Progress can be difficult to measure in jiu-jitsu, especially when you train consistently with the same people who are probably improving just as fast as you are. While achievements such as winning a tournament or nailing a tough technique are easy to see, many students feel most accomplished when their professor gives them a promotion in the form of a new stripe or belt.
We’re generally able to look back on our jiu-jitsu journeys and see that we’ve come a long way since we were white belts (or even whiter white belts), but it can be hard to determine which changes are the ones that led our professors to decide that it was time for us to get promoted. We know that brown belts are generally better than purple belts, which are generally better than blue belts, but what exactly is it that distinguishes the colors of the BJJ rainbow?
Knowing that there’s no single answer to this question, I enlisted the assistance of six black belt professors to help solve the mystery.
Osvaldo “Queixinho” Moizinho is a multiple-time world champion who recently won gold at the 2016 IBJJF World Masters and the Abu Dhabi Los Angeles Grand Slam. He runs the Ares BJJ academy in Modesto, California with Samir Chantre.
Nick Maez is one of the professors at Durango Martial Arts Academy in Durango, Colorado. He won bronze at the 2015 Pan Ams.
Tom DeBlass: When you move from a white belt to blue belt, you should know some basic self defense as well as simple jiu-jitsu techniques like armbars and hip escapes. It’s really about showing your dedication to the martial art. At blue belt is when you start to develop your game. Whether you like half guard, butterfly guard, whatever, find what you like and start gravitating towards it. I believe you should have an effective game that you can call your own before you move to the purple belt level.
Osvaldo “Queixinho” Moizinho: White belts always want to kill each other. They think that they get better by testing themselves against brand new white belts. But what they really need to do in order to improve and rank up is to learn basic, solid jiu-jitsu. From there, they’ll be able to define their game, and at that point that a lot of them will be promoted to blue belt. Even as blue belts, they still have a very competitive mindset; they want to see who’s best at the gym. They’re trying to beat higher belts, but if they want to continue to improve, they need to understand that beating people doesn’t mean that you’re necessarily getting better. They need to step out of their comfort zone and take more risks if they want to see progress.
Nick Maez: By the time a student becomes a blue belt, they should have a fundamental understanding of very basic positions— mount, back mount, side control— and be able to work within those positions. They should also know the roots of jiu-jitsu and have a basic idea of how to defend themselves. At this point, they’re becoming a martial artist, which means that they’re learning how to take ownership of themselves. They’re beginning to learn the Bushido virtues like respect and honor. Once you get to this stage, you realize that what you’re embarking on isn’t just a sport; it encompasses all the important things we learn in martial arts.
Andre Oliveira: The blue belt is the most difficult one to conquer because the practitioner still doesn’t know anything about jiu-jitsu. It’s a phase in which he’s going to have more difficulty in overcoming himself and adapting to a new activity— to the movement, the fighting styles, whether he’s going to grow into more of a “guardeiro” or a passer. From the moment that the individual knows how to pass and defend in a way that is more than just the basics, he’s not a white belt anymore.
Kenny Kim: When we talk about the belt system and what it represents, I always use swimming as a metaphor. As a white belt, you are someone who has never swum before, but decided to take swim lessons. You don’t really knowing the difficulties that lie ahead along with the feeling of confidence and excitement of accomplishment. You have put on your bathing suit and learn how to stay afloat and tread water, maybe doggy paddling a few months into it. At the blue belt level, you are now able to swim comfortably without drowning. You can actually swim from one end of the pool to the other, but you still get very tired because you’re using bad form and unnecessary energy. You’re now able to enjoy treading water and can “survive” being in the pool.
Lou Armezzani: To me, this is the keystone of a student’s Jiu Jitsu knowledge. The student will learn more in this phase than most others. As a new white belt, you are thrown into an alienated world. For me, in order to receive a blue belt, the student must know a combination of self defense techniques as well as basic jiu-jitsu techniques. The student must know my core curriculum, which contains basic judo throws, submissions, sweeps, and techniques like shrimping, granby rolls, pummeling, and wizzers.
Tom DeBlass: When you’re a purple belt, you start to perfect certain things, but it’s also like round two begins because you have to open up your game again and have more options than you’re used to. You start becoming an expert and understanding jiu-jitsu more. You have to be well-versed in everything. You might not use everything that there is, but you have to understand it.
Osvaldo “Queixinho” Moizinho: At the purple belt level, I expect my students to start seeing jiu-jitsu a bit differently. I look for them to be more technical and maybe more creative or artistic. But it’s at this level that a lot of people start getting an inflated ego. If you don’t learn how to control that, your jiu-jitsu and attitude will suffer in the future.
Nick Maez: This is a big belt. Here, I’m looking for the individual to incorporate more advanced principles of jiu-jitsu. He or she should be thinking about how to incorporate things like leverage, timing, movement, and connection, which is going to help them settle into a game that they’re going to start to play. They should have an idea of what they like to do, and they should be able to do it pretty well.
Andre Oliveira: The practitioner now has knowledge of various techniques he’s learned on the path from being a white belt. When he begins to form his game, he’s already more equipped to dominate the guard passes and defenses. He’s learned to dominate attacks and defenses for positions like mount, back mount, and side control. Jiu-jitsu is an extremely competitive and practical sport. The more you practice and repeat your techniques, the more you’ll stand out amongst other practitioners are your belt level.
Kenny Kim: At this point, you’re swimming laps, getting less tired, and diving down to the deep end. You’re now feeling very comfortable in the water and can maybe play a game of catch and throw. Efficiency is now setting in.
