Black belts are coveted in martial arts media – they are a sign of excellence, experience, and knowledge in your art. But how do they relate to the global phenomenon of MMA?
Most MMA fighters are not black belts. Some MMA fighters do not even practice martial arts with a belt system.
Novices might believe that black belts are the be-all and end-all of combat proficiency, but I’m here to tell you that is not the case. We are going to look at what a black belt means. We’re also going to look at why MMA doesn’t have belts, why many fighters don’t have a black belt, and why they’re ultimately meaningless.
Are All MMA Fighters Black Belts?
Many MMA fighters come from backgrounds such as wrestling and Muay Thai. In fact, more UFC champions have come from wrestling than any other combat sport. As mentioned, those arts do not have a formal ranking system.
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is closely intertwined with MMA. For this reason, you are likely to find many black belts from BJJ in MMA simply through the prevalence of BJJ practitioners. Notable examples might include Brian Ortega or Fabricio Werdum.
Other martial arts have less of a presence in MMA, but there are a few black belts. One example is Robert Whittaker, who holds black belts in BJJ, Hapkido, and Karate.
And then there is MMA in itself. MMA has no formal grading, nor does it have a governing body or a code of practice, such as with Judo. It is about prize fighting. Without centralized development of MMA, it’s hard to conceive of a belt system being introduced.
Can MMA Fighters Beat Black Belts?
Not only can MMA fighters beat black belts, they often beat them at their own game.
Look at GSP. He is considered one of the best MMA wrestlers ever to enter the cage. Is he a decorated wrestler? Not by a long shot. He did, however, pioneer the idea of shoot boxing. This allowed him to develop a system of wrestling and takedowns and to beat people who, on paper, were much better grapplers.
Westling does not have black belts, but this demonstrates the point well – MMA is not a composite of the other arts but is a sport in its own right with different skills and requirements.
The other common scenario is something like Max Holloway and Cub Swanson. The former is a brown belt, the latter black, and yet Holloway finished Swanson with a guillotine. Max achieved this by wobbling Cub with strikes and snatching the choke as Swanson struggled to his feet. Just because you outrank your opponent doesn’t mean you’re immune to their grappling.
Which MMA Fighters Are Black Belts?
Here is an incomplete list of MMA fighters who have black belts in various disciplines.
|Fighter||Black Belt Achieved in|
|Robert Whittaker||Karate, BJJ, Hapkido|
History Of The Black Belt
Despite their widespread appearance in martial arts media, Black belts are a relatively new and niche development. The vast majority of martial arts, from western styles like Catch Wrestling to those in the eastern hemisphere, such as Muay Thai and Sumo, do not use a belt ranking system.
Even those with more formal ranks, such as Mongolian wrestling, use alternative items such as a ‘jangga’ to denote expertise.
Jigoro Kano developed the belt system itself in the 1880s. Kano is the founder of Judo and looked for formal ranks to introduce to his students. Back then, it was a simple distinction between white and black. The introduction of the scaled, colored system took time and did not begin to be introduced until 1935.
Other martial arts have followed suit. Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, for example, is directly descended from Judo. However, the art developed in the 1920s and has developed a different color system altogether.
A much older art, Karate did not have a belt system until 1924, when the first black belts were awarded. Others like Tae Kwon Do, developed much more recently, were inspired by the Judo system.
What Does A Black Belt Mean?
Typically, black belts mean expertise, but the level is varied from art to art. Tae Kwon Do black belts are achievable even for children. Many might be considered the first ‘real’ belt, demonstrating the basic proficiency. You do not have to compete to achieve the Tae Kwon Do black belt, and grading is based on patterns and displays of technique.
Judo, meanwhile, has a greater focus on competitive performance. You can achieve a black belt via a technical grade, an accumulation of competition points, or a line-up.
A line-up, suffice to say, is where you display sufficient throwing skill in one grading that you can achieve the belt there and then. Two of the three methods are achieved by competitive action. As such, there is more confidence that a Judo black belt will be a proficient fighter.
They also do not mean the same thing over time. Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu places a great emphasis on competition, which is also split out by belt rank.
The result is belt inflation, where over time, people are kept in certain ranks to come out on top, which leads to a loop of better and better competitors at each level. I do not doubt that the purple belts of today could wipe the floor with the purple belts of fifty years ago.
And then there are those arts without belts. These are typically more at the ‘combat sport’ end of the spectrum and might include collegiate wrestling or Muay Thai. These rank people purely on performance, and no matter how good you get, you will not be awarded a black belt.
Black belts mean little in MMA. The skills are different, the arts with belts are in the minority, and MMA does not have a grading system (and likely never will). A black belt is a wonderful thing to achieve, but do not mistake it for fighting ability. Black belt or not, you can be an excellent or a poor fighter.
“A black belt only covers two inches of your ass. You have to cover the rest.” – Royce Gracie.