How to Train MMA


John Hackleman on MMA Training at the Pit, Love of the Island and the Underestimation of Chocolate Covered Macadamia Nuts

by Bryanna Fissori (with the help of Stephan Kesting & the Grapplearts Readership)

Hawaiian MMA Training?

John Hackleman at the PitWhile on a mid-day break from his busy class schedule, long time MMA superstar trainer John Hackleman was able to spare some time for an exclusive interview and answer some questions from Grapplearts readers. Hackleman is professional MMA fight trainer and owner of “The Pit” Hawaiian Kempo gym in Arroyo Grande, California. Under the umbrella of The Pit are likes of MMA fighters Chuck Liddell, Antonio Banuelos and Court McGee as well as many other up and coming competitors.

Hackleman, also known as the “Pit Master” is a Hawaii native, which is where he got his start training in martial arts with Kajukenbo. The discipline was founded in Hawaii in 1947 and is a combination of multiple arts, comparable to an early version of modern day MMA. Though not actually of Hawaiian decent, Hackleman was raised on the island like any other native and considers himself a proud haole, which is the endearing Hawaiian term for Caucasian. Hackleman was actually bribed for his time with us with the promise of chocolate covered macadamia nuts, which he wants readers to know, is the world’s greatest food and a natural aphrodisiac. More on that later…

When Hackleman moved to the mainland he cut out most of the traditional forms and katas from the discipline he knew and thus Hawaiian Kempo was born. Along with The Pit Headquarters in Arroyo Grande, there are 35 Pit affiliate gyms also known as The Pit “Ohana,” which is the Hawaiian word for family. Hackleman’s most recent venture is opening The Pit in Las Vegas.

“For those of you who don’t know, Vegas is the ninth island,” says Hackleman in reference to Hawaiian’s love of Las Vegas. “So, I will have a lot of locals (Hawaiians) there because there are a lot of locals in Vegas. Instead of just being an MMA fight gym like Extreme Couture or TapOut we will also be a full on family gym like we are here. I will have a fight team obviously.”

The Las Vegas gym will also be equipped with a thirty-foot cage and a full Crossfit facility. The grand opening will be catered with Hawaiian food and Hackleman anticipates many luaus to take place there as well.

“We are also doing the same thing in Utah,” said Hackleman. “There are a lot of Tongans there. I don’t know why. They are like Samoans but not.” The Utah gym is owned by Jason Mertlich who is a trainer for UFC fighter Court McGee and current Ultimate Fighter Contestant Ramsey Nijem.

A Brief History of Pit

Adults training MMA at the PitThe Pit began as a “backyard” MMA training school, as is common for a lot of small schools. But this one was literally in Hackleman’s backyard. It began there in 1985 and remained there until 2001 when it moved to the facility in Arroyo Grande. Hackleman still has a training facility set up in his backyard which the fighters and students affectionately refer to as “the compound.”

“In 2001 we went mainstream and opened it up to the public,” said Hackleman. “We have classes now for kids and people who just want to train. Before, it was just a fight club for fighters and just a hobby. Now it’s how I make my living. It is great to do what you love for a living.”

How to Train MMA

Working out at The Pit involves an intense amount of cardio and weight training coupled with technique. When Hackleman started training fighters, his program consisted of a lot of body weight strength training, cardio and sparring. Around 2000 Hackleman discovered “Crossfit” which is a circuit training program that is geared toward extremely intense workouts completed in a short amount of time.

“I combined a lot of Crossfit techniques with my program and now we call it “CrossPit.” That’s pretty much what my conditioning program looks like,” said Hackleman. “It is a lot of sprinting, a lot of body weight, some weights and a lot of explosive type drills. Most of them involve some type of punching, kicking, grappling or takedowns and that is all part of our conditioning.”

As far as sparring is concerned, the amount differs between competitors and depends on their level and where they are in their MMA training cycle. “My higher end guys who know when there fights are going to be don’t do much sparring between fights until they go to camp. Camp runs from six to eight weeks before the fight. Then they will spar three to four times a week. My amateur MMA fighters never know when they might fight because somebody might call and be like “Hey, you got a guy who is ready for next week?” So, I want them to always be ready. They spar almost every workout or at least light drilling. Once a week I will have them go sixty to eighty percent and the rest is about ten to fifteen with drilling.”

Grappling is a constant part of the MMA fighter’s and general student’s workout. Students and competitors expect to be on the ground at some point during nearly every class. “I like grappling because it is a safer way to spar,” said Hackleman. “You are working with someone in real time conditioning and you are working your skills at the same time. It is a great workout out and after you are done you feel good. You are not cut and bruised like you are when you’re sparring. I will grapple more often than I will spar.”

Recently The Pit implemented gis as a normal uniform for class, but Hackleman explained that the students only wear the gi out of tradition. “We grapple in a gi. We do jiu jitsu in a gi, but we do not do “gi” jiu jitsu,” said Hackleman.

