The “Pitmaster” – Interview with MMA & Crossfit Coach John Hackleman

john hackleman MMA
In this interview I speak with the “Pitmaster”, John Hackleman. Hackleman owns and operates one of the most known and successful CrossFit affiliates in the US, known as CrossPit, or simply The Pit. The Pit combines the CrossFit philosophies of training with the discipline and focus of Martial Arts. CrossPit gained worldwide notoriety in the early 2010’s as the gym that trained the UFC light-heavy weight champion Chuck Liddell. Today, The Pit trains a variety of students, including children as young as 3 years old, professional fighters in various promotions such as UFC (Ultimate Fighting Challenge) and WEC (World Extreme Cagefighting), and adults looking to get in shape and to learn Martial Arts.

Hackleman, himself a former professional Boxer and Kickboxer is considered to be one of the most innovative and sought after strength and conditioning coaches. Hackleman’s journey began at the young age of 10 when he joined a local gym in Honolulu, Hawaii to train under legendary Martial Artists, Professor Walter Godin. Under Godin, Hackleman studied KaJuKenBo (a mixture of Kempo Karate, Tang Soo Do, Judo, Jujitsu, Chinese Kenpo, and Kung Fu). KaJuKenBo, a style of Martial Arts developed in Hawaii specifically as a street fighting art.

At the age of 20, Hackleman answered the call of duty and enlisted in the US Army. His decision was influenced by the Iran hostage crisis of 1979, in which 52 American diplomats and citizens were held hostage for 444 days. While in the Army Hackleman found tremendous success as a member of the Army Boxing Team. During the three years as an Army boxer he won the state and regional Golden Gloves titles. Upon leaving the Army, Hackleman moved to southern California to pursue a career in professional boxing.

While working full time and training for fights, Hackleman built a backyard training facility where he could work his conditioning and practice Martial Arts. This began to morph into a training facility for locals looking for a new and exciting method of training. As a result Hackleman began to train and coach others in both Martial Arts and strength and conditioning. He renamed his Martial Arts style, and began calling it Hawaiian Kempo.

In this interview Hackleman gives the origins of CrossPit. He shares his philosophies on training, and explains the pros and cons of having success training fighters.

SP – What I was hoping to talk to you today about was the history of Crosspit, how it originated, how has it evolved throughout the years, and where do you see its future.

Hackleman – Well I have been doing these types of workouts pretty much the same since the mid 80’s. I have always pushed hard, hard, hard conditioning. I made up drills like Blackjack* and other crazy workouts which I incorporated not only in my fight training but in my belt training classes as well. And then one day, I don’t honestly remember how we even met, but I met Greg Glassman, the owner of CrossFit. And right away we just started sharing ideas. We went over his philosophies versus mine and we realized they were almost identical except for 2 basic things:

  1. Overhead lifts which I didn’t think were very advantageous for Martial Artists.
  2. The length of some of his workouts. They were much too long for Martial Artists. With Martial Artists they are working out a couple hours a day anyway, so if you place a long conditioning drill on top of that it is overkill. With a CrossFit athlete it is OK to go longer because that will be all they do on a given day.

So I took out a lot of non-specific exercises and substituted in other Martial Art specific exercises and we created CrossPit. Greg and I came up with it in the early 2000’s. CrossPit was to be the Martial Arts version of Crossfit, and it was designed to fit any Martial Arts practitioners training regimen.

SP – What were the origins of the Pit?

Hackleman – I got out of the Army in the early 80’s and moved to LA to pursue my career as a Professional Boxer and Kickboxer. I had a few fights, but having two young kids I needed something more financially stable. So I went to school and became a registered nurse. It became difficult to find time to go to the gym so I built this little 600 square foot gym in my backyard. Next thing I know coworkers of mine want to train, friends want to train, and then friends of friends want to train at my gym. All of a sudden I had this whole little gym in my back yard where I was training students and it was so small and cramped we called it “The Pit”.

SP – So you stumbled upon this completely by accident?

Hackleman – Yeah definitely. Eventually, when my fight career ended we decided to move out of LA. We moved up north and the first thing I did when we got the new property was I built an 800 square foot gym in the back yard. And I started right away training people back there. It was the same type of training; it was old school, hardcore, spar every day, beat each other up training. And I got quite a reputation around the county and guys like Chuck Liddell heard about it and he started training there. So that’s how the training with fighters started and eventually, like in the early 2000’s I decided to take it mainstream.

