Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Rank (part 2) by Guest Columnist Eric Smith

continued from part 1…

Expectations and Entitlement

Paying tuition or a testing fee does not entitle anyone to a promotion. Chuck Norris flunked his first black belt exam. He didn’t complain or quit, he just made corrections without complaining and continued to train smarter and harder. Where we think we are at skill wise and where are instructor’s know we are at can be very different views. Let it be a joy to your instructor to promote you when through their experience they deem you are ready. Through their expertise, they see areas that need improvement prior to promotion that we may not yet see. Make improving yourself your main priority and place it above any desire for acclaim and rewards. A black belt in any art is where you are suppose to start the ‘real’ learning. It’s like graduating high school. Many black belts quit shortly after receiving their belt because their focus was solely on achieving a piece of colored cloth.

It would be easier for our instructors to look the other way and let us pass but they care enough to make sure we are legitimate. Because of this we can wear our rank with real pride and confidence. An instructor who refuses to promote or delays promotion of a student not ready for the next level is a tribute to a great teacher that truly cares about you and the art. Don’t be mistaken to think that your instructor cares just because you are promoted regularly and are basically just required to regurgitate technique. It’s just a piece of cloth, a symbol that only has the meaning that we give it. What matters is that your instructor cares enough about the art and student that they won’t promote until you are ready. This puts pressure on instructors who want the best for their students who whine and complain like children about promotion.

Black Belt and Beyond…The Journey Just Began

Many black belts in martial arts quit training after earning their black belt. Sadly, there focus was on the belt and not truly on the art, or continuous improvement. So once these individuals achieve the black belt ranking, they have no vision or idea on where to go next. Many do not understand the difference between a black belt and a martial artist. The black belt is the starting point and were learning truly starts for the lifelong martial artist who is on a continuous quest for improvement and balance in life and the arts. I’ve witnessed Sensei Ryan Fiorenziand Sensei Tyrone Gooden progress from BJJ blue belt to black belt. They trained hard and long and continue to do so. It is shameful for any of us to use our relationship with the instructors to manipulate or pressure our way to a belt promotion thinking that our journey to black belt will or should be any less demanding or challenging then theirs.

Rewards of the Martial Arts

Martial arts training advocates for improving one’s level of patience, control and humility. These are benefits that we are supposed to derive from training over an extended period of time. Rank is just meant to be a motivator, especially for impatient Americans. Originally, white and black were the only colored belt ranks.

The kyu/dan belt system most martial artists are familiar with was created by Jigoro Kano, the founder of Kodokan Judo. Kano was an educator who knew that people respond to moderate, rather than long term goals. Thus, he divided Judo practice into stages and awarded a rank at each stage to encourage students to train. The concept took hold and today, people train with the goal of holding the next rank.

Again, while rank in general is not a bad thing, it can distract students from focusing on what is truly important. Be mindful not to get caught up in chasing belts which has nothing to do with gaining the real benefits of martial arts training. In the beginning of training, people initially want to be ‘good’ at an art but somewhere along the way they become distracted by the desire for ‘rank.’ Gaining deep knowledge, understanding and the intangible rewards of training should be the goal…a stronger, better ‘you.’ It is easy to become distracted by meaningless tangible tokens: Colored rank belts, trophies, championship belts, titles, etc. Focus more on the internal-intangible rewards/benefits of the martial arts. Don’t become distracted and fixate on the tangible tokens that are relative in nature.

Achievement and ‘Striving’

‘Good’ is the enemy of ‘Excellence’, therefore let us be mindful to pursue excellence in our training to cultivate and balance mind, body and spirit.

Apply your training to all aspects of your daily life. Anything worthwhile in having or achieving is hard to come by. If everyone had ‘it’, ‘it’ wouldn’t be worth much.

Also remember, you are not your rank and your worth as a person is not measured in your personal possessions, material wealth or status. Ask yourself these questions: Am I the best (Insert belt color) BLANK belt at my school? If not, instead of pursuing a promotion to the next level for which you may not be as ready as you think you are, focus on being your best and the best at your current rank.

Second, do you really want a rank that you do not deserve and your instructor knows that you are not completely ready for? Generally, those who are the best typically have the best attendance. One more question, are you good at your current rank or excellent at it? As you think on this, remember not to compare yourself to others.


I want to be promoted to the next level as much as anyone. However, let’s trust our instructors to guide, prepare, and promote us when they deem the time is right. Our job as student is to just train hard consistently and stay more focused on gaining the intangible rewards of martial arts training. I trust their judgment and character to have mine and your best interest at heart.

We are all fortunate to have them guide us on the path that they have traveled before us. Let’s not stress them over nonsense and something that is not a true measure of progress or skill.

Stay focused on what truly matters…developing functional skills, friendships, having the health to have fun training and being the type of person who makes others around you better.

Now go train, trust your instructor’s judgment and the rest will take care of itself! Hard training is a gift that only you can give yourself.

Respectfully; Wishing you all the best in the martial arts and life,

Eric E. Smith


In reference to rank, credentials and bio: Eric E. Smith is a legend in his own mind; The Absolute Ultimate Fighting Champion of all time and Ultimate Supreme Great Grandmaster of the Universe second only to God! Bruce Lee, Shaft, Mr. T, Rocky, Rambo, Clint Eastwood, Chuck Norris and all the other tough guys tremble at his feet. Rickson Gracie taps himself because he doesn’t want Eric to do it to him. He is the blackest of black belts and whatever number of degrees you have on your black belt, he has one more than you. Michael Jackson told him he is ‘BAD’ and Ali said Eric is the greatest. Just kidding folks!

