From its dawn to present day, mixed martial arts has arguably attracted some of the most dynamic athletes from all walks of life the world over, as those same athletes go on to become prospects of the fight game.
Our shores have always provided a rich background in hand to hand combat such as boxing to the youth of the United Kingdom. For Uche Ihiekwe (9-3), the journey into mixed martial arts was a varied tale.
“I have always been active in sports,” Uche confided. “I used to box at a local gym when I was in school but I never had any amateur bouts. I was competing in athletics for the Harriers once I left school and had been playing football since I was young. I played at a decent semi-professional level, but I was never going to be a professional and I got a bit fed up of it.
Ihiekwe’s introduction into MMA mainly came through his older brother, having seen his collection of PRIDE and UFC tapes, as well as knowing his brother trained within the pure fundamentals of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. Uche was well aware of what this sport was about.
Up to this point, the Kaobon combatant merely entertained the idea of stepping into the MMA world. Coming from somewhat of a boxing background, he had a slight insight into the sport’s etiquette. However, it wasn’t until a long-time friend and Kaobon standout invited him to test the waters that he gained a deeper knowledge of MMA’s inner workings.
“I knew Terry Etim when we were younger as he had started training and fighting locally,” the lightweight divulged. “He was doing really well. Every time I would bump into him I would congratulate him on a recent win and he would tell me I should come to Kaobon and train. This happened many times, then a mutual friend told Terry that I’d said that I’d do okay sparring against him in the boxing department but would probably struggle with kicks, which wasn’t true at all.
”Both Terry and I are probably the most competitive people I know of, so this was only going to end one way. He wanted to prove a point, so he asked Colin Heron if I could come to the gym in the day when there were no classes on and have a ‘light spar.’ I thought the first round wasn’t too bad. The leg kicks hurt but there was nothing unbearable.
“In between rounds Terry said we will pick it up a bit. That’s when I panicked a bit. He hit me with a leg kick that I thought, ‘Wow, they do hurt’ and then I took another which dropped me and that was the end of the spar. My leg was black and blue for two weeks and that was the day I learnt the power of leg kicks. To this day I’ve never been kicked the same as that or been hurt so much by a leg kick.”
That was the start of Ihiekwe’s journey. Once his leg recovered from its tender state, Uche was back in the gym despite becoming an inconsistent participant. He may have been soaking up knowledge quicker than the other newcomers, but his lack of commitment only harmed his evolution.
“Kaobon became a massive part of my life from day one,” revealed Uche. “I loved the gym, coaches and all the team. We had such a good group; we would train so hard, roll hard, spar hard and it made us all really close.
“I was learning fast and holding my own against guys who had been training a lot longer than me but my commitment wasn’t 100%. I wouldn’t go to the gym for weeks which was very annoying for the coaches.
“One day it clicked and I was training all the time for a decent period of time. I advanced in the classes and started to spar and roll with the good guys all the time. Terry and I were close at that point and would just talk about fighting, technique and share ideas all the time.
“He had just received his UFC contract and it was a really exciting time for the gym. Watching him train for fights and seeing what Colin would put him through was great to watch and I knew it was what I wanted.”
Ihiekwe recalls his amateur debut impressively. Having put the time and effort in, he approached head coach Colin Heron after a class and informed him that he wanted to fight. He was told if he kept up his current form, it wouldn’t be a problem.
Both being men of their word, it wasn’t long after that Uche’s amateur debut came in the form of Keith Fowles on Chris Zorba’s debuting OMMAC event at the Liverpool Olympia – previously home to Cage Gladiators.
“I was the home fighter and had sold plenty of tickets,” Uche stated. “I was always confident coming into my fights as I knew no amateur in England was training with the calibre of fighters I was training with and knew they were not being coached at the level I was, so I had no doubts going into fights.
“I always remember Colin, Mark Scanlon and Terry would say to show the opposition you are at a different level and outclass them and that’s what I always tried to do. The debut went to plan and I managed to land some good shots early in the clinch. The ref stopped it to look at a cut and at that point he didn’t want to continue, giving me the win in the first round. I was very happy and knew I wanted to do it again as soon as possible.”