SP – So you would have regular students who came to The Pit learn and work on everything such as: Martial Arts, conditioning and strength, and sparring?

Hackleman – When it was in my backyard I didn’t differentiate the fitness training from the Martial Arts. The philosophy being that the fitness and Martial Arts were incorporated in one and they were equally valued. A student had to be just as efficient in the fitness as they did in any other aspect just to get promoted to the next belt.

SP – Didn’t you actually first meet Chuck because of an old school Dojo war you had with his trainer? 

Hackleman – Yep, We actually went at each other the first time we met.

SP – Were you able to see a difference between the type of training and coaching he was receiving versus that of what you were teaching?

Hackleman – I always do. And he found out real quick that the type of training we were doing at The Pit was something that he wanted to do. The very next day after we sparred he came and started training with me.

SP – What were the biggest differences between his old school and yours?

Hackleman – Their striking was more of the traditional Karate striking, where one hand would be chambered near the hip while the other was extended. That would leave the fighter completely open. They were more rigid in their style, stiffer with their movement and foot work. They weren’t used to other kinds of strikes, knees and elbows. Obviously he was pretty well versed in takedowns because of his wrestling background where as most Karate guys aren’t.
john hackleman

SP –What are your philosophies when it comes to training? Is there anything particular you try to instil in your athletes or students?

Hackleman – My Philosophies with training are basic old school values:

  • There is no easy way.
  • You must be disciplined with training. Work super hard, but rest when it is necessary. There is a fine balance.
  • There is no one technique that is perfect. One of our philosophies when coaching is that it is OK to have subtle differences. The best left hook is one that knocks the other guy out. It doesn’t matter how it comes across as long as it knocks someone out, it is a great left hook.

As far as my philosophies when it comes to attitude:

  • Always have fun.
  • Never be a bully.
  • Always respect the art. (Anyone’s art).

SP – How did your gym change immediately after meeting Greg Glassman?

Hackleman – We definitely picked things up. I began to incorporate a lot more dumbbell work. Exercises such as Thrusters, and D-bell Swings were a great addition. We also added jump rope work, such as double unders. CrossFit really upped our game, it added to our repertoire of workouts, and systemized our classes better.

Sp – Where do you see the future as far as the evolution of the Pit? More of the same, or is there something you see it evolving into?

Hackleman – The gym has changed so many times throughout the years. It started out as a hardcore Martial Arts gym, known for beating the hell out of each other. Then we started training kids, so it became known as the “Bully-proof” place. Next thing that happened, Chuck Liddell came and became famous, so then we were known as an MMA gym exclusively. When Chuck wasn’t fighting anymore we became known for the CrossFit. And now we are a little of everything; we are the biggest MMA gym in town, we have the biggest kids program in town, we probably have the biggest fitness program in town, and we have a big belt program. So we have a little of everything to tell you the truth.

SP – Do you have any aspect which you enjoy the most?

Hackleman – Not really. I really love it all. I love watching the kids get their belts, I love watching the adults get their belts. It is rewarding having a guy who just wanted to try fighting a little bit, end up making it all the way to the top. It is definitely fun to watch people develop their conditioning. So I don’t have one favorite. To be honest it is a dream come true to have this as my job. I can’t complain.

SP – What is the conditioning like?

Hackleman – We do a lot of sprints and Tabata work. Sometimes I will want to do a long hard day–I call those “Mental Toughness” days– and sometimes I want to do a shorter more explosive day. On those shorter days we will do something like a Tabata on the AirDyne. (Check out these videos at the bottom for a more in depth look at CrossPit workouts).

We also do Tabata sparring or burpees and sparring. When we do Tabata sparring it is always to the body, and not to the head; the goal is not to knock someone out or hurt them. We spar for technique, timing, distance, and defense. How Tabata sparring works is the two athletes place their foreheads together and bang to each other’s bodies for 20 seconds, then rest for 10 seconds for a total of 4 minutes.

SP- How are you able to build mental toughness through your training? 

