So, how does it feel?

When I lived in Sao Paulo, still a lowly blue belt, my host was Black Belt Andrei Agostinho. At nights we’d walk around the block with Rossi, his pitbull. At only 5”6, Andrei still cut a formidable figure, looking every inch the jiujitsu fighter, complete with cauliflower ears, bull neck and proud posture. As we took a circuit of the neighbourhood, every single person we passed would compliment Andrei, tipping their hat, wishing him a good evening. I happened to comment “Andrei, you know everybody!”. He shrugged, and offered up the contradiction: “Everybody knows me. Everybody knows I am a black belt. You get respect.”

That’s what it meant; a black belt was somebody to hold in esteem, somebody you don’t mess with.

Each time you receive a belt, you step up another level. The competition gets that bit tougher, the expectations placed upon you that bit higher. Once you put the black belt around your waist, you’re mixing it with the very best. When you say BJJ black belt, you immediately think Andre Galvao, Saulo Ribeiro, Marcelo Garcia. The names you put on a pedestal, now they’re your peers? Probably not, but that’s your category now.

If you enter a tournament, these are the calibre of opponents you could be in with – cause for concern? Perhaps. So then what, retire from combat unless you’re certain you’re the best? It’s been known to happen. Sit back and rest on your laurels, or continue to make yourself available to face challenges and risk criticism should you be defeated?

As far as I’m concerned, the pursuit of jiu-jitsu is supposed to result in the liberation from insecurity. A jiu-jitsu fighter should differentiate something that is dangerous from something that is to be feared. Moreover, that risk should motivate us to prove and improve ourselves, as competitors, coaches and as people.

So as a competitor, you have to be A-class, so as a teacher then, should you now know every possible technique with total perfection? Does it really signify mastery of the art? That’s an overly simplistic view, childish and unproductive to boot. To me, the black belt means that you are a truly serious student of the art. Not a reward for having mastered it, but recognition for having dedicated yourself to the practice of jiu-jitsu in a truly serious fashion.

Upon receiving the belt, more than a few people said to me, “You’ve made it”. But of course, that’s assuming the goal is to reach black belt level as though it’s the end, like completing a computer game.

When Leo [Negao] put the belt around my waist, my first thought was “I’ve got to get better – I can’t make any excuses”. So now I’ve redoubled my efforts to improve my understanding and increase my knowledge. I’m ready to fight to prove myself and defend the name of jiu-jitsu. Truly, it’s more like the completion of an apprenticeship than the realisation of a goal. The real work begins now, but consequently, so do the real rewards.

As human beings we fill our lives with landmarks, dates that are otherwise arbitrary take on a cultural significance as we institute events and ceremonies, highlighting the passage into phases of life that would otherwise go unheralded as we gradually shift through our own respective journeys.

The 18th or 21st birthday for example, comes with an expectation of maturity, of adult responsibility. And on this occasion, who doesn’t find themselves posed with the question, “So, how does it feel?”

Invariably the response is, “I don’t feel any different than I did yesterday”. And you won’t, because it was only yesterday. But being 18 feels a damn sight different to being 8 years old, and your 18th birthday is an ideal time to consider the ramifications of that.

When you receive the black belt, how does it feel? Not so different from being a brown belt and three quarters, but a hell of a lot different to being a white belt.

Pete Irving

Republished with permission from

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