Bruce Lee was wrong

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Bruce Lee during filming of Enter the Dragon. Photo: Publicity.

One time someone asked Bruce Lee about the importance of the black belt.

The actor and kung fu master replied that it is nothing more than a strip of cloth to hold your pants up.

Nearly three decades on, we can now see that Lee was wrong.

The belt is much more than a strip of cloth, much more than a clothing accessory for fighters. At least in the Jiu-Jitsu world, the color of the belt represents the conquests and individual tale of the one wearing it. It’s sad to see that sometimes it ends up being a money-making tool in the hands of hacks.

Unfortunately, I’ve seen a bevvy of practitioners promoted without the slightest criteria, mainly outside Brazil. The farther people are from Jiu-Jitsu’s roots, the more discrepancies there are as to promotion.

There are people promoting others without the least respect for our sport’s history, our fight, our way of life. We should take into consideration each person’s evolutionary process, not just in terms of technique, but also in soul and character. What’s the point of having an excellent black belt if he forgets the moral principles that guide Jiu-Jitsu?

Of course, we can’t demand a high level of technique from a practitioner who only can manage a few hours a week for training, as they have to go to work – that’s why, perhaps, there’s such a great number of competent doctors, pilots, police men, lawyers, and so many other professionals who represent Jiu-Jitsu with dignity, many of them black belts.

However, it is the obligation of us all to keep tabs on the procedures of academies and associations, under the penalty of our sport taking a shot to the foot.

The criteria needs to be universal, and respected. There needs to be a global standard, a well-structured test so that we do not become hostage to our own luck.

The belt surely doesn’t serve only to hold up ones pants: it should be stamped in your Jiu-Jitsu’s DNA.

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There are 54 comments for this article
  1. steve at 4:50 pm

    you clearly either don’t understand what Bruce meant or you’re ignoring what he meant to get yourself some undeserved attention. i bet the latter is true. like the gracies say,”a black belt is a white belt who never gave up.” the belt means nothing. it represents the dedication, effort, and time the individual commits to his/her art.

  2. Anne-Jean at 5:39 pm

    People always say.. he’s a blue belt he’s a … I always say I have a belt. I am much more than just a rank in BJJ, Taekwondo, (K1-A level, Boxing etc)
    I might not have the technique jet of a black-belt BJJ, but I do have a spirit that all of us have. And never underestimate people who know they not only have spirit, but in essence ARE spirit… I think that Bruce Lee referred to that


  3. Greg at 9:00 pm

    Great catchy headline.

    Unfortunately you totally missed the point. Royce himself has said that a “belt only covers 2 inches of your ass, you have to cover the rest.” Are you suggesting that Royce is wrong too?

    All belt systems eventually get watered down because they are maintained by imperfect humans. Why do you think BJJ is any different?

  4. Jordan Burton, III at 5:38 am

    Bruce Lee “wasn’t wrong”. Your title gets reads; but, saying Bruce Lee was wrong about the belt is like saying, “well, why is the NFL game 3 hours when there is only 11 minutes of actually playing?”

    Bruce Lee was an exceptional martial artist that although he preferred striking (seemingly), was open-minded to bring in techniques and tactics from other martial arts – i.e. grappling. Bruce Lee is from the same cloth as Rolls Gracie.

    Don’t reach, man.

  5. B Sandhu at 8:01 am

    Josh Barnett is not a black belt in bjj and has even said he hardly trains with the gi. But he competed in a bjj tounament and wore a black belt………and won!!! Proving the belt doesn’t mean anything!!
    Therefore Bruce Lee is not wrong

  6. Patrickus at 8:58 am

    My belt means everything to me, although there are many purple belts like mine, mine is mine. I take very good care of my belt, it means the world to me. That belt is full of my character on & off the mat, my technique, my hustle, my dedication, my struggle to overcome a drug addiction … THAT BELT MEANS THE WORLD TO ME and it is not just a piece of cloth ment to hold my jacket closed. My purple belt is MY purple belt, and it has been a rollercoaster ride! US OPEN THIS WEEKEND WAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAR!

