Editor's Note: This article was modified on July 11, 2016 to reflect the history of black belts in Berkshire County.
Photo Gallery | Mark Flynn earns jiujitsu black belt after 18 years
LENOX — After 18 years, Mark Flynn has earned his black belt in Brazilian jiujitsu.
Since Flynn took over the ZenQuest Martial Arts Center in Lenox in 2002, he and his wife, Connie, have always been looking for new ways to cross train.
"When we started watching UFC in 1993, we thought it was really interesting," Mark said. "It was kind of a surprise, we quickly saw the value of Brazilian jiujitsu. Even if you end up not liking it, you should get a sense of other types of martial arts."
After a couple years of watching UFC, Mark and Connie became interested in learning more about jiujitsu. A seminar in Atlantic City run by Royce Gracie, a UFC Hall of Famer, and his brother Rorion, cofounder of the UFC, blew them away.
"The stuff they showed us was amazing," Mark said. "The best part was when a big guy went up to Rorion and questioned his methods, Rorion proved him wrong and tapped him in 15 seconds."
Around 1998, Flynn started training for his black belt in jiujitsu. At the same time, the Flynns started teaching martial arts in the Pittsfield Plaza.
"The process was really slow at first," Mark explained. "Not only were we running karate classes, we were slowly mixing [jiujitsu] in after affiliating with Royce Gracie."
Before he knew it, Mark was teaching just as many jiujitsu students as karate students. Most of the students stuck to either one or the other, but Mark couldn't understand why.
"Both of them are great," Mark said. "It is valuable to be able to do more than one thing. It is okay to be a little diverse. What are the odds that you picked the absolute-perfect art? Open your mind."
When the couple moved their location to Lenox in 2011, they reached out to Demian Maia, a UFC fighter and fourth-degree black belt, to see if he would like to be affiliated with the martial arts center.
"Right off the bat he was very friendly," Mark said. "He is the nicest guy, and his jiujitsu is ridiculous. It is amazing."
While the process of getting his jiujitsu black belt was slow, Mark always kept in mind that the important thing is what you know, not necessarily the belt. After about five years with Maia, the 18-year wait came to an end for Mark.
Every year Mark and Connie travel to do some training with Maia. This year in Chicago, the two had to leave early to catch their plane back. But before leaving the grueling week of training, Maia had a special surprise for Mark.
"I knew," Connie said with a smile on her face. "It wasn't hard to not tell him, it had to be a surprise."
The 18 years of hard work paid off for Mark, becoming the second American black belt under Maia.
"They kept it from me really well," Mark said. "When you focus on the day-to-day and the week-to-week grind, you don't think about [the long-term commitment],"
One of the biggest reasons Mark got into martial arts was the social aspect. He never liked the gym, he wanted to be somewhere he could talk and interact with other people.
"Our greatest accomplishment is the atmosphere we created," Mark said. "People encourage each other with high-fives and everyone wants each other to succeed, it makes us all better."
Connie is also training to reach the black belt in Brazilian jiujitsu. While she has been training just as long as Mark, she has encountered a couple injuries in the process, but it hasn't affected her attitude.
"It is huge, you want to be able to represent it," Connie said. "The bottom line is that day-to-day we are trying to progress the art and train with the best people they can. We want to be able to make sure that we can pass [what we learn] on to our students."
Mark and Connie understand that becoming black belts in Berkshire County is a pretty big deal. But it isn't the main goal for the couple. They want to continue to focus on what they see as important — being able to walk the walk, not talk the talk.
"It is more than a belt, Connie said. "It is about what it represents, the art, the training, the teaching."