Note from Ryan Fiorenzi:

With over 30 years of experience in the martial arts, Eric E. Smith possesses a wealth of knowledge. Mr. Smith holds the following martial art rank: 2nd degree black belt in Moo Duk Kwan, TangSoo Do under Michael Nunnally; 2nd degree black belt in Doce Pares Eskrima (Filipino Martial Art) under legendary Grandmaster Ciriaco ‘Cacoy’ Canete; 5th degree black belt in Hama Ryu Jutsu(Ju Jutsu) under Professor Walt Hartwich; Associate instructor in Jeet Kune Do/IMB curriculum under Richard Bustillo; Instructor and ‘Bulletman’ in the F.A.S.T self defense system under Bill Kipp; and authorized instructor and black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu under Professor Rigan Machado. Eric Smith is a certified National Rifle Association (NRA) instructor. Eric is an Army veteran. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in sociology and is currently finishing requirements for a master’s degree in sociology from Western Michigan University. In 2003, Mr. Smith was also honored by being inducted into the UnitedStates Martial Arts Association’s Hall of Fame as Law Enforcement Instructor of the Year representing Michigan.

I’m proud to call him my training partner and friend!

12 Responses to “Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Rank (part 2) by Guest Columnist Eric Smith”

  1. Mike Mahaffey says:

    Great follow up to the first installment, Eric!

    My karate instructor talks about how, decades ago when he first started training, he failed his first testing. Not an advanced rank test, but a white belt test! Of course he kept training, and in my estimation became one of the best karate instructors in Michigan (OK, I am a little biased).

    I have also known folks who failed dan rank tests and then quit. One friend of mine failed his 3rd dan test, for which I was on his testing board. During a subsequent backpacking trip he was processing this and mentioned “But I have beaten you in tournaments before, but you outrank me. How could I have failed?” Being his friend, it was hard for me to salvage his ego and at the same time talk about how “beating people” is not the same as being ready for a particular rank. Unfortunately he then quit training, which was a loss for our karate club and me personally as his friend and training partner.

    Anyway, I am not trying to write my own article here. Just wanted to say how insightful and inspirational I find this as I continue my own training. Thanks again!


  2. Eric P says:

    Excellent article Eric. It really had me reflecting back. There will be a lot of people that get a lot from this.



  3. Eric Smith says:

    Hi Mike,

    Thanks for the comments. I wish you would submit an article to Ryan and expand on your comments. Your comments made me think about how I deal with disappointment, mistakes, failure and how do I recover stronger and better. After reading your comments, I had to ask myself….”Did I learn the (life) lesson I was supposed to when going through whatever it is that I have to deal with?” OR do I consciously or unconsciously have to be put back in the same situation intentionally or otherwise to learn the lesson. I’m dealing with some young men on my job who keep making the same mistakes time and time again because they haven’t learned the lesson they need to move forward. They hear me but they are not listening when they ask my why certain things happen to them repeatedly.

    Best Regards,

  4. Eric Smith says:


    I hope that made sense to you.


  5. Eric Smith says:

    Hey Eric,

    From one Eric to the other, it’s always good to hear from you. I’d like to hear your thoughts on what you reflected on. I’ve learned a lot from you in the past and want to pick your brain now.

    I need some more dating advice. I swear that I am a ugly chick magnet.

    Thanks Bro,

  6. Shawn says:

    Great article Eric…

    So many things came to mind when reading this.

    First… My own journey and thoughts on my rank… There was a time about 10 years ago that I stopped caring about what my rank was. It lost it’s appeal… As long as I knew I was learning, training hard, and getting better, I became unconcerned with what color belt was around my waist… To me it only mattered to those that I was training with.

    Second… About 7 years ago I was teaching at a Karate school in Georgia that was what I call a “Belt Factory”. My time there did not last long due to the fundamental differences in how I perceived rank and testing.

    It was totally ok for students in this school to be promoted through the ranks on a very timely schedule as long as they came to “X” amount of classes and paid to test.

    When I took over as head instructor and saw that there were students that were wearing green, blue, purple, and even Black Belts that in my views were still white belts technically, mentally, spiritually and physically… I struggled maintaining my composure.

    Repeatedly I got into disagreements with the school owner due to my wanting to hold students back and really make them into Martial Artists. That was clearly not his goal and it came to my attention that he was not a Martial Artist that had integrity or quality students.

    Keep em coming… Great info for people to have…

  7. Ben Clark says:

    Hi Eric,
    I’m new to BJJ, with only about three months of experience. I train under Eric P, Jamie, and Tyrone at East West (the vast majority of time has been under Eric, though). I found this article (both parts combined) very interesting and insightful. I feel that I immediately got something out of it – you truly came up with and compiled some great wisdom here. It makes me really want to train with more focus and improve over where I am now, literally, and stop caring as much about the rank/progress of those are around me, which I have honestly been preoccupied with at times.
    Thanks for taking the time to put this together, I think this is more valuable to me right now than learning a new sweep or submission 🙂

  8. Eric Smith says:

    Hi Ben,

    Thanks for your comments. You are on the right path by training with Ryan, Tyrone, Jamie and Eric. I’m glad that you benefitted from the article. I look forward to meeting and training with you next time I’m at EWMA. Focus on the basics. While the other guys want to keep seeing new techniques and more entertainment than education…stay with the basics! They make all the other moves come quicker, easier in time. Do these things, and not only will you progress faster but you will also enjoy the journey called Jiu-Jitsu more and gain benefits from training that you never imagined.

    Wishing you the best in life and the martial arts.


  9. Ben Cantrell says:


    I really enjoyed your article. I doubt you remember, but I got partnered with you during a seminar maybe a year or two ago at East West. You showed the same humility in our interactions then as you write about in this series. I learned from you then when I was just starting out and I continue to learn from you now, thanks.

  10. Kole Rummans says:

    I can make sure to add your new website to mine list so everyone can still find you Good Luck

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