Want Your Black Belt? Be a Great Technician and a Better Person

Last week the jiu-jitsu community experienced a number of losses, including the tragic deaths of para-BJJ pioneer Ronald Mann and the shocking murder of a single father helping break up a domestic dispute. The latter thankfully pulled on our collective compassion enough to help raise thousands of dollars for the two young daughters of the deceased, but it also pulled in something unbelievably childish…though not shocking, because the internet is a dumpster fire.

Specifically, the post attracted a number of middle and high belts in the JJT Facebook comments section using the murder of David Baker to pontificate about how much better they would have handled the situation, to criticize the dead father of two young children, and to bicker like feral cats over who was the juiciest jiujiteiro. This led to a number of black belts, including our own Kevin Gallagher, asking: “What the Hell is wrong with people?” And also: Is the grappling community at large failing to teach that character and conduct outside of the gym are as essential to high belt success as mastering worm guard or collecting golds?

In the days after that basic online display of mental unwellness, double black belt Marcus Dempsey, devoted martial artist, coach, and father, wrote a hell of a reflection on what, to him anyway, is the difference between being a high level brown belt and an actual black belt. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, “flying triangles” and “winning all the things” aren’t anywhere on the list. Here, Dempsey breaks down what he sees as the fundamental differences between the longtime practitioners and those who have achieved their rank by mastering themselves.

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What is a black belt beyond a person who has attained a high level of competency in jiu-jitsu? A teacher? A mentor? A mat assassin that strikes fear into the hearts of lesser experienced practitioners? 

A general Google search asking that question results in a litany of YouTube videos and blog posts, all of which invariably include lists of traits like tough, knowledgeable, technical, dedicated, precise, master of the basics. These convey the idea that all one needs to do to become a black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is be able to demonstrate technical/conceptual knowledge by showing how many techniques they can perform, and the level of skill with which they can perform them. Fair enough, but incomplete.

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Too seldom do we read or hear about the type of person that a black belt should be. 

It is said that a while ago there were certain criteria one had to meet in order to receive the coveted rank of black belt from grandmasters Helio and Carlos Gracie, including an evaluation of character. Honor, integrity, respect, and so forth were requirements of promotion. Rarely in contemporary jiu-jitsu are these types of character traits still widely discussed. 

As someone who has made made the journey to black belt and instructor, and sees the results when promotions do not include a character assessment, here are the character traits that I personally feel a person looking to attain the rank of black belt in any art, including but not limited to jiujitsu, should strive to possess:

