KT:What is a good black belt?

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Sep 11, 2006
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What is a good black belt?
By Rich_Hale - 05-30-2010 04:27 PM
Originally Posted at: KenpoTalk


I recently received a letter from 32 year old brown belt in Villa Alemana, Chile, who's getting ready to test for his first degree black belt. In the letter he asked me what it means to be a good black belt. I answered as best I could.

Mr. Hale,

I'm a thirty two year old law graduate, struggling to achieve my lawyer title. I don't want to go deep into personal and maybe boring issues, but since 2002, Kenpo has been a big part of my life. At this point, I&#8217;m in the art for self defense, to share, learn, and polish my flaws. In a way I use Kenpo as tool to improve myself.

On June 10th, I&#8217;m going to test for first degree black. So to make the story short, this moment has a big importance to me emotionally, spiritually etc, is hard to put it into words! (More in a foreign language)

So in your opinion, what is a good black belt? What does it mean? I ask you that because, I&#8217;m just a passionate practitioner, who loves to express himself in this art, which I think is not just a physical activity, and finally because a lot of time, effort and thought was used in the process, maybe too much.

Thanks. I hope you find some time to answer me.

Juan Alberto Castro Fernandez


Few things, in the martial arts, are more personally challenging than achieving rank. This is due, in part, to the qualifications for achieving rank being so subjective. By that I mean we all have our own opinion of what it takes to earn rank. Those opinions start formulating when we see what our upperclassmen had to do in order to achieve their rank, proceed to what we had to do and end with what we require from our students. Your question is, &#8220;What is a good black belt?&#8221; In a perfect world we would have a single standard that everyone would adhere to in order to achieve black belt, but Kenpo isn&#8217;t so finite as sports like weightlifting or running. To be in the four hundred pound bench-press club you have to bench-press four hundred pounds &#8211; period. To be in the sub four minute mile club you have to run a mile in less than four minutes &#8211; period. On the other hand, there&#8217;s no single accomplishment that will earn you a black belt. Instead earning a black belt is based a combination of skills and accomplishments that must be considered as a whole. Even when the criteria for promotion are clearly defined, there still needs to be room for individual strengths and weaknesses. For example, one person may be a great fighter, but weak in forms and fairly good in techniques. Another may be only a fair fighter, but exceptionally good at both techniques and forms. Another may be only average at all the physical elements of the art, but a scholar in regard to teaching and communicating the art to others. So who, of the above, is the real karate expert? Is it the fighter, the competitor, or the teacher?

I began my Kenpo training in 1972, at the Ed Parker&#8217;s Kenpo Karate Studio in Colton, California. My instructor was Rich Callahan and I was really looking forward to becoming a black belt. I wanted to be a black belt because I always wanted to be a karate expert. Earning my black belt would be documented proof that I was indeed an expert in karate. What a disappointment I was (to myself) when, in 1981, after being in Kenpo for nine years, I was promoted to black belt, only to discover I was so far from being an expert that I couldn&#8217;t even see expert from where I was.

Again the question begs to be asked, what does it mean to be a good black belt? Well, when I was a colored belt I judged everything on my ability as a fighter . . . which may have something to do with why I was an orange belt for the better part of four years. I guess Mr. Callahan had his own ideas of what it took to be a black belt, because the first time I clearly beat a black belt in freestyle fighting (as an orange belt) I asked Mr. Callahan if that made &#8220;me&#8221; a black belt. He said, &#8220;No, but it makes you a damn good orange belt!&#8221; I then knew there must be more to being a black belt, than being a good fighter, even if I didn&#8217;t know what it was.

Although Rich Callahan was my first Kenpo instructor, the first person to award me a black belt was AC Rainey and for a brief time, after receiving my black belt from Mr. Rainey, I really did think I was an expert. Then I clearly remember AC bringing me back to reality. I had been a black belt for about a week when AC came up to me and said he was going to attack me with a front two-hand choke and for me to defend against it. He attacked and I managed to pull of a clumsy Thrusting Wedge. He told me to do it again and that he was going to attack me a little harder. Now I&#8217;m ready and manage a slightly better technique this time. Now he calmly says he&#8217;s going to attack me more like someone out on the street and as I get ready to go full-boat, he clutches both his hands around my throat and jerks both my feet off the ground. He then whips my body through the air landing me on the floor where he gently, but authoritatively, starts tapping my head on the floor. Before AC even lets go, I was untying my shiny new black belt and offering it back to him. To that he says, &#8220;No, you&#8217;re a black belt, but you need to know that you still have a lot to learn.&#8221;

To fill in a little more of my personal Kenpo history, I studied with Rich, in California, from 1972 to 1975 where I topped out at purple belt. My blue, green and brown belts were &#8220;fighting belts&#8221;. Fighting belts were belts you were allowed to wear, but they didn&#8217;t come with a certificate. The reason for this is many of us, who got into karate back then, only cared about fighting; the belts didn&#8217;t really mean anything to us. But it was unfair to go to tournaments, or visit other schools (especially on fight night) as an orange belt &#8211; when you&#8217;ve been one for four years. So it was fairly common to have one belt that represented your fighting ability and another that represented your actual (accredited) rank.

