Full Review: Though there are numerous arguments about the history of Brazilian jiu jitsu, most people would agree that the majority of its early development took place in Rio de Janeiro. This is where Carlos Gracie and his younger brothers founded the Academia Gracie. It is where Carlson and Rolls famously taught in the same building. Gracie Barra began its global journey from here, as did Gracie Humaita. Nova Uniao, combining lineages from both Carlson and Oswaldo Fadda, also began in Rio. For many years, the Mundials were held there too, at the Tijuca Tennis Club.
You could perhaps argue that the centre of BJJ has shifted to the United States, more specifically California: that is where the major championships are now held and where many of the top schools hold court. However, most people you ask would probably still say that Rio is the beating heart of jiu jitsu, with a high concentration of top level schools, an incredible number of advanced black belts all training on the same mats and a rich BJJ history.
So, a trip to Rio is a dream for the many practitioners of BJJ who live thousands of miles away. Over the last few years, with the rapid growth of BJJ, this has become an increasingly well-resourced possibility. Connection Rio is a familiar name within BJJ circles: I myself know quite a few people who have stayed with Dennis Asche and speak highly of the service, such as my regular training partner Dónal here in Bristol. There are now loads of threads, blogs, articles, podcasts and videos discussing training in Rio.
Going to Brazil wasn't something I'd considered in much detail up until now, as I've always been a lot more interested in training in North America rather than South (hence my trip to Texas next month, which will hopefully be the first of many training holidays to the US). As I've more recently begun to pay more attention to the possibility of training in Brazil, it was timely that Aaron Sundquist contacted me about reviewing his site, RioJiuJitsuGuide.com.
an interview about the RioJiuJitsuGuide.com, Sundquist proudly told the Fightworks Podcast that his site "was created to fill a massive information gap." That isn't quite true anymore, as a little while before that interview was published, Hywel Teague launched TrainBJJinRio.com, which has much the same goals (interesting, Teague also made the same claim about being the first and only Rio academy guide, here). I will therefore be making several comparisons in the course of this review.
Nevertheless, it is true that before the emergence of these two sites, detailed and accurate information about the available academies in Rio was not easy to find. Both sites offer that information in two forms: free or paid. TrainBJJinRio is currently promising to release The Rio Jiu Jitsu Guide, a hard-copy book. Sundquist's separate site of the same name has an online guidebook, which costs $58 for six months of access. The free material on TrainBJJinRio replicates the paid material on RioJiuJitsuGuide to a certain extent, though at present the number of academies discussed on RioJiuJItsuGuide is much higher.
If you haven't subscribed, you'll know you've hit upon a paid section of RioJiuJitsuGuide.com when it tells you "sorry brother" (which incidentally would be more effective as something gender neutral, like "sorry friend". Women want to learn about training in Rio too, after all). Outside that barrier there are plenty of free resources. RioJiuJitsuGuide.com has many helpful articles on various aspects of training in Rio: the piece on transport looks particularly handy. There are also articles that draw upon the considerable store of data gathered by RioJiuJitsuGuide, such as a discussion of the average cost of training.
The Ranking doesn’t try to measure subjective perceptions. It doesn’t care if the instructor is friendly or if the view from the academy is nice. The ranking also doesn’t measure personal preferences. It can’t explain your friend’s allegiance to one academy over another.
But for the first time, there is an objective answer to a very simple question: What are the best Jiu-Jitsu academies in Rio de Janeiro?
For people who want to train in Rio de Janeiro, the Ranking is the best starting point for deciding where to train. For the academies in Rio, it’s a report card on where they stand in relation to the competition. And for others in the Jiu-Jitsu community, the Ranking is a snapshot of the status of Jiu-Jitsu in Rio de Janeiro in 2012.
The entries in the Guidebook also follow that data-driven perspective. I am not entirely convinced that decisions about where to train are based upon criteria quite that objective. Speaking personally, if I was making a decision about where to train, I would be far more interested in less quantifiable elements like atmosphere, personality (so in my case, I do care if the instructor is friendly) and teaching ability. However, it is reasonable to suggest that a good starting point is to provide an analysis of aspects which CAN be easily measured, like cost, mat space and location.
RioJiuJitsuGuide.com divides up that data into four groups: price, convenience, facilities and competitive performance. This is preceded by a general information section, which includes details on the neighbourhood, address, affiliate reach and whether or not the academy has a website. Usefully, it also tells you the focus of the gym (e.g., MMA and/or jiu jitsu), if it is primarily gi or nogi and perhaps most important, if it accepts foreign students. There are several colour photographs displaying the inside of the academy as well, followed by the names and ranks of the instructors.
