My last couple of days in Oklahoma City tore me up. I had a nagging little knee injury on the left side that bothered me from time to time. That opened up in to a full on medial meniscus tear. My knee is painful and feels very unstable as it is fully flexed. It was popping and felt like it was slipping out of joint when the injury became evident.
If that wasn't enough, I also managed to break a toe bone. I have broken toes before and they have never been a big deal. BUT this one was different. Check out the image.
You see where the phalanges of the second toe meets the metatarsal? The phalanges bone forms the joint and kind of curves around the metatarsal. Mine broke off right there. It interferes with the joint and makes walking very painful, because the toe is unstable at that point. Essentially it is a massive, painful, imperfection in the ball of my foot.
So, I took some time off to heal. I hired people to do the move to Birmingham, so I didn't do a lot of lifting and moving. That wasn't too bad on my injuries.
I took about a month and a half off, and I now feel that I am reasonably healed enough to go and look at gyms. There are two real contenders in the area, Gracie Barra Birmingham, and Samuel Puccio BJJ. Both are run by BJJ black belts. Both guys are Brazilian.
Gracie Barra is about 13 or so miles away from my house in a town called Pelham. Kaliffa Oliveira is the instructor. Kaliffa is a brand new black belt, and I mean BRAND new. He got his belt last month. I don't have a problem with this. A black belt at Gracie Barra is a big deal, and they don't just hand those things out.
The school is new as well, Kaliffa has been teaching for about a year. The mats were very well taken care of, and the school was spotlessly clean. He had many changing rooms, as well as two showers. Very big pluses.
He has about 30 students, of various levels, I didn't see anyone above the purple belt rank. The guys were good and technical BUT, they were all from somewhere else. This really isn't a big surprise, because Kaliffa's school is brand new. He has a good number of white belts, which is good, they are the future of the school.
Being a Gracie Barra school, Kaliffa teaches the Gracie curriculum. If you are a direct Gracie affiliate, you are required to teach their techniques, on the days they want you to teach it. What's more, Gracie also dictates your school costs and your class structure. This is why many in the non Gracie BJJ world call their schools a "cult." The good news is that you can walk in to any Gracie school anywhere in the nation and pick up your training exactly where you left off. Also, if you sign up with one school, you are signed up with all of the others. If you are in a different city, you are able to just walk in to the Gracie school and start training.
The class structure is VERY structured. They have a fundimentals class where all you do is technique. They then have an advanced class where they do the same technique with a little variation, then a bit of live rolling.
Kaliffa also offers a 10am Muay Thai class taught by a former Lumpinee Stadium champion... At least everybody says he is. I didn't catch his name, so I can't check it out... I do know that he has excellent technique and runs a very good class.
Samuel Puccio BJJ is an independent school that has ties to the Carlson Gracie Jr. side of BJJ, as well as the Brazilian Top Team guys. Samuel got his black belt in 2007 from Rodrigo Medeiros. While he has no official connection to Rodrigo Medeiros, Samuel regards him as his instructor, and he competes at IBJJF under the Revolution BJJ team.
His school is older, and shows its age, however the mats are clean, and he has several changing rooms. The school is completely focused on BJJ but balances everything evenly between gi and no-gi workouts.
He has about 30 students, a good mix of belts, but I saw none over purple belt in rank. The guys are much younger at Samuel's school, likely due to his close proximity to the University of Alabama Birmingham campus being literally across the street. So, the guys are very aggressive being young guys.
Samuel runs class with a light warm up, then he shows a technique, then you roll. A little exercise afterwards and class ends.
All of the guys, with an exception here and there, are Samuel's guys. So the technique is uniform.
Technique wise... Both schools are about even. I would expect that Kaliffa has the better ability to learn and grow, being in the Gracie organisation, but, for now, he and Samuel are about even. I have resigned myself to the fact that I will not grow as much in Birmingham under these guys as much as I grew under Giulliano Gallupi. Giulliano was a student of basic technique. He knows the basics so fundamentally that all of his other techniques are absolutely solid. Both of the guys in Birmingham are not as technically sound.
I like Samuel's class structure better. He has his own guys, and the classes are much more comfortable compared to the Gracie class where, because everybody has trained differently, class can be a bit awkward under the surface. Kaliffa, a new black belt, is a little uncomfortable in his role, especially since the Gracie protocol requires the students to refer to him as "Professor." I hate that. I really do. One of the things that drew me to BJJ was its informality.
Samuel being old school and independent, has no such silly rules.
The Gracie school is expensive. VERY expensive. Almost $200 a month for Muay Thai and BJJ, but only doing two classes of each a week. PLUS you have to buy all of your gear from them. The standard uniform is the Storm Kimono, which is an excellent brand, but it costs over $200. MT class you have to have the Gracie rash guard and shorts, along with the gloves and pads they sell. Another cost of almost $200.
You put all of that on top of the distance from my house, and the traffic that I have to fight to get there, no interstate all surface roads, and the typical drive is between 30 and 40 minutes one way.
Samuel's school is about 5 minutes away just over the "mountain" that separates Homewood, where I live, and Birmingham proper. He runs about $100 a month for however many classes you can attend.
Other than the Muay Thai, there are no real compelling reasons to spend the extra time and gas it would cost to go to the Gracie school. Let alone their idiotically high costs. I chose to go to Samuel's school and paid for an initial trial period of 3 months.
Now we get in to the weird stuff. Kaliffa used to be Samuel's top student. About a year ago, Samuel promoted Kaliffa to brown belt, and encouraged him to open a school. Samuel's plan, of course, was for Kaliffa to become a satellite of Samuel's gym. Kaliffa went to a Gracie seminar, and realized that he had no real connection to the BJJ world. Samuel is an independent gym. Kaliffa wanted more, and found more with the structure and common name that a Gracie franchise offered. So he joined the Gracie organisation, and started the process to become one of their instructors. He attended the various classes and seminars that were required, and received his black belt instructor certification last month.
When Kaliffa opened his gym and didn't open it under Samuel's name, but under the Gracie Barra name, Samuel was upset. He got very angry with Kaliffa and called him a "Creonte." This is a very bad word in BJJ, it basically means a traitor, but has very strong and negitive undertones. So, just looking at schools in Birmingham starts the gym drama. Both guys talked bad about the other. I don't like that, but both did it as a warning to me to avoid the other guy.
In the end I just want to train. Short of walking up to some other gym and saying, "Hey do you want a BJJ class?" this is the way I will have do it. Giulliano said I am welcome at any time to come back to the gym and do privates. He even offered me his couch to sleep on. I will likely take him up on it.