Everybody fights for a reason. Over the next few weeks, we will explore the stories of the awesome people being sponsored by Inverted Gear. This is our first installment of Meet the Pandas.
Brown belt Carlos Saquic Pérez (24) isn’t afraid to take the hard route. He combines living and breathing jiu-jitsu as a competitive athlete with a demanding full-time job as a mechanical engineer. Dividing his time between his hometown of San Juan, Puerto Rico, training with his teachers Manuel Rey and Eduardo Ortiz of Behring Puerto Rico, and sharpening his skills in New York City, learning from the legendary Marcelo Garcia. Carlos shows that sleep is overrated.
How did you get started in jiu-jitsu?
Carlos Saquic Pérez: As a kid I never did any martial arts, but I was quite active. In school I was into basketball and volleyball, and I was a competitive swimmer. Somehow I got into that other Brazilian martial art, Capoeira. It was taught at this huge gym named Sparta, which offered all sorts of martial arts: Muay Thai, BJJ, Wrestling and MMA. Being a 15-year old kid I lost interest in Capoeira pretty quickly, but I became intrigued at what was going on in the other corner of the gym. People rolling around on the ground? It was completely new to me. I’d never heard of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, the UFC or the Gracie family. Nothing.
But I immediately felt the art was different. In my first class I rolled with a more experienced guy and he was all over me. He took my back at will. I couldn’t do anything. Every time he said: okay, let’s restart, you lose. And I didn’t understand. That frustration had a positive effect; it intrigued me. Ever since that moment I have loved to train and study the positions. And that never stopped.
Who did you learn from?
CSP: My first instructors were Hector Ramos and Juan Chinea, they were both blue belts at the time. Their coach, Manuel Rey (a black belt under Flavio Behring), became one of my professors, together with Eduardo Ortiz. Manuel is the one who gave me all my belts, and he will be the one that’ll eventually promote me to black belt – when the time comes. Manuel and Eduardo are both real father figures to me. They always encouraged me to train everywhere and learn from everyone. The BJJ scene in Puerto Rico was so small that we had to exchange knowledge in order to grow.
At white belt I also met Marcos Torregrosa, an accomplished black belt champion, originally from Puerto Rico. He came back to the island and showed us all sort of high level new school stuff. Like leg drags and X-passes. That was my first encounter with Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu from outside of the Puerto Rican scene. We’re a more traditional school that focuses on self-defense, closed guard, smash passing and the pressure game. Marcos showed us the faster, more dynamic style. It was a perfect addition. I was like: Oh my god, new toys! After that I kept a good relationship with him. He’s still one of my idols.
How did you end up at Marcelo Garcia’s?
CSP: The man is a legend of the sport. I have family in New York and flights are cheap, so as soon as I found out that he had opened up a school there, I made sure to visit them whenever I could. What can I say about his jiu-jitsu that hasn’t already been said? You just have to get used to getting guillotined. A lot. All the time. There’s nothing you can do to stop it. You are going to get guillotined, and he’s going to get your back and choke you out. So better get used to it. You might think he’ll just tear your head off, but he’s so technical that the submissions don’t hurt. You just go out of air, tap, or go to sleep.
With him I just experience pure technique; it’s amazing. However, there are two things I worry about when I roll with him: my arms. Marcelo’s got a lightning fast armbar that you won’t see coming until it’s too late. Pretty scary stuff. I don’t want to mess with that.
When did you discover your love for competition?
CSP: When I was still a white belt, our whole academy took a trip to Brazil to meet up with master Flavio Behring. That was my first trip outside of Puerto Rico to learn jiu-jitsu. There, I competed in the Mundials of the CBJJ. I lost my first match. But that whole experience gave me a deep desire to keep training and to compete more. I’d been to competitions in Puerto Rico before, but it was nothing compared to Brazil. That tournament was the biggest one I’ve ever been in – still to this day. It was crazy, hostile, and very chaotic. I was supposed to fight at five o’clock and ended up fighting at eleven at night. Sure, it was a little messy, but it was a great experience.
How do you prepare mentally?
CSP: It might sound strange, but my experience in competitive swimming helps a lot. When you step on the diving block to wait for the start of the race, you have to stand absolutely still. If you move even a little bit, you get disqualified. That’s an insanely stressful moment. But you also have to stay calm and centered. You’re cold, you’re wearing nothing but a swimsuit, and everyone’s looking at you. Right before the storm breaks. Nothing really compares to that level of nervousness. Or maybe just the feeling of being in the finals of the Pan-Ams or something.
Knowing how to deal with that stress is a mental trick, which has served me well in BJJ competitions. At Marcelo’s, I learned another thing: to really push myself and to train super hard in every roll. Normally I like to flow, but for competition training you can’t train like that. You have to mentally force yourself to go 100% even if you’re dead tired and you just want to chill. But that won’t do if you want to win. You have to put yourself into the competition mindset and killer environment. Sometimes it feels strange to have that kind of attitude – that you HAVE to smash the other guy. For me, it’s an essential tool to find my competition rhythm.
Which accomplishments are you most proud of?
CSP: At blue belt I got second at the Pan-Ams. At purple I got third at the Worlds. At brown I took third in the Brazilian Nationals. I’m most proud of the last one because it was my second time fighting in Brazil. So it sort of felt like revenge. I medaled, and I didn’t get murdered. I just lost by advantage. For me, that’s the most valuable.
Aside from the world of jiu-jitsu, I recently graduated college, and now I’m working as a mechanical engineer. My coach Manuel is an engineer as well, and he always motivated me to finish my degree. I was given the keys to the gym so I could train whenever I wanted. It was really hard, but it was worth it. I always had a dream to be both and engineer and a jiu-jitsu fighter. Now I have a chance to live out both dreams.
So, when do you sleep?
CSP: I’m not going to lie. It’s difficult. Right now, I’m working in Puerto Rico and can only train twice a day, before and after work. On the weekend I train once a day. And I try to fit in at least two strength and conditioning sessions a week with my coach José ‘Mendi’ Mendizabal at Barrio 12 Crossfit in San Juan. In January I’m going back to New York, and I’ll stay there for the whole season, training fulltime. Yeah, it’s pretty intense. I don’t get much time to rest, especially during the week. But it’s possible. I do what I can.
Why do you stick with it?
CSP: Like I said before, as I kid, I was very active doing several sports. But after a while, every sport bores me a little. It gets to a point where there’s nothing else. But in jiu-jitsu, you can’t say that. As much as you keep training and gathering knowledge, there’s more stuff for you to learn. It’s a never-ending class of never-ending knowledge. The art keeps evolving. That keeps me into it.
It’s also what I Iove about math and physics. Those are fields of constant discovery and innovation. Every month there are scientific breakthroughs. It never stops. I think that if you want to enjoy life, you have to keep searching for new challenges. Of course, occasionally you can sit back and enjoy the view of all the things you’re accomplished. But then you have to move on.
What are your goals in jiu-jitsu?
CSP: Aside from getting my black belt, of course, I want to win the Worlds. But everyone says that. I think that eventually I would like to open a very successful gym on the island, in one of the areas without jiu-jitsu. So I can introduce the art to people what have no access to it. That will be my biggest gift back to my people. That way, I’d like to do what my teacher did for me. The scene in Puerto Rico is getting bigger. It’s a beautiful thing. It will be perfect to build something here.
Carlos Saquic Pérez can be followed on Instagram: @csaquic_
About the Author Daniël Bertina
Daniël Bertina is a journalist and writer based in the Netherlands. He holds a black belt in BJJ under Marcos Flexa of Carlson Gracie Amsterdam. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @joyofirony.