“My amateur fights were all first round wins. Colin tried getting different tests for me, but they all went the same way. I had six bouts in five months before I made my pro debut once again on OMMAC. I had a late pullout this time and the replacement was a tough kid but he was so short I was almost embarrassed fighting him. I won early and was not happy at all. It couldn’t be helped but by then the gym was so well known and as I was coming off six straight semi-pro wins, finding opponents and keeping them wasn’t easy.
“The differences from the semi pro rules were nice as I could fight how I was training and wasn’t having to hold certain things back. It all just felt a bit more real, but the pressure of not wanting to lose definitely a lot higher.”
A goal of Uche’s – and every other fighter around – is to get into the UFC. Being on a roll at amateur, the Liverpudlian’s professional debut was looking inevitably soon and believe it or not, Uche almost made his professional debut inside the UFC on a day’s notice after a nightmare situation with a teammate.
“All of my wins just felt like they were part of a journey,” Uche analysed. “I was obviously happy and excited after wins but it was all just one step closer to getting to where I wanted to be.
“One moment that was a real high but unfortunately lasted around two hours was when we were in Abu Dhabi training for Terry Etim versus Dos Anjos, Paul Kelly versus Dennis Siver and Paul Taylor versus Gunderson. We had done the last ten days of camp in Abu Dhabi and all was going great, but then Paul started feeling unwell the day of the weigh-ins. He had a really bad migraine that wouldn’t go away for hours. He tried sleeping it off but it wouldn’t go and he was in a bad way.
“His manager had come to realise he wouldn’t be able to fight. I knew his manager through his connections with our gym. I was in the hotel lift with him and he was stressing about how he is going to have to tell the UFC that Paul is pulling out and being that it was last minute notice he knew they wouldn’t be happy. He then asked me half-serious if I had my shorts with you. My ears perked up and said I’d definitely fight if Colin lets me.
“He seemed taken aback by my answer,” continued the 155-pounder. “I told him of course I’d jump at it. At this point I had zero pro fights but knew I could fight at the level as I was doing it every day in the gym. Paul’s manager thought if he had to go with bad news to the UFC, at least he had a possible back-up for them, but in my head I honestly thought Colin would say no.
“A few minutes later I see Colin and the manager chatting. They came over to me and said asked if I was sure about doing this. I said if Colin thinks I can then I’m in. He said okay and went off to talk to the UFC.
“I think for the twenty minutes I was on that card, Terry and I were celebrating in his room, jumping around. As quick as it all started, it all came crashing down. Apparently the UFC said yes, but the doctor wouldn’t allow it without a full medical involving brain scans that I could never have had in time. Maybe that was my career high; for twenty minutes I was scheduled to fight a 35-fight veteran in my pro debut!”
At the end of his amateur run, the Kaobon combatant had three knockouts and two submissions to his name – all of which came within the opening stanza. As Ihiekwe turned pro, he quickly went 3-0 with all bouts finishing within the distance. Filled with esteem, Uche took on a fellow prospect in now-UFC veteran Mike Wilkinson. Just as momentum hit a high, things were quickly tipped on their head as he lost for the first time via TKO in the second round.
What followed stung Uche as he swore he didn’t want that feeling of loss ever again. However, lightning struck him twice, coming up short to Artem Lobov by submission. On a two-fight losing streak, it took all Ihiekwe had to get back on the horse.
“I liked coming up as a prospect and enjoyed the pressure and expectations that came with it,” Uche divulged. “Especially with Mike Wilkinson as he was scheduled to fight my teammate Mark Glover at the time and Mark got injured. Mark was further than me on paper in his MMA career but I had no doubts and fancied the challenge.
“I was asked to replace him and as I was training for a fight that night anyway I was happy to accept. If you watch the fight I won that first round pretty convincingly and a few more seconds to that first round a lot of people think the stoppage was coming as I had just landed plenty of heavy knees back-to-back. I went back to my corner and I felt awful; my legs felt like dead weight and my heart rate just wasn’t dropping.
“I tried to act fine and listen to the corner but when I went out for the 2nd I felt exhausted. Fair play to Mike, he had no quit in him and he knew he was back in the fight. The second round started to go his way and I was just fighting on impulse. As it went to the ground and Mike had a good position and was throwing punches trying to get the stoppage, I remember Goddard shouting warnings to me and I really didn’t want the fight to be stopped, so from the bottom I was throwing punches back at him which is not the best idea in retrospect.
