Black Belt Scandals

Here in the Tampa Bay area – the 12th largest TV market in the U.S. – the local CBS TV affiliate did a three-part series called “Black Belt Scandals.” The series exposed a local instructor who had White-Out® on his rank certificate. You could see a 3 was replaced with a 7. He even had a fake chiropractor’s certificate on the wall.

Though this guy was giving neck and back adjustments to students, including children, the chiropractic college reported he had never attended the school. Next, the reporter contacted his martial arts association. They had no record of him. Mind you, I’m less than confident of martial arts associations’ record keeping, but it looked very bad.

As a demonstration, the reporter applied to another martial arts organization for a black belt certificate, which was promptly mailed to her. She made it clear that all she had to do was send in $25 and she was recognized as a black belt, without ever having taken a martial arts lesson in her life.

She then purchased a black belt at a local martial arts supply store and took the certificate and belt to the business licensing office. When asked what was needed to open a black belt school, the lady behind the counter said, “Pay $35 for a business license. That’s it.”

The reporter looked into the camera and remarked that, though she had the belt and the certificate, they were useless because she didn’t need them to open a school. She dumped them both in the trash.

I was on a 10-day tour of Italy with the WAKO USA Team when this happened. When I got back, it was the talk of Tampa Bay.

Beyond exposing a lack of ethics in the martial arts industry, the story illustrated that there are no educational or, for the most part, licensing prerequisites to open a martial arts school in the United States. In the United Kingdom, Canada, and other countries there are some rudimentary licensing requirements, usually having to do with CPR and general safety. There is very little required that is specific to the martial arts.

To be clear, I am not calling for any type of government regulation. I created the American Council On Martial Arts (now the Martial Arts Teachers Association Instructor Certification Program) as a way of educating instructors on teaching methods that are accepted and proven universally by the highest academic standards worldwide. My goal has always been that we raise our own standards of performance and teaching. That is a tough road in this industry, and we will explore why in this section.

There is little question that the martial arts industry has a very low barrier to entry. The range of people opening martial arts schools is vast. Some people open schools after graduating college with an MBA, while others have just been released from prison. The good side is that martial artists are as diverse a group as you can find in any field. The most colorful, interesting people I’ve met in my life have been martial arts instructors. The downside is obvious: like any profession, the indiscretions made by a minority of unethical instructors make it harder for all of us to be taken seriously as professionals.

When researching why some owners take the material and apply it while others let it stack up in their office, my first thought was that owners with higher education probably did better growing a school. However, in the next moment I realized that couldn’t be true. I certainly didn’t have a business background when I opened my school, and my GED didn’t exactly speak to high education. Yet I earned a six-figure income as a school owner in the early 1990s. The fact there are no educational prerequisites allowed me to get started in the first place.

I believe the difference lies in our collective background as martial artists. Keep in mind that the Core Dynamics are unique to those of us who have embraced the rigors of training far beyond those of our classmates. We didn’t just train hard; we made the martial arts our life. Many of us endured beatings, mental abuse, and insane requirements to move up the rank ladder to our black belt and beyond. We stuck it out while our classmates struck out. In appreciation for all that hard work, our instructors often found ways to abuse our loyalty. Who the heck puts up with that? We did.


Widely recognized as the man who revolutionized the martial arts industry, John Graden launched organizations such as NAPMA (National Association of Professional Martial Artists), ACMA (American Council on Martial Arts), and MATA (Martial Arts Teachers Association). Graden also introduced the first trade magazine for the martial arts business, Martial Arts Professional.

John Graden’s latest book, The Truth about the Martial Arts Business looks into key strategies involved in launching a martial arts business and includes Graden’s own experience as a student, a leader and a business owner.

Graden is the author of six books including The Truth about the Martial Arts Business, The Impostor Syndrome: How to Replace Self-Doubt with Self-Confidence and Train Your Brain for Success, Mr. Graden has been profiled by hundreds of international publications including over 20 magazine cover stories and a comprehensive profile in the Wall Street Journal.

Presentations include: The Impostor Syndrome, Black Belt Leadership, The Secret to Self Confidence, and How to Create a Life Instead of Making a Living, John has taught his proven and unique principles of success to thousands of people on three continents since 1987.

From keynote presentations for thousands to one-on-one coaching sessions, John Graden is a dynamic speaker, teacher, and media personality who brings passion and entertainment to his presentations. </p

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