Monthly Archives: March 2012

Notes on Names Divine and Christopher Bell

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[I’ve seen lots of musical acts so far this year—the more, the better. They’ve been mostly local, but plenty have come through on tour; here’s a few quick notes about two of my favorites:]

On a recent Monday evening—Feb. 13, to be exact—I had the great pleasure of watching a band from Chicago called Names Divine perform at Burro Bar. It was their second time playing this city, but surely not their last, as local audiences have already taken to them, and vice-versa. It was a crowd filled largely with other musicians. The Infinitesmal Records crew was out; bought a Kevin Lee Newberry CD, which is excellent and well-worth having.

Names Divine is a large band, led by singer/guitarist Kendra Calhoun, a spectral young woman who’s the only person I’ve ever heard cite Jendak as their favorite musician. Lukas Wolever played a drum-set that appeared to be missing its bass drum; it is unclear whether that was a matter of course or a concession to the inefficiencies of van-travel. The band has at times numbered up to nine; the show at Burro had seven, all shrouded in dark, a whooping whirlwind of sound built around Calhoun’s guitar, the clarinet of Kalina Malyszko (which rhymes with “Zbyszko”) and Ike Floor’s violin.

Names Divine has a two-song EP (containing the songs “Something Vague” and “Maybe Rotten”) available for download via Bandcamp, with more recordings planned for the year. The EP was originally released in a limited cassette-only edition of 100; the hemp cases, hand-woven by Calhoun, are useful for all kinds of things, but those versions are surely gone by now. Another two-track EP was released last December, and hopefully all this is building to a proper full-length release, along with another trip to Florida, at some point this year.

Watching Christopher Bell performing at Burro Bar, where he opened for the sumptuous Canary In The Coalmine on March 3, was something of a revelation. The music was excellent, but his means of making it was even more compelling. Bell’s approach to crafting a full-band sound for his solo sets begins with his instrument of choice, the cello. While almost all cellists prefer to play from a seated position, which is better for bowing, Bell plays his standing up, like an acoustic guitar, with more emphasis on finger-picking than the bow.

His style with the instrument reminds me, oddly enough, of the late jazz bassist Oscar Pettiford: After breaking his wrist playing baseball, Pettiford was unable to comfortably play the double-bass for a time, so he went with the cello; his recordings during that period are marked by a delicacy of sound that almost anticipated Chico Hamilton’s groundbreaking groups.

Bell’s cello is augmented with a self-contained wooden box full of effects pedals, as well as a keyboard that he uses to sample himself, as he crafts his beats in real-time. It was fun, and instructive, to watch each song come together, piece-by-piece, and it speaks to his dedication to performance that he does this for every show, instead of just playing over pre-recorded tracks. Despite his affable demeanor on-stage, which comes off somewhat geekish and slightly goofy, his command of the tools before his gave the performance a professional sheen.

His new album, Cashing In On My Mistakes (2012) represents a huge step forward—more songs, more complex, better-recorded. It’s the sound of a musician who, after years of experimentation, has finally found his mature sound. That was how he sounded at Burro. It would be interesting to hear him performing with Robin Rutenberg & Friends next time he’s here, just to hear the contrast in cello-work between him and Ms. Naarah Strokosch, who is my favorite cello player in the world right now—not because I’m some expert on the instrument, but because she’s cool, and so is that band’s music–a new CD out now.

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DVD Review: Sara Del Rey

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Best of Independent Wrestling Series Presents: Sara Del Rey (Smart Mark Video)

Is Sara Del Rey the best women’s wrestler in America? That the question even needs to be asked speaks to the depth of the women’s wrestling scene today. While the Japanese promotions have utilized their female talent as serious athletes pretty consistently for the past 30 years, the United States has been inconsistent, at best, in the modern era. That’s a sharp departure from territory days, when audiences could see legends like Mildred Burke, June Byers, Fabulous Moolah and the sublime Vivian Vachon plied their trade with no quarter given or taken.

