What You Need to Know About Hand Strikes as Taught by John Hackleman, Trainer of One of the UFC's Best Punchers
That sentence, uttered by John Hackleman — master of Hawaiian kempo, coach of MMA star Chuck Liddell and the man who appeared on the cover of Black Belt's December 2017/January 2018 issue — was not inherently surprising. However, before I could wrap my head around it and formulate a follow-up, he doubled down:
"And by real fights, I mean two guys going at it in the street, the ring, the cage or wherever. Punching causes more knockouts. Punching is instinctive — for most guys, anyway. Punching is easier than kicking, and it's easier than taking someone down. Punching is the most important skill to learn."
The Punching Public
My radar locked onto Hackleman's clarification regarding his use of the word "instinctive." I wondered why, if punching is so easy and effective, it isn't something everyone does well.
"Sometimes when I see an untrained guy punch, it amazes me," he said. "It amazes me that some grown-ass men just cannot throw a punch. I've never played basketball, but I can dribble a ball all day long. So what if a person has never fought! He should still be able to throw a punch. It's fight or flight, not basketball or flight. You're a grown man and you can't throw a punch? It should be genetically coded into everyone's DNA."
For that reason, he recommends that most people, even those with some innate skill, spend time learning how to punch properly. "And they should teach their children how to punch because punching will save your life," he said. "When you can't outrun an attacker, you have to be able to punch."
Naturally, I was curious about the mistakes he sees. "People who can't punch end up pawing like a bear," Hackleman said. I did my best impersonation of an angry grizzly — I might have looked like a kitten swatting at a ball of yarn, though — just to be sure I knew what he was talking about, and he nodded in agreement.
"That's exactly what they do," he said. "Punching is such a natural thing [to do in a fight] that all guys should know how to do it."
Playing the devil's advocate, I asked if the public's inability to fight with their fists wasn't a good thing. Might not people's lack of skill motivate them to sign up for lessons and thus get exposed to all the good things martial arts training bestows? And doesn't the near absence of true punching prowess on the street mean that if a trained martial artist is forced to fight, he'll have no competition?
"Yes, but I honestly would rather have competition than have a country full of victims," Hackleman replied. "I would rather have everybody know how to throw a punch than have them walking around like targets. When they come into this gym, I'm happy to teach them how to fight, how to punch. And if they don't, may the power of God be with them and watch over them because they will be in trouble if they ever get jumped."
The biggest shortcoming Hackle-man sees when noobs take up the challenge of learning how to punch right involves not the arms or the hands but the hips. "People have to be taught how to engage their hips," he said. "Watch a baseball player. He doesn't throw just with his arm; he throws with his power side back and engages his hips. That's what you need to do with your punches. Whether it's a straight punch or a hook, you need to move your hips."
Another common correction that needs to be made pertains to the fist, which Hackleman said is the most important part of the punch. "You can use your hips all day long, but if your fist isn't tight, it's like hitting someone really hard with a piece of paper. You want your fist to be a rock, not a piece of paper. If your fist is only half closed, it's going to be a piece of paper. If it's closed all the way, it will be a rock.
"Your hands should be closed, but you also have to learn how to tighten your fist while relaxing your arm, and that's a skill in and of itself. Tight fist, loose arm."
Lots of martial artists recoil at the notion of a closed fist making contact with something as hard as a head, but Hackleman's fine with it. "Many people talk about using the palms instead of the fists, but they don't work as well," he said. "People will say Bas Rutten fought in Pancrase and was really good with his palm strikes, but he did that because the rules forced him to. That's all they could use in Pancrase! And he was the exception, not the rule. Just because he could do it doesn't mean you can.
"The best thing you can do when a fight starts is close your hands and get ready to swing. In a street fight, it's better to break your hands while saving your life than try some kind of weird palm strike that gives the other guy an opportunity to punch you. He might break his hand on your head, but then you're the one in the coma for the next six months with the tracheostomy and a G-tube. The rule in a fight: It's better to break your hand than your head."
Besides, he was quick to add, a fracture doesn't necessarily take your weapon out of the fight — thanks to our friend adrenaline. "You'll feel it; it will hurt like hell," Hackleman said. "But it hurts even worse to be dead. When your adrenaline is that high and you're fighting for your life, your instincts will come out. Even if you're not a sport fighter and you don't have the instinct to spar, when somebody's trying to kill you or one of your kids, I don't care if you break both hands, you're going to keep fighting until it's over. Then you can go to an orthopedic surgeon, and he'll fix your hands."
In competition, Hackleman said this plays out frequently. "I've seen guys break their hand in the first round of a fight, and they'll use it for the rest of the fight because of the adrenaline — and that's a sport fight," he said. "In the street, your adrenaline is so much higher because the stakes are higher. You're not just fighting for a win; you're fighting for your life."
One of the many fascinating facts I learned about John Hackleman during our time together at The Pit concerned his use of the makiwara. "Julius Wolff was a physician who lived in the 19th century, and he came up with Wolff's law, which says that the more stress you put on a bone, the stronger and denser the bone gets," Hackleman said. "The tendons and ligaments also get stronger. It's why people lift weights: They lift and all of a sudden, the body goes, 'OK, I'm a cave man again, and I need to be stronger to stay alive.'"