In late 1975, I decided to move, from California, back to my home town of Anchorage, Alaska. One of my classmates, Roger Thomas, was ready for some adventure, so he quit his job and moved to Alaska as well. Once we found jobs and places to live, we opened the Alaska Martial Arts Center. At the time I was a fighting brown belt and Roger was a legitimate brown belt &#8211; both under Rich Callahan. Now living 3500 miles from our instructor, and feeling a bit lost, I decided to go directly to the source and contacted Mr. Parker for advice. I had never met Mr. Parker, but somehow decided to just call him up and introduce myself. I told him my teacher was Rich Callahan and that my buddy and I were now teaching &#8220;Ed Parker&#8217;s Kenpo&#8221; in Anchorage, Alaska. I also confided that we were a bit lost and looking for advice on how to proceed. He told me to get on an airplane and come see him. I did so and before I knew it I was a (part time) student of Mr. Parker&#8217;s.

About a year after I started taking trips back to California to study with Mr. Parker was when AC Rainey joined our school and became our head instructor. In 1981 AC awarded Roger and me black belts. At the same time Mr. Parker said he wanted to recognize me as a black belt in the International Kenpo Karate Association and awarded me a black belt as well. Mr. Parker gave me the small IKKA certificate, by the way, and said when I reached his new standard for black belt he would award me his, newly designed, large IKKA certificate. On October 27, 1983, at his Santa Monica, CA studio, Mr. Parker awarded me my second degree black belt, on the large certificate. A couple of weeks later on November 2, 1983 Rich Callahan (finally) awarded me a first degree black belt under him. Since that time Rich Callahan has also awarded me my second, third and fourth degrees.

My fifth degree black belt came from Mohamad Tabatabai and Frank Trejo after thirteen years as a fourth. Had Mohamad not insisted I take fifth, I would still be a fourth today. You see, Mohamad is more than just a close friend and brother in the art of Kenpo; he&#8217;s also one of the best Kenpo men on the planet, so when he offered me fifth, I had to consider it. Yet, I still found myself extremely challenged by the idea of moving past fourth. Understanding my reluctance, Mohamad simply said to be at his school on a certain date, there was going to be a promotion ceremony and I was going to fifth. When I continued to express my concerns, he politely listened for a few minutes and then told me to be there around 1 o&#8217;clock and went about his business. Honestly, this was the toughest belt opportunity I&#8217;ve ever accepted. It had taken me a dozen years to become comfortable as a fourth and to leave that comfy little belt behind and move on to fifth as daunting.

In April of 2010, thirty eight-years after I started my Kenpo journey, I was promoted to seventh degree black belt by Tony Martinez Sr. Noticeably missing is my sixth, which I never received from anyone. Instead, Tony promoted me directly from fifth to seventh. Not only did Mr. Martinez promote me, but he gave me the belt he had worn during his time as a fifth, sixth and seventh degree black belt himself. In my opinion, there&#8217;s just no greater honor, in the martial arts, than to receive a belt such as this. Mr. Martinez had received his first degree black, from Mr. Parker, in 1965 after winning the brown belt fighting division of the 1965 International Karate Championships. Altogether, Mr. Martinez has been actively and continually involved in Kenpo for more than fifty years. To receive my seventh from him was a great honor . . . only there I was, now thirty-eight years into Kenpo and I still didn&#8217;t see myself as a karate expert. Not that I&#8217;m complaining; those first thirty-eight years had been awesome experience with every year better than the last . . . only I really did want to be a karate expert someday. Only now I was a seventh degree black belt who was trying to grow into his fist degree black belt and still didn&#8217;t know what it meant to be a real karate expert. I guess I finally had to accept a simple fact - the day of becoming a karate expert, which had been my goal for the last thirty eight years, may never actually come at all.

So Juan, now that you&#8217;ve heard my own story; knowing that I&#8217;ve struggled with every belt I&#8217;ve ever been awarded, and not once having received a belt I felt qualified to wear, that I&#8217;m the right person to ask this question? If anything maybe it&#8217;ll make you feel a little better just knowing you&#8217;re not alone with the question. But honestly my friend, even if I had the answer, I&#8217;d never share it with you. I wouldn&#8217;t share it with you, because it&#8217;s been in not knowing what a good black belt is, that&#8217;s kept me trying to achieve it.

What I&#8217;ve settled on is this: When looking at an opportunity to be promoted ask yourself one question: Do I respect the person who&#8217;s offering to promote me and do I respect their judgment. If the answer is yes, accept the rank, move forward and keep working.

A handful of men have put their signature on various certificates stating that I&#8217;m qualified to wear a black belt. I have great respect for each of these men. If I didn&#8217;t, I would never have accepted the rank. And because I respect these men, I&#8217;ll continue to study and continue to train. I may never feel truly qualified to wear any given rank, but I&#8217;ll never quit trying to earn it.

In closing, I honestly hope you never find the answer to your question, but I most sincerely hope you never quit searching for it.

With respect,

Rich Hale


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