With some notable exceptions (Moolah’s last run, GLOW, the AWA, portions of mid-‘90s WCW), women’s wrestling was put on the backburner in the ‘80s and ‘90s. While there were plenty of awesome wrestlers in that era—Sherri Martel. Medusa Miceli, Jackie Moore (aka Miss Texas)—women were used mostly to great effect as valets/managers and, in WWE, to get crossover appeal via Playboy spreads. Even with the arrival of ladies like Trish Stratus and Lita, the physical viability of the women’s roster was actively downplayed, with excessive gimmick matches and embarrassing storylines that stunk of misogyny and alienated audiences.

By most accounts, Fit Finlay was responsible for helping to transform the WWE’s women’s division into what is now one of the most important components of their overall product. The men’s magazine spreads still happen sometimes, but you’re more likely to see the Divas doing charity work, anti-bullying or pro-literacy campaigns, or maybe putting out yoga DVDs or sitting-in on martial-arts instructional tapes. Over the past decade, the match quality has spiked upward as the women have been allowed to wrestle more, wrestle longer and with more credibility. The current Divas division is probably their best ever—certainly in terms of sheer numbers; a Diva-for-Diva comparison between the 2012 roster and their counterparts from a decade ago would be interesting, some other time.

WWE’s success helped inspire the competition, as the emergence of TNA/Impact has offered another opportunity to evolve the structure of women’s wrestling, and their Knockouts division has regularly had some of the highest-rated segments of their programming. Their roster contains a nice mix of established stars from WWE and girls who came there straight from the many independent promotions out there. They are the only company to ever put a women’s steel cage match on TV, as far as I know. The Knockouts suffer from the same issues as everyone else who has to work with that material, but they manage to do well nonetheless.

The increased visibility of women’s wrestling on national TV via WWE and TNA, and the platform it creates for wider success, has acted as a rising tide lifting all boats—that is, the indies. WWE has an infrastructure for training new female wrestlers, but like TNA they mostly recruit women with some experience on the indie circuit; there is no real female equivalent of men’s amateur wrestling system, besides maybe Judo. So, for them, the independent circuit is truly essential, not just for learning their craft, but for perfecting it.

As good as the very best ladies in WWE and TNA are, their colleagues on the indies are as good, or better. And—with all due respect to Daizee Haze, Nicole Matthews, Madison Eagles, Melissa Anderson, MsChif, LuFisto, Portia Perez—Sara Del Rey is at the top of that list. She’s never worked for WWE but, at 31, it seems inevitable that she will. She’s already been able to claim key roles in the evolution of arguably the top three independent promotions in the country: Ring of Honor, Chikara and Shimmer.

Del Rey and Melissa Anderson are standing in the back of the picture, on either side of the chandelier.

For the record: Sara Del Rey is of no relation to singer Lana Del Rey. She was born Sara Amato, she was trained in California by a fella named Bryan Danielson, who at this writing is WWE’s World Heavyweight Champion. (He was also named PETA’s 2011 Athlete Of the Year, but that’s another subject.) In some ways, she can be considered a feminist icon of this era, with her insistence on training and wrestling right alongside the guys; given that they included folks like CM Punk, Chris Hero, Claudio Castagnoli and Samoa Joe, is commendable. She’s known for her arsenal of kicks and her finishing maneuver, the “Royal Butterfly”, best described as a double-underhook neck-crank into a suplex; it’s one of the signature moves of the women’s scene, right up there with the “Glam Slam”.

The greatness of “Queen of Wrestling” is celebrated in a recent triple-DVD release by Smart Mark Video. While not as fancy as the amazing releases being done by WWE, it’s no-nonsense, straightforward style fits perfectly with its subject. Disc one consists mostly of an interview conducted in late-2011; it runs nearly an hour, and features her talking about how she got into the business, telling stories—the usual shoot-interview fare. The rest of the package is filled-out by 21 matches recorded over the past six years of her career. She appears here for nine different promotions with 22 different opponents, including three men (Castagnoli, Icarus and Chikara founder Mike Quackenbush).

One thing that comes through crystal-clear from the DVD is Del Rey’s versatility. She can play power-games with smaller women like Daizee Haze and Portia Perez, but she can be the versatile underdog when facing opponents like Amazing Kong (who’s had a rough year as the WWE’s Kharma). As for the inter-gender matches, the best compliment one can give them is that they don’t come off as gimmicks. There are two matches with Castagnoli in the collection, and one almost forgets that Del Rey is a woman; it seems more like a match between two guys, albeit with a significant size advantage. Their second match here was one of his last for Chikara before going to FCW, and one of the promotion’s greatest moments; the post-match angle was also the last time anyone’s heard anything from Daizee Haze, who’s really one of the best performers in all of pro-wrestling in the last few years.

