Becoming a Black Belt: A Question and Answer Session with Sheldon Marr
BECOMING A BLACK BELT: A QUESTION AND ANSWER SESSION WITH SHELDON MARR
USA Grappling World Team Coach 2007-2011
Ruiz Combat Grappling (RCG): What does a black belt or any belt rank mean or
represent, and why are they important or relevant? How much of a gage is a belt
Sheldon Marr: Wow, that’s quite a question… and a hard one to answer as
well! As you know, they have belt ranks in most martial arts and/or martial
sports… but not in all of them. For example, there are belt ranks in Karate and
Jiu Jitsu, but not in Boxing and Wrestling. Therefore, having been involved in
wrestling for over 3 decades, I sometimes wonder about the importance of belt
But basically, the belt rank in the martial arts is “supposed” to signify
one’s dedication to and/or one’s mastery of the given art. Unfortunately, I feel
belt rank (especially black belt rank) doesn’t mean near as much today as it
once did. The main reason I say that is because in some martial arts (primarily
Tae Kwon Do and Karate), a little kid can earn a black belt.
RCG: What are some of the requirements for black belt and why are they
Sheldon Marr: I see schools that advertise and/or even guarantee a black belt in two years…
That’s absolutely ridiculous! First of all, you’re giving black belts to little kids who just aren’t
big or strong enough to defend themselves against an average adult man; and secondly, nobody
can “master” a martial art in only two years!
I started judo when I was 5 years old, and I didn’t receive my black belt until I was 16. That’s eleven years…
and as soon as I got my black belt, I could no longer compete in my age group division, I had to compete in
the men’s black belt division! I feel that’s the way it should be too… If you can’t” hold your own” against
(men of) equal or greater rank, you shouldn’t get promoted to that rank.
RCG: Which aspects of fighting and defense are
most important for MMA… sport grappling or street defense (and why)? Also, how
important is self defense in gaining a black belt?
Sheldon Marr: You’ve got a couple of different questions mixed in
there… First of all, sport grappling would be more important than street defense
when training for MMA because it translates much easier. In MMA there are rules
and a referee just like in sport grappling…you just add the strikes. In street
defense, you have eye gouges, groin strikes, hair pulling, etc. You also have no
rules, no referee, no time limits, no ring (or cage), and you have the use of
weapons. None of that really translates to an MMA contest.
As far as the importance of self defense in earning a black belt, that
depends on what you’re trying to earn a black belt in. I personally think a
black belt in any “martial art” should be able to explain, demonstrate and teach
a fair amount of self defense. But on the other hand, Judo and Tae Kwon Do are
Olympic sports, and Karate and Jiu Jitsu have their own sport aspect as well… So
in a way, you can’t deny an Olympic, World or even a National contender his or
her black belt if they choose to spend all of their time preparing for
competition, and not focusing on self defense. But again, if a black belt is
going to teach his or her art, I believe they should be able to teach at least
basic self defense skills.
RCG: Who were your instructors? What were
some of their accomplishments? Who were some of their other students?
Sheldon Marr: I’ve had a lot of instructors over the years. But for
Judo it was mainly my father Wally Marr, and for Wrestling it was Charlie Lee.
In the last couple of decades since I left the Olympic Training Center (OTC) and
became an Instructor and Coach myself, it’s been primarily Willy Cahill and
My father (Wally Marr) didn’t start training in Judo until he was in his 20s.
But he still fought on a few Air Force teams in the 1960s, and he was a pretty
talented competitor. Back then, if you were in the Air Force and you got your
black belt, you were expected to open a Judo school on the base that you were
stationed. So my dad started running his own school at a young age, and didn’t
compete after that. But even though he wasn’t competing himself at the time, he
did continue to train with the U.S. Air Force Team and a lot of top U.S.
competitors well into his late 30s (until he tore his knees up a couple of
My father trained a lot of U.S. Junior (age-group) State and National
Champions and place winners over the years. Then in the mid 1980s he took the
job as the Executive Director of the U.S. Judo Association, and also became one
of the coaches at the U.S. Judo Institute. There he coached a lot of National
Champions and place winners at the senior level as well. When he finally
retired, it was a real sad day for U.S. Judo!
