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This website is about Brazilian jiu jitsu (BJJ). I'm a black belt who started in 2006, teaching and training at Artemis BJJ in Bristol, UK. All content ©Can Sönmez

04 December 2009

Belt Whipping and Promotion Rituals in BJJ

Article #6, by Can Sönmez

There is a tradition in certain Brazilian jiu jitsu schools called "running the gauntlet", which occurs after you've been promoted. Normally that involves everyone else in the club taking off their belts, forming into two rows, then 'whipping' the newly graded student as they walk (or run) down the middle. Sometimes this is extended to all sorts of occasions, like birthdays: I remember when I trained at Nova Força, there was a whipping or three almost every session. Reasons ranged from somebody washing their belt through to welcoming an old student back to class.

For many, belt whipping is a team bonding exercise. It is a way for the club as a whole to celebrate your success: these are the people who have seen you sweat, bleed and struggle, overcome your limitations and reach the next level. They've twisted your limbs and choked you out, while getting mangled and strangled in return. They are your training partners and your friends, the people who offer you advice and support along with the bruises. They want to be a part of your achievement, because in a very real sense, it is their achievement too, as a team.

For others, however, belt whipping is barely removed from the macho 'male bonding' of frat-boy antics and hazing rituals. You've already been squashed, squeezed and crushed for several years to earn this privilege, and now you're expected to let everyone else beat you up with impunity. You might well think you've suffered enough, and could at least have the opportunity to prove your skill, such as by a lengthy spar against all your team mates. That is just as painful, and offers you the chance to give as good as you get.

Personally, I would rather do without belt-whipping (for a range of opinions on the topic, check out this and this). I much prefer the tradition at the Roger Gracie Academy and its affiliates, where a promotion entails a handshake and a round of applause. Alternatively, there is the method Roy Dean uses: after he has decided somebody is ready for the next belt, he asks if they would like to perform a demonstration, involving techniques and then sparring. It is an optional exercise, not a test, which has resulted in numerous beautiful videos up on YouTube, such as this fine example by Jimmy Da Silva:

Compare that to the infamous test at Godoi Jiu Jitsu (though also note there are plenty of hugs and smiles at the end):

Why is it that grown women and men will happily let others slap them around with belts, or even drop-kick them in the chest? I suppose you could equally ask why do we let people try and cut off the flow of blood to our brains: both are fairly strange, as consensual activities go.

I have noticed that there is an unusual attitude to pain in contact sports, especially martial arts. There are those who will take a perverse pleasure in suffering through an especially tough warm-up, or grin after a really intense sparring session. Surviving physical hardship becomes a matter of pride, as well as a method of team building. Everyone shares in the experience, turning something potentially unpleasant into a story to laugh about with your friends.

On the few occasions I've been present at a belt whipping, I've stood off to the side, my belt still tied around my waist. However, if for some reason I was to be the recipient, I'd probably take part. While I don't think there is anything wrong with one person sitting out, denying the whole class their tradition is a different matter (especially if it's only when I get promoted, which is naturally a very infrequent event). As ever, to each their own.

Further Reading

2013: BJJ Survey Results: BJJ Belt Promotion Practices
2012: Facebook Discussion (Jiu Jitsu Style fan page)
2012: Why the Jiu Jitsu Ironman Is the SBG Way (reddit comment thread)
2012: Belt Whipping: Why??? (The Underground)
2011: Origins of Belt Whipping? (The Underground)
2009: The Gauntlet (The Underground)
2009: Belt Promotion Method (NHBGear)
2007: New Blue Belts at 302 (EFN)

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  1. My second BJJ club, EKBJJ used to do belt whippings for every stripe, then suddenly overnight they stopped. I guess concern for unnecessary injury was the worry as the club got bigger and more professional.
    At RGA, Nick got a belt whipping when he was promoted to black. But as you say, they are rare at RGA.

    Regarding fratboy antics, I'm more concerned with martial artists who think going on a massive bender every week, booze and drugs is ok. I saw this fairly frequently in Trad MA circles, but interestingly, all my BJJ friends prefer to spend their Friday nights training. In fact all my past intructors have been practically teetotal. I do catch references to cannibis usage, just hearsay, as I don't partake myself. But I don't think it is compatible with BJJ training.
    I wonder what you thought. Caleb discussed this a few months back didn't he?

  2. Nick Brooks, or Nick G? I'd be surprised at the latter, less so at the former (as I'm not familiar with Mill Hill traditions).