  7. Victor at 9:53 am

    Bruce was right. The belt only holds up your pants, its the person’s skill that speaks for him/her. Anyone can tie a belt, knowing is not enough, can they apply…

  8. robert at 11:20 am

    while i like your take on the importance of the belt for bjj practitioners, i think you missed bruces point by a mile. first, bruce always had it right. he was the father of moderm mma and stressed the importance of nutrition,fitness, and practical common sense technique. you must understand that during bruce’s life many martial art students were processed through a watered down version of technique and black belts were a dime a dozen, (sadly, even today this happens)of course they all thought their belt would scare away attackers and they would claim great fighting abilities. bruce simply stated that one does not have to be a black belt to be able to fight and win. while bruce respected rank, as he had it in jeet kune do, he believed that the student must focus on skill and not rank. this is why i chose to stay with the gracie way as opposed to joining a hybrid school. i want qaultity and i want the water from the spring, and not the bottle.

  9. PCR at 11:44 am

    You totally miss the point of the words and philosophy of Bruce Lee, first of all in the era he live in, a lot of people claimed his martial art was the best and only functional one (still the same on this days in some places) , but he revolutionize and destroyed all that ego crap discussion with his JKD, when he said that comment about the belts he we was referring that a belt does not make fighter, the person is more important than the style or grade in self defense, obviously he never trained under a BJJ strict program so he never knew how persona,, important, intimate, and self accomplish a belt in the system can be for the BJJ practitioner, but it does not mean that he was wrong.

  10. Ben at 2:42 pm

    I think the article brings up a valid point. If belts are being flung around like some cheap fashion fad, so will Jiu-Jitsu’s image. The rank is something to be respected if received though the correct channels. It is the responsibility of the person promoting rank, as well as the person receiving the rank to be sure that it is done correctly. If not, you will only be making a fool of yourself, your school, and anyone you try to promote. Don’t be a fraud! We will expose you!

  11. Brian at 8:33 pm

    I tapped brown belts as a blue belt. I got tapped once by a blue belt as a brown belt.It’s a learning process and a journery that never ends. To me belts mean nothing. What matters is you can either represent or not.
    On another note- “I’ve seen a bevvy of practitioners promoted without the slightest criteria, mainly outside Brazil.” As an american practitioner of bjj for over 10 years now I am getting really sick of comments like this above.

  12. Mohamad Jehad at 8:54 pm

    I feel the comments about my article are extremely important and constructive. In no way was it my intention to demean Bruce Lee’s major contribution to the world of fighting. Now did I seek to distort his words. However, my interpretation is of what he said within the context of the days in which we now live. Whether Bruce Lee denying the significance of belts was in regards to the human being or because he didn’t feel the belt represents the someone’s qualifications as a fighter, we will never know.

    The most interesting part to me, aside from the valid discussion, was to see the distinct points of views of Brazilians and Americans in this regard. It is up to us to further provoke this type of discussion because only thus will we makes strides in the sport’s evolution. For now I maintain my ideas intact, but I respect and promise to reflect on the points of view here expressed.

  13. John Tabor at 9:24 pm

    Brian, addressing “As an american practitioner of bjj for over 10 years now I am getting really sick of comments like this above.”

    I don’t think Mohammed was aluding to the U.S. I’ve heard about guys going around small towns in Europe and elsewhere teaching seminars and, after teaching seminars to a bunch of people they don’t know, they go handing out belts. I’m pretty sure it’s those situations he’s talking about.

  14. Nezo at 4:27 am

    1-There is a huge difference between black belts around the world, I think they should think of more colors to differentiate between them.

    2-Royler Gracie, the master, was defeated by Eddie Bravo in ADCC, when the second was a brown belt.

    3-Royce gracie says: “the belt covers only 2″ of your ass; you have to back up the rest of it”.

