Words of Wisdom from John Hackleman
John Hackleman is a living legend. He’s a master martial artist, founder of his own style—Hawaiian Kempo, founder and owner of the world-famous Pit Martial Arts and Fitness Center, coach and trainer to kickboxing and UFC champions, and a top level competitor in kickboxing, boxing, and no-holds-barred fighting.
But forget all that! The reason I’m excited to interview him is because in a world of posers and wanna-bes, John Hackleman is the real deal. He doesn’t just “do” martial arts, he lives martial arts. Want proof? He showed up for lunch wearing karate pants!
But it goes beyond that…
In the time I’ve spent with John Hackleman, I can tell you he treats the whole world as his dojo. The guy you see in the cage on TV, is the same guy you’ll see on the mats teaching moms, dads, and kids, and the same guy you’ll see walking down the street striking up conversations with total strangers. And that’s what this website is all about—taking martial arts out of the dojo and into everyday life.
So, listen to some words of wisdom from a man who truly seems to have figured out how to fight for a happy life.
What’s the biggest misconception about you? What are people getting wrong about John Hackleman?
I actually don’t think they’re getting a lot wrong. I’m kind of an ***hole to most people, but I love my people. I have a hard exterior—I don’t think that’s a misconception, I think that’s real—but I think once I like you, or once you’re in, you’re in forever.
What got you started in the martial arts and how did they change your life?
I started martial arts because I knew that it would be tough growing up in Hawaii. Maybe they like to beat up on whites a little more than not. It just so happened, by luck, out of all the places I started training, I fell into one that happened to be Walter Godin Martial Arts. He took me under his wing and he trained me. And just seeing the kind of confidence he had gave me a lot of confidence real quick. And just realizing when I would spar, what I could actually do, gave me confidence.
And then either late eighth grade or early ninth grade, there was a big tough guy in school. He picked on me once and I fought back. Well, he decided we were going to fight again. I actually won the fight, in front of everybody, and it changed by life. I held my head high. People treated me differently after that fight. Nobody picked on me anymore and I didn’t pick on anyone, but I definitely had the confidence. That was one of the game-changers in my life.
Do you think you were born a fighter or did you learn to be fighter?
I don’t think I was born a fighter. I think I was an easy-going kid. But I think that [fight] made me think I was a fighter and that put that fighting spirit into me. I was known as the fighter so that’s what I became. A lot of my fighters actually love to fight. I never did.
Martial arts changes lives. So, why isn’t martial arts a mandatory part of every child’s education?
We’re so smart as a culture, but we’re also so stupid. Look at our school system. Nobody even learns how to balance a checkbook, one of the most important things. They learn about building a pyramid out of plaster of paris, but nobody learns how to pay taxes, or save money on taxes, or plan for their future financially, write a resume. It’s kind of backwards on what we learn.
Nothing gives a kid confidence like martial arts. The two main things in your life, the most important things in your life, are health—because you’re going to die without it—and security—you’re going to die without it. Martial arts covers both. Nothing else does. Nothing.
What has to be done to change the image of martial arts so more people get involved?
When the UFC first started, a lot of martial arts were exposed. There is no crane fighting. If you fight like a crane, you’re not going to win. Somebody jumps you on the street, you have to defend yourself, and sometimes defending yourself means you have to offend them. Sometimes you have to drop down to someone’s level to be able to beat them.
Like the crane stuff. When you’re teaching the kid that, then somebody jumps him in a schoolyard, and he has to defend himself, but instead of punching him, and then taking him down, and mounting him, and controlling him, or something that will work, they teach him stuff that’s not going to work and the kid’s going to get beat up even worse and then he’s going to be even more of a bully target. So, I think he should learn the basics and learn what’s going to happen in a fight and learn how to defend himself.
If you think of martial arts as a religion, what are your commandments?
I say train hard, live clean, and fight dirty. I say stay loyal. Stay loyal to your art, stay loyal to your people. And I train my guys always be faithful to your woman. And never, ever be a bully, but don’t let anyone ever take your lunch money.
As a teacher, you’ve seen thousands of students come and go. How do you stay motivated and not burned out?
I think I have so many more positives than negatives. The good so far outweighs the bad that I don’t ever get my heart broken. If someone leaves, it’s always someone, I’m like, “Oh, ****, I’m glad that person’s gone. But the people that I have that are my people, even if they stop training, they’re still my people.
You’ve taught all kinds of people over the years. Have you figured out some magic phrase or exercise that brings out somebody’s best?
I think probably, if I had to pin that one down, or nail that one down, it would just be living it myself and them watching me. And I think making it fun, but knowing how serious it is. Because most of them have never been in a fight. So, I try to bring some reality into it that way and have them visualize, and try to create scenarios. I think that helps.
You’re known for coaching elite athletes. But can you talk about a success story outside the spotlight that makes you just as proud?
There’s a lot. There’s so many through the years. The one that stands out the most because he’s still one of my students, a kid named, Big Brother. He didn’t come from the greatest everything. And he just always seemed to stay so straight and focused. He never took advantage of his martial arts. He never became a bully. He never got in trouble like a lot of his peers, and he’s just stayed on the straight and narrow his whole life. There’s a lot like that.
At this point in your life, what accomplishments would you like to see written on your tombstone?
He was hard on the outside, soft on the inside. He looked like an ***hole to most people, but he would help almost everyone. He had a big heart. He trained really hard. He loved small children and pets. And he was loyal and faithful to Heather.
Is there anything you haven’t accomplished yet that you’d still like to?
I’m looking to be a professional backup dancer, maybe for Usher or Pitbull. I’m a very good dancer. I’m probably one of the better dancers in the world. And I am looking to do the Cupid Shuffle, the next Cupid Shuffle video. I have been, actually, in contact, it’s a true story, with Cupid, and he is going to let me be in his next music video. So, I am going to probably do a little bit of backup dancing before I call it a day.
If you collapsed and knew you were going to die, what final advice would you give your friends and students?
Be loyal. And make sure your money has compounded interest. Those are the two main things.
To contact or train with John Hackleman, visit The Pit. You can also find videos and articles on his blog over at The Pit Online Dojo. To connect on Twitter, follow @Pit_Master. Tell him Ando sent you! 🙂