Charlie Lee was voted “Coach of the Nation” my senior year of high school, so you know he
coached a lot of Champions. He coached many State place winners, many State
champions, etc, and he also coached a lot of National and World Freestyle and
Greco-Roman age-group Champions as well.But his son David was the one that broke
all the records… David was the first ever 3X California State Wrestling
Champion, and he had an undefeated win streak for almost 3 years (I think he
took 2nd at his first tournament his sophomore year, and then he never lost
again)! David went on to become a four-time Collegiate All-American, and an NCAA
Champion, and if he hadn’t had torn his knee up, he probably would have gone on
the Olympics as well!
Professor Willy Cahill’s students have won over 1,000 national and
international medals in Judo, so I wouldn’t even know where to start to tell you
who he’s coached. But let’s just say that not only has he been the U.S. Olympic
Judo Coach, and has had a few of his own students make the U.S. Olympic Judo
Team…But two of his students have been the U.S Olympic Judo Coach as well. Now
that’s an accomplishment!
Professor Wally Jay (The Godfather of American Jujitsu) used to run the
Island Judo and Jujitsu Club, where he also coached many State, Collegiate and
National Judo Champions. Later in his career, he chose to teach primarily
Jujitsu, and developed his own system called “Small Circle Jujitsu”. Before his
retirement a couple of years ago, Professor Jay had taught Small Circle Jujitsu
seminars in over 40 countries around the world. Again… That’s an
RCG: Who are/were your students? What
are/were some of their accomplishments?
Sheldon Marr: As a high school wrestling coach, I coached six teams
that finished in the top-four at the Colorado State Wrestling Championships. I
also coached about a dozen State Champions and another 40 or 50 State Medalists.
Of those kids, Scott Gates went on to become a 4X Collegiate All-American, and
Barry Weldon went on to become a 2X Collegiate All-American and an NCAA
Champion. Later, Scott and Barry both competed on the Grappler’s Edge Team and
both were National medalists in Jiu Jitsu.
I coached Leo White later in his career, but I really can’t take much credit
for his success, as he held almost every American record in Judo before I
started coaching him (back when we were teammates together at the OTC).
I did coach Jim Bacon for a few years at Grappler’s Edge, and he was on
several U.S. Judo Teams. He also won the Police Olympic Gold Medal in Judo, two
National titles in Jiu Jitsu, and also fought in the ADCC World
As far as MMA competitors from Grappler’s Edge, Larry Parker and Ron Waterman
have probably gone the furthest (so far). Larry fought in Pride and in Kingdom
(which was the predecessor to Pride) in Japan. He also fought at the ADCC, and
at the World Super Challenge in Kiev, Ukraine. Ron has fought in the UFC a few
times, as well as in Pride and Pancrase in Japan. Ron’s still competing today
and is doing well, but unfortunately he’s not training with us now.
As far as Submission Wrestling, Pankration and Jiu Jitsu, I’ve had a lot of
students that have won National Titles, and a lot more that have placed
nationally. Scott Marshall and my son Nick have both won five National Titles
each; Jim Wonhof and Eric Koble have both won four; Craig Pumphrey has won
three; James Dinette, Greg McGraime, John Taylor, Jim Bacon and Larry Parker all
won two; and Nobuo Yagai, Brandon Ruiz, Malcom Havens, Steve Stobaugh, Frankie
Sanchez, Mike Farmer, Casey Hopkins, Barry Weldon, David Wolf and Bert Griggs
all won one.
I’ve had five students compete in the ADCC World Championships over the years
(Jim Bacon, Larry Parker, Eric Koble, Beau Clark and Nobuo Yagai), and another
three were invited (James Dinette, Greg McGraime, Scott Marshall) that couldn’t
compete because of injuries.
RCG: Is there or should there be a minimum belt rank before someone starts teaching?
