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Ex-Wolves, QPR, M’boro, Doncaster player wins debut MMA fight after retiring from football

Ex-Wolves, QPR, M’boro, Doncaster player Carl Ikeme wins his debut MMA fight years after retiring from football and a cancer battle.

Many end up quitting life as a player to become a pundit, football coach or simply fade into the background sitting on their retirement fund.

However, ex-goalkeeper Carl Ikeme had a different change of career, surprising many by taking up Raw Grappling. The sport centres around a form of combat linked to Brazilian Jiu Jitsu based on ground fighting and submission holds.

He featured on the undercard for the first Raw Grappling World Championship at the Indigo O2 Arena in London earlier this month, facing fellow Briton Fuad Ahmed in the 97kg category.

Carl Ikeme beat his fellow Briton Fuad Ahmed in the Raw Grappling Championship

The 36-year-old showed he was no pushover, winning 4-0 on the scoreboard with a submission move with it going into overtime.

Ikeme, who is registered as a member of the Brazilian Jiu Jitsu’s International Federation listed under the ‘Super Heavy’ category, spoke about how he took up the sport when his local gym opened up, posting about his new passion on his Instagram account.

“After being intrigued by Brazilian Jiu Jitsu for years, I was delighted when I saw Gracie Sutton Coldfield opening. I have gained a new love for the art, skill and discipline of Jiu Jitsu,” Ikeme was quoted saying on the gym’s Facebook page.

After hanging up his gloves, he released a book in 2019 talking about his battle with cancer titled ‘Why Not Me’, sharing with readers how he coped with his diagnosis and putting it into perspective with his life as a footballer.

He announced his retirement from football in 2017 after a year-long battle with acute leukaemia and his No.1 jersey was left vacant, with his replacement Rui Patricio taking the No.11 shirt instead.

The former Nigeria international had been with Wolves for much of entire career, making over 200 appearances for the club. Ikeme said his decision to retire came after seeking medical advice following “a tough year and intense chemotherapy”.

“I spoke with the doctor and he suggested I should retire because of the toll the treatment has taken on my body,” Ikeme told the club website.

“He thinks it’s what is best for me and I can’t really risk trying to come back, my health is the priority. I want to be here for my children, family and friends. In the grand scheme of things with my life in danger, it’s the minimum price I have to pay to spend the rest of my time with my family.”

While it may not be football, it’s just great to see Ikeme relishing in being back in shape, showing some fight and being an athlete again.


Youth career
–2003 Wolverhampton Wanderers

Senior career
2003–2018 – Wolverhampton Wanderers – 191 games
2004 → Accrington Stanley (loan) – 3 games
2005–2006 → Stockport County (loan) – 9 games
2009 → Charlton Athletic (loan) – 4 games
2009 → Sheffield United (loan) – 2 games
2010 → Queens Park Rangers (loan) – 17 games
2010 → Leicester City (loan) – 5 games
2011 → Middlesbrough (loan) – 10 games
2011 → Doncaster Rovers (loan) – 5 games
2012 → Doncaster Rovers (loan) – 10 games
Total – 256 games

National team
2015–2016 – Nigeria – 10 games

Wolves and Nigeria goalkeeper Carl Ikeme was diagnosed with acute leukaemia in July 2017.

After 12 months of gruelling treatment which ended his career, his lifelong dream of playing at a World Cup, the chance of being present at the birth of his second daughter and almost his life, Ikeme was told he was in complete remission.

He said at the time he wasn’t sure what the future holds.

“I am unemployed,” he said with a smile.

As Ikeme reported for pre-season training feeling physically fit and anticipating an exciting campaign ahead, new boss Nuno Espirito Santo came in and there was a feeling of optimism around the West Midlands outfit.

Ikeme didn’t realise that his life was about to change forever.

He recalled: “I had a couple of blood tests at the start of pre-season that showed my platelets were a little low.

“There was no massive alarm. I carried on training – I was fit, I was healthy.

“We did a hard session, then went to the gym. I had a bleeding nose. I never told the doctor anything because I knew he would pull me out of training – for some reason, this time I told him about the nosebleed and a slight headache.

“I had another blood test, which was still low, so he said we had to see a specialist.

“You take a little gasp of breath when they tell you what they are testing for but I never thought, a few days later, it would be cancer.

“I was at Homebase when I got a call from the doctor.

“I was expecting him to say everything was fine. I can’t remember him saying ‘you’ve got cancer’ but I do remember him talking about Geoff Thomas and Stan Petrov and that it was going to be a tough year for me and my family.

“I remember being in the car park and tearing up.

“At the time my daughter Mila was four. I thought ‘Am I going to be there for her?’. My partner Saba was heavily pregnant and due to give birth a week later. I thought ‘I am going to die’.”