Hackleman – First of all there is a difference between mental toughness and heart. Heart you either have it or you don’t. You don’t build heart. With fighters, you can always tell heart when someone is in the cage or the ring and they get hit for the first time. If somebody doesn’t have heart you can train them in every fuckin technique for the rest of their life and they will never be a champion fighter. Even with Sugar Ray Leonard skill you wouldn’t be a champion without his heart. Mental toughness on the other hand can be taught in the sense of how to grind out a difficult situation. To build mental toughness we do stuff like chipper workouts, where the athlete will do this, this, this, and just keep going. A workout may involve bag work with thrusters and just keep going for 20 minutes nonstop. Or sometimes we will do rowing followed by wrestling. For example, we will make them row for 5 minutes and then wrestle for 5 minutes. That is twice as long as a round. We make them push all the way to the end of the 10 minutes. If a fighter has an upcoming fight he may have to row then spar against a fresh opponent. That will build mental toughness.

SP – Was it ever difficult for you to make the transformation from being an athlete into being a coach?

Hackleman – It was pretty natural for me. When I was in my early 20’s I was in the Army at the time and I was on the Boxing team. While I was fighting, I was also training a lot of the other guys and doing their corner work. Then when I got out and I was fighting professionally, I was always training someone at the same time. Even with Chuck, during his first couple fights I was fighting on the same card. My last fight I wrapped mine and Chuck’s hands, then I worked his corner with my hand wraps on, then went on and fought right after him.

SP – That must have been unbelievably nerve wracking knowing you are about to fight next while coaching someone else.

Hackleman – The whole 2 weeks prior were probably the most nerve wracking two weeks of my life. We both won with first round knockouts so that was good.

SP – Is it difficult for a fighter to separate their everyday life from their fighting? 

Hackleman – I don’t think it is that difficult. Most fighters are so used to it. We get most of our aggression out in the gym. It was a little different for me than most fighters. I was a registered nurse, working the graveyard shift. So I would be taking care of people at night, and then during the day I would be either beating people up or getting beaten up. Most fighters aren’t really fighters outside the ring or the cage. So, it really isn’t as difficult as you think.

SP – Is there a particular type of fighting which you enjoyed the most? Kickboxing, Boxing, MMA……?

Hackleman – I don’t know. I don’t know if I was even a big fan of any of it. Guys I train like Glover (Teixeira), Court Mcgee, and Chuck, those guys love to fight. I never did, I just fought because that was expected of me. I was pretty good and I hit pretty hard. I never had a true passion for fighting. I had a true passion for Martial Arts. Yeah so I didn’t love it, and that was why I was probably miserable most of my life. (laughing)

SP – So when you first started to train as a fighter you were training yourself? What did that consist of?

Hackleman – I started young so I had a trainer at a local gym. This was back in the old days in the early 70’s. My trainer was at the local rec center. He would be training you with a lit cigarette in his mouth. That’s the way it was back then. He would tell you to make sure you got your road work in. But I didn’t know what that exactly meant. I was a 14 year old kid trying to figure it out. In junior high school I ended up going into the library and getting out a book written by Rocky Marciano on how to train for fights. Back then it was always said that longer was better as far as road work was concerned so I just ran. Some of my runs were 10-12 miles. Looking back I probably would have done less distance and more sprints and explosive work. If I had met Greg Glassman earlier in my career it would have turned it around. That would have been heaven sent.

SP – How does your approach to training a professional athlete differ from training a regular student?

Hackleman – The main difference I do between fighters and my regular students is the sparring. Almost everything else is identical except for the sparring. They drill the same, their bag work is the same, and their conditioning is the same. The fighters will spar harder and they usually train twice a day. With the fighters we usually schedule a striking workout with conditioning in one, then later that night grappling, or something like that.

SP – Can you breakdown a typical workout session?

Hackleman – The sessions usually last about an hour. With a regular class we warm-up really thoroughly, then move into drilling with partners. We go through a bunch of scenarios then drill, drill, drill. Then right from the drilling we usually always move right into some bag work for about 10-15 minutes. After the bag work comes the workout exclusive part of the class. That’s when I will give them the workout of the day. That will be anywhere from 5 to 30 minutes. It depends on what I have planned for them that day. Then I will finish them off with something like a deep core stance with some Karate technique or drilling combination work. Then I stretch them out.

SP – With each training session do you have a different focus, and different goal for your athletes?

Hackleman – The goal is usually the same every workout. That is to make them better Martial Artists. With the focus sometimes I will push mental toughness, sometimes I will push explosive strength, sometimes I will even push for better active rests, because they would have done a lot of bag work so we will go longer and have them do something like a 5 K.

SP – Is it difficult for an athlete to allow themselves to be pulled back?

