The topic today dear reader is the meeting point between style and substance in martial arts, something I wrote about in my last blog and mentioned in a number of others in different ways. This theme is currently being raised again and again by numerous people and I have read an excellent piece by Robbie Butler on Facebook only today that was spot on. Robbie couched the debate around the wearing of the black belt and discussed some of the tensions and problems that exist around what wearing it actually means. He goes on to talk about all the other responsibilities like family, work, you know the little things in life. For the record Robbie I really enjoyed what you wrote and can relate to much of it, I agree with all of it.

Thanks to the irrepressible, Me Mick Tully I have just had a really good belly laugh, Mick put some good stuff on Facebook, some very funny stuff but this is his best yet. Take a look;

Well clearly one guy possessed an exuberant amount of style but unfortunately for him he came up against the hard rock of substance. The incredible acrobatic display clearly confused that poor marine who did what all good marines do, waited patiently and took the target of opportunity when it presented itself. Bang, game over, the Bolivian guy must have trained relentlessly for a very long period to be able to pull of those moves but for all his posturing he should have been on Strictly Come Dancing rather than in that arena. It is the funniest video I have seen in years.

My current rant, a mild one though, is about the meaning of a black belt, for me it has no universal meaning, it cannot as too many disparate schools, systems and styles award it as a measure of achievement. I know of many schools in my discipline where it is possible to gain a blackbelt without ever fighting anyone, no groundwork, no sparring no mulitiple attackers, no gumshield in, groin guard on lets go stuff where we learn to defend and beat a committed opponent, albeit with the necessary safety factors. Nada, none, they do nice techniques to slow feeds, nobody gets hurt, nobody fails, well we know what Master  Ken thinks of that, yes it is BS.

I have just watched a video from a Grand Masters Academy here in the UK of their black belt grading, for legal reasons I will not name it, but it is pathetic, the only thing approaching fighting was some slow non contact sparring, they never touched one another. There are lots of nice moves but nothing anyone can call combat however controlled and there at the end they appear in their nice black belts. I watched several more, all as pathetic, in my opinion. Just type black belt grading in YouTube and take a look yourself.

Last Saturday Sam Kyeremateng passed his first Dan black belt at the club where I train, Abbeydale Ju Jitsu Club. When I spoke to him on the eve of his grading he told me he had dreamed of doing this since he was about 14, he is 37 years old, it has been a long journey, Sam is married with 2 young children and is a doctor working in palliative care, he is much in demand.

Sam passed his black belt and according to all involved he will remember it forever, he just texted me his age and I quote, “Hi Garry, I’m 37 but on Sunday morning I felt like I was 87”. He had a very tough day at the office so to speak and now understands why we hold our black belt in high regard. You need to perform the syllabus techniques properly and there are lots of them, complete any revision at the end, undergo some  painful defences, your ukis hit you bare knuckle, hard, then there is the ground fighting and sparring (twice), if you pass it is an odd sensation, it is the best and worst day of your life.

Many of us have been through a similar rite of passage, those who ‘bought’ their black belts will have stopped reading this by now, they will feel inferior because they are. Why do we do it, well there will be a myriad of motivations and continua upon which we can work out why ‘we’ did it and no two reasons are likely to be the same. Let us suppose a crude measure, some of us want to learn the style of our art, the technical end of one continuum, others to prove they are tough, what we may call the substance, probably the other end of our continuum, it would look like a long line with each extreme at one end, like this.

Style—————————————————————————————————————–Substance

OK it is very crude, it is meant to be it is just to play around with ideas, a model we can measure reality against. So if you are any belt or none, let alone a black belt, place yourself on this continuum, this is a neutral exercise no one position is in reality ‘better’ than any other. In the video earlier it is starkly obvious where there is incredible style and some substance.

I guess many of you are in the middle, making a collection of the statistics, if I had the time and energy, to look like a bell curve. That would be what I would roughly expect with a small hardcore believers at either end who have little time for each other, it is for most a grey area, and, something of a moving feast. Oops, mixing my metaphors again, naughty but true as our positions cannot be fixed for all time, we move up and down the continuum and time now becomes a factor but as anyone who has studied time knows time is not linear.

What I mean, and greater minds than mine have worked this out, is that time is not a straight line nor is it even paced, that is how we measure time not experience it. Time is experienced differently by all of us, I am currently reading “A Geography of Time; The Temporal misadventures of a Social Psychologist” by Robert Levine, an interesting piece of work that looks at cultural definitions and usage of time amongst other things. We all take time for granted, our version of time, if you get into scientific explanations of time you will have your mind blown away, especially when quantum mechanics raises its head. Trust me do not go there.

Anyway back to the black belt thing and is it actually worth anything, well we, Abbeydale Ju Jitsu Club that is think ours is, it is worth £3.99 to be fair, but I jest, Sam earned his black belt over a number of years, not just the 1.5 hours he graded. He earned it through blood, toil, sweat and tears, the latter metaphorical if not actual, he went through a barrier of pain to gain his belt and I for one am looking forward to shaking his hand as he steps onto the mat wearing it for the first time. He displayed huge amounts of both style and substance in the correct order on the day, he peaked just right. Those two incorrigible twins, like Danny DeVito and Arnold Schwarzenegger in the film of that name, came together for Sam last Saturday in a meeting point that was of his own making, the time this took was measured in minutes but the journey to get there in hours. Intense periods of training, especially towards the end, with lay-offs around children being born and the demands of work, with stuttering training periods in between, no linear path here, all complicate the build up let alone the learning process and the accumulation of knowledge and the repetitions necessary to imprint those circuits on the mind. The end result for many of us is reaching that combined blend of style and substance that makes us awesome, like this guy;

Awesome guy that Black Belt Jones, setting a marker for us all. So maybe the black belt is a destination but not a fixed one, it cannot be, my destination is not yours and vice versa, we travel at different times, at different speeds for different reasons to achieve different outcomes. Maybe this is real diversity and we just have to live with the differences but we cannot, we have learned to inculcate morals and values alongside the techniques and these allow us to judge not only our achievement but the achievements, or not, of others. Freedom of speech allows us to freely discuss the relative merits of our various black belts. By the way, you want some substance, then this is the way to train hardcore with Itay Gil who recently stayed at my place whilst we put on a seminar in Sheffield, belts irrelevant, black or any other. The video features Sharir Richman with a cameo or two from Itay, this video rocks for me, whether or not it does for you will depend on your perspective and that is the result of the journey you are on.