Overlooking the final details being applied to his new martial arts school, The Pit owner and chief instructor John Hackleman stepped back and took a deep breath.
The location in Arroyo Grande, which marks the headquarters for The Pit franchise, has come a long way from the 600 square foot backyard where it started decades ago.
Today, The Pit’s martial arts style of Hawaiian Kempo, which was developed by Hackleman, is adopted by many schools and gyms around the nation. The style that evolved from the teachings of his childhood instructor Walter Godin: Kajukenbo (a mixture of karate, judo, jujutsu, kenpo, and boxing) which originated in 1947.
At his latest school in Arroyo Grande, the atmosphere around the site is calm and quiet on a Friday afternoon. But inside its hustle and bustle,fighters like Chuck Liddell, Antonio Banuelos and Luke Riddering train with the world renowned “Pit Master,” a nickname Hackleman has acquired over the years at his gym.
Hackleman is perhaps most famous for producing elite fighters, most notably former Ultimate Fighting Championships light-heavyweight champion Liddell, a San Luis Obispo native and Cal Poly alumnus.
Training a champion
Liddell, who wrestled at Cal Poly, has trained with others, but said it was with Hackleman that he developed his signature fighting move: the overhand right.
“John helped me find my one strike knock-out power,” Liddell said. “He didn’t try to change everything about me. He took what I had and improved it. And he didn’t try to do too much too quick.”
Today, that overhand right is constantly played on cable television and the Internet all over the world.
“Chuck is not only a local hero, he’s an international celebrity,” Hackleman said. “People look at what The Pit has done for him and they think it can do the same for them.”
Through his unique fighting system, Hackleman himself has found fame. As one of the most sought after trainers, he’s easy to spot with his shaved head, thick beard, heavy build, and black framed glasses.
But times haven’t always been this good for Hackleman. He’s been fighting to get ahead his whole life.
What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger
The relentless streets of Honolulu, Hawaii compelled Hackleman to learn self-defense at the age of 9. What started as a means for protection developed into a life passion.
In high school he became a golden gloves boxer and won many martial arts tournaments. An event after highschool led him to take up a different kind of fighting from what he’d been accustomed to.
In 1979, he enlisted in the Army after Iranian militants took over the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and held more than 70 U.S. diplomats hostage. Hackleman went on to box for the Army team where he won numerous titles.
Out of the Army, famous boxing promoter Don King picked up the young Hackleman. Together, John accumulated a boxing record of 17-3, 15 of those wins by knockout. But it’s the losses that vastly affect a fighter, Hackleman said.
“When you lose a football game, you lose a football game,” Hackleman said. “When you lose a fight, you lose the fight. You get beat up more physically and emotionally.”
From one hat to another
Today Hackleman is revered as a top striking technician.
“John is the best at training guys. He knows fighting. He’s good at picking apart opponents,” Banuelos said. “John’s stand up is ridiculous; it’s the best in the world.”
However, striking isn’t the only arsenal Hackleman packs. To become a “Pit Master” he had to go beyond the one-two punch.
In the ’80s he entered kickboxing, and at one point was rated No. 1 in the nation. Kickboxing has never been a prominent sport, so for the young parent, he needed to find another source of income to support his family.
“I started having kids early, and I knew fighting probably wouldn’t pay all the bills, so I decided in my 20s to go to college,” Hackleman said. “Nursing was a good job with a lot of opportunities so I jumped into nursing to supplement my income while fighting.”
After he retired from fighting, Hackleman worked full-time as a nurse until he opened his first gym in Woodland Hills, Calif.
The Pit is born
Hackleman’s first Pit was created in 1986. Over 20 years later, it’s more popular than ever.
Even in this rough economy, people as young as 3 and up to 70 years of age incessantly sign up and retain their membership to learn and workout with The Pit instructors.
“People realize that you can become a champion by training here, or you can get in great shape, or you can become a black belt,” Hackleman said. “No other gym is this crowded and has a family feel. They see the value of this program and they don’t want to let it go,”
At The Pit they practice the martial art Hackleman founded in 1985, Hawaiian Kempo.
“We use what works and discard what doesn’t,” Hackleman explained. “We adopt new techniques and training methods all the time. But overall the philosophy has been the same: train hard, train smart, a lot of discipline, but have fun and be goofy too.”
The style has gained much recognition after it was displayed on primetime television and pay-per-view by Liddell’s knockout power and takedown defense.
Fighting for respect
The growth of the sport is proof that it is being accepted more by Americans and the world, a trend Hackleman did not forsee.
“Americans: they like baseball, basketball, football, tennis, golf,” Hackleman said. “They just don’t adopt new sports. They don’t like professional soccer, rugby, kickboxing, and I didn’t think mixed martial arts (MMA) would take off like it is.”
“But (MMA) had great PR, marketing, and a great team behind them and now it’s the fastest growing sport in the world.”
“(MMA) has gone from human cock-fighting to the second most popular sport in the country,” Hackleman continued, referring to a remark Sen. John McCain (R-Arz.) made in a 1995 interview when the congressman was working on legislation to ban the sport.
When McCain made the comment, MMA was a dying a sport and Hackleman admits “It looked a lot like cockfighting for a while.” He acknowledged that the UFC has done the most to put the sport in a positive light with new regulations.
“The Fertitta Brothers, Dana White, they’ve done it,” Hackleman said.
The sport has seen substantial growth in the last decade, and the growth of his gym is indication of its expansion.
“We turn down interviews now,” Hackleman said. “In the old days we would do every single one we can. Chuck turned down David Letterman. Their schedule didn’t fit ours so I said ‘No.’ But they pushed, pushed, pushed and they readjusted their schedule.”
Now that people accommodate him, he’s found more time to focus on his fighters and schools.
Riddering was introduced to The Pit early on by his father. He now fights for the gym’s team and is 2-0 in his young MMA career.
When he fights, Hackleman is nervous, but calm.
“His nurse side comes out; he slowly explains things to you. He knows what he’s doing,” Riddering said.
Hackleman admits he gets the jitters before his fighters compete because he wants to keep them safe.
“It’s a different kind of nervous. I’m more of a father to my students. I want them to win, but I want to protect them first,” he said. “So not only do they win, but they don’t get hurt.”
Safety is why he went into martial arts in the first place; to protect himself from harm when he was a youth. Now he wants teach his young students to do the same, while mentoring them at the same time.
“It’s changing so many lives in a positive way. We teach against drugs, alcohol, laziness, and we push school. We check their grades a lot and stay in touch with their teachers. Before they get their next belt, we check with their teacher and make sure they’re behaving in class,” he said.
It’s a side of Hackleman seldom heard and a side hidden behind his tough exterior.
“It’s a perception, so it’s a hat I wear. I don’t think (I’m mean) but most people do,” he said.
That label doesn’t fit the Hackleman who enjoys spending time with his wife.
“We hit the beach once in a while, watch a movie, watch a show and I’m good to go,” he said.
Nor does it fit the Hackleman who comforted one of his crying young students, Nicholas, during a practice fight.
Those that work with him frequently see the side the cameras don’t catch when he’s in his fighters’ corners.
The side that “cares about his fighters,” said Banuelos. “He loves us. We’re really tight; he’s like my dad.”
For a man that has learned and achieved so much with Hackleman, it’s not his teachings that he appreciates the most.
“The greatest thing I’ve gained from John is his friendship,” said Liddell.