswaldo, George, Gaston and Helio Gracie
Jiu Jitsu also has a separate belt system for kids who study. The kids jiu jitsu belt order is as follows:
- Grey with a white stripe
- Grey (solid)
- Grey with a black stripe
- Yellow with a white stripe (children must be at least 7 years old to earn this belt)
- Yellow (solid)
- Yellow with a black stripe
- Orange with a white stripe (children must be at least 10 years old to earn this belt)
- Orange (solid)
- Orange with a black stripe
- Green with a white stripe (children must be at least 13 years old to earn this belt)
- Green (solid)
- Green with a black stripe
Once a student turns 16 they are eligible to earn their blue or purple belt according to the IBJJF, eligible for their brown belt by age 18, then by 19 they can earn their black belt. As with the adult belts, all the belts throughout the ranks for youth are eligible to earn stripes to mark their progress in that belt.
Of course in jiu jitsu we train in both gi and no-gi. Though I’ve heard some schools say they don’t rank students in no-gi, luckily we do have the ability to wear ranked rashguards, which denote our current BJJ belt level. With the popularity of jiu jistu on the rise there seems to be no end to the cool gear available for those of us who train.