An Interview With Idris Elba's Kickboxing Coach

Fightland Blog

By Sarah Kurchak

Photos courtesy of Kieran Keddle

"Never read the comments" is some of the best advice that you'll ever receive when it comes to conducting oneself on the Internet But there are exceptions to every rule and we at Fightland faced one of those rare instances of productive commenting yesterday.

Shortly after we posted a story about Idris Elba: Fighter, a new Discovery International documentary series that will follow the actor through his year-long journey to train for and compete in a professional kickboxing match, Kieran Keddle, the Head Coach of Double K Muay Thai gym in London, England, posted on our Facebook page.

"I'm the coach of Idris Elba for his upcoming fight," Keddle wrote in the comment thread. "Just for the article, unlike CM punk, he's not fighting on a big show and disrespecting full time athletes. He's working hard in the gym and were traveling round, sometimes due to work, so he gets in good shape. He's not going to be handed an opponent to lay down, the match will be fair and if anything he'll fight someone with experience. It's all possible that he will have some amateur fights before his actual pro rules bout. The documentary is as real as can be. No circus and no Hollywood here."

We immediately reached out to the coach and multiple-time kickboxing champion to see if he'd be willing to tell us more. Via Skype from Australia, where he's currently putting Elba through his paces in between takes of a little film called Thor: Ragnarok, he ended up telling us a fair bit more than that.

Keddle is eager to assure people that Elba is the real deal. Part of that is because, like any good coach, he feels very protective of all of his students. Especially ones as dedicated and serious as the Wire and Luther star has proven himself to be. "I'll defend any student of mine on the Internet," he tells us. "You can go all day long about me. I wouldn't bat an eyelid, but if you go on about any of my students, then I'm going to defend them. And that's why I went on Facebook about the comments, because... I know that he must get criticism for everything. Movies. Series. Music. Everything he does, no doubt. But this is something that is my project, as well. It's something that I'm heavily involved in, so I'm going to defend him like I would with any student of my gym."

Keddle, who has been involved in kickboxing since he was a child, also believes that the show is something that will really speak to the martial arts community and he hopes that people give it a chance. "I really wanted to make this show real. Not just for the average spectator for Discovery Channel, but I want fighters to watch the show and go 'You know what? He's training properly. He's putting in the hours. He's sparring properly, and no one's holding back on him,'" he says. "They're going for him in sparring, trust me. And he's getting injuries along the way from sparring and all of the little things and twists and bruises and cuts that all fighters get along the journey. Yes, of course, he's an actor and yes he's going to get more attention to him because of his name. But for fighters who will watch the show, I believe they will get behind him and relate to a lot of the things that he's going to do."

We spoke to the trainer about getting involved in the project, helping Elba to embrace a different fighting style, trying to schedule a fight camp around a blockbuster star's intense filming schedule, and how he'd like to clarify what he initially posted about the polarizing CM Punk situation. Here's our conversation in full:

Fightland: It's a real testament to how passionately you must believe in what you're doing with him that you would wade into Internet comments like that.
Kieran Keddle: Yeah. I mean, when I signed up for the documentary and to train Idris, there was a couple of things that he had to do. One was to follow the program I was going to give him. It's not always easy because he's had a real crazy twelve months. Trust me, it's ridiculous. And, on top of that, at the beginning of this training camp, he had a little setback. Which, when you see the series, you'll see what he has to overcome. But he's an achiever and he sets out goals, and when he trains and he stays with my program, he trains very, very hard.

I've had to work around him a bit, admittedly, but it's no problem. Currently I'm in Australia. We're doing a four or five week training camp here, and he's training once to twice a day.

Let's go back to the very beginning of this series. When did you first start training with him?
We started in November last year. We did some [training]. Very ,very light, because we were going through a bit of paperwork and exactly scheduling for the following year. Originally, he was going to fight earlier on in the year and then we decided that he needed more time. It was mainly doing with me wanting more time with him first to bond and also gel together.

Although we did some in November, the training camp, for me, really started in January. But let's not forget with Idris, he has been training in the past. And when I say training, he keeps himself fit. He did some kickboxing at various different gyms over the years. Nothing solid, of course. So when he came to me, he had some sort of knowhow. Don't get me wrong, I've had to modify him in every way, but the basics were there.

There is some footage of his pre-you kickboxing out there and it it's not the cleanest. What was your assessment of his original skills?
It's not good. I mean, that was five or six years ago, and what happened is he was doing a fitness program and part of that was to do one day worth of training. The trainer, he's a friend of mine, actually, Daniel Sam. But that was just literally a one-off thing. So his balance is off and his punching's off. If people go on YouTube they're going to think he's not for real. But it was five years ago and he's come a long way since.

For example, the latest video of him on the bag, which was a couple of months ago, of him training. He's even come leaps and bounds since then. But you can see there's a massive difference between the pad work five years ago and him drilling the bag years on.

