A Rite of Passage – The Kearny Martial Arts Black Belt Test

In blog, featured by Staff

It’s the hardest thing that I’ve ever had to work for…Joseph Capitani, Shodan

February 20th, 2016 was a typical Saturday morning for most people, a quiet and sunny start to the weekend. Behind the locked doors and shaded windows of Kearny Martial Arts, it was anything but a normal day. Students, teachers and invited guests had gathered for a black belt test, a time honored tradition that can trace its lineage back centuries to feudal Japan.  Kearny Martial Arts has been on the same block for over 49 years and this test has not changed in over 40 years. This is a private rite of passage intended to be shared only with our dojo family; and has never been discussed in any detail outside of our walls… until now.

Indeed, the testing of Joseph Capitani and Kevin Morgan was the main focus of Grandmaster Vincent Marchetti’s trip to his NJ Dojo. Grandmaster Marchetti officiates every Black Belt promotion in person, an honor each of his students greatly appreciates. This unique trial defines what it means to wear our black belt; a shared experience that bonds every person who has ever earned that honor. More than that, it is an event that binds our entire student community because it requires the participation of every teenage and adult student. No one who has participated in a test will ever forget the experience.  They understand that our belt can never be purchased with money. It must be earned with blood, sweat, tears and hard work. As Grandmaster Marchetti says…”Our black belts are leaders; they are the true heroes of this school.”

During the test you’re not even sure where the strength is coming from. You are pulling the strength and the will from the eight plus years of work… all of that training prepares you. Everything comes full circle during that testKevin Morgan, Shodan

Grandmaster Marchetti designed this test to push each candidate to their physical and mental limits and beyond.

The basic idea of this test is to teach a person that you can go far beyond your capabilities…and far beyond what you think you are capable of…if you want something badly enough and if you are willing to work and fight for it.  It teaches you a powerful lesson in life that you can achieve anything you want if you push and pursue it hard enoughGrandmaster Marchetti

Throughout the experience he challenges each candidate to push beyond their limits while still encouraging them. Saying “… if you quit you cannot test again for another year!” while whispering to them “I know that you can do this or you wouldn’t be here. I have confidence in you.”  It is a powerful combination. Each candidate must display both technique and the will to persevere even when mentally and physically exhausted. Grandmaster Marchetti teaches us that the hardest person to beat in a fight is someone who never quits. And he goes on to say that the hardest person you will ever have to beat is yourself… because you have to learn how to conquer your own fears and doubts and make yourself into THAT person who will absolutely never quit.  He demands this level of dedication from each and every one of his students.

This is who we are. This is what we do. We never quit.

This particular test started at 10am and for the next 5 hours with the help of their Grandmaster inspiring and pushing them, both candidates battled their way through the entire student body. More than 50 students bordered the training floor fresh and ready to go. Grandmaster Marchetti selected them in rapid fire order, selecting each match to keep the candidates on the very edge of their capabilities. The black belts come first, providing the hardest fights right away to most effectively break the candidates down and wear away at their stamina. Fights continue as Grandmaster selects new opponents and works his way through the lower ranks.

The candidates will face the assembled students in each art in long strings of consecutive matches.  There is no rest for them except for the few seconds it takes to bow to a new opponent. Kumite (full contact Karate sparring) is often followed by Judo, Ju-Jitsu, Ne-Waza (ground fighting)  and culminating in Michi Budo Ryu matches which combine all of these arts. On this Saturday the candidates fought more than 81 fights each, never once being allowed to sit and rest. In fact, they only had a few chances to kneel as their seconds (an honored assistant) gave them water or changed their sweat soaked gi’s. To give you a sense for the physical toll of this test, during Judo, Kevin Morgan was fatigued, light headed and needed Sensei Pung to assist him in tying his belt which had come off during a tough match. After helping him with his belt, Sensei Pung gave him a few words of support and guided him back to the mats…and this was only at the halfway point of the test…40+ fights and 2 1/2 hours still remained (note the clock in the photo below).

At the point where the candidates are at the limit of physical and mental exhaustion, they must answer questions  about Japanese martial arts history and culture directed at them by each and every student present. In contrast to the physical challenges, the questions start with the lowest ranks and work their way up to the black belts and teachers, with each successive question increasing in difficulty.  These questions are designed to test the mental clarity and focus of each candidate under the most stressful conditions; every question was answered correctly.

When the test is concluded, the promotions are done in traditional fashion with all the students kneeling to show their respect. Grandmaster Marchetti addresses his students as he presents each of the new Shodan’s with their belts. It is a time of tears and great joy for the school.  As Grandmaster Marchetti speaks, his pride and love for his students is clearly evident in his voice. He takes time to openly thank Chief Instructor Sensei Joe Pung, Sensei Ken Jamieson and all his instructors for all of their work to prepare the students for a great test. At that moment, there is a collective sense of connection and camaraderie that is indescribable to any who have not experienced it personally. What Grandmaster Marchetti has built here is a unique and lasting legacy.

I have such a great love for these guys that after spending a day pushing and punishing them all day long I find it hard to hold back tears myself. Knowing how hard I pushed them…knowing that I make them earn everything they get…knowing that everyone that ever wears that belt has to pay this price and prove to themselves that they are capable of things far beyond their imagination. There is nothing like the joy of seeing your students pass.Grandmaster Vincent Marchetti

We have been given permission to share some words from our newest Black Belts.

For me personally, when it was all said and done…the fights were over…and Sensei Marchetti called me up to put the belt on me…and he hugged me and told me how proud he was of me…that for me was the single most memorable moment of that day…that’s a moment that I will remember the rest of my life. Kevin Morgan, Shodan
This was by far the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do and the greatest personal achievement of my life. This far surpasses any game or championship I’ve won throughout a long career in sports.Joseph Capitani, Shodan
I was pushing myself to get up off that floor…after 8 years of training…. all of it came down to that moment when you have to decide to get up off that floor after 70+ fights…to decide to keep going…to keep working for what you’ve been wanting for all these years. Kevin Morgan, Shodan
This test brought out qualities in me that I never knew I had…and I will use this in all aspects of my life from here on out.Joseph Capitani, Shodan

We are also lucky enough to be able to share some selected photos from this unforgettable day. In particular take note of the photo captioned “Halfway through the test”. That photo was taken as Sensei Pung helped Kevin Morgan by tying his belt for him. Kevin was at that point so fatigued he was light headed could not tie it himself. That was just after Kevin’s 40th fight that day, and he did not yet realize he had 41 left to go!