Originally Published: April 11, 2012 9:46 p.m.
Danny Hilton strutted into a Prescott Brazilian jiu-jitsu club head high, cocky even.
This was an intermediate class and he was a beginner, but so what? Hilton - this was six years ago - had bested bigger and stronger men in fistfights coming of age in Prescott Valley. He was a tough guy, right?
"I got beat up, beat up good," said Hilton recalling his baptism by blows six years ago. "It was really humbling. I couldn't believe some of the stuff they did to me."
Hilton dedicated himself to learning jiu-jitsu and, later, its syncretistic offspring, mixed martial arts, better know as MMA. His amateur record is 3-2, both losses by decision.
Hilton's sixth fight is Saturday at the Worldwide Mixed Martial Arts tournament at Tim's Toyota Center, 3201 N. Main St., in Prescott Valley.
Fights start at 7 p.m., and Hilton, who drops to 155 pounds to qualify as a lightweight, faces off against Preston Harris, a 3-0 amateur fighter from Tucson.
One of his longtime coaches, Jon Kessler, now of GD Jiu-Jitsu Prescott, will be in his corner.
Kessler's been their since day one, but doesn't remember Hilton's initial pummeling.
"To be honest, a lot of people have first days like that," Kessler said. "Most people don't stick around. Danny's one of the guys who struck around, and it's dedication and hard work that earns an impression."
Danny Hilton strolled into Tim's Toyota Center wide-eyed, apprehensive even.
It was his first amateur mixed martial arts fight a few years ago, and oh my. Hilton was paralyzed by the sight of thousands of people in his hometown, staring at him. He'd choke, right?
"One of my coaches slapped me in the face. 'Don't even look at them,' he said," Hilton said. "And I didn't hear them. All I could hear during the match were my coaches in my corner."
And he won.
Despite these examples, Hilton's relationship with his coaches has little overlap with the fighter-coach relationship in the "Rocky" movies.
"They're not yelling at me. They're telling me I'm doing good, that, OK, I need to switch to such and such," Hilton said. "They're talking to me like a normal person, and somehow that cuts through everything else."
Perhaps this reflects the philosophy driving Kessler and Steve Judson, Hilton's other primary coach, also of GD Jiu-Jitsu Prescott, which shares space with Captain CrossFit on Sixth Street.
"It's a trait of our school, of our lineage, that we try and cultivate that mental state and train for a precise plan for almost every situation," Kessler said.
"Brazilian jiu-jitsu has gotten popular because of the UFC," Judson said, referencing the Ultimate Fighting Championship, one of the predominant mixed martial arts fight promoters. "It's a martial art in its own right though, not just one tool, and it's a necessity (for a fight) on the ground."
Hilton has gone out of his way to compete in sole martial arts competitions in order to refine those skills.
"It's not that hard to separate them. It's not like I'll want to get on top of a guy and punch him in jiu-jitsu," Hilton said. "It's about the mental preparation."
Perspective and prospective
Danny Hilton walked into The MMA Lab in Glendale excited, giddy even.
The guy he was sparring with was Benson Henderson, a UFC lightweight title contender, but so what? Hilton - this was seven months ago - was ready to train with another tier of mixed martial artists. He was a different kind of tough guy now, right?
"I ate it, big time," Hilton said, laughing at how Henderson, now the UFC lightweight champion dominated the match. "I sparred with him, right off the bat, and, yeah, I lost, but it was good for me."
The two attended the same church in Glendale and got closer during training sessions.
"He trains three times a day. He lives at the gym," Hilton said. "I really respect and admire him."
Hilton's tapered workouts for the upcoming fight since moving back to Prescott Valley three weeks ago, but plans to kick his training regimen into high gear again soon.
Right now, Harris is on his mind, though. Or, rather, fighting in general.
"To be honest, I don't know much about my opponent," Hilton said. "There's not much tape of him, but he's undefeated, so obviously he's doing something right."
It should be a good matchup, his coaches said, and they believe in their fighter over the long haul.
"Danny's a good guy and has a lot of potential," Kessler said. "If he can keep a strong focus and discipline, I really think he can prove something for himself here."
Hilton is approaching a tipping point, Judson said.
"Danny's at that point where he knows enough to keep himself safe, but I guarantee his ground game will have a two-fold to three-fold increase in just a few months," he said.
Hilton's calm and assured about his next match.
"I think it'll be a good fight, but I'm going to win," he said flexing a Cheshire grin. "I'm not trying to be cocky like I used to be, but you've got to be confident to win. At least 85 percent of fighting, if not all of it, and I'm prepared."