Gym of the Month: Valhalla ETC

By U of MMA Staff

Known for its picturesque Oceanside panoramas and idyllic, Sunday afternoon disposition, Santa Barbara is a college town that hosts both a youthful party community and an intellectual community of academics. Including the nearby Ojai and Montecito, Santa Barbara County has hosted a who’s who of Hollywood celebrities, including Brad Pitt, John Travolta, Charlize Theron, Kirk Douglas, and Oprah Winfrey.

Despite this pace of life, Michael Mac Donald’s Valhalla ETC (Elite Training Center) sits proudly in town as a place to learn a myriad of styles, from traditional martial arts like Kung Fu to the elements of MMA (Brazilian jiu-jitsu, kickboxing) and full-on cage fundamentals.

Valhalla ETC owner / head trainer Mike Mac Donald was a kick boxer and MMA fighter in the 1990’s and 2000’s. (Photo Courtesy of Mike Mac Donald)

Raised in nearby Oxnard, CA, Mac Donald trained in the martial arts since childhood, and became a pro kickboxer in 1992. By that point, he was going to school at the University of California Santa Barbara, earning a degree in psychology. Upon graduation, however, rather than going down the clinical or academic road, Mac Donald chose to continue building on his martial arts and fighting career, and in 1995 he opened up Santa Barbara Martial Arts.

“I just decided to finish up at UCSB with a psychology degree and I said ‘I want to open up a martial arts studio.’ I was fighting at the time, so it wasn’t really that big of a deal. The Valhalla name came about in 2009. We’ve been Valhalla ever since,” he says.

Although MMA (then known as ‘shootfighting’ and/or ‘NHB’ (No Holds Barred’) was in its infancy at the time, it was during the mid- to late-90’s when martial artists started opening up to the idea of experimenting with different styles and pioneering techniques. MMA wasn’t yet a discipline or style itself, and as such, no single martial art reigned as the standard.

As a kickboxer, Mac Donald had built an impressive 9-0 record. In wanting to expand his fighting repertoire, he started training in Russian sambo wrestling. He applied to enter one of the UFC’s tournaments and got ‘the call’ twice, though neither opportunity worked out. He was invited to enter UFC 5, but was sidelined at the time with a broken hand, and again for UFC 7, when they offered him a rising Brazilian fighter named Marco Ruas.”

“They weren’t offering any money. They said ‘you’d be seeded against Marco. You gotta get your own guys out there,’ he explained. “At the time, I just couldn’t see it working for me. So I just stuck with my kickboxing locally.”

Mac Donald eventually fought five MMA matches, including several undocumented underground fights, but by 2004, just before the first ‘boom period’ for North American MMA, he was making the transition from fighter to coach. His final bout was as a last-minute replacement for the original incarnation of the WEC.

“The one thing I can brag about, MMA and kickboxing, win or lose, I’ve never let a fight go to decision,” he reflects. “I’ve never heard a judge’s scorecard in my life, when it came to an actual match.”

The Valhalla ETC community is made up of people with all levels of interest in martial arts. (Photo Courtesy of Mike Mac Donald)

Mac Donald is adamant that Valhalla ETC is not a ‘fight gym,’ but a martial arts training center that includes a fight team. The website establishes this first and foremost, as visitors are forced to select ‘Family Martial Arts’ or ‘MMA’ options on the homepage. The gym’s schedule reveals classes designated for women and traditional martial arts classes for three different kids age groups, in addition to their individual and combined striking and grappling classes. Not that any of this is particularly unique to a martial arts studio, but especially in a place like Santa Barbara, an openness to the public is key.

“[I tell] every single person that wants to become a fighter, ‘If you want to work in this quality environment, you will make sure not to scare people away. Because the people who are just doing this as a hobby are the ones making sure that you have a great facility to train in,’” explains Mac Donald


That said, advertising MMA was also an important part of Valhalla’s growth.

“I had a lot of guys who wanted to turn this thing into a fight gym,” he recalls. “I was kind of steering away from it, because I came from a traditional side.”