  1. RESPECT: This is defined as due regard for the feelings, wishes, rights, or traditions of others. A black belt should be the example when showing respect for others, both in and out of the academy. Black belts literally witness people from all walks of life enter the gym on any given day. We watch them either dominate everyone, or transform themselves from a weak and feeble individual into a finely tuned instrument of combat. We understand these individuals come from varying backgrounds, and have wildly varying world experiences which can help develop our environment culturally…if we respect them. We understand that everyone has something to provide, and that we can learn from anyone. Conversely, a black belt also understands that respecting everyone regardless of the circumstance is important because at any given time you may come across a true killer. Respecting everyone equally, both socially and physically on the mat, is always a mark of both a wise and noble individual worthy of a black belt.
  2. COURTESY: This refers to politeness in one’s attitude and behavior toward others. As an ambassador of both their individual gym and the art of jiu-jitsu as a whole, courtesy is a must. It also goes hand in hand with respect. There’s a saying that goes something like, “You can tell the heart of a man by how he treats those that can do nothing for him,” and being courteous to everyone displays to professors and instructors the kind of mature confidence a black belt should possess. It also acts as an infectious positive aura, which is beneficial for gym culture and anyone else around us. This is one reason that people regard someone like Marcelo Garcia as “the nicest guy in jiu-jitsu.” He is an absolute monster on the mat, arguably one of the best practitioners of all time. Yet he is famously courteous to even the newest of white belts. People who practice courtesy on the mats find that it can carry through into every aspect of their life. This paints the sport and art of jiu-jitsu in a positive light, and maintains the honor of the coveted rank of black belt. I mean, let’s face it–we’ve all met those guys that are black belts that are kind of pricks, because they think that they can kick anyone’s ***. And nobody body aspires to be THAT GUY, let alone wants to be around them, unless they’re a prick too.
  3. INTEGRITY: Ok, so, there have been a bunch of articles posted across all BJJ sites that read something to the effect of “fake BJJ black belt exposed,” or “BJJ black belt assaults spouse,” or even worse “BJJ black belt charged or accused of sexual assault”. Man, talk about a black eye for the art. Hell, the latter are black eyes for humanity, let alone jiu-jitsu. Admittedly, these may be isolated incidents and are most definitely not our norm. However, as jiujitsu black belts we need to strive to improve the lives of those that we come in contact with. We should set a good example for the youth and adults that are joining and will invariably be influenced by our actions due to the nature of a rank structure. The natural reverence we have for a person that is better than us at something we respect is powerful, and we need to take it seriously. Integrity, aka a strong moral compass, can help anyone steer themselves through all kinds of moral and social circumstances without harming others needlessly, and so a person trying to obtain a black belt should strive to be a person of integrity. This not only improves the quality of our lives, but motivates those around us to raise their own bar and rise to higher standards.
  4. SELF CONTROL: The ability to manage our actions, feelings and emotions is something we practice every damned time we roll. It’s one of the character traits that probably gets exercised the most through our training, but seems to be the easiest to forget once we walk out of the gym. I am personally guilty in this category. There I am, walking out the gym going, “Man, I really stayed calm in that situation and thought my way out of it, kept my cool and turned it into a sub, nice!” Then I get in the car and am screaming, “OMG are you going to freaking go or sit through another red light?!?” We are all humans and not perfect. But self control is one of the best character traits we can translate from training into our personal lives to drastically improve our circumstances. Personally, as I have drew closer to black belt and started to bring more focus to this off the mat, I saw great improvement in relationships in both my personal and professional life. Mat skills are one thing, being able to control your emotions and make rational, unemotionally charged decisions = the best real life outcomes. And again, being an example of self control means being a positive influence in our personal communities as a whole. After all, a black belt is supposed to be a leader. And the best way to lead is by example. 
  5. HUMILITY: A black belt should be, in my opinion, humble, or free from pride and arrogance. Through their journey they have undoubtedly been beaten on literally thousands of occasions. However, temptation of the ego makes some of us focus on how many thousands of taps we have collected from others instead. This ego move can blind individuals from remembering that somewhere in the world there is someone that is better than us, either in jiujitsu or in something else. The ego is so strong that it fools people into thinking because they’re superior in a given area, they are somehow superior to others in every area. This error creates so much of the dissection and division in our world today. However, a black belt should be beyond that ego. As a black belt it is our job to both remember and remind others that we are all humans, and as such are equal in our existence. While we may be separated by class, money, country, or any other of the numerous things that people qualify their value by, a black belt understands–or should understand–they are better than no one, and no one is better than them. As I said before all walks of life come into the gym, and for so many different reasons. None of them really matter. What matters is remembering that regardless of how much we make, where we live, what we drive, how many houses we own, once we’re on the mats that’s meaningless. The 15-year-old kid with nothing to their name can still beat the 35-year-old CEO of a Fortune 500 company, and that’s life. It doesn’t matter what we have, it matters who we are. One of the beautiful things about jiujitsu is that it humbles everyone. And humility keeps us grounded enough to see that what is really important is not how many medals we’ve won, how many people we’ve beat, but rather, “What kind of person am I?” How do you treat others? What value do you bring the world? And that’s the core of humanity.

I truly believe that someone who is going to represent the art I love, and who will continue to spread this art for future generations, should absolutely master these important character traits and impress upon the future generations their individual importance. But then again, what do I know–after all, I’m not better than anyone else, and no one is better than me. Happy training. 

Marcus Dempsey is one of the instructors at New Orleans Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. He is a black belt under Professors Matthias Meister and Marco Macera of NOLA BJJ. Follow him on Instagram: @marcus_dempsey.

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