You've seen them on cable reality shows or pay-per-view: muscle-bound men with the temperament of abused pit bulls smashing and kicking each other into bloody pulps while the crowd roars with approval. It might be the Ultimate Fighting Championship, Pride Fighting Championship, Vale Tudo, or a host of other names given to the brutal and increasingly popular realm of mixed martial arts (MMA).
A combination of standard Western boxing, traditional Thai boxing known as Muay Thai, jujitsu, and other fighting techniques, MMA has only been legal in California for one year, a selling point for many local martial arts schools. Some of the competition's brightest stars hail from Bay Area clubs. A course in MMA is a serious exercise in masochism. Could you be the next champ?
Twenty-four-year-old Gilbert Melendez, last year's winner of the Pride FC held in Nagoya, Japan, trains exclusively at Fairtex Muay Thai Fitness (132140 Hawthorne, SF. 1-888-324-7839, www.fairtex.com). The vast gym holds heavy bags for striking, a full-size boxing ring, ample floor space for grappling and yoga, a full range of free weights and machines, and an almost constant feed of fighting competitions on the facility's numerous wide-screen televisions.
Eduardo Rocha Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Academy (3600 Grand, Oakl. 510-207-6640, www.cateambjj.com) trains students in grappling fundamentals, but Rocha and some of his advanced students spend a lot of time training for competition. The training atmosphere is intimate, and Rocha's students took top honors at the 2006 Pan-American Jiu-Jitsu Championships.
Located in the Dogpatch, Universal Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (2572 Third St., SF. 415-282-5700, www.ubjj.com) offers classes in MMA on Wednesday nights.
While Ralph Gracie Jiu-Jitsu (www.ralphgracie.com) has two locations, one in Berkeley (1500 Ashby, Berk. 510-486-8000) and the other in San Francisco (178 Valencia, SF. 415-522-477), Gracie and his brothers have been opening new academies around the world every month. Gracie, himself a champion, retains black belts who trained under him to run his academies. Kurt Osiander, nicknamed the Rhino, heads the San Francisco academy; Carlos "Sapoa" Oryzune instructs at the Berkeley academy.
One of a few schools that split from Fairtex a few years ago after the 2003 shooting death of Fairtex San Francisco founder Alex Gong, Fight and Fitness (734 Bryant, SF. 415-495-2211, www.fightandfitness.com) can be found in SoMa about a block away from the Hall of Justice. Inside the small and musty gym, fighters train at all levels with instructors such as Bunkerd Faphimai, a three-time world champion in Muay Thai. A row of championship belts hangs from a 20-foot rafter.
Another Fairtex offshoot lies back across the bridge near downtown Oakland. Pacific Ring Sports (659 15th St., Oakl. 510-444-5269) offers many of the same classes as Fight and Fitness. The facility is about twice the size, however, and its boxing classes are among the most popular in the Bay Area. The room has a large weight room, a boxing ring, wrestling mats, and a bunch of punching bags. MMA classes are taught twice a week, while Muay Thai, jujitsu, and boxing remain mainstays of the curriculum.
World Team USA (2575 Ocean, SF. 415-333-3496, www.worldteamusa.com) claims to train MMA fighters, but its strong suit is Muay Thai. The MMA classes are a little more than an hour long, much shorter than at some of the other gyms, but this school offers a good base for someone who might not be looking to fight professionally and lots of kids' classes too.
Open Door Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (2935 Chapman, Oakl. 510-532-3803) is very close to I-880 and about a 15-minute walk from the Fruitvale BART Station.