He went on to explain that there are dozens of bones in the human hand. "Now, if you start punching the makiwara really hard, you're going to break some of those bones and it's not going to help you," he said. "But if you start slowly, it will eventually build up the bones in your hand so they're denser and stronger.
"People do push-ups to make their shoulders stronger, and they do curls to make their biceps stronger. What they should be doing is hitting the makiwara to make the bones in their hands stronger! I use the makiwara two or three times a week, usually for seven to 10 minutes each time. I hit it with straight punches and hooks. It's kind of boring and repetitive. Some people say you should disguise repetition, but I say you should embrace repetition because repetition is key to getting better."
Assuming he was referring to muscle memory, I blurted out the term. "It's that, too, but it's more about density-ing up your bones," Hackleman said. "I don't think 'density-ing' is a word, but I just said it. The makiwara is great for repetition, for putting techniques and combos into your muscle memory, and for building up the density of your bones."I was surprised to hear a street-fighter-turned-MMA-coach advocate such an old-school training method. "I'm the only one who does that," Hackleman said with pride. "I have my fighters routinely take off their gloves and wraps and hit the makiwara. I've never had a broken hand with any of them. Strengthening the bones, muscles, tendons and ligaments of your hands is probably one of the most important things you can do as a martial artist."
While on the subject of bolstering the body for better bashing, I asked Hackleman about the need to strengthen its other components like the pecs and delts. "They mean nothing when it comes to punching," he said. "The only things they might help with are picking up chicks at the beach — which they do help with, I've heard. (smiles and glances at his wife) And they do help your overall strength and power as a fighter.
"But the true power of a punch comes from the movement of the hips. It has nothing to do with the musculature of the shoulders, the arms, the triceps, the pecs or anything. That's been proved over and over. Watch some of the hardest punchers in MMA or boxing — Thomas Hearns, at 6 foot 1 and 147 pounds, was like a string bean, and he knocked out almost everyone."
So far, he'd expressed lots of respect for the hips and very little for the muscles of the upper body. I asked about the role of the feet, thinking they might be important in punching. "The rule in fighting is to move your feet a lot and create lateral movement and distance," Hackleman explained. "Whether in the ring or in the street, you want to create distance if you can because that allows you to dictate the fight. Distance is king in any fight. If you control the distance, 99 percent of the time you're going to win the fight.
"While you're moving and jabbing, trying to pepper the guy [with strikes] so you can set up a power shot, it's OK to be on your toes. But when you're going for the knockout, you have to set your feet into the ground, dig deep and swing."
I asked Hackleman if a person who's not the most mobile and not the quickest on his feet — channeling a little bit of my insecurity, maybe — could become a good striker. Could such a person learn how to defend against a couple of the most common punches and then be able to unload a shot or two — all without moving around much?
"Some people — like Roberto Durán — just have a knack for getting out of the way of punches while barely moving," Hackleman said. "But that takes skill, and not all people have it. So when I teach people, I have to assume they know nothing. Basically, I have all of them move their feet and use lateral movement. But once they get really good, some people find they can win even though they don't use a lot of footwork. But to build their base, you have to teach them lateral movement."
Virtues of Minimalism
One skill set that goes hand in hand with punching is punch defense, Hackleman said. "Chances are, a punch is what you're going to face in the street. At my school, we don't defend against jump spinning back kicks much because that's not what's going to happen. We practice defense against punches. To get even more specific, looping punches are what we defend against the most because in the street, people will throw looping punches much more frequently than straight punches."
The looping punch is a more basic and more natural power movement, Hackleman said. "If you take 100 people who never trained before and put them in front of a pad and say, 'Hit it as hard as you can,' 98 of them will throw a looping punch with their back hand. So that's what we defend against the most in my school."
I learned that he considers minimalism of vital importance in offense as well as defense. If you're a martial artist, he noted, by all means spend your time perfecting all the moves in your art. But if you're in need of a crash course in self-defense, he said, find that one punch that works for you and focus on it.
"One of my rules is there's no best strike," Hackleman said. "There's your favorite strike, but there's no best strike. If you don't have a lot of time to train, I recommend finding your go-to strike, your favorite strike in the world. For pure self-defense, one strike is enough. I train all the time, so I have three — the right hook, the left hook and the overhand right, and I've knocked out people with all of them. But if you're just going to train now and then, it's better to know one strike and practice it 10,000 times than to know 10,000 techniques and practice them all once."
So practice that one punch every time you train, Hackleman said. "Get it in your muscle memory. Get really good at it. On top of that, learn to defend against a takedown and to get up off the bottom if a takedown happens."
Is even one kick a part of his down-and-dirty formula for self-defense? "Not unless you want it to be," he said. "Kicks are great for creating distance, but for life or death, if I had to pick three things, those three things would be it. If I could pick four, I would add a front kick."
Sensing that the interview was over, I asked, "Can I call this John Hackleman's minimalist toolbox for self-defense?""For street survival," he corrected me.
About the expert: John Hackleman operates The Pit Martial Arts and Fitness in Arroyo Grande, California. His website is ThePitMMA.com.