Meet the Pandas: No Jiu-Jitsu, No Princeton – Jose Mazariegos

Meet the Pandas: No Jiu-Jitsu, No Princeton – Jose Mazariegos

We are exploring the stories of grapplers sponsored by Inverted Gear. Last time, we talked with Carlos Saquic Pérez about balancing a demanding career with intense jiu-jitsu training. In this installment, we talk with Jose Mazariegos.

At 19, this purple belt’s passion for jiu-jitsu gives him an enormous work ethic, allowing him to conquer his ADHD and getting him accepted into Princeton. When Jose is not studying at the prestigious Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs—with the goal of becoming part of the United States intelligence community—he’s training with Emily Kwok and Marcelo Garcia and collecting medals at tbig tournaments.

How did you discover Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu?

Jose Mazariegos: I was very hyperactive as a child. I had ADHD, and my mom really wanted me to have an outlet. She enrolled me in soccer. I was supposed to be the next Lionel Messi. That was her plan. Well, I tried that for about a year – it didn’t work. I got into several fights in school and I was failing most of my classes. She told me to find something else. So I picked up track. During one of my runs with my team, I passed by a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu dojo, Team Silva. There was a little tournament going on. I saw a little guy (about 140 lbs) go up against this super big guy, probably twice his size. I thought: He’s going to get crushed, there’s no way he’ll survive. About two minutes into the match, the little guy did something with his feet, and the big guy was tapping. Loudly. And that was it.

I’d never seen anything like it. The closest thing was probably WWE. I was amazed but didn’t tell my parents because my mom really frowned upon fighting in any way. The next day I went back to talk to the professor, Manuel Reyes. He was the guy I’d seen the day before. I told him: I’m 13 years old, I don’t work, I have no money, but I really want to learn this and I really want to be just like you. Manuel nodded. He told me he would teach me for free, on one condition: I’d have to help out with the kids class, stick around for the adult class, and stay to clean up afterwards. I did that for about six months. I went there every day, without fail.

When did you get your first taste of competition?

JM: About seven months in. That was also when I had to break the news to my parents. I asked my mom to take me to one of my ‘school events’ – which was actually my first competition. She had no idea. When we got to the venue, I finally told her I had enlisted into something called Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. And that I really wanted her to see me fight. She exploded: “Oh my God, you didn’t tell me? That’s so dangerous, you’re going to break something!” But I stepped on the mat, fought, and was very lucky to win. At the same time, during the previous months she’d noticed I was doing way better in school. I was calmer and more focused, because I had discovered my passion.

So, how did you end up at Princeton?

JM: The idea of going to college never appealed to me, and my parents weren’t really into all of that. They just wanted me to have a happy life. So I’d planned to either be a professional jiu-jitsu fighter or to join the navy. At the same time, I always got good grades. It was my English teacher who really encouraged me to take my SAT’s, and he helped me to apply to a bunch of colleges. He saw something that I didn’t realize I had. I told him about my jiu-jitsu and military plans, but he thought that was going to be a waste of talent. I believed him.

To my surprise I got acceptance letters from a few colleges, and one of those was Princeton. I didn’t know anything about Ivy League schools or what that meant. My teacher went nuts when I told him. I asked: Dude, is this good news? Did I win the lottery? But when I found out that Princeton was on the other side of the country, I sort of freaked out. I didn’t want to stop training. My teacher calmed me down, and told me that Marcelo Garcia’s academy was reasonably close – like 80 minutes away by train. I also found out that there was an affiliate academy only a few miles from campus, ran by one of Marcelo’s black belts, Emily Kwok. I looked her up, and that sealed the deal for me. I was going to Princeton and also train jiu-jitsu full-time.

That sounds like a huge step.

JM: It was. I had to get used to a totally new environment. It was my first time being away from home, and I spent most of my hours training. As an academic subject, I had chosen molecular biology, just because it sounded interesting. Not the best choice. After my first class I realized that wasn’t for me – way too difficult. It took some soul-searching to find out why I was even there. My first semester was a weird, unbalanced time. I entered my first east coast tournament, but my head was in different places and I lost my first match. That had never happened. I had a lot of doubts and thought about quitting.

But I finally made the decision to really go for it. I figured there should be enough time for everything – academics and jiu-jitsu – if I just schedule it. So I switched my major and got into the Woodrow Wilson School for International Relations, with the hopes of one day working for one of the US intelligence agencies. I’m sticking to that route. And I train as much as I can.

Walk us through your typical day.