Sheldon Marr: Well, the easy answer to that is black belt. However, I
often have my brown belts run classes for me at Grappler’s Edge. On the other
hand, all of my brown belts have won National Titles (in the black belt
division), so they are all exceptional. But you know, as far as being a school
owner… I would still say that you should be a Black Belt. I guess that
just makes sense to me.
RCG: Who are you favorite athletes?
Sheldon Marr: In the 70s (when I was in high school), my favorite
athletes and/or martial artists were Muhammad Ali, Bruce Lee and Dan Gable; and
you know, not much has changed since then. They are still kind of “my heroes”,
but in the last decade, I’ve become very close friends with UFC veterans Ken
Shamrock and Keith Hackney, and Olympic Wrestling Champions Mark Schultz and
Kevin Jackson, so I’d have to say that those guys are some of my favorite
athletes as well now.
RCG: How do school’s belt and rank systems vary, and
what is yours like? How is it structured in terms of progression from rank to
Sheldon Marr: I can’t speak on any specific schools really, as there are
so many different systems out there. But I feel the Martial Arts gets a bad name
(in my opinion) because of the schools that have a bunch of different ranks
(belts and stripes) and promote their students every few months, and then charge
them a lot of money for all these promotions.
At Grappler’s Edge our belt system goes White, Yellow, Green, Purple, Brown
and Black. The Yellow Belt is fairly easy to obtain… Basically after about six
months of training, you demonstrate that you can perform all the basic
techniques, and demonstrate that you are in pretty good shape (it’s a two-hour
test), and you earn your Yellow Belt. However, Yellow Belt might be as high as
some people will ever go; because before we’ll ever ask someone to test
for the next belt, they’ll have to show that you can “hold your own” with
holders of that next higher rank!
We’re a competitive school, so we don’t want someone else’s White Belt to be
able to come into our school and mop the floors with one of our Green Belts!
Quite the opposite, we want Black Belts from other schools to come into our
school and train with our Brown Belts and think, “Why is this guy only a Brown
The fastest anyone has gone from White to Black at Grappler’s Edge is six
years, and we’ve had two guys (Mike Nuss and Jim Wonhof) do that. But Mike and
Jim were pretty good wrestlers (and very good athletes) when they started, so
they progressed faster than most would.
RCG: What is your school's training like? How do you
get your athletes ready for big fights and grappling tournaments? How do you
help them prepare for belt tests? Etc.
Sheldon Marr: We do a lot of “drill training” (like a basic wrestling practice). You know, drill your
takedowns, drill your guard passes, drill your sweeps, drill your transitions,
etc. Then we do a lot of situational drills like maybe one guy gets an arm bar,
and then when I blow the whistle it’s “full go” from there… That kind of
We always train pretty hard and our practices are pretty tough, so everyone
is dripping with sweat by the end of each practice. So getting ready for fights
and tournaments doesn’t change the structure of the practice all that much,
except we “turn up the heat” a little. You know, we make it a little more
intense to help with the conditioning, and of course we’ll train and drill
specifically for the rules of the particular event.
Grappling Crossover: Do you think that we are seeing a swing of interest
towards submission wrestling and jiu jitsu for today’s athletes? What are your
observations and possible predictions for the future of grappling and the
martial arts in general?
Sheldon Marr: I’ve noticed that the
caliber of athlete in the grappling and MMA events is becoming more and more
impressive these days. I’d go as far as saying that there are some “phenomenal
athletes” getting involved in these sports today... I’d say the days of the
“Tank Abbotts” are long gone.
I’ve been in the grappling arts myself now for over four decades. But you
really couldn’t make a living teaching only grappling during the 60s or 70s.
Everyone wanted to kick like Bruce Lee then… Nobody wanted to “wrestle”. But now
the UFC has shown the world the importance of the grappling arts, and MMA has
become very popular all over the world. I think the Mixed Martial Arts are going
to be around for a long, long time!
To contact or train with Sheldon Marr go to:
EDGE MMA & FITNESS
5305 E. Colfax Ave.
Denver, CO 80220
Contact: Sheldon Marr