Rolling with Red Belts v. Competitive Black Belts

Over the years I’ve had the opportunity to train with a bunch of active top level competitors, as well as what I can only describe as true ‘professors’ of BJJ. A few months ago, a white belt asked me what the difference was between rolling with a coral belt vs. an active black belt competitor. In short, you’re destroyed no matter what… but the method is completely different.

It’s hard to generalise in a TRT-turtle world where masters worlds athletes often are more shredded than adults… but I’ll give that a whirl none the less.

Drowning in a paddling pool vs. being pulled out by the tide

I’ve been fortunate to roll with a couple of top end black belts (4/5th degree etc). The one that frames my overall experience is when I rolled with Paulo Mauricio Strauch. He’s a 60-odd year old guy, so his game isn’t strength based at all. His grips were ridiculous and impossible to break (if I broke them it was because he clearly let me). He was joking around whilst rolling. It felt like he was setting traps and giving me tests all the way through the roll to see if I’d ‘pass the test’ or fall into the trap. I loved every minute. I felt how deep the rabbit hole goes – not that it would make a difference but it was a very respectful/try not to spaz type roll.

*bonus detail  – after destroying me and rolling with all the other visitors, he stripped off to get changed and did it all whilst wearing a speedo underneath his Gi

By default people with these grades are older. They fall into the classic increase in knowledge as years go by, but decline in athletic ability. The ‘setting of traps’ and seeing if you are stupid enough to fall in them (rather than push you) is the common theme I’ve noticed.

Class with Gordo Brazil 2015. Top left (Kristóf Szucs – world champion), middle row (Mason Jones – cage warriors undefeated professional)

The other end of the spectrum is the ‘active destroyer’.  These are black belts (and even coloured belts) who compete almost every weekend. They often treat BJJ like a job. In essence, if you’re a mere mortal like myself, the outcome of rolling with this person is the same as an older red belt: you tap, over and over.  Over time, you realise things are different.  The traps are set all the same, but there’s no waiting for you to fall into them… it’s more a case of survive one and then another gets thrown at you.  

I’ve rolled with World and European champions, as well as top level UK sub only guys fairly frequently and the big common thing between them all is intensity and purpose. The technique will be close to perfect but they tend to execute it in explosive bursts to make it a sure thing. You’ll spot these at lower belts as well. They’ll be beating seasoned ‘hobbyist’ black belts in competition at blue belt and selectively giving competitive black belts problems by the time they become purple belts.

After an article full of analogies, here’s a final one that summarises everything:

With the red belt, I felt like I was in a paddling pool with a snorkel and he could put his hand over the snorkel hole any time he wanted. The young’uns feel like I’m swimming against the tide. Just as I feel like I’m making progress, I get whipped out further to sea and dragged under the waves more and more each time.

Bottom row –Ross Nicholls, Steve Campbell 3rd Degree black belt (my coach), Marc Berman (Marcelo Black belt)

Lee Herbert

BJJ Purple belt, hobbyist competitor and referee. I write words about grappling / BJJ as a creative outlet from my day job where my focus is on coverage of mainstream sporting, entertainment and news events