John “The Train” Hackleman – The man behind the Champion
by Rick Caudle
In 1969, ten year old John Hackleman would begin a journey that would lead to the making of an MMA champion who would later become a household name. Growing up in Honolulu, Hawaii, in a neighborhood where caucasians weren’t exactly welcome, the man who brought Chuck Liddell to championship status, attributes those rough and tumble streets as the birthplace of his art. As a young boy, John would take two buses one way to train in Kung Fu with the famous Chinese instructor, Bucksam Kong, and years later create a style of his own.
Shortly after that, Hackleman would discover a man who’s no nonsense approach to fighting would soon teach him the value of a good punch, Walter Godin. Godin developed a large portion of his system while he was behind bars, in the company of street fighters, thugs, and dangerous criminals, where knowing what worked was a matter of life and death. As a teacher with an open mind to practicality, Godin encouraged his students to train with everyone they could, taking something from each of them. So, at 13 years old, after injuring his leg in a kickboxing match, his mentor advised John to train in boxing while he was on the mend. One can only spectulate to what impact this would have on cultivating the right hand that would someday pound out the likes of Randy Couture, Jeremy Horn, Tito Ortiz, and Renato Sobral, just to name a few. Training with Godin from 1969 until his death in 2001, John, Chuck, and all the students continue to this day to pay homage to Walter Godin for instilling the drive to always seek that which is functional, no matter the source.
John’s first black belt was in the Hawaiian style, KaJuKenBo. This mixture of Karate, Judo, Kenpo, and boxing, was developed by a small group of hardcore fighters, looking to put together a devastating style that would eventually find it’s way to the mainland. John believes KaJuKenBo then became a softer art with the addition of Kung Fu techniques, while the original curriculum was a much more basic system, designed for quick and powerful self defense.
While serving in the Army as a pro boxer and member of the Army boxing team, John participated in various NHB and “everything goes” type matches. He eventually began competing in Kickboxing, becoming one of the top competitor of the 1980’s, with an outstanding record of 58 wins and only 6 losses, sporting 42 KO’s. During that time John worked with professionals like Benny “The Jet” Urquidez, Peter “Sugarfoot” Cunningham, Joe Lewis, and Cecil Peoples, just to name a few. He later spent some time working as a bouncer and a bodyguard, all of which would help him in the development of his own style of martial arts which he calls “Hawaiian Kempo”.
John loves it all. Though he teaches MMA, John loves Karate, Kung Fu, katas, point fighting, and every martial art known to man. He believes they all have something to contribute. His fitness and fighting classes reach over 500 students, ranging from 3 year old kids, to lawyers, doctors, policemen, and anyone wishing to be a fighter or just train like one. Hackleman, a certified Nurse, has developed one of the best programs ever, making him one of the most sought out instructors in the world. As a trainer, he is known as a stickler for conditioning and a man with vicious hands and feet.
From it’s humble beginnings in the backyard of John’s home in Los Angeles in 1985, “The Pit” is now four large schools in the Arroyo Grande area of California, following his move up North in 1990. As instructed, John has contined to branch out, and like one of his early heroes, Bruce Lee, been steadfast in researching and exploring different arts and individual fighters of every genre. Another man whom John looked up to, was Kyokushinkai founder, Mas Oyama. He was awed by his physical strength, and inspired by the fact that this highly acclaimed Karate instructor was wise enough to incorporate techniques from other Asian arts, like the devastating kicks of Muay Thai.
John’s own brand of martial arts utilizes moves from many styles and many people. He will tell you himself that he teaches everyone a little differently, and in keeping with the principles of Jeet Kune Do, feels we should capitalize on our strengths and overcome our weaknesses, to find what works for each of us as individuals. “Some of my fighters are more ground oriented, some are great strikers, so everyone has their own unique approach”. Besides Chuck Liddell, nowadays fighters like Matt Lindland, Dave Camarillo, Cesar Gracie, Paul Buentello, Josh Thomson, and most of the guys from American Kickboxing Academy, come to The Pit to exchange information and learn new skills that will lead to success in the cage.
When Chuck Liddell’s name comes up in conversation, we all know just how successful one can be in MMA. But the road there is long and winding. Chuck has actually been training with John for 18 years. When asked about his number one student, John says, “I knew he was very strong and very tough. I saw from the beginning that he had star quality. Chuck is a perfect example of Hawaiian Kempo”. The forty-nine year old instructor was thrilled that, before his death, Walter Godin got to know Chuck and was always very impressed with him as a fighter. Walter’s practice of continuing to aim for perfection still drives him today.
Although his system is based on the realities of the street, his sport version has evolved with the times. He now includes more ground work in his curriculum, along with several ways to avoid take-downs, while working counters for the more common Jiu-Jitsu submissions, but adds the old MMA saying, “Everyone has a plan until they get hit in the face”.
Hackleman believes that the MMA industry will continue to enjoy the growth of recent years. “I think Dana White has a lot to do with how fast the market has grown”, says Hackleman. John has faith in Dana’s ability to promote and manage. He feels the Fertitta Brothers have been great for the sport and that it will continue to rise in the future. In his view, among the top competitors in the world today, lies the Mohammed Alis, George Foremans, and Sugar Ray Leonards of tomorrow.
Many times the younger fighters, those who study the “hybrid” systems, forget that there were pioneers like John Hackleman, who have spent a lifetime finding the most efficient ways to beat a man. These so-called “short-cuts” have given the modern warrior a great platform to begin their own journeys from. We should honor and respect those men, just as John has never forgotten the teachers who impacted his life. He himself has influenced thousands of students and continues to do so everyday, bettering the lives of those who seek his knowledge.
But, if a young college wrestler named Chuck Liddell hadn’t decided to try his hand at martial arts, perhaps the story of John Hackleman may never have been told. For when it comes to martial arts, he has done it all.