Don grew up in the Cocoa Beach area of Florida, near Cape Canaveral. Contrary to popular belief, he didn’t even want to be a world champion kickboxer. When he finished high school, “kickboxing” was some sport they did in Thailand. His plans were to attend the Coast Guard Academy, major in engineering, become a military officer and see where that would take him.
His brother was the man who would bring him into the sport. “I came home one day that summer after high school graduation and my older brother, Jim, asked me to put on a pair of boxing gloves against him.” By now Jim had studied kung-fu for a couple of years with Master Daniel K. Pai.
“Come on, Don,’ I remember him coaxing, ‘I’ll just use martial arts techniques and you can use regular boxing like a professional.’ Well, I didn’t know any more about ‘regular’ boxing than you learn from watching TV’s Wide World of Sports .” Don had been involved heavily in high school sports. He played varsity in football, basketball, and track. In his senior year he captained both his football and basketball teams, earning Most Valuable Player in both.
“But here was my runt brother at 155 pounds challenging me, at 205 pounds, to a free-style boxing match. I thought the idea was silly. I said okay to my brother’s request. What a mistake!”
Before he knew it, Jim’s sidekick blasted into Don’s midsection and threw him into the tree behind him. “I got up and tried again, but I found myself being rocked with yet another half dozen kicks. You might say that in the aftermath of this sparring session with my brother I achieved my first experience of Zen enlightenment: I discovered that the martial arts really do work. Even a 200-pound professional athlete, if he were untrained, would be in trouble against a 140-pound master of the martial arts like a Bruce Lee.”
When Don returned to the Coast Guard Academy during the summer of 1972 he began studying Goju-Ryu under Chuck Merriman. Don would go on to earn the certification of black belt instructor in Pai Lum kung-fu. In 1974, he fought his first professional full-contact karate (kickboxing) match.
Next: End of an Era