“One of the guys who was helping me pick up the mats here was the one who convinced me to teach,” recalls Mac Donald. “[He said] ‘tell everybody that you teach MMA, and that you’ve fought MMA, and they’ll come.’ I thought I was going to scare everybody away. I went from a facility that was about 1,200 square feet to what you see now. Double the size and a second floor. I was like ‘wow.’

Clearly, in Mac Donald’s view, there is more to martial arts than just fighting. So it shouldn’t come as any surprise that his approach to coaching is more laissez-faire and organic than someone with a structured curriculum, mandatory classes, and team tryouts. Game plans are unique and customized to every fighter, and not even necessarily fully designed by him. Sparring and training partners are called upon based on the fighter’s needs. The only tenant Mac Donald applies in each instance is to accentuate the strengths, protect and defend the weaknesses. Or, in his words, “don’t let your opponent at your weaknesses.”

Valhalla ETC fighters in training (Photo Courtesy of Mike Mac Donald)

“I’m a watcher. I like to watch my guys fight,” he explains. “I like to see what they’re getting into mentally,” he explains. “I tell my guys that I don’t care what kind of skill level you have, what kind of strength you have. What I need to see is heart. I can always give you the skill level, but if you’re going to quit on me, I can’t work with you.”

Mixed martial arts is generally considered a combination of boxing, kickboxing, wrestling, and jiu jitsu, although there’s a myriad of other martial arts that some would argue are even closer cousins to caged combat. Among those styles is Russian sambo wrestling, which Mac Donald feels is under acknowledged in it’s resemblance.

“I’m truly surprised about this, because all anybody has to do is Youtube ‘combat sambo.’ And you’re going to watch it and you’re going to go ‘wait a minute. This is MMA.’ Combat sambo is exactly that. There’s punches, there’s kicks, there’s knees, there’s throws, there’s striking on the ground. It’s pretty much MMA with a jacket and shinpads. “

Russian sambo was created in the 1920’s by the Soviet Red Army, based on Japanese judo and several styles of wrestling. Originally developed to improve the troops hand-to-hand combat skills, sambo (an acronym of the Russian translation for ‘self-defense without weapons’) evolved into three different styles. One style in particular, combat sambo, includes striking, grappling, chokes, and locks.

Years ago, Mac Donald trained in sambo under Vince Ornelas, a Tae Kwon Do instructor who is credited as one of a handful of trainers who imported the style to the West Coast. The sambo community was always small, but Mac Donald was one of the few to adopt the style into his own repertoire. In his opinion, the big difference between Brazilian jiu jitsu and sambo is in its explosiveness.

“Jiu jitsu is great about establishing a position, not allowing you to dominate in a very specific position. It’s position, position, position. Sambo is like ‘ooh, there it is. Let’s go get it.’”

Drew Michealsen, repping Valhalla ETC at the U of MMA’s ‘Champions of Tomorrow!’ in May. (Photo by Meghan Wonder)

To date, only one Valhalla fighter has appeared on a U of MMA show, Drew Michealsen, who took a fight on last-minute notice (approximately 48 hours) at the U’s ‘Champions of Tomorrow!’ event in May. Despite winning the match in stunning fashion by uma plata submission in round two, Michealsen, who had his first child a week later, has vowed not to return to the cage. However, that match also opened the door for more Valhalla fighters to compete at the U.

Among the team is lightweight Ryan Sowma, who’s shown great potential and growth in his two matches. Heavyweight Emilio Sanchez is another budding prospect, whom Michealsen describes as ‘inhumanly strong.’

“We’re in a city where it’s more of a college town than anything else. I have a lot of fighters that come to me, in, out, so on and so forth,” says Mac Donald.

Despite the town’s noncommittal nature, Mac Donald is at home in Santa Barbara, mixing traditional and modern martial arts together, and letting his loose band of fighters congeal organically. Fighting isn’t for everybody, but for those who do want to go down that road, there’s Valhalla.

Valhalla ETC is sponsored by Dr. Isreal Trujillo, M.D. His family practice is located at 27 W. Micheltorana Street in Santa Barbara.

Valhalla Elite Training Center is located at 1113 State Street in Santa Barbara, CA. For more information, visit or call (805) 687-1514.

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