In the last few decades, the coveted black belt has become a revered title and rank among martial artists and non-martial artists alike. Even though this is true in the United States, some countries place much less importance on earning a black belt as it is considered the beginning of training, not the end goal. There are countless more that don't use a formal ranking system at all, but rather go by the number of wins an athlete achieves in their sport. With all these conflicting ways of thinking, does rank/title even matter? Are belt ranks/titles even considered traditional? Should martial arts practitioners refer to themselves by their titles or discard them? Should we get rid of the belt ranking systems altogether?
Many in the martial arts world place no value in titles or rankings and even put down others that choose to use them. To be honest, there is some validity to this viewpoint, minus the part about tearing others down of course. Tearing others down does not make anyone look good. As for the other side of this viewpoint, there is validity in using a ranking system and titles as well. If one were to look at this through unbiased eyes, one would quickly notice that both sides are correct depending on the needs and viewpoint of the practitioner. Does ranking matter whether it is a fight record, belt progression, or both?
The truth is that ranking DOES matter for the following:
If there is a need to compare yourself to others such as in a sporting situation. No promoter wants completely uneven athletes competing against each other. This leads to injured athletes and bored spectators. Combat sports are not like baseball for instance. In baseball, you could theoretically take a high school team and have them play a game against college players. Obviously, the college team would win, but the high school athletes would still have a reasonable expectation of safety during the baseball game. When it comes to martial arts, you must be at a comparable level to your competition, or your risk of injury greatly increases. It would be irresponsible to put the athletes through a meat grinder and lose all of them to injury.
If you are a martial arts school owner and need to organize your students according to skill level. Especially in larger schools, being able to easily identify and separate by skill level is critical. Good martial arts instructors teach appropriate techniques to appropriate skill levels. Failing to match the lessons to the correct students is a waste of everyone's time and leads to losing students.
Students need clearly defined goals. Having a belt progression that is clearly defined greatly reduces wasted training time. It does a student no good to work on advanced techniques if they have never even learned the basics that the advanced moves are based on. The attributes, knowledge, and skill will simply not be there. It is much better to work on the appropriate moves that build a great foundation first. Of course, this can be accomplished without a ranking system such as belts, but there is more to it than that. Acquiring ranking does an incredible thing to a person's self-belief. Good fighters believe in themselves, and the more any athlete believes in themselves, the better they perform.
The truth is that ranking DOES NOT matter for the following:
If a martial artist must use their techniques to protect themselves. No one can hide behind their rank or title when they are being attacked by a bad guy. The only thing that exists in sparring or self-defense is what works and what doesn't. Absolute truth shows itself when the violence is real. Either you are a good enough fighter, or you are not.
If you are a martial arts hobbyist and you simply do not care about anything but the love of the art, you have chosen. Even though the benefit of achieving rank can give one a good measure of their personal growth, this is simply not a sentiment shared by everyone.
If your only training goal is to improve your health and fitness. Some people take certain arts for their therapeutic properties or even as stress management. Many use martial arts to improve their mobility, deal with pain, and even rehab for old injuries.
As with most debates in the martial arts world, both sides usually have valid points. All martial artists should learn to respect the philosophies of other arts and practitioners. Hopefully we have given a few points from both sides to help everyone understand each other. My opinion on whether rank matters depend on this question, "Does your rank matter to you"? If ranking has value to you then rank matters. If only form and function matter to you, then ranks are simply not that important except maybe as guideposts to mark your progress on your journey.