SARATOGA SPRINGS — Karate, judo, jiu-jitsu, wrestling, Muay Thai. You name it, and Don Walton likely utilized it during his professional MMA debut on Feb. 18.
Walton, a coach and trainer at the Saratoga Academy of Elite Martial Arts, defeated Jason LaPage as part of the Battle in Barre 9 in Barre, Vermont. The match was Walton’s first professional fight.
“It hasn’t become real yet,” said Walton of his victory. “It still is kind of sinking in a little bit. But it’s just nice to be able to watch all the years of suffering and hard work that I’ve been through finally come to fruition, and show something.”
Walton has been training at the Saratoga Academy of Elite Martial Arts since 2012, beginning as a student. Walton is a black belt in Kyokushin karate, a four-stripe brown belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, a yellow belt in judo, and will be receiving his jiu jitsu black belt soon, said Saratoga Academy of Elite Martial Arts head instructor Jim Bruchac.
Eventually, looking to increase his skills, he headed west to advance his training at Kings MMA in Huntington Beach, California. There, he worked with highly acclaimed trainer Rafael Cordeiro, who has trained fighters such as Anderson Silva, Maurício Rua, Wanderlei Silva, and more.
“It just was really amazing,” said Walton of the experience. “I just fell in love with it, I loved everything about it.”
After the COVID-19 pandemic hit, however, Walton ultimately moved back to the Capital Region. Initially, Walton was unsure if he wanted to continue fighting, but said the itch eventually returned.
Walton’s professional debut would not come without its hurdles, however. His initial opponent dropped out due to an injury, and Walton’s first professional opportunity did not come until a year later.
Walton said in order to stay prepared, he simply tried “not to focus too much on the fight.”
“I tell people, if all you do is focus on trying to be a fighter, you’re going to burn yourself out,” said Walton. “You physically and mentally cannot be focused on fighting all the time.”
That’s where his role as a teacher comes in. Walton said he focuses most of his time on being a martial artist and a teacher at the Saratoga Academy of Elite Martial Arts, saying it is “more rewarding” to watch another person develop their skills.
“I really enjoy teaching more than anything else. Fighting is really fun, don’t get me wrong,” Walton said. “But it’s more rewarding to me to watch someone else develop themselves in a way, where I get to play a role in that myself.”
Walton runs the Academy’s muay thai programs for both adults and children, and is a camp instructor at the martial arts school at Ndakinna Education Center, Bruchac said.
“We have some very competitive kids in both those arenas,” said Bruchac. “Right after winning his fight, he was helping us run one of our youth camps, our nine-year-old group.”
Eventually, the day of Walton’s fight came, and saw him utilize a wide variety of moves in order to capture a win via leg lock in the second round. Walton said the skill learned from a variety of styles has been invaluable.
“In this fight, I got to use muay thai. I used karate, I used judo, I used wrestling, I used jiu-jitsu. Just everything that we do here,” said Walton.
Bruchac said Walton is ultimately fighting “for his students,” providing a real-world example of the moves and methods that the Academy teaches.
“To highlight what we teach at our school, to show things come to fruition in a real situation like a sports situation, and then be able to pass that on to his students,” said Bruchac. “He fully illustrated all that we offer at the school in brilliant fashion.”
“For me, I like to say this is the example,” Walton said. “You see now why I require you to understand judo, why I require you to understand wrestling. … It’s not just about punching people, you have to also be able to deal with every possible scenario.”
As for the future, Walton said that while he has been offered more professional opportunities, he will likely only fight “once or twice a year.”
“At the end of the day, my career is a coach and a martial artist,” Walton said. “I hope to get back in there again before the end of the year. But right now, we’ve got other guys on our team that I’m trying to help bring up. I’ve got some guys that might be fighting in March and April, so I want to help those guys first.”
Walton said that ultimately, professional fights are a way for him to test himself.
“For me, I like to push myself to the limit and just be able to find out, how far can I go? How far can I push my body?” said Walton. “Win or lose, I don’t care. It’s all about me testing myself and my skills. It’s not about me proving anything to anyone other than myself.”