Skipping Belt Ranks

There are two threads regarding skipping ranks over on the Convocation of Combat Forum. Rather than wax on over there, I’ll wax off alone over here and then link to it. (Yikes, a Karate Kid and masturbation pun in the second sentence, this is going downhill fast). Anyway, the genesis of the debate arose when a savateuse with seven months training was promoted to white glove after her first testing at a seminar.

Personally, I don’t see the big deal. After all, belt rank (and yes, that includes savate’s glove rank), is a relatively recent practice that can be laid at Jigoro Kano’ s feet. Initiating the practice in 1883, he also initiated the first rank skipping by promoting two judo players directly to shodan (1-dan black belt). Of course, those two were very good and quickly shot through the ranks, with one later skipping 3-dan as well.

Belts generally didn’t catch on at all until the early 1900s and weren’t introduced into karate until the 1920s. The wild intermediate colors seen nowadays didn’t hit the U.S. until the 1950s. Since the 1950s, and likely well before, it has not been uncommon for immigrating instructors to self-promote themselves a couple ranks on the trip over to the U.S.

I’ve personally seen those with field promotions in judo; I knew someone who had obtained a brown belt by defeating stiff competition in a tournament. I probably outweighed the guy by 40 pounds, but he could still run a clinic on me at will. I’ve also been on the receiving end, gaining a promotion that allowed me to enter a kickboxing tournament for which I didn’t have enough rank, so maybe I’m just biased.

I would submit that competition arts where sparring is a significant aspect (whether that’s kickboxing, grappling, or anything else) are less likely to face internal dissension due to rank skipping. There is complete transparency because you know exactly how good someone is because you roll or spar with them on a regular basis. There is no hiding a lack of skill or ability.

Of course, any martial arts organization has its internal politics and it is natural that members do not want to see what they perceive as preferential treatment. In most schools it would certainly be unsettling to see someone in the same organization skip ranks when you yourself never had the same opportunity.

Trust in the instructor is the main commodity of a martial arts school and instructors should be loathe to jeopardize that trust. It is also pervasive but perhaps unavoidable that higher belt promotions (3rd degree and above) are less transparent and often a cause for silent questioning. In the smaller, more cultish insular organizations (e.g., bando in the U.S.), such perceived favoritism can negatively impact the esprit de corps of the group at large.

So, was the rank skipping that began this worthwhile discussion a big deal? Maybe, if it jeopardized the trust placed in the instructor. Seven months does seem to be a brief period, but certainly within the realm of possibility for the creation of a solid white glove. So maybe, maybe not, but without training with the under the instructor or with the folks at the club in question, there’s probably no basis to state a firm opinion. I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and give a hearty “congratulations” to all those who were promoted.