Mid last year, the only thing the news editor wanted to know was: Where is Idris Elba?
In Cape Town to shoot a movie on a closed set, Elba proved elusive, even as Twitter noted him attending the Cape Town International Jazz Festival and playing tourist around town.
There was one day, though, that I knew exactly where he was, because I watched him spar in a boxing ring for Discovery Channel’s new sports reality television documentary, Idris Elba: Fighter.
Once Elba knew he was coming to Cape Town, the filming team incorporated a training stint with martial arts trainer Steve Kalakoda at his gym in Tokai.
Invited to watch the training session with a few other journalists, we watched Elba get into the ring with former K-1 fighter Francois Botha.
The erstwhile professional boxer remembers the first time he climbed into the ring with a kick boxer, arrogantly thinking he’d be king of the ring, but having the stuffing kicked out of him.
“After that, I saw what I was in for and I gained some respect,” Botha remembered.
“From what I’ve seen, he’s got the basics down. He’s got good power, he’s a good athlete, he’s got the charisma, he’s got the name,” said Botha.
Trainer Steve Kalakoda agreed that fighting in a kick-boxing match at K-1 level requires considerable commitment: “You have to be very tough, because when do boxing it’s only your hands; when you do kick-boxing, it’s knees, hands and legs. So you need to be a very hard individual, a very tough person, if you want to do this.”
He thinks Elba would stand a chance in a professional bout, given enough training.
“I was very surprised, he’s got a lot of power, and he learns very quickly,” said Kalakoda, rating Elba’s first training session under his supervision.
Elba suggested documenting his training to take part in a K-1 kick-boxing match for Discovery Channel:
“The opportunity is twofold: one is to see whether I’ve got what it takes, and two, just to document the journey.
“If I’m honest, I’m not on a mission to prove that anyone can do anything, but I am on a mission to prove that if you close your mind to something you definitely won’t get anywhere,” said Elba.
Maintaining his fitness levels while working on film sets proved to be difficult.
One of the interesting hallmarks of his training was that he had to work in different places with differing altitudes and climates. They arranged that he would spend at least five weeks acclimatising to Thailand for the big fight.
Elba did not expect the level of mental discipline that was required and was also slightly amused that one of the biggest hurdles to getting the project off the ground was getting the insurance.
As long as he was also working on a film set, the sparring sessions were limited because he had to use headgear to protect his face: “When you’re sparring, it’s technical, you’re there to learn quickly.
“That’s the odd thing about shooting this documentary while making a film: I actually can’t spar, so I can’t really fight, and my learning is kind of limited. But I learned very quickly about ring space while in the ring with Francois. When this guy is throwing those bombs, what you need to do is make sure you don’t give him the space to do it. Come in and come out, move really quickly.”
While the show is billed as a sports documentary, Elba thinks the real challenge is how to manage his fear rather than his fitness level.
“For me, if my legacy is that I inspire people to look fear in the face and go ‘f**k that’, then I’m happy.
“I could play a character made up by some writer and everyone goes ‘oh, that was amazing’, and that’s great, but when you’re looking at someone you admire from acting and he doesn’t look very heroic getting beat up, and you take from that, actually that’s inspiring, that’s more rewarding for me.”
l Idris Elba: Fighter airs on Discovery Channel (DStv Channel 121) at 9pm on Monday, March 6.
Actor Idris Elba steps into the ring for his Discovery Channel reality series, Idris Elba: Fighter.