The first time I competed against a purple belt, I was about four months from receiving my blue belt. This tournament was in a tiny smoker and was open rank. There was a black belt, two blues (one of them female), one purple, a brown, and little old me. My second match was against the purple belt and I arm-barred him in under a minute. To this day, I often enter brackets higher than my belt, mostly to test myself and to increase my “stock” in jiu-jitsu. I’m a purple belt; there are white and blue belts who can submit me. I have no misconceptions about my rank, but I still love stepping up into higher brackets when allowed to.
Should lower ranks be allowed to enter higher divisions to either test themselves or avoid sandbagging?
The possible argument against lower ranks entering higher brackets is kind of complicated:
- The pressure is taken completely off of the lower ranked practitioners and placed squarely on the shoulders of the higher ranked practitioners. In tournaments where there is no cash prize, these matches are lose-lose for higher ranked practitioners because if they lose they look bad, and if they win it does nothing good for their status.
- It circumvents the belt system entirely and arguably shows disrespect to the system and to the professors of the active competitors. The argument can be made (not by me) that by competing up, competitors are either saying that their professor is deliberately holding them back or that their opponents are over ranked.
- It discourages higher belts from competing.
Belts aren’t given solely as a measure of skill. Freak athletes may be able to submit people two or even three ranks above theirs, but that doesn’t mean that they are prepared to hold that higher rank. “The Belt” means nothing on the grand scheme, even though it may mean a lot to an individual.
The truth is that competition is where the ego runs rampant in jiu-jitsu. Generally speaking, black belts make the rules, and black belts have no interest in getting tapped out by purple or brown belts in competition. If they start allowing lower belts to enter higher brackets, they may be inundated with ambitious lower belts.
Moreover, in competition energy is a precious commodity; does a higher belted practitioner really want to spend energy trying to tap out lower ranking opponents? Some of these brackets at bigger tournaments are deep — we’re talking more than 50 competitors deep — and consolidating belts could have a drastically negative affect.
On the other side of things, some practitioners have been training a lot longer than their belt indicates and that does not mean that they should necessarily be belted up. For example: I read on reddit about a blue belt world champion who had wrestled for 20 years and was an extremely high level accomplished wrestler. Coming to jiu-jitsu from that doesn’t entitle him to automatically get belted up.
There was also an instance in Europe in which a high level no-gi grappler who was a white belt in BJJ beat a well-established black belt at a NAGA event. From my understanding, this white belt hadn’t trained much BJJ but had focused on other grappling arts.
So what’s the right way to handle these situations? Should lower belts be allowed to enter higher brackets? Are the inherent issues with this enough to make it an issue?