Carl Ikeme made his name as a Premier League footballer but he has since retired from the sport and taken up BJJ instead, even going so far as to enter competition as well. Ikeme was a fan-favourite at popular English football team Wolverhampton Wanderers, where he spent the entirety of his professional career other than when he was loaned out to other teams during his youth. After progressing from the team’s youth academy and into their first team for the 2003-04 season, he continued playing there and even went on to make several appearances for his country, Nigeria.
Ikeme was diagnosed with acute Leukaemia in July 2017 and battled with the illness before going into complete remission and retiring from professional football a year later. Ikeme spoke to the Express and Star and explained how he made the switch from being a retired Premier League footballer to practicing BJJ back in 2019:
“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. 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!”
Ikeme isn’t alone either, other professional athletes have had a similar feeling when taking part in their first BJJ training sessions. He wasn’t content with just training BJJ though, and eventually he turned his eye to competition as well. He did well in several local competitions before eventually winning the British Open as a blue belt and even competed in a superfight on a Raw Grappling Championship event as well. He also spoke about his decision to start competing in the sport too:
“Competition really wasn’t in my mind at the start. 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 hasn’t just entered a small BJJ competition here or there though, as the former professional footballer also attended one of the biggest tournaments in the sport. Back in 2022 he went to the IBJJF European Championship and even came away with a bronze medal:
“The Europeans was good fun, and everyone there was very good and took it all very seriously. 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!”
Ikeme is definitely enjoying his BJJ journey with Tom Bracher and the rest of the team at Gracie Barra Sutton Coldfield, and he couldn’t be clearer about that:
“With Tom (Bracher) 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. 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.”
Ikeme isn’t alone either, there’s an ever-increasing number of celebrities getting involved in BJJ and that includes former and current professional athletes. From those just starting out in their journey to the ones who have managed to reach the rank of black belt already, seeing famous faces involved in the sport is always great. It brings more attention to BJJ and the end result is always greater opportunities for both hobbyists and competitors.