The History of the Red Belt


–Bill Larson

The history of the “Red Belt” in the Martial Arts has a long and honorable tradition that can trace its roots back through antiquity. You will see the Red Belt or Red Sash used in many of the Korean and Chinese Kung Fu systems. Many different styles and systems in the Martial Arts wear the Red Belt as a sign of mastery, worriorship or scholarly endeavor.

The American Kenpo System designates the use of the color “red” is to be worn on an individual’s Black belt, as a designation of one’s Rank, utilizing a red stripe as a symbol of progress. When the late Grandmaster Ed Parker was alive, the highest rank to be earned in American Kenpo within the International Kenpo Karate Association, under Mr. Parker was 7th Degree. You will find this to be true under the IKKA Black Belt Family Tree. After the rank of 7th Degree Black Belt, an individual was required to sit before a board of Masters and/or Grandmasters in order to advance in rank. However, there were a few other individuals within the organization that were been appointed to a higher rank, most notably the late Elvis Presley (8th Degree Black Belt). In Kenpo, one’s Black Belt has traditionally displayed red stripes or a red “block” (signifying 5th Degree). Additionally, the tradition or requirement for all Black Belts was that for the individual to remain in rank a specified number of years before being promoted to the next rank. The Black Belt must remain at the current rank (seasoning) for the same number of years as the numeric level of the next rank of promotion. This is a custom that can also be seen in military service. For example an individual who wears a 6th Degree Black Belt must wear the rank for at least 7 years, prior to being considered for promotion to a 7th Degree Black Belt.

Senior Professor Sean Kelley after wearing the rank of a 6th Degree for 7 years was then promoted to 7th Degree under the auspices and approval of a board of 3 Grandmasters and additional Senior Masters. At that same time, Mr. Kelley’s career shifted in its focus to emphasize more of the “combative” or “War like” applications of the American Kenpo System, under the guidance of his teacher Grandmaster Michael Robert Pick.

To mark this change or emphasis, Mr. Kelley reversed the colors of his own Black Belt (with Red stripes) to a Red Belt with Black stripes. Our Kenpo System points out that: every concept, principle, theory, idea or theme with regard to motion has a forward, reverse and an “opposite” Therefore; our belts must indeed adhere to the same idea. This is why there must be a concept of a Red Belt in the Kenpo System…

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