Getting into the main data groups, price is a fairly straightforward criteria. For this to be useful, it has to be accurate. Prices change, so Sundquist will need to regularly check the prices of all the academies included on his site. This is one area in which a website can be superior to a hard-copy guidebook, because a website can immediately be updated to reflect the current situation. A hard-copy inevitably becomes dated, which is why there are so many editions of Rough Guide and Lonely Planet.
Helpfully the price section on RioJiuJitsuGuide also details whether there is an enrolment fee, if prices for locals and foreigners are different, then finally if it is possible to pay by credit card. Unfortunately, sometimes the answer is simply 'unknown', which is something that needs to be rectified. I would expect to get clarification if I was paying for the information, though I should also note that those unknowns are rare. It would also be useful to have a day and week rate as well, for travellers who are in Rio for a shorter period.
Convenience is an interesting choice for a guide based on hard data. The location of an academy may not be the best indicator of convenience as it depends entirely on where you happen to be staying. It is more useful to know that the academy has good transport connections and numerous sessions each day, and indeed this information is included in RioJiuJitsuGuide's set of criteria. There are entries for the distance from the nearest main northbound and southbound bus stops, along with the nearest metro stop and BikeRio station. In addition, each profile features a map and a streetview of the academy, with the entrance helpfully highlighted.
It looks like the map and academy entrance pictures comes directly from Google Streetview and is then uploaded directly to RioJiuJitsuGuide. So if you click on it, that simply opens up a larger picture. This is helpful to a degree, but a dynamic embedded map would be more useful, as you could then zoom in and out as well as plan directions from wherever it is you're staying. In fairness, there is an embedded map on the main ranking page, just not on the individual profiles.
The best part of the facilities section is that it clearly states how much space there is for rolling, measured by the number of sparring partners that can train at the same time. You're also told essential information such as if there are toilets and showers, as well as if the academy has bothered to provide facilities for female students. If you're interested, there are five that do not, with a further two who think women deserve less space than the men. Unusually, there is also one academy that apparently has no changing facilities at all.
I was not too sure about the competitive performance section, as it is based on an annual average of the last three years of affiliate placements. A school like Gracie Barra scores highly, but clubs which lack numerous affiliates do not. It would seem to make much more sense to list what medals students from that specific school had achieved, and ideally whether or not they were still training there. If a school has twenty medals but they're all from students who have since left or train at other affiliates, that does not tell me much about the current level (though it does tell me that there has been decent instruction at that school at some point).
I would have thought that some of the keys to making the Guidebook worth the money is making sure the information stays up to date, expanding the number of academies and also extending the profiles themselves. At present, each profile is mostly just a list of facts and figures. Cold data is something I like: I use spreadsheets for almost everything. However, when reading about a jiu jitsu academy, I don't just want to know objective facts. I also want subjective opinions about the training. I want historical details on the instructor and their team. I want personal anecdotes of training there.
In that light, the most significant difference that struck me between the academy profiles on TrainBJJinRio and RioJiuJitsuGuide.com – aside from that fact that RioJiuJitsuGuide has a lot more of them - is that the former also includes some of those intangible details. For example, when describing the Escola de Jiu Jitsu (which doesn't appear to be in the RioJiuJitsuGuide list), TrainBJJinRio states that the rolling is technical, a reflection of Ze Beleza's status as a 'teacher's teacher' who would benefit any aspiring BJJ instructor. After reading that, I would probably look to head to Ze Beleza's school before any of the others, because TrainBJJinRio's description immediately appeals to me, even if I didn't know anything else about the school.
BJJ has become an international sport. Even though it is still very much a niche activity – most people will still look at you blankly if you say "Brazilian jiu jitsu" or start making 'karate chop' motions – the number of interested people has grown exponentially. That also means there is money to be made even in the incidental elements of training.
RioJiuJitsuGuide is one of the first sites to try and capitalise on jiu jitsu tourism in Brazil: if you are going to Rio and want to train at lots of different academies, then at present RioJiuJitsuGuide.com is the most extensive resource available for finding where they are and whether or not they meet your needs. However, there are free resources catering to that same market, so RioJiuJitsuGuide.com will need to keep expanding and updating in order to secure its position.