Eight of the last nine matches on the DVD are from her run with the BDK in Chikara, starting with one of my favorite matches ever: Del Rey and Daizee Haze against Amazing Kong and Raisha Saeed. (Melissa Anderson appears in four matches, more than anyone else; Haze and Castagnoli appear three times.) She tags with Castagnoli against Quackenbush and Manami Toyota, widely-viewed as the best women’s wrestler of all-time, and later faces off against current Shimmer champion Madison Eagles. Also included is her match with Quackenbush in the semi-finals of the 12Large Summit tournament that ultimately crowned Eddie Kingston as Chikara’s inaugural Grand Champion. I’d also like to point out that Tim Donst’s commentary in the Del Rey vs. Icarus match is a highlight of the whole package.

WWE and TNA have so far been remiss in featuring their women’s rosters on DVD, in part because neither company has really given any of their women time to put together enough material to do such a thing. Of course, both companies have enough to each do at least one nice historical overview of the divisions. Ratings and web-hits would suggest the market is ripe, but we’ll see; a rumored Trish-Lita “Rivalries” package would be an interesting start. More so than any DVD package released so far, this collection finely skims the cream of women’s wrestling in America, and makes a pretty compelling case that Sara Del Rey is, as the cliché goes, “every bit as good as she says she is.” For those looking to get themselves up to speed with the best crop of women’s wrestlers in American history, this release is a great place to start.

sheltonhull@gmail.com; March 12, 2012

Notes on Chris Brown, Rihanna and notable woman-beaters of recent history…

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Anyone who’s spent any portion of the past couple of years perusing either my Facebook page (arguably the greatest of its kind, ever) or my recently award-winning Twitter feed (thanks again, Jax Mag!) can discern two facts straightaway: 1) I love pro-wrestling; 2) I hate Chris Brown. If I need to explain why, I can only offer congratulations on getting out of your vegetative state, or GITMO, whichever applies to your specific case. My fiery distaste for this glorified minstrel was inflamed yet again by his feuds with WWE Champion CM Punk and country singer Miranda Lambert (both of whom could probably kick his ass), as well as the news that he’s collaborated on two new tracks by Rihanna, who of course is best-known for being repeatedly punched in the face by Chris Brown, and not really minding that much.

To each his own—and these are two peas in a pod. Whereas Brown has spent the past few years trying to balance his need for public absolution against his obvious inability to change the mentality that got him that situation to begin with, Rihanna has spent that time glorifying her abuser and his type in songs, videos and elaborate stage shows built around the single unifying theme of all of Rihanna’s music: S&M. The world erred in viewing that incident as domestic violence, and Rihanna as a helpless victim of an abruptly abusive male. In reality, the beating was just one small, public part of a long-term sadomasochistic relationship between two people who grew up being abused, and whose profession requires them to project self-destructive messages to the urban fans who, being rubes in the most fundamental sense, take their gimmicks seriously. Their job is to help normalize this shit, and make it cool.

The Chris Brown camp—aka the “I don’t hit girls, but if any girl ever gives me a halfway plausible excuse, I look forward to doing so” crowd—makes a very good point in his defense: He did nothing unusual in the larger context of pop-culture. To single him out is unfair, and hypocritical. Brown is not the first famous guy caught beating the crap out a woman, but he is the first who’s ever had to apologize more than once, if only because there were pictures.

A short list would fill this column; a full and detailed list would fill this entire issue, and it’s surprising no one’s actually tried that yet. After looking into the subject, I was disturbed to see that many of my favorite artists, writers and musicians hit their wives, girlfriends, or even strangers; some are well-known, others less so. This list is meant to include only convictions or plea bargains, admitted incidents, incidents that occurred in front of witnesses, or individuals who have been accused by multiple women.

