Challenging the Black Belt

At the top is my black belt.  Beneath it is my yellow belt, which in may ways is more sacred to me than the black.  Ask me about it sometime and I'll explain.

At the top is my black belt. Beneath it is my yellow belt, which is more sacred to me than the black. Ask me about it sometime and I’ll explain.

The other day this video surfaced in the Cabal Fang Martial Arts group on Facebook.  In it a guy openly challenges an instructor, stating that his black belt isn’t legit.  When told that certification can be produced, the challenger replies that, certificate or not, the instructor does not have the skills to make the black belt claim.  I viewed the video with mixed feelings.

In the end I sorted it out.  Here’s how I got there.

There are three profound reasons why a drama like the one in the video would be very unlikely to unfold in a traditional martial arts school like a Taekwondo dojang or Karate dojo.  First, traditional schools are governed by rigid rules and strict etiquette bordering on the Klingon-esque, including of course the rule that lower belts must bow to higher belts and be respectful at all times.  

All of that structure is designed to protect, perpetuate and preserve the art.  To call the black belt (or any belt for that matter) into question is to call the art into question, and that isn’t allowed.  Putting the integrity of the art above the integrity of the individual preserves the martial art and its mystique.  The master of the school may be quite critical with you one-on-one behind closed doors, and there may be a significant amount of pressure in black-belt-only training sessions, but in the open air, you are safe.  That safety breeds loyalty.  This is why, despite the incredible surge in the popularity of MMA, Taekwondo is still the most popular martial art in the world, and traditional martial arts practitioners still outnumber non-traditional ones.

Second, in traditional martial arts styles, it is understood that the black belt is not an end point but a beginning.  The black belt means only that he or she has a firm foundation in the basic concepts and has logged enough training time to begin instructing others.  Wearing the black belt is a responsibility that should be humbling, not a badge of bad-assery.  Only in the minds of the uninitiated does the black belt represent a universal and unwavering ability to kick ass.

Third, in the world of traditional martial arts, it is universally understood that you cannot wear your belt, regardless of color, into another martial arts school.  Each martial arts school, and each style, is its own ecosystem.  In some cases, if you move across the country or something, a school may allow you to transfer your belt and make a parallel move.  In the dojang where I got my black belt, the instructor used to make transfer students start over at white belt, he just let you take tests faster, say one belt test per month, until you got back to your old level.  In his view, going into a new school is like transplanting a flower to a new environment.  It needs time to adjust and bloom.

Unfortunately for the fellow in the video, whose black belt was unmercifully challenged, he was not in a traditional martial arts school.  He was on a mat in a UFC affiliated gym.  In that setting, where scoring and winning are king, and where the myth of the black belt is in full force, he could not expect to be protected by the same rules of respect and deference.  When you step to the front of the class as an instructor in the setting he chose, you better have the expertise to hold the ground you took.  He’s on his own.  Or is he?

Flashback sequence.  Fade out…

In 1989 got a black belt in Korean Karate (it was billed as Taekwondo, but in reality it was a blend of Taekwondo and Tang Soo Do).  Taught kids and adults for over ten years at YMCAs and rec centers.  Had my share of hecklers at demonstrations and big cocky white belts who wanted to give me a go.  My “black belt” held strong through it all, that is to say that nobody challenged it in the same way that it was challenged in the aforementioned video.  The MMA craze came and I held true to traditional martial arts for a long time.  Until, at a martial arts conference, I met a guy named Gary.

Gary ran an MMA school in town, and I could tell by the way he moved that he could fight.  Really fight, like people fight when money and skin are on the line.  He’s a super nice guy and we hit it off.  Instructor to instructor, I asked him if he’d take me on as a student.  Now, if you are a martial arts instructor, you know that this just isn’t done.  Instructors don’t want other instructors to steal their students or their secrets, and most instructors aren’t humble enough to ask.  But since I was unusually humble and I asked, and because Gary is unusually kind and trusting and therefore said yes, I was able to take off my black belt and enter his school as a student.

Gary did not openly challenge my black belt, but he did make me take it off.  And he did pummel me with twelve ounce boxing gloves.  He did not mention my black belt, showed me neither favor nor disdain, and let me fend for myself on the mats.  I spent six months in his gym.  It was a fantastic experience.  I was humbled and I learned a lot.  It’s one of the experiences that inspired me to widen my horizons, and that lead me to eventually found Cabal Fang (and you should note that, in Cabal Fang, there are no belts).

In essence, what happened was that I challenged my own black belt.  Every guy I wrestled at Gary’s gym “challenged” my black belt.  There were BJJ purple belts that ate me for breakfast and boxers who seemed to know what punch I was going to throw before I threw it.  Every time I dressed out I felt like a white belt.  I’m glad I had the humility to know that I needed to be schooled.

The situation that took place in the video was an unnecessary and totally avoidable confrontation, a silly and coarse interaction worthy of the Jerry Springer Show.  The entire thing could have been easily avoided if the the owner of the school had forced this fellow to start over when he came in the door, or at least done a better job of pre-screening (Gary and my old TKD master would have).  And the man who was challenged, had he been more in touch with his own abilities and more aware of his surroundings, would have known that claiming a black belt in that environment was a bad idea (I would have).

In the final analysis, I gave this video far more thought and attention than it deserved.  Now you have too.  And for that, I apologize.

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