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Local MMA fighter receives second black belt
Friday, April 12, 2024

He’s fought in over 100 MMA matches, gaining recognition as one of the most respected judo and jiu jitsu masters in the country. And after a yearlong hiatus, the man they call “Dalua” will make his way back to the competition circuit in June after earning his second black belt at a ceremony held at his own gym Friday in San Marcos.

Jean “Dalua” Cartagena, 41, is co-owner of San Marcos Jiu Jitsu, located at 1104 Thorpe Lane. He and co-owner Steven Koenig have been offering classes on various styles of martial arts since opening in September 2023.

The dichotomy of his talent is a mixed bag. From his peers, Cartagena is seen as a patient teacher, a gifted fighter and an esteemed competitor. But when he’s locked into a match, his primal instincts go into overdrive.

“When I'm fighting, it's him or me,” said Cartagena, who stands at 5 foot 8, 145 pounds. “He’s going to try and break my arm or my leg. So, I'm going to try to do the same. You know? It's a battle, and you have to advance. It's a fight, and I have to be focused.”

While often used interchangeably, judo and jiu-jitsu are similar, but are technically considered two different areas of martial arts. Both reinforce yielding to manipulate an opponent's force against them to achieve submission. Each style uses throws, grappling, kicking and striking, where combat often takes place on the ground.

“I’ve broken almost every bone in my body, dozens of injuries,” Cartagena said. “It’s a tough sport.”

Cartagena, who also holds a second-degree black belt in jiu-jitsu, received his black belt in judo from his sensei, Kenton Givens, owner and lead instructor at Virginia Academy of Judo. In addition to competing, Cartagena also owns Dalua BBJ (Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu) Training Center in New Braunfels and operates an additional seven gyms in the area under the team name A-Force BJJ Texas. The team consists of an affiliation of gyms overseen by Cartegena whose members fight for A-Force BJJ Texas.

Givens said Cartagena’s reputation in Central Texas as a competitor and successful gym operator exemplifies the jiu jitsu culture. The two forged a relationship in 2015 after Cartagena helped Givens launch his gym in Virginia Beach. 

“He pretty much embodies everything that we want to do to be able to change lives,” said Givens, who is a second-degree black belt in judo. “Force judo itself is pretty much about mutual benefit and welfare overall, and he represents that. He wants to make sure other people are taken care of... and he's able to do that for the community with his multiple schools he has going and here in San Marcos as well.”

Cartagena said to receive a black belt in judo, one must have extensive knowledge of the terms and techniques used in the Japanese tradition. He said there are thousands of moves used in judo, with more developing as the style progresses, but when he’s fighting, Cartagena, like many MMA competitors, harnesses an animal spirit to help refine their energy before a match. Cartagena said his fighting style is generated through the monkey, honored by a tattoo on his left collar bone.

“I like to move a lot, you know, jump around jumping on people's backs,” he said. “Flying in the air, taking people down. I think that’s me as a fighter. The people outside want to see a show. You get the most out of entertaining people. They're going to keep inviting you to fight because people want to see you.”

Before MMA, Cartagena was born and raised in Puerto Rico where his athleticism was showcased from a young age. He started in karate, then boxing and eventually becoming an alternate for the Puerto Rican Olympic wrestling team when he was 18.

“Puerto Rico is very small, and we don't have a lot of jobs for this,” he said. “They don't have too much competition or tournaments or anything. I moved here in 2012, so I decided to do this for a living.”

He sees himself as a teacher who’s an eternal student, but with a childlike spirit. He moves effortlessly between worlds as an MMA competitor and a children’s jiu-jitsu instructor for kids ages 4 to 12.

“I feel like I'm still a child,” Cartagena said. “When I go with the kids, I like to play with them, you know, because I'm like a little kid. I like to have fun but at the same time, I'm very strict and they respect me a lot because discipline is very important here. They know that when we’re training, we’re training and when we’re playing, we’re playing, but we have to train because we want to build resiliency.”

Koenig, who has been practicing judo and jiu-jitsu for over a decade, said Cartagena’s reputation as a decorated champion is only one of his best qualities. He said Cartagena’s expertise coupled with his patient demeanor make him one of the best coaches in the area because he encourages an environment not often found in the martial arts world.

“He's also a very good teacher and he fosters an atmosphere and a culture in the gym where everyone is welcoming and it's more of a family and community,” Koenig said. “It’s not macho where people are competing and trying to hurt each other in the gym. We make each other better. Even though it’s still a competitive sport and you're trying to impose your will on people, it’s practice in the gym where we’re helping each other out. It’s a collaboration.”

Cartagena will compete for the first time in a year on June 15 at the 2024 Abu Dhabi Combat Club (ADCC) Dallas Open. The tournament is known by many as the “Olympics of judo and jiu-jitsu.”

For more information on San Marcos Jiu-Jitsu, visit the website


San Marcos Record

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