Marv Albert, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, Chris Benoit, Big Pun, Biggie Smalls, Riddick Bowe, Jackson Browne, Jim Brown, Bobby Brown, Glenn Campbell, Jose Canseco, Nick Carter, John Daly, Miles Davis, Elijah Dukes, Eminem, Mel Gibson, Jimi Hendrix, Terence Howard, Joe Jackson, Rick James, Sean Penn, Jason Kidd, Sugar Ray Leonard, Lex Luger, Sugar Ray Robinson, Tommy Lee, John Lennon, Norman Mailer, Moses Malone, Steve McQueen, Shawne Merriman, Harry Morgan, Mos Def, Bill Murray, Tito Ortiz, Pablo Picasso, Kirby Puckett, Busta Rhymes, Axl Rose, Randy Savage, George C. Scott, Charlie Sheen, Christian Slater, Dick Slater, Wesley Snipes (accused of beating Halle Berry), Phil Spector, Kevin Sullivan, Tone Loc, Stalin, Daryl Strawberry, Hunter S. Thompson, Ike Turner, Mike Tyson, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Sid Vicious, Yanni. And you know who was one of the most notorious woman-beaters in recent memory? Mr. “peace and love” himself–John Lennon! Hell, even Ric Flair has been accused of domestic violence. (Note: For legal reasons, and to save space, no local examples are cited here, but everyone knows who I’m talking about.)

What can we learn from all this? Nothing.

Let’s also note that the Chris Brown/Rihanna debacle points to a common problem in dealing with domestic violence: What do you do when the woman forgives and embraces her accuser? Rihanna fans who were disgusted by the beating she took have now been forced, by her, to put money into the pocket of the man who did it. All her so-called “friends” and family who went to her birthday party just a couple weeks ago were compelled not only to tolerate Brown’s presence as he nuzzled up to her, but also to reportedly sign confidentiality agreements saying they wouldn’t tell the media he was there—and they did it!

And, lest the world come down too hard on Rihanna’s deplorable behavior in all this (which sets a new low, even in this category), let’s not forget that things could be worse. The example of Halle Berry looms, pointing toward her future, in a best-case scenario. At worst, well, one shudders to think. Hopefully she does, as well.

OccupyJax: The End of the Beginning

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Much like music (especially jazz), politics has been an obsession of mine since adolescence, which now covers a period of nearly 20 years. And in that whole time, I’d say that the first Occupy Jacksonville rally on October 8, 2011 was without question one of the greatest days in my life as a political junkie. The part of me that once scoffed at Hunter S. Thompson’s assertion that politics is “Better Than Sex” can now almost appreciate his sentiments, having seen that movement develop over the past six months or so, and the tremendous upside it’s had since.

Within a few weeks, members of Occupy had decided to take up the full-time, 24/7 encampments that defined the movement nationally, voting almost unanimously to begin the Occupation downtown on November 5, 2011. The four-month anniversary of the Occupation’s start arrived on March 5, but by that point there was no Occupation to celebrate, because the General Assembly voted the evening of March 3 to break down the camp two days earlier. I walked by, during a break in the Warehouse Studios benefit show at Thief in the Knight, and found out shortly after. I sat with four of the leaders at Burrito Gallery, debriefing over tacos and beer. It wasn’t a sad time—more like watching a friend’s graduation.

OccupyJax was one of the last of its kind in this country; where other cities saw the end weeks ago, ours stuck around long enough to do what no one ever expected was possible—to end it on their terms. Having run the most progressive political campaign this state has seen yet in this century, I can appreciate the patience and stamina that entailed. (Funny: While writing this column, at 6:23am on the morning of the 5th, news broke via WJXT that Occupiers in West Palm Beach had chained themselves to an old courthouse building downtown—further proof that, no matter what the haters say, they’re absolutely serious.)

So, what was accomplished in this stage of the movement, besides pedagogy? Well, it offered a disgusting display of widespread, coordinated police misconduct, which has been called out by professionals in that industry–like the police chief of Seattle during the WTO protests of 1999; the actual inventor of pepper-spray (who personally trained 10,000 officers to train most of the others) went on the radio to cite multiple cases of his own directions regard the use of these chemicals being disregarded. Had he not done that, we’d probably not know that the tear-gas being used to brutalize pro-democracy protesters in Egypt was actually supplied by US corporations—a useful tidbit.