    As to drugs like pot (as opposed to heroin or something like that), I see it as personal choice. If you're an adult and want to mess up your body, that's down to you. To each their own: same as with religion, if you're doing it in the privacy of your own home and aren't trying to push it on anyone else, that's fine.

    Getting together for copious drinking is something I used to do at university martial arts, a lot. That was at the Zhuan Shu Kuan club at Warwick, and incidentally is also where I first met my girlfriend, almost nine years ago.

    I tend to view that as a stage many people need to go through and get out of their system, especially if you're introverted and need some help bringing down your internal social barriers (which has certainly been true of me in the past). I'm hopefully now at the point where I've grown beyond "get blind drunk in order to have 'fun'", given I'm approaching 30 (but still a student...)

    However, it obviously isn't healthy, especially when it becomes expected. I'd say that this is a far bigger problem in the business world than martial arts. A lot of companies actively expect members of their department to go out and "celebrate success" by getting twatted at the pub.

    I guess it sort of ties into the belt whipping question, given that both drinking and "running the gauntlet" are touted as team building exercises. The most important thing in that case is making it optional, without ostracising those who choose not to take part.

  3. We do belt whippings at my club for belt promotions (not stripes, stripes are a handshake). When I first started training there, I didn't participate in whipping anyone; I hadn't put in the time yet. I wasn't, as you very aptly stated, also my achievement too.

    I was promoted to blue belt in that school, but I was whipped by the kids (I help teach the kids classes). While I got off easy, I felt like I missed out; the people who helped me and struggled with me weren't there with me. They didn't participate in the "celebration."

    Recently, our first female was promoted to blue belt. She was ceremoniously whipped -- we touched her with our belts; she wasn't whipped. She was screaming at us, "HIT ME! HIT ME! C'MON, WHAT'S THE MATTER WITH YOU GUYS? HIT ME!" We didn't and she felt left out.

    We didn't whip another recent promoted blue belt either. He'd just spent over a half-hour fighting every senior student in the school without a break. As soon as one guy got off, the next guy was right on him immediately. At the end of the session, he was already beaten -- he couldn't stand, couldn't sit, could barely see. Our instructor said, "You've had enough; we'll whip you later. You've earned your blue belt." No one, including him, felt the need to whip him with our belts because we whipped him with our bodies.

    At my old school (almost 20 years ago), our instructor (Craig Kukuk, one of BJJ's Dirty Dozen) was the opposite of ceremony. No one knew when people were promoted. He'd do it after class, before class, during class. One guy found his blue belt in the back of his truck. When he promoted me he said, "Oh. I meant to tell you. I promoted you to blue belt something like two weeks ago. My belts haven't come in yet. When they come in, I'll give you one." I don't even know how my best friend got his blue belt.

  4. Great stories, Jim: thanks for sharing!

    The question of women being present at a belt whipping, and/or active participants, is an interesting one. Does that complicate (or perhaps reveal) the 'male bonding' aspect, or is it a chance to move beyond gender stereotypes?

    There are clearly plenty of women who enjoy the experience, like Elyse. I think she may have even mentioned an all-women belt whipping in the past.

    There are also women who very much don't think highly of belt whipping. The NHBGear thread I linked features quite a few of them, with sensible arguments.

    The question of children is another worthwhile topic, which is dealt with pretty well in the EFN thread I linked.

  5. It was Nick Brooks at RGA HQ, I was not there to see it but many from MH were.

    Yes, business world wining and dining is a health hazard - its very hard not to over-indulge. I'm not really part of the 'business' scene. In my job I pretty much work on my own, albeit within a larger company. I'm not introverted but I prefer the company of my family or to go training than a random night out. But then at 40, I've been there done all that in my 20's. So yes I agree, age is a factor in lifestyle choices.

    Jimformation sounds interesting, I must check out his blog!

  6. @Jim: Great stories. Love the "oh, yeah, you were promoted 2 weeks ago" one.

    @slidey: At my school, promotion is announced by a surprise belt-whipping in the middle of a roll. Only the coach does it, though, and using your shiny new belt. (Last week, he did a double, whacking two guys with blue belts at the same time.) Then everyone else comes up for a handshake and a hug, and then vies to be the first to "break in" your new belt by wiping the mat with you. :P

    I would have been very disappointed if he hadn't done that for my blue belt. (Some promotions have been handled off the mat.) I guess part of it is, if it's the tradition at the school, then you feel left out and excluded if you don't get the same treatment as everyone else, as if it's a lesser or grudging promotion.

