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 44 comments for this article
  1. 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.

  2. 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,

  3. 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.

  4. 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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