COSTA MESA — It's pretty impressive whenever a student of the Gracie Barra school of Brazilian jiu-jitsu gets a black belt.
Even more impressive is when one of those students is 78.
Gene Pace was awarded his black belt Thursday night during a ceremony after his regular twice-weekly class and sparring session at the Costa Mesa studio.
More than 100 of Pace's friends and supporters showed up to see his milestone.
"It was overwhelming. And last night..." Pace started with a pause, then laughed. "Well, it was a little emotional."
The Whittier resident has been training under the Costa Mesa school's founder and instructor, Mike Buckels, for more than 15 years.
"He's Mr. Consistency. He never misses a class, not ever," said Buckels, who holds a black belt in jiu-jitsu, as well as kru in Muay Thai kickboxing.
In those 15 years, before Pace, Buckels had only awarded one other jiu-jitsu black belt, and it was to another instructor.
"The best way to describe Gene is that he just executes what you teach him to do," Buckels said. "If you show him a move, he will go after that move."
Although Buckels admits that he is careful whom he pairs with Pace, as an older student Pace is not one to underestimate.
"Gene can still pick me up — and I'm a 180-pound man — and toss me to the ground," Buckels said. "He practices with people as much as 55 years younger than him."
Pace fell into the Brazilian practice after signing up for a martial arts course for fitness — and to humor his grandchildren.
"I thought to myself, 'Well, OK, they can't kill me, and besides, maybe I'll learn something,'" Pace said, laughing.
"Once I got started, I had to think, 'Do you just walk away [and] embarrass your grandkids?'" Pace continued. "Nah, you can't be disrespectful like that. And everyone just stuck with it."
Pace's interest in martial arts transferred to jiu-jitsu after meeting Buckles and liking his style of teaching.
A lot of that style resonated with Pace's finish-what-you-start attitude.
"The things learn you here are discipline and techniques, which you apply to situations, but you never walk around like a peacock," Pace said. "But, as Mike says, if someone won't back down, you finish it."