Because the school is geared toward MMA, the students are not concerned with techniques involving use of the gi for submissions or holds, but they do grapple and spar in it especially for “Old School” workout, which is a lot of hard core conditioning and technique like the type of workout Hackleman was accustom to back on the island.

Chuck Liddell and the Pit

Chuck Liddell and his MMA trainer John HacklemanA lot of fans in the martial arts world associate Hackleman heavily with his most notarized fighter, Former UFC Champion Chuck Liddell. Liddell is known for his great mixed martial arts stand up game and knock out power, but Hackleman conveys that the ground work was also a natural part of the fighter’s game.

“He was more into the ground stuff than most people thought. Chuck was a high-level jiu-jitsu guy and a college wrestler. He just chose to bang and that’s the way we chose to keep his style for a lot of reasons,” said Hackleman. “The crowd likes that a lot more and he liked to bang. The crowd likes a banger a lot more than a wrestler. Sorry wrestlers. Wrestling is great and it is great to learn the transitions and the moves on the ground, but if the crowd watches two guys just wrestle they are going to boo and those guys wont make it far. Dana (White) won’t like it, but if two guys just stand there and beat the shit out of each other the crowd will go crazy. Hate to tell it to you guys but it’s a fact.”

“Chuck was just as comfortable on the ground. It’s harder for some other people. Someone like Matt Lindland (former Olympic wrestler and professional MMA fighter) or some other guys who just don’t like standing at all, it is harder to teach them to stand and bang, but Chuck was easy.”

For guys who want to work on developing Liddell-like power punches Hackleman recommends pounding the heavybag. He suggests working on speed and lateral movement around the bag, but also just standing in front of it and hitting it as hard as you can.

Feeding the Machine

As far as a fighter’s diet is concerned, Hackleman suggests eating more to compensate for calories burned, unless of course the fighter is cutting weight. He recently obtained a new dietician which he suggests Grapplearts readers check out. Her name is P.R. Cole and she can be found at

“She is adding to my diet more than she is changing it,” said Hackleman. “I am a firm believe in eating all the fruits, nuts, vegetables you can and stick will really simple protein. I usually eat egg whites at least two meals a day and I stay away from any sort of processed food. I think a combination of the Zone diet and the Paleo diet is probably a good way to go except for the normal 30/30/40 Zone which is 30 percent fat, 30 percent protein, 40 percent carbs. I say throw in all the fruits, vegetable and nuts you want and throw in all the meat you want.”

With a goofy smile on his face Hackleman also asserts that you can never have too many chocolate covered macadamia nuts. “This is one of the healthiest fats you can have (macadamia nuts), and chocolate is the perfect aphrodisiac! So, for an old guy like me who is not really into women anymore, but likes young Asian boys and Samoan midget twins, which is hard to find now on the mainland” (Just to clarify, he is totaly kidding). “Chocolate is great for me” concludes John.

Hackleman also asserts that Liddell would traditionally eat four spam musubis before every fight. For those of you unfamiliar with the food it consists of a thick slice of spam on top of a block of white rice wrapped in nori (seaweed). It is a Hawaii staple food and is delicious.

If you are training multiple times a day, like many fighters do, Hackleman suggests that you should be eating every couple of hours. As far as supplements are concerned He recommends fish oil and also states that creatine is not bad for those wanting to put on muscle, but warns that if you are taking creatine and trying to make weight it will never work because of the water retention. Whey protein powder is also a “Pit Master Approved” suggestion.

On Being Well Rounded in MMA

John Hackleman teaching MMA at the PitIf you are someone who is just starting off in MMA, Hackleman suggests being as well-rounded as possible. “If you already have a background in something, like a karate guy wanting to get into MMA, I say branch out right away. You have to learn stand up because all fights start standing, but you have to learn jiu jitsu because it could hit the ground and you need to know jiu jitsu. Now, you transition everything with wrestling. Takedowns, takedown defenses, clinching etc. It is just as important. It doesn’t matter what you learn first, but you have to learn all three to be successful.”

“If you watch a guy like Dan Henderson (professional MMA fighter) fight, he is one dimensional. He follows people around with his right hand and knocks them out when he hits them with it. So, why would he even learn anything else? What you have to realize is he is also a world class Olympic wrestler and a phenomenal submissions fighter. So, he doesn’t worry about those two things. He just worries about his right hand.”

Hackleman has spent decades mastering the art of putting stand-up, jiu jitsu and wrestling together, coupled with intense cardio and strength training to develop elite fighters.
He expects all his students, also referred to as “Pit Monsters” to come prepared to train like competitors every class.

“The Pit is growing. It is still just a little martial arts and fitness gym but it is growing. Life is good at the Pit”

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