Martial Arts America, Chapter Twelve

Martial Arts America, Book Cover



Capital 'C' learly, unquestioned adherence to Eastern training methods and practices poses many problems for the Western martial art student. In fairness, though, not all of the problems spring from our arts' Asian roots. For example, in discussing the value of tradition in Chapter Five, I pointed out how, in the absence of positive character-building traditions, culturally Western martial arts developed some very negative character traits of their own. Also, it should be clear from the discussion of sport karate in Chapter 8, that Western individualism in general and American competitiveness in particular are the major reasons why American sport fighters look down on those who do not likewise enter the arena. Before concluding this book, allow me to take a more light-hearted approach to another decidedly American martial art problem: namely – commercialism, and its impact on the coveted black belt.

  Mon Key Dung's Ad

In the four years from 1992 through 1995, Yellow Pages martial art listings in our area have jumped from 98 to 136. This 39 percent increase means that competition for students is stiff. In an effort to increase market share, many instructors resort to what has become an annual event in one-upmanship. The spectacle begins early in November and occurs concurrently in communities across the country. If past performances are any indicator, then this year's show promises to be as sensational as ever. Yes, sports fans, coming soon to homes everywhere: the annual Yellow Pages promotions.

Leafing through the recent telephone record and searching the nearly 140 different martial art schools and organizations currently listed in our area, I found no less than one tenth-degree black belt, two ninth-degrees, four eighths, five sevenths, two sixths, and two fifths. (About the only thing missing was ". . . and a partridge in a pear tree".) There are also numerous Masters, Grandmasters, Grand Masters (they're really grand), and the occasional Professor. With so many masters and grandmasters around, some now opt for combination titles like Chief Grand Master, Master-Teacher, and Master Shihan. (If shihan means "master teacher," does master shihan mean "master-master teacher?") Further dividing the master category are American Masters, Certified Masters, and one apparently ultimate, The Master. (Combining these titles is amusing, if not accurate: "THE Certifiable American Master.") All of these with the usual assortment of World Famous and World Champions (small world, huh?). I'll bet you didn't know that our community was so rich in martial talent, now did you?

But, there was one blight on those bright yellow pages. Amongst all of these highly credentialed luminaries was one advertisement that had the bare-faced, unmitigated gall to boldly proclaim its chief instructor's rank as a . . . third degree black belt! "Unbelievable," some might say. "This guy says he has trained for nearly thirty years, and yet he is still only a third degree black belt? The guy down the street [just about any street] has been in the martial arts for just ten years, and he is already several degrees above this fellow. What gives?"

In fairness, some of the titles listed in the Yellow Pages are legitimate. For example, in some Korean arts, those holding sixth degree black belts and higher are permitted to use the title of "master." Those with an eighth dan and higher may use the title "grandmaster." It must be pointed out that, as one writer noted, grandmaster (as used here) means, for example, a grandmaster in tae kwon do, and not the grandmaster of tae kwon do. That aside, there are still too many self-promotions in the arts (only the self-promoted need write to complain).

Anyway, being an area resident since 1964, I have had ample opportunity to follow these annual promotions, and I find it amazing how fast some of these individuals move up in rank. Oh, I'm sure that everyone listed in the phone book can produce a certificate backing up their claimed rank, but too many certificates are, like many of today's black belts, less than what they imply.


How Much is that Black Belt
in the Window?

There are many reasons for this situation, but the upshot of it is a cheapening of the coveted black belt. A black belt, today, simply doesn't mean what it used to. It used to be that even a first degree black belt certificate represented somewhere between seven and ten years of hard work. Now, some schools advertise that you can receive a black belt in two or three years; eighteen months by mail-order. Walk into many commercial martial art schools today and you are pressured to sign up for the "Black Belt" program. Pay X-number-of-dollars (make that XXXX-dollars), and in less time than it takes to earn a college degree, you can have your very own black belt.
"In no time at all you'll have
your very own black belt."
I am not faulting anyone for wanting to make a decent living teaching martial arts. I am, however, faulting those who flatly and flagrantly "sell" belts. No wonder so many martial artists – even experienced martial artists – now claim ridiculously high ranks and bloated titles. After giving away or selling black belts to every Tom, Dick, and Harry, about the only way instructors can distinguish themselves from their students is to claim rank that is beyond their own progeny.
It's time for another stripe.
"Yup, it's time for another stripe."
Where will it end? Supreme Grandmaster? Ultimate Grandmaster? Great Supreme Ultimate Grandmaster? Sadly, even the late kenpo master William Chow fell prey to this ugly monster. In the second edition of Who's Who in American Martial Arts, published in 1985, Chow's rank is listed as fifteenth degree black belt. If anyone deserved recognition for his skill in the martial arts, he certainly did; but his titles of Professor, Grandmaster, and fifteenth degree black belt came about precisely because belts had become so cheap that even his credentials had to be pumped up to be recognized.