Lou Armezzani: I look for the student to excel in my core curriculum, but also start to develop their own game. This will include a effective guard passing game along with a strategic submission game from their guard and after they secure the pass. The BJJ player at this point is beginning to have a well-rounded game on the offense and defense. The purple belt is where I no longer really mold the student; it’s more of guiding them in their own jiu-jitsu.
Tom DeBlass: At the brown belt, you should start to effectively pass on jiu-jitsu’s knowledge. You begin to be able teach and understand it enough to break it down for other people, and of course continue working on perfecting your own game. It’s important to help out. Keep going to the basics class, and learn how to show other basic students the way. Everyone was once a beginner, and before you get to black belt, you have to understand how much you need to give.
Osvaldo “Queixinho” Moizinho: The biggest change at the brown belt level is the maturity level of the student. You’re going to be more experienced and build upon what you’ve learned as a purple belt.
Nick Maez: These guys have a game that’s pretty set in stone. They’re on the verge of achieving leadership roles, so they should be identifying how to instruct. They need to ask themselves, “What kind of theme do I want to bring to the mat?” The brown belt stage is a time of finding yourself. By now, you understand your own game and what you want to accomplish. You’ve probably gotten pretty good at learning how to attack black belts, and now you’re getting closer to getting to that level yourself.
Andre Oliveira: I think that the athlete shouldn’t have less than five years of practice at this point, because a well-developed purple belt can’t be vulnerable to blue belts. At the very least, they should be making things difficult for brown belts and even some black belts before moving on to the next level. They have to remember to always be competitively active inside and outside the gym in tournaments. You can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs.
Kenny Kim: The diving board is no problem. You’re doing front flips and can maybe even compete with some high-level swimmers. You’ve pretty much mastered being in the water and can swim laps around others around you.
Lou Armezzani: This is where the student can transition from one position to another using a combination of various guards and guard passes. The transitions are smooth and beautiful and the student rarely gets caught in a “dead end” scenario. Sure, the brown belt gets passed, submitted, and swept, but their wealth of knowledge is more vast and their ability to showcase what they know is a lot more natural.
Tom DeBlass: Getting your black belt is a sign of maturity over the brown belt level. You should know how to deal with situations and train with younger students and people at lower level belts. A true black belt has the ability to effectively teach and pass on their martial arts knowledge. They should be able to lead the way and set an example. Just by looking at them, people are inspired to learn. Everything they do and say is watched. People are intrigued by them, and that’s a responsibility that has to be taken very seriously. They must train a ton and put in that time. A black belt should train with everybody and still be a student. They’re still learning as well. Ultimately, learn how to teach, help people come up the ranks, be someone people look at and want to be like. Be a friend rather than an enemy.
Osvaldo “Queixinho” Moizinho: Getting the black belt is a big accomplishment, but by the time you get there, you’ll realize that it’s not everything. The most important thing you’ll have gained at this point will not only be your jiu-jitsu skills, but your character. That’s going to tell a lot about who you are, and you’ll need that along with all the experience and technique to be a legitimate black belt.
Nick Maez: A black belt encompasses an agreement to the jiu-jitsu lifestyle. When you get to this level, you have to be fully committed to carrying on those principles and virtues you’ve learned throughout your jiu-jitsu career. Of course you should have an excellent understanding of concepts and techniques, but it’s also about understanding how to express yourself. You need to understand that all of your actions are going to impact your school, and you should have been able to eliminate ego by then. At the end of the day you’re still a martial artist, and you need to carry with you a willingness to continue and share the journey. I wouldn’t say it’s necessary to compete to get to this point, either. Sure, you should have a damn good understanding of all jiu-jitsu techniques and be able to teach them, but it’s more about treating jiu-jitsu is an expression of self.
Andre Oliveira: At this point, the practitioner should have spent at least two years at the brown belt level to have the chance to polish his technique and style. Then, he has the chance be ready for the black belt, where everything begins again. In the end, it’s important to remember that the belt is nothing more than a recognition of the practitioner’s merit. The color on your belt isn’t going to save you in a real-life situation unless you always continue to practice in search of efficacy. Gracie jiu-jitsu was adapted and recreated from Japanese jiu-jitsu with the goal of giving a smaller person the chance to defend himself and even defeat a larger and stronger opponent. Self-defense can’t be forgotten, but in times of berimbolos and 50/50 guards, it’s very common to see black belts who are incapable of defending themselves with even a simple punch, which is inexcusable.
Kenny Kim: You may not be Michael Phelps, but you should have no problem at all when it comes to swimming and being in the water whether it’s to dive, race, or just survive. If your hands were tied up and were thrown in the ocean, you could remain calm and figure out a way to save your energy and efficiently get to shore. At the black belt level, it’s not that you know so much more techniques than at others color belts, but that you can now do them more smoothly and fluidly as well as being able to manage your opponent’s leverage. At this stage, your mind empties again. You go back to being like you (well, most of us) were as white belts; you go back to learning and just enjoy being on the mat.
Lou Armezzani: I’ve never promoted anyone to black belt, and I can’t for a few years because I only received my own black belt a few years ago. However, I have competed regularly in MMA and BJJ for the last twelve years. I’ve fought against world champion black belts in jiu jitsu and guys who made it to the UFC and other large promotions. What I can say is that the prize in jiu-jitsu is long-term training no matter what the belt color is. Longevity in the sport is the true goal. Being able to teach others and spread the love of jiu-jitsu is a gift for anyone in the professor, teacher, mentor, or even student role. Remember that all of this stemmed from judo and basic self defense a hundred years ago. The true goal is to be better than you were yesterday.