Did you know him before the idea of this show was presented to you?
What happened is... here's the thing about this program: this is Idris's idea. It was something that the Discovery Channel came up with. Basically, he did a season called No Limits and it was a big success. They wanted to do a follow-up season and they were asking "What should we do?"

He said "I've always wanted to do a fight. Am I too old?" And that was the big question: "Am I too old?" And, to be honest with you, people were thinking "Are you crazy?" He's got a lot of big movies coming up, a lot of projects coming up. Music. He obviously received an OBE. He's doing a lot of voiceovers for Disney.

But it's something he's always wanted to do and, as the idea grew, one of his very close friends, who is also a friend of mine, called Warren Brown. They worked together on a series in England called Luther. On the set a couple of years ago when they were filming it, they started training together. And Warren is a former world Thai Boxing champion, two times over. Anyhow, so when the idea of him fighting came up, he went straight to Warren.

Warren said "Listen. If you're going to train and take this seriously, you have to train with a friend of mine, Kieran."

Discovery, at the time, when they saw that this was coming, they came up all different types of trainers and coaches. But Warren was adamant that he had to come and see me. I went to the table and basically demanded that if he was going to train, he was going to have to do certain training systems and he's got to listen to me as much as possible in terms of the time that we get. And that's how it all began.

It sounds like you have a certain amount of autonomy here in terms of time and what you can actually tell him to do. Would you have become involved in the project if you couldn't dictate the terms on which you coached him?

Originally, [kickboxing] was a hobby for me and it turned into my business and it turned into my life. It is my life. So I wouldn't take on the project unless all parties were serious involved. And even down to the camera crew and production crew, they are very serious with me, as well, and they take me very seriously. Which is very important. And they know what I've got to give and they know that my background is serious and that I've got a high work ethic and I've created champions in the past. It's nothing egotistical, it's just little facts that I'm trying to give you. So they knew that I was the right man for the job.

If it was a bit of a Muppet show, there would be no point in me being involved, because it would have looked bad for me. It would have looked bad for kickboxing and Muay Thai and, to be honest with you, it basically would have made the whole thing—and me—into a joke.

So, like I said, it's a very serious program. He's going to fight someone with a fighting record. We've got a few names on the table. I personally flew over to Holland with the crew, to Mike's Gym in Holland. There's a 90% chance he'll fight somebody from there. We had ten guys turn up for basically an X-Factor-type camp and we chose three, possibly four, fighters from there. Idris is likely to have a couple of amateur fights. Very soon. And, from his amateur fights, I want to gauge what level he can fight at.

At the end of the day, this is all seriousness. In training, he trains very hard. He trains very well. When he spars, he spars professionals. He's sparred a couple of world champions. He's got world champion boxers, MMA fighters, as well. And he handles them very well. I'm not going to say he beats them, but he does very well.

So he's ready to fight someone with a little experience. I'm not going to put him in there in the cauldron of a guy that's had a ridiculous amount of fights. That's just ridiculous. But it's as real as it will be and, to be honest with you, he could be knocked out. There's no lying. He could get knocked out. It could happen. Obviously, we don't want to happen. But it could really, really happen.

And along the journey, which I'm not going to give away too much about the series, you're going to find out a lot about Idris. It's not just a plastic show. You find out a lot about his emotions and the journey he travels and what he has to put up with. It really is an incredible program. It's actually more in-depth as I've gone on training with him and found about him. But it's more in depth about him, as well. It is about the fight, but it's also about him finding out about himself and what limits he can push his body to.

Did the depth of the show and the direction it's taken since you first got involved surprise you?
Yes. I just thought... it was a bit odd, because it's a three-part series, three one hour episodes and it doesn't sound like much. I was thinking, "What are you going to do? Just train? And that's it? And then have a fight at the end?"

And then, because of his schedule, we had to go to different locations across the world. Which is great. Logistically, it's a bit of a nightmare, because I've had to organize the training camps in every country that we've gone to. So when we went to Cuba, for example, we had to find out the gyms in Cuba that were legitimate and some that weren't, of course.

Same with Japan. We went to Japan and we got to train with Masato, who is a K1 legend. So that was good. It was good for him, as well. And he got to spar in all of these different countries and do proper training camps. Sort of mini ones at first, but now we're in a longer one. And he learns about the martial art itself, and he also learns about himself, and how his body and how his mind changes. Just different aspects of life. It's a really interesting show.

Like I said, I don't want to give away too much. But it's not just about the fight. You get to know a Hollywood actor properly. It's nothing like when they have interviews for a movie coming up. This is real. There's no makeup. There's no circus. It's him and his hard training schedule and what he has to do.

And his actual work schedule is absolutely ridiculous. We set up a program around it and, coming up to Thailand—we're going to go next month—he's actually cleared his schedule for a whole three to maybe four weeks. He's going to be training twice a day up to that, as well. So it's good.