The pressure to make everyone equal in our society has also contributed to the erosion of the coveted black belt. Today we are told that everyone can be a black belt – regardless of age or physical ability. The truth is, however, that not everyone can become a black belt – not in the original sense of the rank. There are a variety of mental and physical conditions that prohibit many from reaching expert level, and in case anyone forgot, black belt is supposed to mean expert.1 For example, karate is defined as "an Oriental art of self-defense in which an attacker is disabled by crippling kicks and punches." In reality, an 8-year-old black belt is incapable of delivering such blows. Moreover, the requirement to kick effectively is a barrier to one confined to a wheelchair. Proficiency in other areas of the art may well be within reach of one so impaired, but black belt level is very likely not.2

I am not saying that a black belt is based solely on physical skill; it is not. Black belt rank stands for much, much more than just the ability to kick and punch. A black belt, even a first degree black belt, must possess more than technical proficiency. He must also possess a maturity greatly exceeding his skill (boy, that disqualifies a lot of us on the spot). A black belt must also have an understanding of the principles employed in his art and be able to pass that knowledge, skill, leadership, and maturity on to others in a precise, clear, and systematic manner. All of these things are what make a "black belt," a black belt.

Excess Baggage
But, back for a moment to our highly credentialed luminaries. You really have to feel sorry for them. Think of it: they have so much excess baggage to carry around. How can they, for example, possibly learn from anyone? After all, hasn't a ninth or tenth degree grandmaster just about learned it all? How can he possibly learn from anyone of lesser rank? By the way, when was the last time you saw some high-ranking "master" actually do something – that is, aside from taking bows in class? (I'm not talking about those who are in their latter-years and who have already paid their dues; I'm talking about those still young enough to study and train.) It seems that once we take to being called "master," we cease to train because it may prove embarrassingly tough to live up to our inflated credentials.

Case in point
A friend of mine has a small school. A couple of years ago a high-ranking black belt from out of state visited his school and, after watching the class for a while, asked if he could spar. My friend agreed, thinking "What do I have to lose?" If he lost the match, he reasoned, so what; he was only a low-ranking black belt and losing to such a high-ranking instructor is no disgrace. On the other hand, if he did well, then so much the better. For him, it really was a win-win situation.

The high-ranking guest's situation was another matter. After he had proudly announced his rank to my friend, his request to spar instantly became, for him, a "no-winner." If he defeated my friend, so what; my friend was only a low-ranking black belt. If, on the other hand, he lost – he would also lose face.

Master rank is heavy

The master did, in fact, lose. During the contest my friend was relaxed and generally having a good time. After the match, his students commented on the visiting "master's" obvious frustration and anger over his inability to best their lowly instructor. It amazes me just how heavy excess baggage can be.


How Much is Pride Worth?

Say what you like, but I respect this "third degree black belt" with the (now) nearly thirty years of martial art experience. He received his rank the hard way – he earned it. He studied under a hard teacher who had high standards, and a third degree black belt from his instructor really means something. This third degree black belt may never get another degree, but he will continue to learn. His rank – or the lack of it – will never be a hindrance to his growth and, as long as he studies, trains, and grows, he will continue to have an art that is alive, vibrant, and of real value – not in terms of dollars perhaps; but in pride.

When I think of masters, a few individuals come to mind. But when they are asked what rank or degree they have, most of them simply reply, "student." Their credentials are often little more than remarks like, "I study with so-and-so right now," (usually someone most of us have never heard of) and "I studied with him (another little known) for so-many years." What should impress us are not ranks and titles, but the fact that real masters are ever students of the art. After decades in the art, these teachers still seek to learn. Teachers like that have no need to proclaim their greatness; their skills do it for them.

A highly respected practitioner and teacher in Denver's martial art community, third degree black belt Hale Hilsabeck is living proof that black belt rank is no indicator of knowledge, skill, or quality of instruction. It may, however, be a far better indicator of character.


  1. According to the 1995 American Heritage Dictionary, the first definition of a "black belt" is "the rank of expert in a martial art such as judo or karate" [emphasis added].
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  2. The inability to meet basic physical requirements also prevents many from becoming police officers, fire fighters, and members of the armed forces.
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If interested, check out an article written some 7 years after this book: Black Belt: What Is It?.
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Last update:  Aug. 6, 2016
by Bob Orlando
Web Site of Bob Orlando: Instructor in Kuntao-Silat (Chinese kuntao and Dutch-Indonesian pukulan pentjak silat), author of two popular martial art books: "Indonesian Fighting Fundamentals" and "Martial Arts America: A Western Approach to Eastern Arts"; and producer of four martial art videos: Fighting Arts of Indonesia, Reflex Action, Fighting Footwork of Kuntao and Silat, Fighting Forms of Kuntao-Silat. Offering practical martial arts instruction to adults living in and throughout the Denver metropolitan area including, Lakewood, Littleton, Morrison, and Golden Colorado.