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What I believe it means to be a black belt

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“Knowledge will give you power, but character respect.”

Bruce Lee

Call me old school, but I believe a black belt is more than just a measure of your knowledge and skill in martial arts.

I find that I’m becoming part of the old guard when it comes to the meaning of black belt. Martial arts is relatively a new thing in the US, only becoming popular in the second half of the 20th century after World War 2. But Hollywood deserves a lot of the credit, with figures like Bruce Lee and movies like the Karate Kid, they brought mainstream attention to the martial arts. Besides demonstrating the power behind the martial arts, movies also showed the virtues of the martial arts: respect, humility, courage confidence, and discipline among others.

Martial art schools piggy backed off the exposure of the Hollywood films and created a boom of American martial artists that adopted these virtues as the foundation of what it meant to be a black belt. Some people argue whether these virtues were ever part of the original martial arts (the Samurai code is said to have been romanticized and not an accurate reflection historically), but to me that is inconsequential as this point.

At this point, at least in the USA, nearly every martial art school is using these virtues as a standard. It’s hard for me to imagine not having them in place to be honest – especially those of us in combat sports that compete regularly. Those of us that spar regularly get humbled regularly, have to learn control, respect, and have to practice discipline to improve upon ourselves. Loyalty and honor come with the territory, as it is hard to advance in the martial arts without a master passing down knowledge.

But, that might be changing. As the art becomes more of a sport, people are no longer espousing the virtues, and are more focused on the physical performance. We see a lot more athletes and fighters instead of martial artists. This causes some confusion, as people know associate a black belt martial artist as a bad ass fighter – with no bearing on his character.

In my academy, a black belt is a reflection of your knowledge, skill, and character. My legacy as a martial artist travels through my students, and if I was getting people who were complete jerks black belts because they were just good fighters, I would be tarnishing it. My students would be a reflection of me, and I would have failed them if I didn’t help shape them to be better people. And worse off, they may end up corrupting the next generation by neglecting these valuable virtues.

One of the greatest fighters of all time, Georges St. Pierre, has stated that he is a martial artist and has adopted it as a lifestyle. It is priceless. That is not being cute or romantic – I’m dead serious. You could offer me $100 trillion dollars to take that part of my life away from me, and I wouldn’t hesitate to refuse it. I haven’t met a black belt that would make that deal either.

It is part of your identity, and arguably one of the best parts. Because in time, your athletic prowess will start to fade away. Maybe in 10, 20, or 30 years, but eventually you will no longer be that bad ass that can put anyone down.

As the end nears, if your take away from the martial arts was being a bad ass, when you are lying on your death bed, you will have nothing to hang on to. But, if you valued the virtues of the martial arts, those will be with you to the end of time, and chances are your legacy will live on through your students who will take the torch from you and continue what you started.


What do you think? Do you agree or disagree?

Comment with your take on this.

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4 comments
Steve says February 26, 2019

I agree 100%

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Logan Cunningham says February 26, 2019

Absolutely, 100% agree with you, Sir!!
I prefer to identify myself as a martial artist who happens to fight. Without the intricacies and nuances of being a martial artist, they are just empty techniques. Taking the time to harness these is what gives the martial artist his discipline. Without discipline, you’re just a meathead that can hurt people. No honor, no humility.

It is also harder to pass on the knowledge without understanding the fundamental pieces of the art.

Martial arts lives on through the artists. Not the fighter or competitor.

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Juan Carlos Perez-Espinosa says February 26, 2019

Excellent, I cant agree with you more. I’m in your brothers (Master Marcus) class and I can tell you that one of the biggest reasons I joined and will keep going to your school is because, aside from the obvious skills in teaching, I felt a genuine person(s) who truly respects and believes in his art and wants to do his BEST to pass on his knowledge and understands life is more than just a belt around your waist or how much of a bad-ass you are. I’m almost 54 yrs old, Doctor by profession, only a blue belt atm. I will keep pushing as best as I can to get as far as I can because I’m inspired by great people who are much more than black belts.

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Steve Arce says February 27, 2019

David, it is an Honor and a Pleasure to know You.

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