It showed folks that even our most liberal politicians aren’t acting quite as progressively as their supporters might “hope”, and that conservatives are willing to violate the Constitution if it means suppressing political dissent. Occupy should have been the beginning of a progressive surge that stymies the upward trajectory of, how you say, “lunatic right-wingers”, in this state and nationwide. Instead it stands right now as another example of how Democrats have kept a defensive, compliant posture instead of challenging for those big-money spots the President needs to implement the policies he’s promised.

And it provided many thousands of people (especially young people) with direct, useful experience in political science, which they can carry on into the high-schools, colleges and professional careers; it’s the birth of the new political elite.  Around the country, friendships were forged, love affairs begun and ended, strengthened and made more complex (in ways surely both good and bad). It won’t be long before the first batch of Occubabies is born; sadly, the first one died, in utero, after its mother was tear-gassed and kicked in the stomach while Occupying Seattle—the movement’s first martyr.

Occupy also generated millions (if not billions) in economic stimulus for most cities where it occurred. Locally, the failed initiative to give $1.25 million in taxpayer money to JP Morgan Chase was stalled-out in large part because of the efforts of OccupyJax, along with Concerned Taxpayers of Duval County and others. Personally, I think it was great for downtown business, but others would certainly disagree.

OccupyOne thing is certain, here and nationally: The end of formal Occupation does not, in any way, mean the end of the movement itself. In fact, they may be now poised to achieve on a level previously unseen in the realm of progressive politics. Having already done the impossible, the next logical step is moving on to the extremely unlikely, and there is no better time than 2012. All the critics, who wanted the Occupiers off the sidewalks so badly, may now end up wishing they had just left well enough alone.

sheltonhull@gmail.com; March 6, 2012

Interview: Luiz Palhares and the Gracie Jiu Jitsu legacy

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Passing the Torch: Luiz Palhares and the Gracie Jiu Jitsu legacy

Luiz Palhares, in-studio.

Fight fans will remember that day, two decades ago, as if it were yesterday: November 12, 1993. Denver hosted the inaugural Ultimate Fighting Championship that day, and Americans were introduced to the dominant martial-art of the last 20 years. Brazilian Jiu Jitsu was already 50 years old by that point, yet fighters tasked with countering it got played like cheap fiddles, over and over. What began in a little facility in Southern California has now become a global industry as big as anything of its type, ever, and Duval is helping to lead the way.

Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is, along with kickboxing and amateur-style wrestling, the foundation of MMA as a sport and as a distinct, uniquely American art-form with real, inestimable value. Its practical applications are obvious, in an increasingly unstable world; close-quarters combat is what civilians face on the streets, and if you’re ever in a situation where escape is not an option, BJJ will save your life. It’s being taught to police officers, football players, pro-wrestlers; even the US Military has sought to integrate BJJ into methods that are already pretty gosh-darned effective. The Gracies have started teaching it to kids as part of their anti-bullying stance, and women are embracing it in unprecedented numbers, to the point that women’s MMA is itself a multi-million-dollar business.

The State of Florida has one of the country’s biggest and best BJJ scenes, with Northeast Florida right out in-front. Most of the major cities (Orlando, Tampa, Miami) have good schools now, and smaller cadres are training everywhere else, especially at college campuses, YMCAs and such. Many people consider Luiz Palhares one of the very best Jiu jitsu teachers in the US today, and his skills will be on display when his Jacksonville Gracie Jiu Jitsu studio in Mandarin (founded 2007) hosts the 5th Annual Jax BJJ Open on Saturday, March 24.

A native of Rio de Janeiro, Palhares began training under the late Rolls Gracie from 1976-82, then continued his studies under his brothers Carlson and, since 1982, Rickson, widely viewed as the most dominant professional fighter of his generation. Palhares, 53, is currently a 7th Degree Black Belt; he’s taught in the US and Canada, as well as Paris, London and Belfast, and his students have included US Army Rangers, Green Berets and Navy SEALs. He was the multi-time champ of Rio, the 1998 Brazilian National Champion and the Pan American Champion for 2000, 2003 and 2004, all in the super-heavyweight senior division. In the big, wide world of BJJ, it doesn’t get any more authentic than Luiz Palhares. He’s worn the black belt for almost 30 years, and he earned it from the absolute best. His presence speaks directly to Northeast Florida’s growing international appeal.

