Wolves hero Carl Ikeme on his new MMA challenge and European success
With recent history between Wolves and Nottingham Forest, ahead of a titanic tussle at the City Ground this Saturday, chatting to Carl Ikeme about his passion for MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) doesn’t feel completely appropriate.
But maybe it is.
Maybe that sort of controlled aggression required in martial arts, and the control of mind over body, that could serve Wolves well as they aim to quench the Forest fire and secure a vital three points.
Make no mistake, Ikeme would love to be playing between the sticks on Saturday.
That’s not down to any regret that his career is over – six years ago this very international break he had just made his final footballing appearance in a 3-1 win at Fulham.
More so that with everything that is riding on the game, and some of the vitriol surrounding it, he would be licking his lips were he heading into that dressing room ready to do battle on Saturday.
“There’s a bit of needle around it isn’t there? Yeh, I always loved those sorts of games,” says Ikeme.
“Games with that extra emphasis and where there might be certain individuals you are not happy with and want to get the better of.
“And on the Forest side I am sure Morgan (Gibbs-White) and Willy Boly - if he’s fit - will be wanting to prove something to Wolves.
“But the Wolves lads will be ready as well, we need the points, and there’s that bit of a derby element too – West against East Midlands – to throw into the mix.
“I’ve been impressed since the new gaffer (Julen Lopetegui) has come in and we’ve played some good football at times without being able to get the results to get clear.
“I don’t think you go into a game thinking it is any bigger than another but, at this point of the season, against a rival, it is obviously very important.
“It all adds up to a very spicy game, and one which both teams will be desperate to win to try and move away from trouble.”
Ikeme is now very much a Wolves fan, no surprise given his strong affiliations with the club from arriving as a young Academy goalkeeper to progressing to make 207 first team appearances.
A key influence in the squad which helped drag Wolves back from the abyss of double relegation with the record-breaking League One title triumph, the Nigerian international was already a firm fans’ favourite before the devastating diagnosis of leukaemia in 2017 which ultimately ended his career.
The support he received through some deeply difficult times before thankfully going into remission remains a sign of the incredible esteem in which Ikeme is still held by the Molineux faithful.
And those fans, having seen the courage and character of Ikeme at close quarters, would have expected nothing less than the open minded determination – and dedication – which he has invested into this post-footballing pastime.
Always a boxing fan, he became a keen observer of UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship), the company promoting big MMA fights, about ten years ago.
Having come through the battle with leukaemia, with his football days at an end, it was around the summer of 2019 that fate stepped in.
“I was just filling up my car at a petrol station near home and saw a sign for Gracie Barra, a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu academy in Sutton Coldfield,” Ikeme explains.
“I had always wanted to try that discipline, so I signed up for a taster session.
“I was in really good shape at the time, it was around when I had done the 100-mile Velo cycle ride for charity.
“But I went along to the class, and I remember being absolutely gassed after a three-minute round.
“My legs were cramping, my back was in bits, and I suddenly realised that you don’t really know **** about fighting until you actually do it!”
At the same time, amid his initial exhaustion, Ikeme was immediately “enthralled”.
He wanted to learn, and wanted to improve.
Initially he set out for MMA to be something of a hobby, an interest, not necessarily something that would be competitive.
But even a cursory glance at the previous career of Carl Onora Ikeme would have suggested that, at some point, the thrill and challenge of face-to-face combat would loom large onto his radar.
As a young man growing up on the sometimes difficult streets of inner-city Birmingham, he often encountered acts of racism, but, with the support of those within the community who saw and helped protect his talent, he overcame it.
He wasn’t initially the most natural of goalkeepers, but with an attitude to learning, and a determination to succeed, he developed into a top class gloveman with the technique to match his reflexes.
Having been dispatched on countless loans, all over the country, he refused to give up on a Wolves breakthrough, and eventually came through to become the club’s undisputed number one.
And then, in his latter years, at the age of 29, made an accomplished introduction to life as a Nigerian international to the unparalleled pride of his family.
All of that paled into insignificance when faced with the biggest battle of his life and a 30 to 40 per cent survival chance after his leukaemia diagnosis, but then, as ever, Ikeme found an approach and mentality alongside his treatment programme to bring the best possible prospect of recovery.
All of this doesn’t happen by accident. It is part of his make-up.
And so, while competing in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is far removed from some of the other life challenges he has previously confronted, surely it was never going to be…just for fun?
“Competition really wasn’t in my mind at the start,” he replies.
“I just wanted to learn a new art, and I found it all a really humbling experience to be honest.
“Getting choked out – you don’t actually get put to sleep – but having to tap out from time to time, I find it humbling.
“And it’s about realising that nothing else matters when you are on the mat as it’s just two people concentrating on trying to get the better out of each other.
“The more I learned the more I realised, it’s like a physical chess match, so it pushes my mind as well as my body, and that’s something that I need.
“It got to a point where we did a competition as a bit of a test really, to test my technical skill but also a mental test as well.
“To go and actually compete against someone else was quite daunting as it was a physical altercation in a sense, even though there is no striking in Jiu-Jitsu.
“It gave me back that feeling of being nervous again, and of me wondering if I would be able to handle it all – and the competitive element just carried on from there.”
Ikeme took to competition well. So well infact, that alongside winning at a couple of local events, he also became the British Open champion at Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu blue belt.
Competing at adult open level against younger opponents - rather than the ‘Master 2’ which his age of 36 could have secured - he then headed off to Rome last year for the European Championships. And came home with a bronze medal tucked in his suitcase.
