The path to black belt

Saturday 7th January, 2023

When I was at uni back in 1999, one night after watching Blade (Wesley Snipes, vampires, etc.), my housemate and I decided it'd be a great idea to learn a martial art (the rum & coke helped considerably). I'd dabbled with Karate at age 11 as I'm sure we all did after watching Karate Kid, and if you didn't, you know you secretly wanted to - but we now wanted to learn something "cool".

Being the ever-so pragmatic students, we decided to grab the Yellow Pages and look for a local martial arts club. As we trawled down the list in alphabetical order, we stumbled across Ju-Jitsu, which we both agreed "sounds cool" - without actually knowing anything about it.

Little did we know The Matrix would one-day make Ju-Jitsu even cooler - double win! 😎


So off we went to start learning (traditional) Ju-Jitsu, considered by many as the grandfather of all martial arts, as it consists of punches, kicks, throws, weapons, and fighting on the ground. Many other martial arts were later derived from Ju-Jitsu by focusing on certain aspects, such as Judo, which mainly works on throwing people.

In chunks of 3 months we would study a host of techniques and then take a "grading" to prove we knew the moves, and be awarded our next belt.

At some point I believe the gap between belts increased to 6 months, towards the higher grades anyway. The order of the belts for those intrigued was…

The idea is that they get darker the longer you've trained.

After 3 years of training I had reached brown belt - I was personally teaching some regular junior classes, plus some occasional adult classes - teaching anyone anything is another passion of mine.

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ)

By this time one of our main instructors had started to learn about a new style called Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, a modified version of Ju-Jitsu which focused primarily on ground-fighting and take-downs - not so much fancy Judo throws you see at the Olympics, but more realistic street-fighting methods of taking your opponent to the ground, to, in the voice of Mortal Kombat, "Finish him!"

Our instructor had even travelled to the US to learn this new style from the original family of founders who were unsurprisingly, originally from Brazil.

This Brazilian family were called the Gracie's, and had optimised Ju-Jitsu for the smaller guy, focusing more on technique and not relying too much on strength. Throughout the 80's and probably before, they hosted "The Gracie Challenge", inviting anyone from any other style of martial art to come to their academy and take them on in a no-rules fight, to see if anyone could beat them. No-one could.

This eventually gave rise to the UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship), in which a young Royce Gracie representing Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu demonstrated his family's style to the world. He won the first few UFC's, being pitted against fighters from different styles of fighting, Sumo, Boxing, Karate, etc.

Our instructor would visit the Gracie academy and come back and teach anyone who was interested, I was certainly one of them.

The number and order of belts is slightly different in BJJ compared to other martial arts…

It's not uncommon for it to take 15 years to get to black belt level, and so each belt typically includes up to 4 "stripes" as you progress, otherwise waiting 3-4 years to get your next belt can be a bit dis-heartening, especially if this is your first martial art.

There's also no "gradings", you get promoted when your instructor feels you're ready and you're at the appropriate level, which is why it could be years between belts, as it depends on how often you train, etc.

After a couple of visits to the Gracie Academy our instructor came back with his blue belt.

Any Regrets?

By this point, my interest in achieving my (traditional) Ju-Jitsu black belt had all but disappeared. I had moved onto something far more interesting. Do I regret it? Maybe a tiny bit, it would've been cool to be a black belt, but to be honest the journey of self-confidence which the martial arts brings was more than enough, I didn't need a coloured bit of cloth to prove anything.

As a side-note, if you think you could do with a bit of extra self-confidence, or want that for your kids, martial arts is a great way to achieve it - no matter the style. After getting my red belt (remember that's just 3 months of training), I found myself walking home from uni through the dark streets of Sheffield without a care in the world, thinking I could take on any danger (rather foolishly in hindsight, but you get the idea).

After a year or two of training in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, we had the honour of hosting and even joining the Royce Gracie Jiu-Jitsu network, an international collection of BJJ clubs all associated with Royce Grace.

During one such seminar, I had the chance to "roll" with Royce and experience just what makes a black belt in this style. He was literally whistling as we were fighting, as I was going like a bat-out-of-hell trying to beat him.

At the end of the session, Royce awarded me with a blue belt, with 1 stripe. Woohoo! Even during my pathetic attempt at fighting him, he'd obviously seen "something" and could gauge what level I was at.

I competed in a few national competitions and even did an amateur MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) fight where I took on a kickboxer - I won. That's right, I'm undefeated in MMA! 😂

Shortly afterwards I left uni and moved out of the city. My Ju-Jitsu and Jiu-Jitsu fighting days dried up. As I moved around the UK for various jobs every few years, I did dabble a bit, but never really got back into the swing of things. Not having a regular training partner was usually my excuse, and in hindsight, such a stupid one. All because that's how I started training in the first place, I thought it was some kind of pre-requisite, but visit any martial arts club, and 99% of the students go on their own.

The Next Leg

Fast-forward 15 years to 2022 and I must have hit a mid-life crisis. It all started when I decided to buy myself an Audi A5 for Christmas, a car I'd wanted for the last decade but never managed to pull the trigger - then within 2 days I randomly watched an interview with Roger Gracie, probably the greatest Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu competitor of all time.

That evening, as I lay awake in bed, I remembered just how much I used to enjoy the sport, and by "enjoy" I mean be manically passionate about. In that moment I decided I'd look for a local club where I've now settled with my growing family.

Baptism of Fire

For the first session back I thought I'd pop along to a "competition sparring" class, which I assumed would be some gentle training - oh how wrong I was. "Sparring" to me sounds just so much gentler than "fighting". As I warmed up one of the other guys who was surely twice my size asked if I wanted to "roll", I could see immediately this was not going to end well.

I know I said Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is all about technique and not strength, but c'mon!

An hour later, after being demolished by the whole class, I was winded, battered and bruised, probably with a pulled muscle in my back, and counting how many times I had asked myself "what the f*ck am I doing here?"

But on the drive home I couldn't wait to go back, analysing all my mistakes and what I needed to learn for next time. Tomorrow was a "white belts only" class, which is really where I belong right now, even if I do have a blue belt from the legendary Royce Gracie.

The head instructor insisted I keep wearing my blue belt, "out of respect for your own achievements", which actually spurs me on even more to get back to that level as quickly as possible.

I'm now 5 sessions in, and even after the Christmas break and eating my weight in Quality Street, I'm keener than ever, and long may it continue.

Will I achieve the coveted black belt? Time will tell, but honestly I'll just be over the moon if I'm still training in 10 years time, whatever colour belt I may have.

I also now don't have to worry about writing my Christmas list or birthday list in 2023 - anything related to Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu will make my day!

Sporting my 15 year old blue belt

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