    Maybe Bruce is exxagerating, but what he said makes sense.

  15. Greg at 11:57 am

    I’m pretty sick of hearing comments like, “Unfortunately, I’ve seen a bevvy of practitioners promoted without the slightest criteria, mainly outside Brazil. The farther people are from Jiu-Jitsu’s roots, the more discrepancies there are as to promotion.”

    Since your name is Mohamed Jehad, I can assume you are not from Brasil, and therefore you are not a legitimate source of information regarding Jiu-Jitsu. See how silly that sounded?

    Now go back to your article and try again.

    • Marcelo Dunlop at 2:02 am

      Greg, it’s so easy to assume it wrongly. Mohamed is 100% Brazilian. Well, 99%, 1% arab. “Now go back and try again”, my friend. Take care.

  16. Andrew at 12:06 pm

    The author does not understand Bruce Lee’s philosophy and what Lee was trying to imply with that black belt comment.

    Bruce Lee’s philosophy is about questioning the techniques being taught and not being a blind slave to tradition.
    They blindly accept the techniques, system, rules and tradition of the art they’re studying -whether that’s karate, kung fu, judo, etc. Practitioners get caught up in these systems and styles within their dojo and loose sight of the reality of street fighting. His quote about the black belt refers to the martial artists of his era who follow and don’t question what’s being taught.

    Those who don’t understand him, take that quote too personally and literally.

  17. max at 1:15 am

    I believe Bruce Lee wasn’t wrong….
    Martial Arts is not a competition of belts and grades! Too much significance is placed on stature. One’s journey cannot be measured by a belts color.

  18. Mestre Gautier at 11:05 pm

    Actually you both are right let me elab.
    Bruce said this in the aspect of chinese attire and how the “belt” or sash in Chinese systems it really is to hold up your pants, since it wraps around the waistband of the pants. The other context well… gracie put a high standard on shit cuz it was nothing new just a new formulation of judo no real (nage or ukemi waza)plus the timeline was barrowed from capoeira anyway,Just compare the two on most Capoeira websites.Last you have to remember what time/era it was in, besides if he hadnt made the comment systems would probably still have the same low standards as they used to. good content just the same peace.

    rethink research and rival all my friend… GFDS-JKD Concepts.

  19. C1 at 11:26 am

    Mohamed, if your not intelligent to recognize the ‘context’ in which Bruce Lee was speaking, don’t post such an stupid page. Bruce Lee was speaking to the arrogance of the human ‘ego,’ which places it’s own personal importance as it’s main purpose in life, which the true goal of martial arts is to move beyond the ego, realizing we are not limited to any form. To be clear in definition and context of this post, the term ‘ego’ is the individual sense of ‘me’ that believes it’s the limited to the physical form.

    Bruce was a ‘fully realized master.’ He knew who he really was and that he existed beyond all forms, especially the body. The body is just a tool for self-expression of the Divine that’s inherently ‘doing’ everything to begin with .

    The ego naturally places a huge importance on ‘forms’ and physical achievements in martial arts and life for that matter, hence the ego takes much ‘pride’ in feeling ‘special’ for earning and wearing a belt to indicate it’s level of experience and mastery. This is the very opposite of what Bruce Lee and any authentic spiritual teacher has taught. This is the context in which Bruce was speaking in his statement that the belt only serves to hold up your pants. He’s taking the pride and arrogance from the ego that only serves to limit one’s sense self to the form of the body, and of course the ego doesn’t like to hear that because it makes it feel unimportant. So it posts an article with clever intellectual justifications to hide itself and make itself feel special and important, just like the one you wrote Mohamed.

  20. Marek Liang-Boguszewicz at 1:02 pm

    Bruce Lee was right.
    Fighters are judged by their warrior spirit and inner strength.
    If you need a belt to prove your achievements to others then that's not martial arts. He was right.
    As a Samurai before battle Belt do you hold.
    Warriors know who they are they don't need to use ego to display that.
    Very poor article.

