As we’ve been unable to train due to the coronavirus outbreak, upcoming promotions have, for the most part, been postponed. But one brown belt at Princeton BJJ was due for his next major promotion, and when his instructors found out he was moving away, they knew they didn’t have much time to act.
José Mazariegos came to Princeton BJJ as a new purple belt and spent about five years at the gym, getting promoted to brown belt in that time. He’d been attending Princeton University at the same time and was all set to graduate, but when the COVID-19 outbreak started to impact U.S. society, the university closed down. The pandemic also affected Mazariegos’ competitive BJJ goals, and with most of his spring and summer goals now put on hold thanks to the virus and his career options currently limited, he decided to move to Chicago with his girlfriend, Joanna, to be closer to her family.
One of Mazariegos’ professors, Emily Kwok, said of her student’s imminent departure, “We had a difficult and sad discussion about the fact that we would be losing him this year. He approached me with his sentiments about his time with us and what we’ve built upon to prepare him to be a more sophisticated and knowledgeable fighter and student in BJJ. Knowing that he would be moving away and not being able to compete for the foreseeable future, he didn’t feel right about knowing that when he does get back out there, that he might be flying someone else’s flag — when he had done his hardest work with us and his first teacher, Manuel Reyes.
“I also know that when schools inherit an advanced belt like Jose, that they can sometimes be treated like an afterthought, never fully being accepted into the pack. This is a feeling I’ve endured many times in my career and it’s been very important to both Art Keintz (my business partner) and I to create an academy that is inclusive of anyone on their BJJ journey. I, like Jose, have bounced from one school to the next because of life circumstance, not for lack of loyalty. I think it’s important for people to feel like they have the support of the people around them. There is an old-school culture that exists today that tends to punish or outcast people who aren’t ‘one of them’ (a student that has begun as a white belt). Jose in some ways has been like a son or a brother to many of us and I didn’t want him to leave us without knowing no matter where life takes him that he has a home here.”
With that in mind, Kwok and Keintz decided to give Mazariegos the promotion they felt he had certainly earned on their mats. While black belt promotions are normally heavily attended by teammates and even friends and family members, the current state of the world would make such a gathering unsafe (and probably illegal). So instead, they hosted a promotion on Zoom.
While the promotion itself was designed with social distancing in mind, it also helped ensure that more of the special people in Mazariegos’ life could witness the special moment as it happened. His mother and sister were able to watch him get promoted all the way from Guatemala, and Reyes was also able to “attend.”
“I also thought it was important to recognize all the work that Manny put into developing Jose from white to purple. Sometimes we look over the fact that it takes a village to prepare a student for that next stage of practice and life. In the end, I think we were all able to make the most out of a really unusual and unprecedented experience,” said Kwok.
You can watch the promotion as it was recorded below: