Through teachings of Hawaiian Kempo, Hawaii’s John Hackleman remains rooted to the islands pursuing another run at UFC gold


John Hackleman

John Hackleman’s journey in becoming one of the most influential figures in mixed martial arts started as a self-defense mechanism from bullying as a 9-year-old.

“I went looking in the yellow pages and I found this really cool logo and it said ‘Godin’s School of Self Defense.’ I was like, ‘I’m gonna call and see,’” the Kalani High School graduate recalled to KHON2 sports director Rob DeMello. “I was like nine years old and caught two buses, I had to transfer on Waialae Avenue in Kaimuki. It was upstairs in this little room. It was on top of a waterbed showroom. I knew right then and there this is my life from now on. I don’t know why.

“I was like nine years old and I thought, ‘This is it. I’m home.’”

[Latest stories from Hawaii’s Sports Station — KHON2 Sports]

The experience had a profound impact on Hackleman, who has a Godin’s logo tattooed on his left forearm. Hackleman, who is now 60, is perhaps best known for being the head trainer and founder of “The Pit,” an MMA facility located in Arroyo Grande, Calif.

Since the camp opened in 1986, his students have been taught Hawaiian Kempo — Hackleman’s evolution of kajukenbo, which blends karate, judo, jiu-jtsu, boxing and wrestling.

The biggest Pit product would have to be none other than Chuck Liddell, who was mostly known as a former Cal Poly wrestler when he met Hackleman. Liddell went on to become one of the faces of MMA, winning five UFC light heavyweight titles in his heyday during the mid- to late-2000s.

“Chuck was the first one, ‘Man, I wanna fight.’ I was like, ‘Oh man, come on, man, let’s just train. Go be an accountant,’” Hackleman says. “He got his degree in accounting. It was like let’s just train, have fun. He was like, ‘Let me just try it, I want you to train me.’ Next thing you know, we’re on a private plane to defend his title in Japan. It happened that quick. I hate this word, I’ve never used it before, but it was surreal.”

Although Hackelman’s treks to Godin’s would later turn into owning multiple gyms in California and Nevada, a piece of his heart will always remain on the islands.

Hackleman was raised in Hawaii because of his father’s job. The late Jim Hackleman was the former sports editor of the Honolulu Star-Bulletin and also served as a KHON2 sportscaster. During one of his trips back, Hackleman sought to take a trip down memory lane and show some of his students the Godin’s location. Unbeknownst to him, the building became what is now the KHON2 station.

Jim Hackleman as KHON2 Sportscaster in 1989

“I want to go back and show some of the guys where I used to train. This was years ago and I want to show some of the guys. Man, it was a big building there. It was like a little strip mall. It was kind of like a broken down little strip mall. Now it’s a huge new building and when I walked in, it was like, ‘Oh, it’s a news center, my dad was in the news, he was a journalist.’ I was speechless. It brings back memories. It makes me very emotional,” Hackleman said.

Hackleman remains active in the fight business, training UFC light heavyweight contender Glover Teixeria, who has a career record of 31-7 and has won his last four fights. Teixeria, who is currently the fourth-ranked light heavyweight in the world, next faces Thiago Santos on Sept. 12 in Las Vegas. With current champion Jon Jones conceding his belt in order to move up to heavyweight, a win could see the Pit in the title picture.

“I’m actually in his kitchen right now and we go to Hawaii every year as a pilgrimage and out of respect. That’s where we test our students,” Hackleman said. “The Ohana in Hawaii, there’s nothing like it, and all of my students whether they’ve been there or not, they feel it. We bring it to the mainland. I am privileged to do that.”

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