  21. Daniel Dieu at 8:59 pm

    Sorry to say this, but Bruce Lee was right when it comes to the point of self defense on the streets. Belts are made to keep your pants up.
    Belts are for martial arts as in sports only. 🙂

  22. Emmy Lorensa at 10:04 pm

    Whoever wrote this should be publicly flogged, Jujitsu is awesome but sometimes a good wrestler can beat a black belt in Jujitsu or a Jujitsu exponent in MMA, therefore, if there are no belts in wrestling, why have them in Jujitsu?

    Is it just to make money?

  23. Joe Ahm at 2:36 am

    "What’s the point of having an excellent black belt if he forgets the moral principles that guide Jiu-Jitsu?"

    That's precisely what Lee meant. For any art, not just jiujitsu. Morals, character, integrity, generosity, etc etc means far more than some cloth. So in actuality you're agreeing with him.

  24. Lance Benson at 11:45 pm

    Bruce Lee was 100% correct, you cannot judge someones skill or knowledge of the martial arts by the color of a belt worn in a class… that means nothing, that demonstrates the knowledge of one paticular style and that is all, it does not demonstrate an overall knowledge and it is typically not even a good judge of the individual style in which it was rewarded either. A man who has trained no gi jiu jitsu for 20 years steps into a gi class and throws a white belt on…. you gonna look at him and say oh I can beat this guy easy I am a black belt that has been doing this 10 years or a brown belt that has been doing this 8 years…. that guy is gonna throw his white belt on and smash you, sorry to say but belts mean nothing.

  25. DocNo at 2:31 am

    Bruce Lee was right. The color of the belt means nothing more than politics in the martial art arena. Thus, a motivation for the students to stay on with the same teacher. Gracie Brothers called Black Belt magazine’s black belts “paper tigers” and challenged them to prove themselves. None lasted more than three minutes.
    Wing Chun dojos don’t give out belts, you should know where your skill level is, you cannot lie to yourself.

  26. Frank at 6:49 pm

    I totally agree with Bruce Lee. I’m a boxer and have trained with world champions for more than 40 years. Either you knock me out or I knock you out. It’s that simple ! My skill of fighting can not be represented by a belt level or by the number of trophies I have in my basement.These are false ideals for your ego. I’ve seen white belt jui jitsui fighters choke out experience boxers and I be also seen beginner boxers knock out black belt jui jitsu instructors. I personally know black belt instructors who have never once been punched in the face. Fighters fight and are trained to absorb punishment as well as to give punishment, the majority of belt holders hide behind their belts and know how to give a punch but can not take a punch.They talk the walk but don’t walk the walk.
    The old fart,

  27. J. Dean at 1:55 pm

    Depends on what you mean when you say a belt means “nothing,” and your article in fact demonstrates this. Anybody can go out and buy a black belt, get it designed with a name in Kanji lettering, and say “I’m a black belt.” In that particular case, Lee was right: that black belt means nothing.

    The belt is meant to be an accurate reflection of one’s knowledge and training. If it does not accurately reflect such knowledge, or is more about the practicioner’s ego than it is his skill, then it is indeed nothing but a sham, a “strip of cloth to hold your pants up” as stated above.

    Personally, were I to open a martial arts school, I’d reduce the number of belts to three or four, something like white, green, red, black. More belt colors do not necessarily mean a better art.

  28. Christopher Montague at 12:52 pm

    You basically said Bruce Lee was wrong, and then spent the bulk of the article proving him right. His point was that colored belts were meant to be a marker of your progress, but the true marker of your progress is your skill set, not what color belt you’re wearing. As you mentioned, if McDojos are just handing out colored level belts based on any ol’ criteria they come up with, then the belt is meaningless because it stops being an accurate reflection of your progress.

    Hence the point Bruce Lee was trying to make – Black belts are only good for holding up pants. You want to prove to me you’re a skilled martial artist? Don’t tell me what color your belt is. Step into the ring and SHOW me.

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