Words: Oliver Geddes
There are plenty of martial arts out there that emphasise the concept of ‘lineage’. My first martial art, Wing Chun Kung Fu, was hugely focused on the concept of who you had learned from and how directly connected they were to ‘the source’. Wing Chun, however, is a martial art that doesn’t have a standardised belting system so although lineage is important, grading is seen to be less so. Jiu jitsu is similar in the sense that there is generally a strong focus on being able to prove a connection to bigger names and organisations and thus ensuring that your belt is ‘legitimate’, however that is defined. Where it differs to most other martial arts is that every grading, and hence every belt, tends to be accompanied by the name of the instructor under whom you earned it.
For example, I will always be a Roger Gracie black belt, whether I am currently training under him or not. That is a connection which will always have huge weight, something that is proven by the fact that those are usually the next four words to follow (or sometimes precede) my name whenever I’m introduced within the community, either in print or in person. There are plenty of black belts out there who have been graded by one person, changed teams more than once, and then set up their own. Despite all this, the name of the man or woman who gave them their black belt will be attached to them for the rest of their career.
Things are slightly different, however, at the lower belts. Whilst you might be a Roger Gracie blue belt, if you were to get your purple belt under Lucio ‘Lagarto’ at Gracie Barra Knightsbridge, you would become a Gracie Barra purple belt, with the added complication of being ‘a purple belt under Lagarto’. In this case, you would be able to change lineages and teams multiple times until you hit the black belt, at which point the person who graded you is set in stone, even though your affiliation is not.
In short, things are complicated, and there is a significant amount of personal responsibility that comes with knowing that any students you grade will carry your name for a long time, potentially forever. So taking that into account, you have to be totally sure that someone deserves one before even thinking about handing out any belts.
Many of the first belts that I gave out personally, I never considered ‘mine’ in that sense. I was asked at seminars or classes to award belts because I was senior to the instructor in the class and he wanted the belt to come from someone more highly ranked than himself. Obviously I wanted to be aware of their abilities to make sure they were up to the level required of the new belt, but that aside, I never considered them ‘Oli Geddes blue belts’. As they continue to pass through the rankings, my name will likely be replaced by someone else’s, and that’s perfectly fine with me. I once awarded a brown belt to a long time training partner on behalf of Roger when it had to be done and he was out of the country. Despite the belt coming from me, he would consider himself a ‘Roger Gracie brown belt’, and that’s how it should be.
The first belt that I would consider ‘mine’ went to one of my long-time private class students, yet by the same turn as above, I didn’t award it myself. I passed it up the chain to one of the instructors at RGA, even though I considered him to be my own student more than the academy’s. The first belts that I both awarded and considered my own were at a grading last year at an academy I teach at regularly in Cheshire. These were people I had trained with, taught, appraised and whose instructor considered me to be his instructor. I even gave out two purple belts; belts that begin the transition into the ‘senior ranks’ of jiu jitsu and as such are rather more weighty things to give out than blue belts.
Even as I write this I am in a plane on the way to Moldova to an affiliate, and I have a number of blue belts in the bag by my feet that (unbeknownst to the students training there) I will be awarding to some of the students at the academy. These are people who have been training for many years in jiu jitsu in an environment where there simply were not enough senior belts to award anything, so three year white belts are fairly commonplace. Once again, they will wear my name alongside the name of their instructor and their academy and I am proud that they will do so.
To go from a world where I’d simply never given out a belt before to one where doing so is commonplace is relatively strange, but it’s just another stage in one’s progression through jiu jitsu, from student to senior student to instructor to professor.
So what’s the next milestone? That would be to take a student from the day he walks into the academy all the way through every belt. As it is right now, I can travel, I can do my best to give advice or guide students in their progression, taking into account what they already have learned and give them new directions to go in, but I’m not there on the mats with them every day. I travel too much, I visit too many different academies for that. One day, however, I’ll have a place of my own and with that comes the responsibility of overseeing every student every day, making the small adjustments and watching them develop from session to session.
When I award that black belt, I will be entrusting that student, whoever they may be, with the same responsibility – to continue spreading the art, to recognise the abilities of others, and to maintain the standards that have been responsible for making jiu jitsu one of the most respected martial arts in the world. It’s a long way off, but I’m looking forward to it already.