It happened last Wednesday. Luciano was giving out extra stripes to some of the white belts. He gave a couple of white-belt teenagers their first stripe as well, to recognise their commitment. Then he said,  “and I have one belt to award”…

My blue beltAlmost two years ago, on Tuesday 30 January 2007, I walked to the Budokwai for the first time. As I passed by the millionaires’ houses in the road that leads to it, the only thing that kept me moving forward was the thought that if something terrified me this much, I had to conquer that fear or never respect myself again. I did not turn back and go home. I took the next step – and the next, and the next. I went in. I signed up, I bought a gi, and I started my first martial arts class ever.

To list the highlights and the low points of the 23-month journey to my blue belt would take a very long time. To list the people I came across, and what they have taught me and done for me, would take a lifetime. But I have to mention Luciano Cristovam, who has run the Wednesday night beginners’ class since it started in February 2007.

Not every great fighter is also an excellent teacher, but Luciano is. He knows how to explain, he knows how to encourage, and he communicates an energy that blows away beginners’ self-doubts and their frustration at being unable to learn the simplest moves. He was away for a couple of months at the beginning of this year, and we were well taught in his absence (except once); but the day Luciano came back and taught us, everyone in the class realised what we had been missing.

I’ve been going to advanced classes for a while (the rule is that you need at least two stripes on your white belt before you can) and although it’ll be sad not to see the friends I’ve made in the beginners’ class, an advanced class is more constructive and less distracting. You’re not faced any more with a manic youth in a white belt determined to prove that he’s stronger than you are. With a higher belt comes a new goal: every time you spar, you learn something or teach something – often both. There are many people in the advanced class who can wipe the mat with me any time they want, but usually they refrain from destroying me utterly, and often, at the end of it, they take some time to give me a few tips on my game. And so, of course, when I’m sparring with someone less good than me (they are rare but they exist), I try to remember to do the same for them. “In sparring there are only two outcomes. Either you win, which is good, or your friend wins, and that’s good too.”

The Roger Gracie Academy is slow to award blue belts, and I think that’s a good thing. I thought this even during those months when I felt I was already “blue-minus” but my belt wasn’t changing. To receive a blue belt is to receive acknowledgement that your probationary period is over and you’re a full member of the family. It means that you’ve made the transition from “fight to win” to “fight to learn”. As I’ve said in a previous post, getting your blue belt is like getting into university. You’re about to start learning the same things all over again, but you’ll learn them more deeply: you’ll learn why they are the way they are.

Or, to use another picture: getting your blue belt is like getting to the top of a steep hill, and looking up and seeing that there are mountains beyond it.

The worst thing is, I’m told that the same thing happens to you with every new belt, even the black!


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