In the penultimate sentence of my discussion of how to change BJJ schools I wrote:

…as the rest of GJJ Victor did when entering the Gracie University system, I too will put on a white belt and work my way through the GJJ belt system

My story was picked up by BJJ Eastern Europe with that sentence as the main takeaway. As I blithely wrote my post about this particular twist in my personal journey, I didn’t really think about the controversy it might court or how that decision might be perceived. Naive! I think it is important to elaborate on my choice, to help diffuse any misunderstandings.

Was I Asked to Take Off My Purple Belt?

No. The decision to wear a white belt at GJJ Victor was purely my own. The instructor, John Ingallina, himself a Gracie University blue belt and Gracie Academy Certified Instructor*, respects my purple belt. He was perfectly happy for me to wear my purple belt while training in his classes and working through the Gracie University belt system.

Meg poses in Fenom Lotus ripstop pants in front of pairs of sparring BJJers
Ah, those pre-natal purple belt days…

You Demoted Yourself?!

Not in my view. The Gracie University system of Certified Training Centres (CTCs) follows its own grading scale. From a Gracie University point of view, my purple belt is respected, and it is between me and Dave Birkett, who awarded me that belt. If, however, I want to grade at a CTC, I need to do so via the set curriculum and testing measures. Sure, I could wear a purple belt in class while working through the GU curriculum. To me, that seemed disrespectful to my new instructor and training partners. So, while I level up via the Gracie University system, I’ll wear the appropriate GU belt in Gracie Combatives classes. To my mind, the GU belt is an additional belt, rather than a demotion. It does not override or overrule my purple belt under Dave Birkett. It is in addition to, rather than a replacement of.

Isn’t Demoting Yourself Disrespectful to the Instructor Who Gave You that Belt?!

Again, to my mind I have not been demoted. I have chosen to follow an additional path of promotion under the Gracie University system based on the Gracie Combatives material. That said, I have been in regular communication with Dave Birkett, my instructor back in the UK. I count Dave among my greatest friends and as an amazing martial arts mentor. I didn’t leave the UK and shut the door on the people I love and respect on the other side of the ocean! Indeed, Dave and I have been back and forth about how to continue my training here in Rochester, and he supports my decision to train at GJJ Victor, totally. He also fully supports my choice to work the GU Blue Belt programme and to wear a white belt in my Combatives classes.

Dave knows better than anyone how hard I worked for that purple belt. He was there with me, every heartbreaking step! For years I was dominated session after session, never getting a glimpse of offensive success on the bigger, stronger men I trained with. He supported me tirelessly. He supported my efforts to develop confidence in my defence, first. Then, and only then, we worked on dismantling opponents for the submissions. It took 7 years to get to that point. I could ‘play’ with whites and blues of any size and escape, reverse and claim a sub. Being able to hold my own and to get submissions on big, strong, skilful white and blue belt men, was a BIG DEAL for me. At the end of those 7 years of training every day, I had a knee op, a pregnancy and a baby. I lost a lot of skill and timing during my ‘BJJ maternity leave’ and am grateful for the 18 months I had back with Dave before moving to the USA. I have struggled immensely – as we all do on the mats – to overcome demons in order to progress physically and mentally in this art. Dave stood with me throughout and will always be by my side. Wearing a different belt to work through a specific curriculum at a different school doesn’t take away my blood sweat and tears or the bond of love and respect we forged as friends and as teacher-student.

Your Belt Should be Transferrable! ‘BJJ’ and ‘GJJ’ are the SAME!

I hear you. The distinction some draw between ‘BJJ’ and ‘GJJ’ can be divisive. For the purposes of this discussion I’ll assert that in context of the Gracie University system, ‘BJJ’ and ‘GJJ’ are not the same. CTC’s follow a very specific grading criteria as defined by the Gracie Academy. If one chooses to train at a CTC, and wishes to be promoted, one can reasonably expect to do so via the Gracie University process. Practitioners outside the Gracie University system may well have encountered the Gracie Combatives material. I know I did! The material covered in the Gracie Combatives programme is the material I learned with Dave Birkett. The belt Dave awarded me is, in fact, a ‘GJJ’ belt. As Dave wrote to me this week:

I teach Gracie Jiu Jitsu. You are a purple belt in that. You know the self defence, striking, takedowns, grappling and philosophies, but to be recognized at Gracie HQ, gotta go through their programme.

Exactly! There are a number of ‘lineages’ in our community that focus on GJJ. Likewise, there are a number of lineages and schools that marginalise or wholly dismiss the sort of material covered in Gracie Combatives. Agree or disagree, if one chooses to train at a CTC, one is following a defined curriculum and grading system rooted in a definable body of techniques and philosophies. The Gracie University system seeks to ensure accountability and consistency across CTCs through a particular system of learning and promotion. If one signs up for it, one accepts that one’s belt isn’t transferrable – respected, yes, transferrable, no – and one will need to level-up through the prescribed channels. I fully appreciate why this upsets some folk! Me? I’m cool with it.

I’m looking forward to the challenge of the Gracie Combatives tests. It is a good chance for me to refine, consolidate and build upon my previous learning. My first instructor, Dave, is proud of me for working on the Blue Belt programme and supports my journey fully. Indeed, he discovered the existence of GJJ Victor and suggested I check it out when seeking a new ‘home’. My new instructor, John, is very welcoming and keen to support my progress. I see the Gracie Combatives belts tests as new opportunities to improve and I’m down with having an additional belt to represent my progress in this particular curriculum of techniques and abilities.

The race is long, and in the end, it is only with yourself. ~Mary Schmich

In sum, for me, right here, right now, based on my options and goals for my training, changing schools means changing belts. A Gracie CTC isn’t for everybody! I am game to train at a CTC, that means I am willing to play by their rules. In solidarity with my new instructor and training partners, I want to wear the appropriate GU belt as I work through the Gracie University grading system. That works for me. My ego is cool with that. I know how far I’ve come, what I am capable of, what I know, and where I can improve. At this point in my life and training I don’t need people to know that I’ve attained a purple belt. I’ll just let my skills (or lack thereof) do the talking. The belt doesn’t make me, I make the belt.

*In addition to his GU blue belt John holds a host of martial arts/grappling credentials:

  • 4th Degree Black Belt Shingitai Jujitsu (John Saylor)
  • 3rd Degree Black Belt Tatsu Do (Soke William Cavalier)
  • 2nd Degree Black Belt Aiki Kenpo Jujustu (Hanshi Patrick McCarthy)
  • Blue Belt Gracie Jiu-Jitsu (Ryron & Rener Gracie)
  • Certified Instructor, Gracie Jiu-Jitsu (Gracie Academy, Torrance, CA)
  • Level 1 Kapap Instructor (Major Avi Nardia)