Hackleman – It depends on the athlete. Some guys like Court, he hates it, and sometimes he will even cheat behind my back and do extra work. I can always tell the next day when they come in. You know what is so stupid? I have some guys that I will give a day off to and tell them they need to rest. They say “Ok coach”, tell me they are going to take the day off and then they post a picture on social media of themselves doing sprints on the beach or working out that day. That’s how stupid they can be. (laughing)

SP – How do you come up with your workouts for your athletes and students?

Hackleman – I have to be honest I come up with most of this shit myself. I might take a few things from others, sometimes even my guys will come up with things, “hey let’s try this”. But I usually come up with 85% of it. Now my wife is teaching classes and she comes up with things. We just try to come up with the craziest shit we can that accommodates the class. It is so easy to train somebody hard, but harder isn’t always better. If that was the case I would just have them do 10 minutes of burpees as hard as they can. Everyone would get in shape, but two problems occur:

  1. Over training of the students and athletes
  2. The classes would be pretty boring

So not only do you need to come up with something that is fun and exciting and different but it also needs to be effective and not cross the line of over training. Some trainers will drive people that hard and the athlete or student will either get hurt or burnt out. It is really a big balancing act. It is important not only for the students to not over train but it is especially important for the athletes.

SP – Do you think it is intimidating for students to go into your gym because of your history of training? Do they misunderstand and think that the gym is about fighting?

Hackleman – Absolutely, that is our biggest liability right now. That is what is keeping us breaking through every barrier in the world when it comes to gyms. Most business and most gyms their biggest obstacle is trying to get there name out there. Our biggest liability is everyone knows our name and they are intimidated to come in. They don’t realize that we are more of a family efficient Martial Arts gym, everyone sees us as blood, guts, and cages.

SP – In some aspects you are a victim of your own success.  

Hackleman – Definitely, it’s been a double edge sword. I love Chuck. Chuck is the best student any instructor could ever have. He has tremendous loyalty, perseverance, heart, and courage. He is very generous, but as a gym owner Chuck has hurt me more than any single person has ever hurt another gym. (laughing) Chuck is like a brother to me and I love him to death, but that’s the situation. Don’t get me wrong my gym is doing very well, but I think it would be doing very, very, very well. If I ever said that to Chuck he would try to pay me out of his own pocket.

SP – So have you ever thought about moving away from training fighters?

Hackleman – I have pulled way back. I have basically a single digit team right now. But a legacy and a reputation that we have built since 1985, is still in place. Even before Chuck was a champion the reputation of the gym around town was one of blood sweat and tears, and beating the shit out of each other. So the Pit had a very, very, very tough reputation. Even though it is not like that anymore it still has that reputation.

SP – How has Martial Arts effected or influenced your life outside of training? 

Hackleman – I don’t think it has affected my life as much as it is my life. I have been training Martial Arts since I was 10 and that’s pretty much been a constant more than any single thing. It’s always been there. It is my life, period.

SP – I heard you said it was difficult at times growing up in Hawaii. Did you get into Martial Arts because you were being bullied?

Hackleman – Yeah it was, but to be honest it was more that I just didn’t want to be bullied. I was bullied a little bit and I knew I was going to probably be bullied more so I just started training and guess what? I loved it. It was like heaven sent. I went to the toughest gym in Hawaii, trained with probably the toughest guy. I just found the place in the Yellow Pages when I was 10 years old, and it just came together perfectly. I couldn’t have hooked up with a better guy to train with to reach the goals and get out of Martial Arts what I wanted, which was to get tougher and not get bullied. Walter Godin was one of the toughest guys in Hawaii, he had the reputation and he had the demeanor, and the toughest training, so next thing I know nobody is picking on me. Like I said, it was heaven sent. If I had gone to another gym or Dojo it never would have turned out the way it turned out.

SP – What I find interesting, listening to your story is that you were there almost at the inception of MMA, and you were there from basically the birth of CrossFit.

Hackleman – Yeah I believe I was the 2nd CrossFit affiliate. When I met Greg Glassman his certification was in this little gym in Santa Cruz and the meeting after was in his backyard and we had Pizza and Beer. So that was really a while ago.

SP – Wow it is kind of crazy, finding two things you love and being there in the early years of these two growing sports. 

Hackleman – Yeah what can I say? It just worked out.

The Workout:

Workout of Week: Wave Master Training (instructional)

CrossPit Blackjack –

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