Although most people in the Western world consider a black belt to be synonymous with the rank of a high-level martial artist, in truth different martial arts rank their practitioners in different ways. In fact, many well-known martial arts, including boxing and wrestling, are oriented almost entirely toward competition and have no ranks at all outside of competitive titles. For these reasons, the value and prestige of a particular rank depends on the martial art for which it has been awarded.
The use of belts to signify rank began in the 19th century with Jigoro Kano, the founder of judo, and belts remain the most familiar method of signifying rank in martial arts today, according to Judo Info. Not only judo but tae kwon do, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, karate and many other martial arts employ belts, usually starting with white and ending with black. The highest and most difficult belts to attain are then subdivided into degrees or “dan,” such as a third degree (“sandan”) black belt.
The significance of a black belt, however, varies not only between martial arts but between different schools of the same martial art. Generally, a black belt signals basic competency gained from between three and six years of practice. A martial arts master, on the other hand, will have progressed several degrees deep into the highest belt, or even beyond it, typically to a red belt. This system has been so influential that even when a martial art doesn’t use belts, it still most likely favors a comparable rank structure. Krav maga schools commonly offer patches, for example, while Western muay thai schools offer prajioud arm bands.
Other martial arts maintain ranks without the use of physical markers like belts, patches or arm bands. Kendo, a Japanese sword-fighting art, uses the judo system of “kyu” (equivalent to belts) and “dan” (equivalent to degrees of the highest belt) without the actual belts. Capoeira, a Brazilian system that mixes martial arts with dance and music, may use belts at the discretion of the school, but regardless follows a progression from “aludo” (student) to “mestre” (master).
In the case of sambo—one of the few martial arts to combine both striking and grappling—ranks from “novichok” (newcomer) to “uchitel” (master) are earned through a combination of competing in tournaments, completing examinations and promoting the art both locally and internationally.
In the Western world, many of the most famous and financially lucrative martial arts forgo traditional ranks in favor of professional rankings based on competition. In boxing, each of the four major sanctioning organizations maintains both a champion and a ranked list of top fighters in the 17 weight classes. Wrestling, kickboxing, mixed martial arts and others follow a similar paradigm.
In these cases a current or former journeyman can be considered equivalent to a mid-level black belt, with contenders and champions serving as masters. Rather than belts, however, competitors in these arts point to championship titles and rankings as the hallmarks of their abilities.
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