Originally Published: July 16, 2010 12:19 a.m.
PRESCOTT VALLEY - Much as it has throughout the nation over the past decade, the sport of mixed martial arts (MMA) has risen in popularity throughout Arizona and the tri-cities area.
Twice in the past two years, Rage in the Cage events have been held in the area, with more than 4,000 fans attending the 2008 event at Tim's Toyota Center.
In both of those events, local fighter Danny Hilton, a three-and-a-half-year veteran of the sport, earned a victory in his match.
But Hilton is no stranger to success.
An accomplished jiu-jitsu fighter as well, Hilton has captured titles in three of the four tournaments he's entered, including winning the state title in Brazillian jiu-jitsu in Mesa earlier this month.
"I thought I was kind of a tough kid back in the day," Hilton said with a laugh. "Then, I went to this kickboxing school in Prescott - I realized I wasn't so tough after all."
The spark that arose from that first class still burns within Hilton, who is now a partner in the Northern Arizona MMA gym, 3327 Copperhill Road, formerly Brass Knuckles Fight Club.
In fact, Hilton is credited with saving the gym, now the only solely MMA gym in the area.
The gym was opened by current gym member Richard Swalve and Blue Edwards, who has since left. When he did, Hilton-who was cleaning the place for free fight lessons - stepped into the vacant partner vacancy, keeping the place afloat.
His reason was simple: He wanted to spread the sport he loves.
"It saved me; it saved a lot of my friends from getting into trouble," he said.
One of those friends was Daniel Hampton, a Prescott Valley native, who also trains at the gym.
"As a kid I started doing some bad things, and my mom introduced me to (mixed martial arts)," Hampton said. "When I was a kid, I had older guys running around me and I started to smoke. But I stopped smoking so I could keep up (in the gym).
"It takes up time, so I don't have time to be a little hoodlum," he added with a laugh.
Hilton said he recommends a year of training before aspiring fighters even attempt to get in the ring for a real fight.
Along with training, he recommends jiu-jitsu as well, both as training and to pursue competitively.
"You're not going to get punched, but you're still getting that adrenaline rush," he said of the tournaments.
He said he starts new fighters at the gym slowly, integrating the basics of technique and strategy bit by bit, allowing the student to absorb all of the information and get it right before moving on.
"We throw them in there, but we don't throw them in there to get beat up," he said. "We just start out with the basics. We teach them how to punch, the mechanics and such."
When Edwards and Swalve first begin training fighters at the gym, they had between 35 and 45 students.
Now, the gym trains only around 15, but those 15 are truly dedicated, both Hilton and Swalve said.
"A lot of people get burned out (from training)," Swalve said. "People want to come in and train and want to fight; then they come in and find out it's not nearly as easy as they think it will be."
Hilton and Swalve hope to advance the sport in the area through the gym, reaching out to younger and older aspiring fighters alike.
Both love the sport, including the way it challenges participants physically and mentally.
"It's everything. It's grappling, it's wrestling," Hilton said. "A lot of high school wrestlers, college wrestlers don't really have much to go to besides (the WWE) or Olympic wrestling. This targets them. It's really the ultimate way. It's pure fighting."
He added, "I would like to see this become more mainstream. For the younger generation, it's an up-and-coming sport, but it's still in its infancy and people don't quite understand it yet.
"It's a wonderful thing, just the discipline and physical aspect of it. It's like a chess match."