On Tuesday Robert Degle was promoted to black belt – making him one of the newest members of an extremely small number of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu black belts in the world. Degle’s list of tournament successes at brown belt is staggering to behold and with his promotion brown belts everywhere can finally breathe a sigh of relief.
Well, unfortunately, it seems that black belts who compete with the International Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Federation (IBJJF) will also get to rest a bit easier as the IBJJF has declared that Degle spent insufficient time at brown belt to be eligible to compete at black belt. Today we’ll look briefly at the SNAFU that Degle is facing and talk bluntly about what the IBJJF contributes to the sport we love so much.
Who’s Degle anyway?
Robert Degle is a Renzo Gracie black belt who received his promotion at Odyssey BJJ in Atlanta from the venerable Brandon Bennett, himself a Renzo black belt. Degle has over 129 competition victories with only 15 losses – and an astronomical 118 of those wins came by way of submission. Degle has taught seminars around the world and is well known as a leg-lock wizard.
To doubt his skill is simply silly, and his promotion was amply deserved.
If he’s got the skill, what’s the problem?
BJJ is a practical sport: if it works it works. This meritocratic approach extends beyond technique into belts: if you have the skills you deserve to be promoted. There are numerous examples of famous BJJ black belts receiving their black belt in under 4 years – including BJ Penn and Richie ‘Boogeyman’ Martinez.
In fact, there is a sizable and steadily growing list of BJJ black belts who have worked exceptionally hard to earn their rank in a short period of time. However, the IBJJF has its own views on the matter, preferring members to progress through the ranks more slowly. Brown belts, for example, must remain at that rank for 1 year.
In addition to holding your rank for a year the IBJJF also has age limits in place which are showing themselves to be outdated, as with Mica Galvao’s recent promotion to black belt.
Robert Degle’s brown belt registration is less than 3 months old, meaning he’ll need to wait another 9 months before he is eligible to compete as a black belt. And, just to make things worse, he is unable to compete as a brown belt since the IBJJF acknowledges that he has been promoted to black belt. In short: he can’t compete in the IBJJF until his time has been served.
The problem isn’t time, it’s money
The IBJJF’s argument about time is problematic – as the year they are citing is not in fact time spent at rank. It seems that the IBJJF is only counting the time he spent as a dues paying member of the IBJJF. If time spent at a rank was the only issue at stake then all of this would be a moot point and Degle’s promotion wouldn’t be contentious! Degle reports that he was promoted to brown belt in January 2020, making his August 2021 promotion well within the required time period.
Instead, the problem is simple: the IBJJF wants to encourage people to become dues paying members of their
racket organization as soon as they are a promoted. Since you have to renew your membership annually and you must be at brown belt for at least 1 year, you must renew your membership at least once before you can be eligible for black belt.
The IBJJF being operated in a for-profit fashion shouldn’t come as any surprise, after all they are a for-profit organization. Despite presenting themselves as the governing body of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu the IBJJF is just a company that runs competitions. Admittedly, they run a tight ship in these competitions, and that professionalism means that elite grapplers are often in attendance.
However, their competitions are highly regarded because of the elite grapplers who attend them, rather than something inherently special about the IBJJF.
An unclear path forward
The IBJJF doesn’t show any sign of changing their ways and this is not their first financially motivated decision they’ve made that has negatively impacted the BJJ community. They are undeniably deaf to public outcry – probably because it hasn’t hit them where it hurts: their wallet.
Ultimately, Robert Degle’s story casts into sharp relief the problem with boycotting the IBJJF: there aren’t enough viable alternatives. Grappling Industries runs competitions around the world, but without the best of the best seeking them out its hard to say that winning one of their tournaments makes you the “best in the world.”
ADCC offers less than half the number of the competitions that the IBJJF offers – they have 7 upcoming tournaments around the world for the remainder of 2021. The IBJJF by contrast has 17 events listed for the coming months.
So, what should we as the BJJ community do?
Personally, I feel that the IBJJF’s overreach has shown how out of touch they are. Worse than that is they are out of touch and yet their decisions are somehow law. We empower them by playing by their rules, whether those be what ranks heel hooks are allowed or how long someone must be “at rank” in order to be promoted.
I’m in an easy position: I don’t enjoy competing and don’t have any plans to do so in the near future. This makes it easy for me to say: “I’m not going to compete with the IBJJF.” It also makes it harder for me to suggest to you that you should do the same, but I’m going to do so anyway.
This is our sport and collectively we make it what it is. The community and camaraderie aren’t built on monthly fees but are built on individual relationships. If you find the idea of the IBJJF being able to tell you that you can’t compete unless you have been quite literally paying your dues repugnant, then consider that the next time you sign up for a competition.
Evan is nomadic brown belt, currently living in Mexico. He enjoys pressure passes and tacos.