    @Seymour: I've noticed the same difference between TMA and BJJ. My TKD school was largely college students, which would partially explain it, but the majority of our BJJ guys are, too. Some of the them do party on Friday nights and then don't come in on Saturday, but most of them would rather train and encourage everyone else to do likewise.

  7. We don't do belt whippings at my school, but we do something along the same lines. Every time someone has a birthday, every senior belt gets to do a throw with them. It's never anything that hurts them. But they just go down the line and get thrown by all the higher belts.

    For actual belt promotions, Fabio calls them up, gives them the belt and a hand shake. If you're a white belt getting your first stripe, you usually get an embarrassing nick name that tends to follow you forever. That's one of the real initiations at our school. Once you get a crappy nickname, you're really a part of the group.

  8. I've heard the nickname thing from a number of sources, and it seems to be very common in Brazil (hence Cobrinha, Roleta, Jacare etc).

    However, I've never experienced it myself, or seen anyone referred to using a Brazilian nickname in the three years I've been training, except for one guy at RGA HQ, Xurume. Then again, he's Brazilian. ;p

  9. We four or five women that train at our school. Only one is a blue belt; the next highest is a three or four stripe white belt. The blue belt (and the white belt) are good. Having them in class, I think, helps us move beyond stereotypes. The women are neither shunned nor treated easily. They are training partners and team mates.

    My favorite story about the ladies in our school comes from listening to two kids (between 16 & 18-years-old, I'd say) lined up during "King of the Hills" training. One said, "I don't want one of the girls. I'll be embarrassed if she beats me." The other said, "I hope she beats me. Then I'll know that this stuff works!"

    At first I was cold to the belt whippings. I liked the matter-of-fact promotions from years ago. I guess it's because promotions weren't a big deal to us or our instructor back then (it was almost 20 years ago, we didn't even know what belt promotion really meant). But after not being whipped by my team mates, I feel like I've missed out; I can't say that I understand why. Maybe it's a rite of passage thing.

  10. By the way, if people want to check out Jim's BJJ blog, the link is here. Lots of great stuff in there.

    Seymour's comment reminded me I have the wrong url in my blog roll, so can update that now. :)

  11. At my school Tim just surprises you either during or after class with the belt. He would put the belt behind his back or hide inside his Gi. Then you get your hugs and handshakes.

    Never understood the gauntlet promotions. Some people take beatings, and go through the ups and downs of bjj and then get a womping via belt slaps.

    Here's a good story. Carlos Gracie Jr. When he was promoted to black belt by Helio Gracie and Rolls Gracie. Rolls looked at Carlos, then Helio and said, "I think carlos is ready for the black belt". Helio looked at Carlos and then Rolls and said, "I think so too, Carlos you can start wearing your black belt tomorrow".

    Whatever happend to that ? lol
    Im sure Carlos Jr was hugged and congratulated the next day.

    Say no to DRUGS!

  12. Junior, the way Carlos Jr. got his black belt is way old school. I love it and wish it were that way still.

    Hell, I wish there were no stripes -- after not training for a decade-and-a-half, I wondered what the stripes were. But I digress.

    As I said before, I wasn't hip to the whippings when I first saw them. I didn't participate. But when my turn came and I didn't get whipped, I felt like I missed something.

    Oh, I participate now. Sometimes the only way I can get the best of these meat-heads is when they're turtled up and a dozen of us are taking swipes at him with our belts.

    Here's what I think whipping does (at least in our school): It's the senior students way of saying "Welcome. You're one of us now." It's hard to explain.

  13. My instructor doesnt believe in stripes and he promotes when he feels your ready i think thats the best way to do it imho.

    Im sure there are other coaches who dont do stripes, i know Leo Vieira doesnt.

  14. My instructor stripes his white belts and forgets to stripe his blues and purples. There have been days, usually when a new crop of blue belts are promoted, that my instructor will slap 2 or even 3 stripes on someone's blue belt.

    By the time you're a mature blue belt you probably "get it" already. That it's not about your rank or what color your belt is or how many stripes you have; it's about what you can do on the mat. And you prove yourself to yourself and your teammates every day during live training.

    I remember years ago when my old instructor, Craig Kukuk, was starting to promote his first set of blue belts. Little-by-little, he was giving promoting.

    I was sitting next to him when another student came up and asked, "How come so-and-so is a blue belt and I'm not? I'm better than him!"

    Craig, not happy with the questions, said, "What the fuck do you need me for? If you're better than him, he's on the mat. Have at it. You don't need me."

    The other student didn't challenge the new blue belt. I wasn't surprised.

    I think of that brief exchange every time I step on the mat and every time someone is promoted.

