Last weekend the young BJJ phenom Mica Galvao was promoted to black belt. Mica, the son of Melqui Galvao (both unrelated to another BJJ celebrity, Andre Galvao), has been tearing up the competition scene for the past several years and is undeniably talented.
No one in their right mind would ask whether or not Mica has the talent expected of a black belt – but historically the minimum age for black belt has been 19. Does Mica’s promotion set a dangerous precedent, or does it shine light on the limitations of the current belt standards?
Talented Beyond His Years: Mica’s Successes
Before diving into the question of what age someone should be eligible to be promoted, I think it’s important to preface by stating that Mica is a phenomenal grappler. This article is not here to cast any doubt on his talent.
Mica has walked through the competition at the brown belt level and has already won two Who’s Number One matches in 2021. In June Mica took 2nd place at the EUG tournament held in Las Vegas, despite being the only brown belt in attendance amongst a sea of skilled black belts. Not content with only one major victory in June, Mica went on to win the Third Coast Grappling Grand Prix, this time taking gold against a cohort of elite grapplers.
Beyond his competition victories, Mica has released two instructionals with BJJ Fanatics, showing his willingness to contribute to the ever deepening pool of BJJ knowledge.
Do BJJ Promotions Really Have Age Limits?
According to the IBJJF, the earliest someone can be promoted to blue belt is 16 years of age. They are eligible for purple at 17, and then brown at 18. Astute readers are probably already noticing something here: Mica was promoted to brown belt before he would have been eligible according to the IBJJF.
However, it’s important to step back and ask: Who says the IBJJF gets to decide what BJJ’s standards are?
At the end of the day the IBJJF is a for profit corporation that primarily organizes competitions. The IBJJF presents themselves as though they are a governing body for the sport, but BJJ – unlike Judo – does not have a central governing authority.
The IBJJF runs high quality competitions that attract the best of the best, and as such the rules they enforce are often regarded as the standards for the sport. But it is important to recognize that their rules are only in fact the rules for their competitions. The age limits mentioned above are thus only age limits for IBJJF competitions.
The Community Response
Ultimately, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is not governed by any single organization or group. Instead, BJJ is represented by its global community of practitioners. When it comes to Mica Galvao the consensus is almost unanimous: his promotion was well deserved, and they wish him the best with his new rank.
This sort of view shouldn’t come as any real surprise. After all, Mica has been competing in and winning prestigious “black belt only” competitions despite his youth. The competition organizers recognized that denying him entry solely based on his age or rank ran counter to their implied goal of determining who the best BJJ competitor is.
The Subjective Nature of Belt Promotion in BJJ
Rank in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is a funny thing – belts are typically given out based on a coach’s feelings rather than based on objective performance. Even organizations that use belt tests rely on the coach’s judgement to determine whether a student passes or fails the test.
However, competition performance is not subjective. The rules of competition are narrowly defined and (except in those rare cases that go to ref’s decision) there is always a winner and a loser. Mica has shown time and time again that he is able to go toe-to-toe with black belts. From this perspective alone it is clear he deserves his promotion despite arbitrary time and age limits.
What the Future of Belt Promotion Looks Like
Now that Mica has shown the world that you can be a BJJ black belt at 17, what does that mean for the future? Will the sport be moving towards younger black belts like we see in other martial arts? Will there be a watering down of the rank system?
I for one am not terribly worried about this slippery slope. If, in the coming years, there are 16-year-olds who can beat black belt champions, then I would be happy to see them promoted to black belt. Although, I think the number of people who will meet this high bar are few and far between.
Most people being promoted will never have cleared out the competition at their rank, and we’ll have to settle for promotions when our coaches think we’re ready. The current age and time limits may serve as helpful guidelines – both for coaches and student expectations. But, if your performance on the mats is truly exceptional, then these arbitrary time limits are revealed to be just that: arbitrary.
Evan is nomadic brown belt, currently living in Germany. He enjoys pressure passes and tacos.