Poplar Bluff Black Belt Acadamy
Poplar Bluff Black Belt Academy
Poplar Bluff Missouri is home to an ATA franchise owned by 4th degree black belt Tony Page. While I am always skeptical about the ATA in any incarnation, this school is a breath of fresh air for the entirety of taekwondo, and doubly so for the ATA. Tonyís club emphasizes conditioning, rewards for hard work and hard work alone, and sparring that is consistent, alive, and hard. Tonyís club isnít pretty by any stretch of the imagination. I have seen room for many improvements in the facility, and he does have a shortage of instructors. However, if this club were the organizational standard for the ATA, there just might be a Songham TKD tag for Bullshido.
First up is financing. Contracts are one year at less than 60 dollars a month with a 100 dollar cancellation fee. Month to month pricing is ten dollars above the contract price, and the first month is contract price regardless. Also, assistance has been provided in the past for families who have come into legitimate financial difficulties. Here, the goal is good training and achieving goals. Making money is secondary.
Second, the facility itself: The club building looks like a church as you approach it. In fact, if I didnít know that Tony had built this club from the ground up, I would assume he bought an old church. Upon entering the building, there is a small welcome desk and kidís play/TV room to your right as well as the club management office space and pro shop. To your left is a trophy alcove full of ATA event awards spanning tournaments from the local to world level. Also displayed is a small autograph collection from noteworthy MMA fighters. On either side of this alcove are the dressing rooms. The menís room houses two toilet stalls, one shower stall and no lockers. I feel this is the first place the club facility is lacking. I would feel better with a row of basic lockers and a few more shower stalls. The training area is accessed through a large double door in the lobby with large windows and chairs in the lobby side looking through to the training floor. This keeps parents in the loop but out of the way of training. The training hall itself is a reasonable size of 30ish by 50ish with two walls being mirrored and a very high quality hardwood floor that has four sparring rings painted onto the floor itself. Also, a ballet barre has been installed along one non-mirrored wall. If not for all the martial arts gear, TKD belts, and posters/certificates lining the walls, one could reasonably assume this was a ballet studio.
Third, is the equipment. Lining the walls are piles of wrestling mats, standing heavy bags, Tupperware storage bins full of boxing gloves, instep protectors, head gear, focus mitts, kicking ďpork chopĒ targets, weapons racks, a small stereo sound system, and grappling dummies. All of this equipment is very much so usable and in good condition, but a large portion of it is visibly worn and aged. This isnít so much of a problem though as most people are bringing their own gear anyway. My number one complaint about the actual training room is that the hard wood floors are very foreign to newcomers who have trained on puzzle mats and seamless mats at other schools, and the folding wrestling mats are not completely uniform, and are stored in such a way as to be difficult to sort out for attaching them to each other. The smooth hardwood floors also lead to the mats that are not velcroed to each other sliding apart with relative ease.
Next up are the classes themselves. The schedule consists of childrenís classes, beginner teens and adults, ďblack belt clubĒ classes, camouflage belt and above sparring class, open mat afternoons, and MMA/BJJ. Yes you read that right; an ATA school has an MMA program. This is a no bullshit, hard contact, serious competitor class. Almost all of the members of the MMA program have winning records in state MMA and kickboxing events. A fair number of the fighters also hold title belts for various promotions and weight classes.
~A side note about the MMA program;
Participation in MMA/BJJ is not required for the TKD black belt curriculum.~
The childrenís class consists of basic coordination exercises, introduction to taekwondo techniques, simple conditioning, and exercises disguised as games. The beginnerís class contains all the same basic principles of the childrenís class, however, it is more straightforward with its approach to instruction.
Next, is the black belt club class. This is by far the most popular class. All belts are welcome with a large variety of activities for smaller groups of students of various ability levels. Within this class you will find simple, light contact sparring, hapkido drills, forms, focus mitt and kicking pad/shield work, weapons forms/light sparring and bag work. Discipline and hard training is a hallmark of this class. The quality of striking instruction in this class is exceptional for taekwondo, and many national TKD champions have come from this very class.
Next up is the camo belt and up sparring class. This class is no joke. Participants are using solid gear, including 14 oz boxing gloves and good headgear, as well as decent instep/shin protectors. In addition to this, chest protectors are encouraged to be worn (required in competition, get used to wearing it now) and fore arm protection is suggested. There are no punches to the head. Nor are clinches allowed, however, this is more than made up for with hard and uninterrupted contact for a trio of 2 minute rounds. For a tippy tap TKD point fighter, this is 6 minutes of hell on earth.
The dress code for the classes is comfortable work out clothing. Most people are in t-shirts and track pants or gym shorts. Rank belts are worn consistently and club issued doboks are only required for competition, testing, and demos. Most club members opt to not wear doboks or gis and go for a more modern and utilitarian approach. Traditionalists do exist in the club though.
Finally, in regards to the classes, positive reinforcement is always on the forefront of every class with every student. If you arenít acting like an asshole, youíre giving your best try, and showing a want to learn and grow, then youíre getting all the pats on the back and congrats for every achievement, big or small. Aside from a few tweens who need attitude adjustments, the overall spirit of the classes stays very positive, supportive, and nurturing. Everybody wants everybody else to reach their goals, regardless of what those goals are.
The MMA/BJJ classes are in a category all there own and really deserve their own review scores. These classes meet twice a week for 2 hours each class. There is very little crossover between the TKD and MMA students. The MMA students have copious amounts of respect for the TKD students, but seem to have the attitude of having outgrown traditional training or black belts.
The grappling instruction in this group is adequate. It is not elite level instruction, but an interested student can gain a fair amount of skill with no gi grappling and wrestling in this class. It is not uncommon to train with people of different sizes and weight classes as the class sizes are volatile. This works in good favor to the little guys getting good experience, as they will often wind up sparring with people much larger than themselves. The striking instruction is rather simple. If you are doing something obviously wrong, then you will be corrected and drilled on it. But, for the most part, itís trial and error. Did you get hit? Did it hurt? Do you want to do that again? Lesson learned. Itís not my preferred method of striking training, but obviously it is working for these gentlemen as some of them are undefeated amateur kick boxers and most hold amateur MMA records that are respectable. The young men training here dream big. They know they are in a small town with limited resources and opportunity and see this as a ticket to better things. They are hungry and it shows. When I asked them if they had any people like myself training with them (a mediocre at best fighter who just enjoys training) they responded with, ďwell, we get a few of you guys around here. They usually quit after about a month. But some of us here suck, but we love punching kicking and choking, so we keep coming back to get ready for our first fight one day.Ē
Could you really ask for much more?
So, no, this is not your standard ATA club. Is it still a family friendly training club? Of course! Plenty of parents train with their children here. The mcdojo qualities are kept to a minimum, but they do exist. One must still deal with ATA politics if you want to be a tournament competitor. And, itís 2 hours south of St. Louis, so it is not very accessible to most people in the metro area. Also, these scores combine both the MMA and TKD programs. There are no weapons in MMA and the aliveness for the TKD should be a 7 and no score for grappling.