  15. bro that is amazing!!! He really said that?
    Ihave seen kids at my school who are the same with promotion! Its great but its like you said and like what I tell the kids, worry about being great and making the instructors time super hard for him not to promote you . That's always been my aim and its worked out.

    promotion means alot to because that means Tim believes I'm good and ready to accept that next challenge so to speak. But for me it means I get to fight the upper belts in competition =D It even seems shallow to me but who wants to be king of the academy ?

  16. Oh, he said it.

    I think you're right. Promotion means that you're instructor sees that you're ready to take the next step.

    I think I'm a rare person in that I've gotten a blue belt from two different instructors. When I came back after a long absence from the sport, I didn't put my blue belt on. I started at white again. My choice.

    When I got my blue belt the first time, I didn't think anything of it. "Yeh, whatever, let's learn; let's train."

    But. I. Could. Not. Wait. to get promoted the second time around. I worked my tail off. I came to every class. I helped whenever I could. I led warm-ups. I rolled with the most senior guys in the school.

    And when it happened, I couldn't have been happier. I felt that my instructor, as you said, "believed in me."

    Now I don't want to be purple. Give it time. Purple belt is too much pressure. Just let me keep learning as a blue.

    But in the end it's not really our choice, is it? All we can do is train.

  17. bro I know how you feel for sure!

    I love bjj so much idc about belts I just love to train and compete against the very best.

  18. Great discussion here guys. Back in the Philippines with Team VPF when you get promoted you have to spar from the lowest rank up to the instructors. It's not a joke man. I remember when I got my blue belt I had to do almost 45 mins of non-stop sparring. Each one coming in fresh. Thats why when you get to see my video I was like so wasted but of course all of that goes away when you get your belt. Truly an amazing feeling.

  19. I think I'll try this at the next family reunion. We can whip all the people who had a significant event that year. I can see it now . . . Grandma just turned 85 lets run her through the gauntlet! Well, wheel her through at least! Belt whipping is just hazing in my opinion. It has no place in BJJ anymore then it does in your family.

  20. Regarding whipping, Can, it's a rite of passage. Call it male bonding, or frat boy hazing, but is a start of a new chapter with a new belt. I think y'all are over analyzing.

    I just got the crap whipped out of me for my brown belt, and I'm proud of it, and it was worth it. I'm not into S&M or anything, but it was cool.

    Afterwards, a black belt took me aside and said, look around at these people, the ones that hit you hard... you have give them a beating on the mat.

    I don't think kids should be whipped, and people shouldn't have to if they don't want to, and you can't have people going psycho, but here in Brazil, it's the way things operate. And I think it is no big deal.

    Of course, it would probably get the instructor arrested in the US / UK, etc.

  21. Congrats again on the brown, Will! :)

    Out of interest, do they whip the female BJJers in Brazil too, or just the guys? Also, is the Godoi level of nastiness common, or is that an exception even over there?

    I'd also be interested to know where the whole thing originated. I assume it was somewhere in Brazil back in the day, as I get the impression this isn't the kind of thing you'd do in Japan (but I could certainly be wrong).

  22. Can,

    I think I've seen a girl do a run around the academy, for a "faixada" or whipping, but it was more of a tap, than people throwing their weight into it.

    That Godoi video, well, I just watched it. I've never seen anything like that for a graduation. (I'm amazed at how bad their break-falls were. But that is neither here, nor there.) That looks more like being "jumped in" to a gang than a graduation.

    What I have seen: a person run once around the academy with everyone getting a swipe. But you don't have to do it, and you don't have to do any whipping, either. (In fact, if you don't want the person to smash you afterwards, it might be best to just not untie your belt.) Some places it is only the people with a higher grade than you who do the whipping, but you can invite the entire academy if you want.

    Of course, your mileage may vary depending on the academy.

    As far as Japan goes, the Sumo hierarchy is so rigid, that I think many of them would prefer a faixada than having to wash the butts of the higher ranked fighters. Or whatever it is they have to do...

    Thanks for the congrats!

  23. Oh man, at the club I train at now in Korea...they whip at every belt promotion but everyone who gets whipped does it bare skinned. The bruising is pretty shocking. Girls and older guys never get whipped. Personally I think it's a stupid practice but I am also a big fan of being its a bit of a conundrum. I think I'll record it and put it up on youtube so people can see how severe it is.

  24. I think it's super-telling that older men, women and children are excluded...I know it's not a popular opinion, but I hope this is one of those things BJJ grows beyond, because honestly, it's not jiu jitsu and is a problem with it comes to PR.