Saturday, January 03, 2009

BJ 'The Prodigy' Penn

In BJJ, 2 years per rank and 10 years from white to black belt seems to be be considered a typical course of promotion. BJ Penn earned the nickname, The Prodigy, when he progressed from white to black belt in about 5 years and won the World Championships (Mundials). Following is some cool video of Penn as a white belt beating up some judo black belts.
So now here's a question for you. Should jiu-jitsu students be required to be as good as Penn was when he got his black belt in order to get theirs? I say not every student should be expected to be able to do what 'The Prodigy' did (There's a reason they call him that). To require them to be that good just to get black belt would lead to some ridiculous rank inflation. here's what I mean...
I've heard that many military expats in the previous generation took 6-9 months in Japan or Korea to get their black belts, then they returned to the U.S. and started teaching. What if some of these guys, not wanting to look bad to their teachers, set up requirements that it should take about 2 years to get a black belt. So, the second generation actually ends up better than the first generation when they receive their black belt. Now imagine a conversation like this...
"How long did it take you to get your black belt?"
"Oh, My teacher was rough on us. It took us 2 years!"
"Well, it took us 3 years."
"I heard that fella over there makes his students practice 4 years to get their black belts! They must be really tough!"
Everyone then thinks to himself, "I guess I'd better make my students practice 5 years so we can be the toughest."
Pretty soon it takes 20 years to get shodan! How many people have heard folks bragging on internet forums, "It took me 12 years to get my shodan!" This is like making everyone suffer for someone else's great performance just so folks won't think your martial art is too easy. This is ridiculous when you consider that black belt does not represent expertise - it is just the 'first step'.
Standards are necessarily minimal standards. You don't see medical or engineering (or any) schools making each class have to be 50% better than the previous class just in order to graduate. If you did, soon there would be no graduates.


  1. Average to Cho Dan for my former accrediting body was two years. It took Sabum v. II three years. Interestingly I had to wait three years too.

    Granted I had injuries and we also had a series of unfortunate logistic events happen, too. Still, I had made it half way about 10 years prior so most of the techniques came back fast.

    Part of me still wonders if things were slowed down because it took her that long.

    Re: BJJ it seems to me that they re-defined what black belt is. I also know that some styles of karate only promote as high as fifth dan. Consequently, the time to 1st dan is much longer.

  2. In Japan, people grade much faster than foreigners think. They really don't wait long to get the BB. But a couple of things: 1. they train hard and 2. they likely do the art for a lifetime.

    In general, I think the BJJ BB scheme is too long, especially considering that throwing is not part of the equation. Ten years is way too long. I think that mainly happened because the learning process was incredibly inefficient.

    Today, with excellent and organized teachers like Roy Dean, we're going to see people move much faster in BJJ.

  3. Interesting points, Dave. I agree that the Japanese seem to train harder on average than the Americans do (but there are exceptions on both sides) but as for your second point...

    My Japanese language teacher in college, also a martial artist, told me that in Japan, martial arts are mostly a thing that folks do in grade school, perhaps into college - but they almost invariably drop out after college to get into other, more adult pursuits.

    She told us that people that continued to do martial arts throughout life were considered by much of the population to be something akin to fanatics or ruffians.

  4. I think the "10,000 hours" scheme is much better than the years unit. BJ Penn apparently trained nonstop full time in addition to being talented.

    The inflation of standards at colleges or in enterprises is generally regarded as a good thing, from an organizational point of view. One should hire people smarter than oneself. But this kind of inflation does seem a bit ridiculous. When Rickson's son as brown belt was beating elite black belts, why would they have considered him still at brown belt level? I guess, as with doctors, there are BB's and there are BB's.

  5. The rank system in BJJ is very different than the traditional Kyu/Dan system we see in Japanese arts.

    A BJJ Black Belt is not a Shodan. In BJJ, the Black Belt conforms to the common Western conception (or misconception, depending on your view) of what a Black Belt means: mastery of the art.

    The Purple Belt in BJJ tends to be more analagous to a Shodan rank in Judo. It's that middle point where you are qualified to teach, but still have quite a bit to learn.


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