“The Europeans was good fun, and everyone there was very good and took it all very seriously,” he continues.
“Competing is a great challenge, but for me it’s not necessarily about the tournaments and the results.
“It is also about the growth that comes with it as a person – that’s where the importance is.
“The growth I am getting from it is the reason for doing it in the first place – it’s been so rewarding and so humbling and I can’t see myself not doing it now.
“Although I’m certainly making the very most of it because it’s already getting harder, and at the same time I’m not getting any younger!”
It’s not just the mental growth and physical fitness side that has been so refreshing for Ikeme since taking up the new discipline.
It is that powerful sense of team, so difficult to replicate post-football, which he has found in the strong and supportive community at Gracie Barra.
He feels fortunate to have a coach in Tom Bracher who is a black belt and prolific medallist in major competition, as well as being able to train with so many other young male and female aspiring sportspeople within the academy at Sutton Coldfield.
It’s a hugely positive environment, and one in which Ikeme’s youngest daughter Maya is also thriving.
“With Tom and the others who are training at the gym, I can’t teach them anything about Jiu-Jitsu, but I can maybe pass on some of my experiences of performing at a high level in a different sport,” he explains.
“They are all really passionate and committed and have been successful in competition and it’s just great to chat to them and be a part of their journeys.
“It’s a really nice environment to be in and, for me, it’s important that I had something to focus on after football.
“Obviously the circumstances of me finishing football were different to a lot of people and, while I wouldn’t say I have ever missed football, I had still done it my whole life and so it took a bit of time to adjust.
“I am involved in property and building work and I have my family which is massively important to me but having another physical and mental focus gives me discipline.
“I really like having that discipline and - this probably sounds weird - but I like the fact that I can’t just do what I want, when I want, without fear of repercussions.
“I know I don’t HAVE to go to the gym and training – it’s not like when I played football – but I get myself in a mindset where I feel that I have to.
“I’m not saying I’m at the same level as when I was playing football and was really disciplined but I do think about eating and drinking and when I can do certain things ahead of training.
“Because I know that if I turn up not feeling my best – if I’ve eaten something a bit too heavy or had a few drinks the night before - then someone else is going to get the better of me.
“I don’t have to go training, it’s a choice, but I have that mentality that means it’s not a choice, and I actually like that being the case.
“It’s the way I have been all my life, having that mentality, and sub-consciously it’s a choice that I really like making.”
Whilst his initial introduction and competition has been in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Ikeme also possesses a strong interest in – and has also tried out – several other MMA disciplines.
That has included wrestling, and also Thai Boxing, in which he regularly trains with leading exponent Nathan Epps, whilst he was a ringside observer in London when Birmingham’s Leon Edwards recently retained his UFC Welterweight title by emerging victorious from the third fight of his trilogy with Kamaru Usman.
“Being able to be coached by Tom, and train with someone like Nathan is another part of this which I am really grateful for,” Ikeme reveals.
“What Leon Edwards is doing is also brilliant and I think we are fortunate in Birmingham to have these kinds of people from MMA scene right on our doorstep – it’s a scene that is really buzzing in Birmingham and the Midlands.”
Buzzing is certainly what it will be at the City Ground this weekend, though hopefully without the same level of combat.
It’s just over a decade since Wolves actually lost in normal time away at Forest, seven attempts ago, when Ikeme was in goal for a 3-1 defeat which included Matt Doherty’s first goal for the club.
A week later came the home game with Bristol City when a growing sense of frustration culminated in the half-time fracas which saw Ikeme punch the tactics board in the dressing room and break his hand.
There was, of course, a far happier conclusion to Ikeme’s footballing story, helping the team power back to the Championship before, those six years ago, playing in the 3-1 victory at Fulham which, at the time, no one knew would be his last in a Wolves shirt.
“I was only thinking this the other day when the international break arrived that it’s pretty much six years to the day since my last game,” he says.
“I got injured in that win at Fulham and never played again.
“Thinking about it now, it feels mad that it has been six years, but it also feels like it has gone pretty quickly.
“I am 36 now, and possibly still could have been playing, but I never look at it in that way in terms of thinking I was robbed and my career got taken away.
“I just look back feeling happy because I loved every minute of my life in football and at Wolves, it was brilliant.
“In the past couple of seasons, I’ve enjoyed coming back to the games as a fan – Maya came to her first one against Tottenham – and I’m due at the Chelsea game as well.
“It’s nice just to come back as a fan, see some familiar faces and chat about Wolves, and have it as a fun experience rather than going back and wishing I was still playing.
“I am just proud of the time I had, what I did when I was there, and always proud to come back and watch the team.”
The Wolves fans are equally as proud of Ikeme, and loved seeing back between the sticks at Shrewsbury last Sunday afternoon for Dave Edwards’ charity game, one particular flying save to tip a Luke Rodgers shot over the crossbar a reminder of his continuing talent.
Life is certainly good for Ikeme right now. He is happy and healthy, and greatly relishes precious family time with wife Saba, daughters Mila and Maya and eight-month old son, Ezra.
“Yeh it’s all good,” he confirms, “and I’m keeping busy.
“It was good to get back out there for Eddo’s game but I’m not sure I’ll be doing it again any time soon!
“With family, and work, and getting myself to the gym to do one of the arts, it’s all keeping me fit and keeping me sane!
“When I think back to football it’s just life isn’t it? Where everything comes to an end and then you move on and do something else.
“When one chapter closes, another one starts.”