John Hackleman was born in New York but moved to Hawaii when he was 4. Within a few years, the storm clouds started gathering in paradise. “I knew there were a lot of fights going on, and I knew I’d be in a lot of them since I was white and had long blond hair,” he said.
His pre-emptive action was to whip out the Yellow Pages and find a martial arts school. The youth’s attention gravitated to an intimidating photo of Walter Godin. “He was one of the toughest guys on the island, although I didn’t know it at the time, and a master of kajukenbo, a street-fighting art from Hawaii,” Hackleman explained. “I went down and talked to him. He said he’d been in and out of prison, but that didn’t matter to me.
“He said it would cost $20 a month to train with him, so I went home and told my mom I needed a check for $20. That was the only check I ever gave him. I never paid again, and he was my sensei from 1970 until he died in 2001.”
After he got a grasp of the basics from Godin, Hackleman started fighting in local karate tournaments. When he was older, he pulled a hamstring while training, and Godin advised him to train in a boxing gym until he was healed.
Hackleman, who now runs The Pit in Arroyo Grande, California, acquired an arsenal of hand skills from boxing and went on to compete in Golden Gloves events in Hawaii. When kickboxing became hot, he fought in that, too — including the World Series of Martial Arts in 1975.
Hackleman kept up his kajukenbo, putting in a solid 10 years under Godin’s tutelage before he left to join the U.S. Army. Because of his skills and reputation, he was selected as a member of the Army Boxing Team. When he got out of the military, Hackleman changed the name of the system he taught to Hawaiian kempo because he didn’t want to teach the kajukenbo forms.
To further diversify his skills, he cross-trained with Brazilian jiu-jitsu’s Ricardo Liborio and Mario Sperry, specifically so he could hone his takedown defense. Hackleman’s most famous student is UFC star Chuck Liddell. Liddell put those Hawaiian kempo takedown defenses, not to mention its striking skills, to good use the octagon, from which he retired with a record of 21-8.