He's developed quick. He's a quick learner. He's not just a guy who switches off. So when he does a lesson with us, he's always asking extra tips, which is good for me, but then he goes back to his laptop and watches a lot of fights. He's always asking questions about a fight or a fighter. He's keen, and that's the important thing. He doesn't just do the hour or two hour session that we do and then switch off. He's constantly wanting to know and constantly wanting to develop.

Logistics and scheduling nightmares aside, he sounds like an ideal student.
(laughs) Yeah! He is. To be fair, I always say to my students, especially when they start, it takes a little bit of a while to find out what fighter you and you are. It can sometimes take years and sometimes take months. You just learn as you go along exactly what's right for you. When we started the fight camp, he wanted to be a particular type of fighter, and I've changed him and his mind and way of thinking and now he is the that he needs to be.

So we're working on that. And any coach will tell you this: if a guy comes to the gym and he puts maximum effort in in the time that he's given, then you can't ask for anything more. And let's be honest, as well. He's 43. 44 next week. So I can't train him like a 20-year-old. Although he thinks like a 21-year-old. He's very fresh-thinking and he's very current. But at the end of the day, you've got to listen to your body.

I've done it. I'm experienced with training guys of all different ages and so I know when to rest and when to train him, and how to work around injuries or struggles that he gets through.

How would you describe his and are there any other fighters you can compare him to?
Look, he's 6'3" and he's 90 kilos. He's lean and he's long, so it's obvious, without giving too much away, that he's going to use his range. He's very strong and powerful. I'm not just saying that. He's a powerful guy. He's just got to know when to throw the shots properly, and that's what we're starting to develop now.

That's just experience. He's starting to learn now in sparring. He's starting to get his timing right and when to throw shots. This is the next stage. Because the first couple of months, of course, we didn't do any sparring. Then I brought sparring to the table. And that's where he's really, really starting to shine. He enjoys sparring. But of course, at the same time, I can't give him sparring every day because of injuries. And I wouldn't do that, anyway, to be fair. It would be three times a week, maximum.

So yeah. He's tall and rangy. He's got long limbs. I'm just trying to get him to be a little more patient and use those longer shots. That's not giving too much away, but you can guess from there.

Have there been any moments in your training with him where you've stepped back and thought "I don't know if this is a good idea?" Or "He needs more time than I originally thought?"
At the beginning? Yes. I was thinking, "How are we going to fit the training in?" But anything is possible with him. So we sat down and went through the diary and things changed daily, as well. I knew that we would have Australia for five weeks and Thailand for four weeks, leading up to his fight, so as long as he's training at least two hours a day, and sometimes twice a day, then I knew that, for that last part of the camp, he would be fine.

But at the beginning, I must admit, I was thinking "This is not gonna be easy. How is he going to train? How can I dedicate myself?" Because I've had to travel a lot, as well, to train someone that might not have the time [to completely dedicate himself to kickboxing].

Like I said at the beginning, some people thought it was a Muppet show. And the other question is: Why are you doing this?

And that's a serious question. Why are you doing it? You're not young anymore. And two: You've got a career that's really boomed, over the last two years, especially. He's had an OBE. He's done a couple of Disney films. He just finished another film called Dark Tower with Matthew McConaughey. Here he's doing Thor 3. And that's just in the last six months alone. So you can imagine why the question is "Why?"

I looked him in his face and I said, "Why do you want to do this?" And he just said, "I want to do it. I want to do it. I've always wanted to do it. I feel I can get in shape in twelve months with the right team around me, and the right dieting, and it's something I want to do."

For the first couple of months, I was a bit "Hmm..." And then I realized that he does really want to do it. He will dedicate his time, and I will dedicate my time as a coach to him, as well, because I can see that he's got this desire.

Maybe some people call it a bucket list, but it's something that he has to experience and he really wants to experience. And if he's guided right and he trains properly, then why not? I mean, I've trained people before that have been older than him, and I've got fighters that have been with me for 20 years that are older than him, as well. So he can do it. Now he's really listening to his body, as well, not just me. He's getting the right diet and the right amount of rest. He'll be fine.

That seems like a great note to end on. Is there anything else that you'd like to add?
No, not really. Just... Sorry. Sometimes I put comments on there that sound disrespectful. I've got nothing against CM Punk.

All it is for is that the UFC is something that everybody knows. All generations know about it. It doesn't matter what background you come from. Everybody knows what UFC is now. It really is the pinnacle of MMA. There's no denying that. It is a massive product. So I understand the business side of it. But, from my personal side, I've got fighters who have been dreaming to get into the UFC and have fought in these little town brawls and have worked themselves up to fighting on bigger shows and they're desperate to get into the UFC.

For me, I would have liked to see CM Punk have a couple of fights before he gets into UFC. But then again, on the flipside, I do understand the business of it. So no disrespect to CM Punk. It was never intended for that. I wish him all the best.


Check out this related story:

What Idris Elba and CM Punk Can Teach Us About Professional Fighting