1st Dan to 2nd Dan - 2 years
2nd Dan to 3rd Dan - 3 years
Master Dan Ranks
3rd Dan to 4th Dan - 4 years
4th Dan to 5th Dan - 5 years
Anything else above 5th Dan is usually at the discretion of the system's leaders, however a general rule of thumb is one year for every dan level being earned. More often than not, you’re talking about a time period of over 50 years in the arts after you reach black belt to reach 10th Dan (not including the time in Kyu ranks). With this being said, a 19 year old fighting in a cage couldn’t possibly be a master in the arts. But in my opinion, it does make them a very good candidate for learning a legitimate art after they retire from active fighting, due to the fact that they already have the fighting skills and know what actual combative application is all about.
There are instances, and these are the exception but must be noted, where a martial artist excels and learns different systems at a young age and become very proficient in the said art. They then go on to learn another system, and another and reach very high ranks at a young age. I personally know, and have great respect for, a few whom started at a very young age and have inherited systems, and earned every rank and title they have been given, and are very humbled by it.
But as I said, they are the exception. The average person (and even most above average) who is very knowledgeable in the arts is not ready to wear such ranks at 18 or 19. They simply haven't had the time or life experiences that it takes to understand such rank. The good and bad times shape and mold us into what we become, and it’s in going through those times that we truly find ourselves in life just as it is in the arts. I have seen numerous young masters wear very high ranks that just didn’t have the maturity to carry themselves accordingly. With them, it seems to always be who’s better than about the art. It’s always about what they have to do to get to their next rank. I ask these guys to look in the mirror. The mirror doesn't lie to you, it holds back nothing but refuses nothing. You get out of it exactly what’s put into it. Then again, I have seen young masters who have wisdom, experience and maturity beyond their years that deserve every rank and title they've been given, so it really is on an individual basis that you must judge for yourself.
But keep in mind that even Bruce Lee himself struggled with ego. When he first approached Ip Man as a young boy to learn Wing Chun, it was so that he could beat people up. Ip Man replied that he must first learn to heal people, then he will have earned the right to learn Wing Chun. Now, whether this conversation actually happened or it is simply martial arts myth, I am not sure but as an instructor, I can see something like this taking place at some point in a martial arts career.
What most don’t understand is that it’s not the belt that defines you, but it’s you that defines the belt. The color of the belt or the amount of stripes on it doesn’t make you legitimate or better than anyone else. It’s your actions and the way you carry yourself that brings legitimacy and respect. I myself choose to not put any stripes on my black belt at all. A true master can put on any color belt and still command respect by saying nothing at all, for it’s in the way he carries himself - the way he walks talks and acts that people truly respect.
Please keep in mind that as I said, rank is at the discretion of the instructor who with proper authority can issue whatever rank he sees fit at any time legitimately, so here is my personal understanding of rank. As a Kyu rank, you learn the system and all the ins and outs. After you reach black belt level, from 1st Dan to 3rd Dan you spend polishing your skills and honing your craft until you can do the techniques blindfolded over and over, so the years you spend in those belts give you the time to become a seasoned martial artist. Bear in mind that for each rank you have to endure a very physical exam that is designed to test you in every way possible, both mentally and physically.
From 4th to 6th Dan is when you start learning and getting into the mental aspect of the arts, where you start grasping the aspect of what martial arts is really all about - how to carry yourself as a master, how the actions you portray affect you and others, what true meditation does. In essence, how to act around other masters so you gain the utmost respect from them. You learn how to function as part of a brotherhood, which is what martial arts was meant to be from the beginning. This alone takes years, and I myself am still learning and growing in this part of my martial arts career. I don’t feel that I have reached my full potential in this aspect, and won’t accept a higher rank until another master thinks I am ready. As I see it, I have to look in the mirror every morning and face myself, and would not dishonor myself or my mentors that have entrusted their life’s work and knowledge in myself in order to claim a rank I have not earned. My current rank was a product of a master I respect very much, and I am humbled that he thought so highly of me. It was presented to me in front of a panel of masters at a black belt test for one of my students, with the signatures of all 12 masters on the panel. Until this very day I still wonder if I was worthy and work diligently every day to prove him right in every aspect.
This brings me to something I said in my previous article. The true martial artist lives by a code like no other, and that code is usually unspoken and has many different names. The Japanese term is Bushido or “The Way of the Warrior.” The Chinese call it Zen and there are many other terms but, whatever it’s called, the meaning is the same. They live their life with honor, respect, discipline, compassion and loyalty. You can read it in the way they walk, talk and carry themselves. They are the same inside the dojo or out. They never take time off from this code. There is no "off switch." That being said, we're all human and make mistakes. We sometimes say things we shouldn’t and do things were not proud of, but the true martial artist does everything he can to correct them.
In the end this is what martial arts is all about, not rank or Titles. It's definitely not getting in a cage and doing everything you can to make someone give up. There are two distinct rules to Martial Arts in my opinion:
#1. True martial arts is for self defense only
#2. If in doubt, refer to rule number 1