JM: I wake up around 7am to go for a run. I do track workouts by myself and train with the Princeton Running Club for my explosiveness. After that I go to class at 9am. I have lunch, I go for a bike ride, and then I go lifting. After that I go to another class, do a little bit of homework and have some food. Then from 6 to 9pm I train jiu-jitsu at Emily’s. On Monday’s my classes end at 2pm, so right after I jump on the train and travel to Marcelo Garcia’s academy in New York City. I train there until 9pm. I do that twice a week, Monday’s and Friday’s. When I get back to Princeton it’s about 11pm, and I do homework until about 1 in the morning.

That’s the ideal situation. But when it’s a brutal week I have to stay up and study until sunrise. With maybe only a few hours of sleep – or none at all. Then I do it all over again. Yes, it’s crazy. But I love it. I might go to bed really tired, but every time I wake up I know it’s going to be a great day. It’s also an awesome feeling when you go out to compete and you ask yourself the question: Did I do everything I could to prepare myself? If the answer is yes, you know that even if you lose, you gave it all you had.

Where does competition fit in?

JM: I try to compete at least once every month, ideally twice. I just love it. I got third place at the Pan-Ams last year – I lost by an advantage to the guy that ended up winning the whole thing. And I’ve reached the quarter final of the Worlds but didn’t have that extra push. This was all in my freshman year, when I was still figuring out who I was, finding a balance between academics and jiu-jitsu. Now, in my sophomore year I have a really strong mindset. I’m extremely motivated, and I know what to do.

What is your most memorable win?

JM: Probably winning nationals at blue belt. When I entered I had just turned 17 and made the cut by eight days. I was a kid going up against 26-year olds in a stacked division. Their power was unbelievable. I had never trained with people that strong. Thankfully I had really good cardio, so my game-plan was to tire everyone out. Hopefully at the end I’d have a little more left. Which I did. Now I have my sights set on winning the Pan-Ams and the Worlds at purple belt featherweight. For the long term, I really want to get to old age and still be able to get on the mat. I’m not just in it for the medals. I love the spirituality of jiu-jitsu and the confidence it’s given me. Hopefully in the future I’ll be able to inspire the generation after me. I’m not sure what my life is going to look like after college. But I know that wherever I’ll be in the world, I’ll find a place to train.

Who are you idols in jiu-jitsu?

JM: When it comes to the bigger names, aside from the Mendes brothers, I really admire Cobrinha. He’s probably 36 and still places at the Worlds in the adult division. You just have to give him props for being such a beast. Then there’s obviously my first professor Manuel Reyes. He’s an awesome person. Whenever I go back to California we train together. He’s always complaining he’s getting too old, but he’s extremely technical and teaches me great things. I’m really lucky to have started my jiu-jitsu journey with him. Other than those people, I really don’t follow the jiu-jitsu scene as much as I’d like to. I’m more focused on developing my own game and not copying someone else’s. I’m mostly studying what Marcelo and Emily have to offer. Of course, they’re both amazing.

What do you admire about Emily Kwok?

JM: Even outside of jiu-jitsu you immediately notice that Emily’s just an extremely driven person. Talk to her for five minutes, and you realize she’s a natural born champion. Her teaching is very meticulous and detail-oriented, which makes sense because she has always trained with people double her size and double her strength. So she needs those details. Emily can teach a basic position, like a scissor sweep, in a completely different way than you’re used to seeing it. And you can pick up something new. Every time she leads a class it’s very inspiring. When I came to Princeton last year she was five months pregnant. She was still doing all the warm-ups, drills and light sparring right along with us. I asked her if she needed to take it easy. But she said: “Oh no, it’s all good. Just don’t put knee on belly.” I was an 18-year old huffing and puffing along, and she was still going at it. Very awesome.

Is there an overlap between being good at academics and being good at jiu-jitsu?

JM: Actually, my experience has been almost the exact opposite. Sometimes people that are very analytical tend to overthink jiu-jitsu. But it’s meant to be a simple, functional martial art. Sure, it’s important to have your grips in certain places. But when you overcomplicate things, you lose the essence of jiu-jitsu. When I train, I’m not in my academic state of mind, I’m in completely different zone. On the mat, I’ve learned to look at things in my unique way. When you train, you realize jiu-jitsu is different for everyone. The point is to discover your own game, and to have that work for you. Being a college student doesn’t give you a clear advantage in that process.

What keeps you fascinated by jiu-jitsu?

JM: This art has brought out the best in me. And I’ve seen it bring out the best in everyone. It’s such an intense experience training together with your friends, leaving everything on the mat. You can’t compare that to academics. You won’t see your college professor writing a math equation on the blackboard, sweating, crying tears of joy. I’ve known some of my friends for over twelve years, and I’ve trained with some people for six months – and I know them better than my longtime friends. Not only because of the sheer proximity of jiu-jitsu, but every time you roll you’re putting your life into the other person’s hands. That trust is huge. When I train, I learn more about myself and more about my limits. And I feel those limits are meant to be broken.

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.