Ikeme went home knowing he was about to have some of the toughest conversations of his life.

Saba was told. So were his parents. Mila wasn’t.

“She doesn’t know. She is too young. I couldn’t tell her ‘Daddy might not be here anymore’. I didn’t want to change anything for her.

“She knew I was in hospital a lot but she just thought ‘Daddy’s not very well’ or ‘Daddy’s got to see the doctor’. I am sure she will find out eventually but now, it is something she doesn’t need to know.

“Saba was different. Obviously I have seen her cry before but that…

“Then my mum, my dad, my sister came round. To see the pain on their faces. It is something a son or daughter should never have to tell their parents; that they have cancer.

“That night, my whole thought process was around the two kids and Saba. I might have one child who would never see their dad and another who might grow up without him. How would Saba cope if I wasn’t there?

“I did start off thinking ‘why me? I am not a bad person’. But after a couple of days it was ‘why not me’. Why shouldn’t it be me?

“People have tough lives. People get diagnosed with disease. This is my journey. This is supposed to happen. Acceptance was a big part of helping me get through my treatment.”

Ikeme had the option of delaying the start of his treatment so he could be present for the birth of his second daughter. He declined.

He was diagnosed and started treatment at Manchester’s specialist Christie hospital a couple of days later. Maya was born five days’ late.

“I found out through FaceTime,” he said. “It was surreal knowing I was having a baby but I wasn’t actually there. I had never imagined missing the birth. I didn’t get to hold her for a week.

“Once the treatment started, I lost a lot of weight quite quickly, nearly two stone in three weeks.

“Initially I was still physically OK. I could go for walks.

“As the treatment went on, I needed people to help me out.

“There were times when I felt tired cooking for myself or doing things around the house.

“Mum, dad, Saba, friends would be there.

“There were also times when I didn’t feel great and I just wanted to be on my own and suffer in silence.

“There were a lot of times when I felt weak and would get out of breath doing minimal things.

“One day I got a taxi to the hospital. It was so hard getting in the taxi. I was so out of breath. As soon as I got to hospital, the nurse said ‘you are not looking too good. You will have to stay here’. It was tough.

“I knew how hard it was for my family. I could see it in their faces. They were there when I was in pain or suffering. I would tell them I was all right and not to worry but I can’t imagine what it was like when I wasn’t there.

“It is a mental thing as well. To start off with I thought about dying. It wasn’t in my head all the time but I might have a bad night and think about it a little bit, or when I had bone marrow testing I might think ‘has it come back?’.

“I had to ride the bad phases. I am quite strong mentally. I was planning for the future. I booked a holiday for my friend’s wedding in January. That was my goal. To be there to be best man at his wedding. I was trying to plan ahead instead of thinking about the other side of things.”

By his own admission, Ikeme was largely ignorant of the detail behind the treatment he was having, feeling it was easier that way and allowed him to focus on the more positive aspects of his life.

However, this meant he was unaware of the consequences of situations he found himself in.

It wasn’t until six months after the event, as he approached the end of his treatment and took the rare step of reading through his notes, he realised how serious one incident in particular could have been.

He said: “Treatment for leukaemia reduces your immune system to nothing, which leaves you at risk of infection.

“This particular Sunday, I was at home in Birmingham and I just didn’t feel right. Just a bit funny. I didn’t do anything about it. I thought I could sleep it off. A couple of hours later my temperature was nearly 40 degrees.

“The hospital told me to go straight to A&E. I had a really rough 10 days in hospital. I was always thinking ‘tomorrow I will be OK’. But tomorrow came and I wasn’t.

“It didn’t really click until I read my notes a long time afterwards and saw I had sepsis. I asked the doctors about it and realised I had been in really bad shape. It was a danger to my life and I didn’t realise.”

From the very first diagnosis, Ikeme knew it was unlikely he would play professional football again.

After 271 appearances, 207 of them for Wolves, the only club he was ever contracted to, Ikeme had enjoyed experiences denied to all but the very best players and accepted the fact he had to stop playing, but knew the aim of survival was far more positive.

He said: “When the doctor suggested I needed to worry about my health not football and call it a day, it wasn’t a shock.

“I had finished my last intense treatment and it was time for me to go home. I got my stuff out of my apartment and said to the medical staff ‘If someone asks what the situation is now, what do I tell them?’. They told me I was in complete remission and I could get on with my life.

“It is strange really. I got home in time for Mila’s fifth birthday. I was delighted to be there. But I was still recovering. I was not in the greatest of condition.

“It is still not over for me now. I am still being treated. I still have hurdles to jump.

“But I am so happy to be living a normal life, being with my family, being able to have breakfast with the kids.”


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