If Idris Elba wasn’t cool enough, he only went and became a kickboxer. We talked to his trainer Kieran Keddle to find out how he did it.
Idris Elba is in a Thai Boxing gym somewhere in the middle of Bangkok, sweating it out in 30-degree heat wearing a pair of satin shorts. He’s relentlessly kicking a set of pads held by a trainer.
Surely a sequence in Big ’Dris’s next movie, right? Wrong. This is Idris Elba knee, shin and feet deep in a training camp for his first kickboxing match. You heard correctly, Idris Elba, mega A-list celebrity, 007-in-waiting and all-round legend is becoming a kickboxer.
Elba, 44, decided to try his hand at the martial art after flirting with the sport since his teenage years. His odyssey from Hollywood star to Thai boxing novice was documented by the Discovery Channel, for a show called Fighter.
Elba worked with south London trainer Kieran Keddle to realise his dream of becoming a kickboxer. Keddle was introduced to Elba by former Luther co-star Warren Brown, a former kickboxer himself, to see if he would potentially team up with Elba to help him realise his dream.
“My first reaction, and I think everyone’s reaction was, ‘Is this real? This can’t be real, can it?’ Keddle tells us, when we catch up with him after Elba’s big night.
“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t interested. It was a good opportunity, not just for me but the sport of kickboxing itself. At the moment it’s getting a big boost and in the past 12 months there’s been more and more events happening around the world.”
This isn’t the first time a celebrity has decided to take up a martial art; Freddie Flintoff had one professional fight back in 2012. His journey as former cricket star to pro pugilist was documented by Sky for a show called Flintoff: Lord Of The Ring. While the level of commitment Flintoff showed was impressive, ultimately the effort smacked of misadventure.
Was Elba destined to follow a similar path? “If it was gimmicky I wouldn’t have done it,” says Keddle. “I went in there with an open mind. I met him and talked to him, then had a training session and realised he was serious. Within minutes I knew he wanted it.
“The nuts, crazy, bananas thing is we’re talking about a guy who is a big star. He was the man of the moment, so you wonder why would he want to do it?
“You know what, he said it himself: he likes to be an adventurer. He likes to see things, experience things.”
Big ’Dris has simply stated “it was always something I wanted to do”. Fair enough, we suppose, considering he’s brilliant at everything else – why not?
Keddle estimated that to start from scratch it would take more than a year to turn him into a fighter. This would require regular sessions in Keddle’s Double K gym, based in Bexley, south London; relentless cardiovascular circuits to bring even a very fit Elba up to speed; repetitive technical sessions, designed to master the basics of striking with both hands and feet; and sparring sessions with ‘live’ opposition, which would eventually give him a taste of what it’s like to fight. The only problem is, how do you find a year’s worth of time from someone when that person is Idris Elba?
It wasn’t easy, as Keddle recalls: “I’m quite a patient person anyway, but I had to learn how to work to his time schedule. When we first started I saw his diary and it was just ridiculous; he was, like, in one country for four hours, then moving to another for a different film set – that was his weekend off! It was bonkers. That was the first thing to adjust to and figuring out a timeframe from there.”
The pair’s first sessions together were tentative, but Keddle could see a fighter beginning to shine through. For a man in his early 40s, Elba’s natural levels of fitness were seriously impressive, so Keddle had a base to work from.
Keddle and Elba spent the first few months improving his fitness and learning the fundamentals of striking. “Getting you fit is easy but it’s the technique that takes time to master,” Keddle says. “To be honest with you, hand on heart, Idris picked up technique very quickly. He had had a basic start 15 years before and he half knew how to throw a punch, kick and all that. But it was the timing and repetition that’s the most important, so when we started off we slowly went into training that.”
Despite having a 13-month period where Elba filmed no fewer than four major productions, various smaller indie commitments, a DJ world-tour, a clothing line launch with Superdry, various awards and honours shows (he was appointed an OBE in 2016), he still managed to stay committed to three sessions a week, every week, no matter where he was in the world.
Elba’s progression was steady over the following months, but scheduling conflicts meant he’d be out in South Africa for several months. Keddle left his training in the hands of Elba’s own PT, who kept him ticking over until he could join them himself. Keddle, a former world champion, knows the South African scene fairly well, and organised several mini camps for Elba to get involved with.
The duo also travelled to Thailand, kickboxing’s spiritual home, for a more immersive experience. As Keddle explains, the motive behind the trip was more than just to practise: “He wasn’t just learning about the cultural heritage of the sport, but the mentality of the fighters in these countries.
“Obviously 99 per cent of the fighters from these countries come from underprivileged backgrounds and they actually laughed when they found out what Idris is doing. They saw this big movie star and all wondered why he wanted to do it.
“When we trained with them they saw him differently. We took him to a couple of gyms and live fights to see how they could push themselves. The pace of it is phenomenal and he took away a part of Thailand when he left.”
Further trips to Cuba, Japan and Australia were slotted around Elba’s schedule, and these mini camps gave him the chance to mix it up with some of the world’s best. Big ’Dris kept it real, though. He was afforded no special treatment and took everything in his stride. “I had to get some sparring partners together for him and as you’d imagine, there was a big queue!” Keddle says. The scalp of an A-list celebrity would’ve been tempting for some, but he soon earned everyone’s respect by displaying a natural resilience, respect and humility not necessarily associated with other men in his position.
Respect in martial arts comes before anything. You have to respect an opponent’s ability and the power of your own body – if you don’t, someone will get hurt. Elba, by all accounts, respected the sport, and when he entered the ring at York Hall, London, last November he did himself proud.
“Would I do it again? Yes. It was something that when martial artists see it they will say, ‘I take my hat off to Idris, what a fantastic achievement,” Keddle adds.
“The real martial artists you meet in the real gyms, are real people. He wanted to be one of those people and wanted to be accepted. If he came in and didn’t look for special attention, trained hard and was respectful, he’d get exactly that, and he did.”
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