“Mark stepped in and I sat against the cage absolutely gutted. I couldn’t believe I had lost. He had a big crowd and I remember being furious when one of his fans shouted “next big thing” at me, relating to an article that had just come out about me before the fight.”
“The Lobov fight went pretty much the same way as my other bouts,” the seventeen-fight veteran continued. “I won the first round and all was going well. However the adrenaline dump killed me and he took advantage of it to get the finish in the last round.
“That was the loss that hurt me even more. I sat in the changing rooms afterwards and just thought it was all over. All that I had worked towards and dreamed of was done with. After the back to back losses I was heartbroken. Colin spoke to me and told me if I wanted it still, it was still there for me. It will just take a little longer but he had faith in me.
“On the way home I was a mess. My girlfriend and little brother were with me and I just couldn’t see past how I messed it all up. They tried to console me but I just needed time.
“I was back in the gym after being on holiday and was as hungry as ever. Plenty of lads had big fights coming up and I was trying to work as hard as them and help out as much as possible. We started to fight once again and went on a good win streak.”
Throughout his prospective run on the domestic scene, Uche was a challenger in Cage Contender and FightStars’ stacked lightweight tournament that featured combatants such as Martin Stapleton, Tommy Maguire, Jason Ball and Uche’s teammate, Chris Stringer.
Tournaments are a dying fashion in MMA, but the competition held at the Liverpool Olympia was one of the elite and provided the lightweight with more to take back to the drawing board.
“I had the Phil Flynn controversy where I had my win changed to a no contest due to him banging his head on the cage post which annoyed me, but I managed to get that win in the rematch the next time round when I drew against him in the Cage Contenders tournament,” Uche informed. “The draws were kind to our team as we avoided fighting each other.
“I got Tommy Maguire in the semi-finals after he had beat my good teammate Chris Stringer. I knew he was a good tough fighter with good boxing and wrestling. I knew he wouldn’t want to stand with me and I was confident everywhere else. He pulled a number on me and the ref allowed him to lay on top and do nothing. I avoided takedowns early on but when he got them he would hardly move and keep me there for longer periods than I would have liked. We got two rounds and I thought he certainly took the second but two judges disagreed and we never got to take it to a third.
“I think he was relieved about that as he was really tired and I was ready to go to a third but it wasn’t to be. Martin Stapleton ended up beating him on a decision in the final to take the win which I was happy about. It was a very tough tournament to compete in.”
It’s been nearly three years since Uche’s last bout in which he went the distance with the always durable Antanas Jazbutis on Fight Ikon 10. Following on from the bout, Ihiekwe had no plans to ride off into the sunset. He feels it just naturally happened as things do in life, however last-minute pullouts didn’t help steer him in the right direction.
“I’m not a fan of calling myself retired,” the twenty-nine-year-old asserted. “Despite the fact it’s been nearly three years since my last fight I still feel like it’s a break. I had no plans of not fighting after the Jazbutis bout, but my last three fights had last minute pull outs and I was having to cut weight not knowing if I was fighting.
“I was scheduled to fight Christian Holley twice after the Jazbutis fight and did two full camps for them until he pulled out the first fight and I had to pull out of the second fight with a chest injury. My chest took forever to heal and family life took over. I got married last year and have my first baby due in a matter of weeks.”
These days, Uche finds himself living the quiet life and working for the fire service – something he has done since 2008. Fighting often enters his mind, wondering what a return to competition would be like after three years away, as it does most ex-fighters. Whether or not he does doesn’t affect his mindset, though.
“I’m keeping fit and ticking over as far as training goes,” revealed the knockout artist. “Kaobon is my gym and always will be. I could never train anywhere else as far as MMA goes. Colin Heron is the best stand-up coach and with Mike Grundy’s wrestling, you’ll struggle to go to the gym and not learn something new each day.
“There is every chance I could fight again. Chris Zorba is often on the phone letting me know the door is still open and some of the lads are on my case to get in more regular, but I would have to be back in the gym training all the time and once that happens I know the urge to fight will be there.
“If I have had my last fight, then I am happy that I got into the sport and learnt so much. I met some people I will respect and care about for the rest of my life at Team Kaobon. Ultimately, I’m disappointed that my goals were not achieved in the time frame I expected, but twenty-nine is not too old in this sport. We shall see what the future holds.”