SDH: What’s it like to learn the art-form in such an intense environment as Rio in the 1970s and ‘80s? Was it as tough as we’ve heard from legend (and the “Gracie In-Action” tapes)?

LP: The 1970s where a lot of fun even though they were intense, and I was fortunate to be present when the Gracie family challenged Karate, Tai Kwan Do and other martial arts styles to prove as Rolls did in the first 2 UFCs that jiu jitsu is the best martial arts to defend yourself. Also it was the same time that Brazilian women started to wear the teeny bikini, so it was tough to dedicate the hours we did. It was a very intense and dangerous environment.

 

SDH: Most fans never got to see Rolls Gracie, and even those of us who know a bit about the Gracie legacy know very little about him, but he was your first teacher. What was he like? How would he feel to see how far Gracie Jiu Jitsu has come over the past 30 years?

LP: Rolls was very important for the development of jiu jitsu because he was studying different martial arts such as wrestling, Sambo etc. and started to use the best techniques from these martial arts to mix with jiu jitsu. Besides this, he was one of the best competitors and one of the best coaches I saw in my life. He would be very proud to see jiu jitsu spread on all five continents. I’m sure he would be happy to know that all his students are traveling and teaching jiu jitsu all over the world.

 

SDH: What brought you to Florida, specifically Jacksonville? How long have you been here?

LP: I came to Florida for the warn weather, escaping from Virginia Beach where I was teaching the Navy SEALs and at a few schools. Since I was born and raised on the beach, I really missed that environment. I have now been living in Jacksonvlle for 5 years, opened two schools, one in Mandarin and the other one in Orange Park. Also, for more than four years I have been teaching at the JSO on a regular basis.

When the toughest men in the world want to get even tougher, they train in Gracie Jiu Jitsu...

SDH: What are your favorite and least-favorite things about living here?

LP: What I like most about Jacksonville are the people and the beach. What I hate is the traffic.

SDH: Could you explain to readers the differences, if any, between the Jiu jitsu associated with the Gracies and the style you teach? How much variety exists among the approaches taken by the trainers you’ve encountered?

LP: I have been teaching the jiu jitsu lifestyle, the same way I was taught by the Gracies. Jiu jitsu is a type of martial arts that continues to develop and I keep up to date on these new techniques for my students. This doesn’t mean that I left the roots of self-defense and I always explain to my students that martial arts is also about friendship and loyalty. There is a lot variety among the trainers, but a big concern is the large number of inexperienced instructors teaching jiu jitsu.

SDH: Who are some of your favorite students?

LP: It’s difficult to answer who my favorite students are, because I am teaching my two sons and most of my students are friends including the kids. If I start naming some of them I’m sure to forget others. Some of my students have gone on to start their own schools all over the US and Europe.

SDH: How would you assess the Jiu jitsu scene in Florida, relative to other parts of the country? How many schools/students would you estimate there are right now?

LP: The jiu jitsu scene in Florida is over-crowded, which speaks to the success of the true jiu jitsu lifestyle. There are hundreds of jiu jitsu schools across Florida with tens of thousands of students.

SDH: If someone reading this wanted to begin training in Jiu jitsu, what can they do to prepare themselves before calling you? Does one need to be at a particular level of conditioning first, or can someone out-of-shape start immediately?

LP: Jiu jitsu was made for the weak, out of shape or regular people who do not have enough time to work out to defend themselves on the street. Remember jiu jitsu is not about strength, it’s about leverage and technique. Anyone who brings a copy of this article to either one of my two locations, or the JSO, can have one free week.

SDH: Who would you consider the top-five best Brazilian Jiu jitsu practitioners active today, and/or of all-time?

LP: I consider Carson, Royler, Rolls, Rickson and Helio Gracie all-time best jiu jitsu practitioners. Active today among my top best are Roger Gracie, Michae lLanghi, Lucas Lepri, and Rodolfo Vieira.

http://www.luizpalharesjiujitsu.com/

http://www.facebook.com/jacksonvillegraciejiujitsu

http://www.facebook.com/pages/Luiz-Palhares-Jiu jitsu/160973310596945

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Luiz_Palhares

http://www.bjjgrandprix.com

sheltonhull@gmail.com; March 12, 2012