Brazilian jiu-jitsu has one of the toughest ranking systems to progress through, and each belt is a hard-earned honor and reward. With the rapid growth of no-gi BJJ and submission grappling, the question of whether you get belts in no-gi has become very common in the community. But what is the answer?
Traditionally, you must train and wear a gi to progress through the belts, but more and more people train strictly no-gi and want to climb the same progression ladder. Some schools give belts only if you train in a gi; others require you to wear the gi only for the promotion ceremony; others do not give belts to no gi practitioners; and others, like 10th Planet Jiu-Jitsu, do.
Unfortunately, this answer is not definitive or satisfying, but it reflects reality. There are a lot of opinions on the topic, and I will do my best to explain the different factors concerning no-gi belts and how they reflect competition.
What Is No GI Jiu-Jitsu?
No-gi BJJ means practitioners and competitors do not use the traditional gi or kimono, which consists of a heavy cotton jacket with a thick collar and drawstring pants held together by a colored belt. Instead, you wear a rash guard on top and suitable board-type shorts in no-gi.
But the difference between the two is much more significant than looks alone. In the gi, you can grab and manipulate your and the opponent’s gi. For example, the heavy collar is used for grips and various chokes.
In no-gi, these so-called “handles” are absent, and you can only use natural grips on the body like under hooks, wrist grabs, and others.
Another key difference between gi and no-go jiu-jitsu is the pace and dynamics of matches. In addition to the grips, which slow down the action, the gi creates a lot of friction between the players.
When they are drenched in sweat and only wearing a rash guard, holding on to limbs becomes much more difficult, and scrambles are more common, increasing the overall pace of matches drastically.
The higher speed and less friction also mean physical attributes like speed and strength become more decisive than in gi BJJ. So, while gi and no-gi are very similar, they are not the same thing, and over the years, they have grown further apart not only because of the differences I’ve outlined but also because of different rulesets.
Because of its relation to MMA, the faster pace, and the overall higher realism, no-gi grappling has seen an exponential rise over the last decade, and today it’s likely more popular than the traditional gi version.
Can You Progress With Belts in No-GI
But the important question for this article is not so much how gi and no-gi differ once the grappling starts, but if you can get belts in no-gi. After all, the belt denotes the wearer’s rank, but it’s worn only with a gi. Does this mean there are no belts in no-gi?
First, remember that BJJ does not have a singular promotion system, and things differ significantly between academies. In general, most people train both gi and no-gi, and they have belts in gi, which corresponds to their no-gi ranking. The standard procedure in most places is that you must at least wear the gi to be promoted.
Under the IBJJF, no-gi competitors are still ranked based on their gi belt color, and they must wear rash guards with at least 10% of the color matching their belt.
Things elsewhere are not so clear-cut. More and more people train only in no-gi because they prefer the style or it transfers better into MMA. Traditionally, there are no belts for no-gi-only practitioners.
Still, with the rapidly changing percentages of people training gi and no-gi, more and more gyms are also deciding to promote strictly no-go practitioners.
The BJJ ranking system offers many benefits and creates tangible goals and results, which is a great thing to have in martial arts. It may not be as important to world-class competitors, but for the regular practitioner, belts are a great marker of progress and are important for motivation.
So why, if no-gi practitioners train and compete as hard as the gi guys, do they have to be left behind and not have belt promotions? Many people believe they shouldn’t and award belts to all practitioners, regardless of whether they train in a gi.
10th Plane Jiu-jitsu has been doing this perhaps before everyone else because Eddie Bravo’s idea from the start was to create a strictly no-gi system applicable to MMA. And while practitioners there never need to wear a belt to training, they are still awarded and ranked with the same belt colors used in regular Brazilian jiu-jitsu.
Naturally, this topic can be divisive (like everything these days), and many people do not agree that no-gi practitioners should be awarded belts.
For the traditionalist, the gi and all the skills around it are a core part of the martial art, and the belt system was created to be practiced and used with a gi. According to them, a no-gi black belt may be a legitimate world-class grappler but not a true Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt.
Conversely, no-gi practitioners train and compete with the same dedication as gi guys, and not having any tangible way to show their progress makes no sense. Brazilian jiu-jitsu was created and evolved with practicality in mind, and if something works, it should be rewarded.
With all this said, you can see there is no clear answer to the question, can you get belts in no-gi. Traditionally, you couldn’t, but more and more academies use the belt system for no-gi students, so it all depends on the school and instructor.
Promotion criteria are also strictly personal to the instructor. Still, they are the same for gi and no-gi and include skill progression, time put into training, competition success, and behavior in and out of the gym.
No two distinct schools deal with promotions the same way, regardless of whether we talk about gi or not.
The International Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Federation is the largest organization sanctioning BJJ, but its main focus is still the gi. It has no-gi brackets in every competition but doesn’t hold no-gi-only events. But many others, like NAGA, Grappling Industries, and ADCC, do for all skill levels.
The big move for no-gi currently happens at the elite level, with an ever-growing list of professional events becoming mainstream. The ADCC has been the staple of submission grappling since its inception in 1998, but more and more tournaments and events are gaining popularity.
The Eddie Bravo Invitationals, Combat Jiu-Jitsu, Metamoris, and many other professional events attract a lot of eyes and athletes, and the sport has become more mainstream.
Even the UFC has branched out recently and started its own UFC Fight Pass Invitational, which is strictly no-gi submission grappling. The other huge MMA organization, One FC, also frequently holds submission grappling matches, further growing the sport’s popularity.
Aside from the more liberal rules allowing leg locks, neck cranks, and different scoring, there is another factor in which no-gi and gi differ: the divisions.
All belt levels compete against people of the same rank in the gi. But in no-gi, this is only possible in the IBJJF, where one must possess a gi belt rank in the first place.
Elsewhere, many competitors may be elite or at least very good submission grapplers but have no official belt rank. Still, the idea of dividing competitors not only by weight but also by skill level is what allows sports BJJ to be so huge.
In no-gi, competitors are divided by experience, which includes belt color if the competitors have one.
Here is what the ADCC adult skill level divisions look like:
Beginner: Less than 2 years of experience in BJJ, judo, Sambo, wrestling, etc.
Intermediate: From 2 to 4 years of experience
Advanced: More than 5 years of experience
Professional: More than 5 years of experience
And for another big organization Naga:
Novice – 6 months & under of grappling experience
Beginner – 6 months to 2 years of grappling experience
Intermediate – 2 to 5 years of grappling experience (blue belts must compete in at least Intermediate)
Expert – 5 years & over of grappling experience (purple, brown, and black belts must compete at Expert)
BJJ academies stick to tradition and award belts only to practitioners who train and compete in gi, even if they split time between gi and no-gi.
But the increasing number of people who focus solely on no-gi has created a demand for the ranking system to be adopted in this sub-style of jiu-jitsu, and many schools are now awarding belts to all practitioners regardless of their chosen sub-style.
Since there is no uniform system in the sport, the only way to learn the specific situation in your schools is to ask the instructor and abide by the rules of those who can or won’t do the promotions.