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Do You Need to Pay for Jiu-Jitsu Promotions?

A question that comes up in many BJJ circles, especially within the last few years: should you have to pay...

A question that comes up in many BJJ circles, especially within the last few years: should you have to pay for your belt promotions? To many, that answer is a resounding “No” - and we in the XMARTIAL family strongly agree. Unlike most other martial arts that have a belt ranking system, most academies don’t hold tests and give the student a belt by surprise, once he earned it by “pouring his blood, sweat and tears” on the mats.

This idea supports the fact that most individuals spend hours a week at the gym, pay their monthly dues and bring everything to the mat every time they train. This demonstration of time and skill should typically be enough to warrant the promotion with no need to pay extra money. 

An especially unfortunate occurrence is “surprise promotion fees”. A stroll down any BJJ social media group, you’ll see at least one individual asking if anyone else has been hit with a surprise “promotion fee” on their gym bill, typically running from $100 to $200. This itself is usually seen as a very shady practice, especially if the individual was not aware of the fee beforehand. 

Paying for tests is strongly identified as a McDojo attribute, and you can even find BJJ academies that make students pay an exorbitant amount of money for their belt promotions, and some that even have the nerve to charge for stripes. But you might know that most Japanese martial arts including Judo have paid promotions. Are they all phonies? Is it all one big scam to milk as much profits from the students? We’d like to discuss in this article when it’s okay to pay for belt promotions - and if it even has a space in BJJ culture. And also, when it’s a definite warning sign which you shouldn’t ignore, and rethink your whole membership.

But first let’s try to establish why this tradition started, and what has become of it. In Japan, teachers and other authority figures are held very highly, gift giving as a form of gratification is normal. For instance, to this day, upon signing a contract of lease, the lessees are giving a mandatory gift of money to the lessor as a sign of appreciation. Also, in the past, paying for belt promotions was a way to support the organization you affiliated with, and it was expected from practitioners. 

This support was expected from overseas schools of Japanese martial arts, and the foreign Senseis still needed to support the headquarters, and also to pay and deal with the paperwork involved, especially back in the day before the internet. In Judo for instance, it’s a common thing to use the belt promotion pay for buying one’s new belt, the certification cost (in the national and international organization), and exam costs (as you need to call teachers from other clubs as testers), and in many cases the test is held in after class time, or not on class at all.

However, you do see a lot of McDojos, and small organizations, that produce belts in a factory production line manner. There is no sparring, no focus on personal development, but only producing, and charging extra money for any belt promotion they do.  

The circumstance under which it’s okay to pay for your BJJ promotions:

  • Your promotion charge is to cover related expenses - like your Jiu-Jitsu belt or any Jiu, a celebration for the new belt receivers, and if there are necessary guest testers - to pay for their travel too.
  • Your gym holds tests, and the test was held in a seminar to celebrate the occasion, and it is part of the academy’s tradition to hold the tests then. However, you’re not forced to take the test on this date, and no pressure is applied on you.
  • Your academy holds tests, and the test was held on time other than the normal class time. Therefore, your coach and other people work overtime to get you certified.

When is it wrong to pay for your Jiu-Jitsu belt promotion?

  • There’s no test - if there’s no test, there’s no reason you should pay for a test, or a charge higher than your belt cost.
  • You’re being asked to pay for stripes on your belt - this is pure greed. You already established yourself on the mat, you tap higher belts frequently, and you pretty much dominate your peers. What can justify asking you to pay for putting a piece of duct tape on your belt to validate your skill level?
  • When you feel pressured to take paid tests, it seems to you that your teacher is pushing most students to test for a higher level.  

There might be more reasons, but we find these to be the main ones. However, we’d like to argue that the main reason individuals disagree with the practice of paying for promotions, is that it misrepresents the idea of what a promotion is about. To many, a promotion is a sign that they themselves as a practitioner have put in the time and effort to earn their next stripe or belt. The idea of “paying for a promotion” allows belts to be discredited because it may seem like the gym is promoting for monetary reasons as opposed to the quality of the students' skill which can even lead to the term “mcdojo” to be thrown around.

It’s hard not to agree with that, unless there’s a minimal charge to cover for the mentioned above. In some arts it makes perfect sense to hold a test and charge extra for it. The spirit of BJJ is rather different from other martial arts. The focus is not on a big organization affiliation, but on specific teachers and academies. BJJ is not about memorizing techniques and setting a uniform standard based on form and curriculum. It’s about personal growth, and developing a personal style, and constantly checking yourself against opponents - on a daily basis. The culture of BJJ is about earning your status, rather than paying for your status by money or attendance.

BJJ is an art that congratulates change and additions, and doesn’t freeze and stagnants. We’re not an authority on that matter, but if most of the big names in the game don’t charge for belts, and promote with no test, on the account of one’s individual meeting his teachers standard, how can we not side with them.

When you watch a UFC champion like Israel Adesanya tearing up in his surprise BJJ purple belt promotion by Jiu-Jitsu legend Andre Galvao, you can understand the sentiment we hold for the living tradition of earning your belt by hard work.

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