When it comes to sneakers, “American Ninja Warrior” co-host Akbar Gbajabiamila knows his stuff.
Since joining the show in 2013, he’s watched people compete and has developed an eye for the footwear that works best on the course. And prior to the TV show, Gbajabiamila spent four seasons as a defensive end in the NFL, where he learned quickly what cleats and training shoes would help him perform at a high level.
Aside from performance footwear, Gbajabiamila is a fan of wearing kicks for style and is an admitted Air Jordan addict.
The football player-turned-TV personality spoke exclusively with Footwear News about his love for Air Jordans, how he chose the cleats he’d wear on the field and why competing in the right footwear is vital to winning “American Ninja Warrior.” (A new episode airs tonight at 8 p.m. ET on NBC.)
What training sneakers and cleats did you work out in and wear on the field during your NFL career?
“It was Nike, the Speed TDs — they had some midlevel ones. I tried wearing Reebok cleats my first year, and they were just so heavy and so clunky that I could never get with it. They offered more money upfront, but I was Nike all the way and never looked back. And I also wore the Nike Air Pegasus, because they’re the ultimate cross trainers. I’m a little lazy and didn’t always want to take sneakers off and then do the track shoes and then do the turf shoes, but I could always use [the Pegasus], especially if we were doing conditioning.”
What requirements did you have for your footwear?
“Weight was huge. Speed was always my game, and I needed my feet to feel like they were moving fast and they weren’t heavy. I could not stand heavy cleats. The other thing is whatever game cleat I wore was my practice cleat, and for each game I broke in a new pair. I had a new cleat for every game, and that week I would use it for practice and then discard them. I only kept my cleats for a week.”
How often are you in the gym now? And what do you wear when working out?
“I wear the [Nike] Metcon 3 because I do a lot more lifting and the flatter bottoms allow me to do my kettlebell swings and my front squats, if I need to. They’re the perfect weight room shoes, and that’s where I spend most of my time. When I do jog, because of how football beat my body up, my joints, I wear New Balances because I like the soles — they’re a lot more cushioned and take a lot of the impact from my joints. I feel great when I’m jogging on the cement or turf in New Balances.”
How important was it for you to have the proper footwear when hitting the field or training before game day?
“It was huge. I didn’t care what it looked like as much as it felt like and how much it weighed. If you don’t have the right equipment, it’s just hard to be mentally there. It’s just one less distraction I wanted before competition.”
How important is it for people competing in “American Ninja Warrior” to have the right footwear on?
“Big, because footing — especially in the qualifying round — is huge. When you look at the qualifying round, there’s usually a good split; there’s six obstacles, and three of them will be agility or something that will require you to run. The ninjas are really particular about the sneakers they wear because one mess-up you don’t get another opportunity until next year. I notice they all tend to wear the same thing, they have this community where they talk to each other. I think a lot of them wear New Balances. Maybe it’s their traction, because traction is very important to them.”
What pro football player, past or present, do you think would do well on “American Ninja Warrior”?
“Bo Jackson would do well the dude was a beast with anything and everything he did. Remember his ‘Bo Knows’ promos? I think Bo knows ninja. Presently, I’m fascinated by Odell Beckham Jr.; he’s got the right size and makeup, he’s limber, he can dance and move and do all these different things, and you need that mobility. And his hand strength, the fact that he could catch balls going 70 or 80 miles per hour and catch them in air tells me he has the grip strength for Ninja Warrior. Not to mention it would be cool to see what he’d wear to compete.”
How did you become so fascinated with Air Jordans?
“Growing up, I didn’t own a pair of Jordans, and my parents could not afford to buy me a pair of Jordans. I remember when I got my first job as a lifeguard, I saved all my money to buy the patent leather 11s, the black and white ones. And I was ahead of the game; before they released the ‘Space Jam,’ I wanted to be the cool kid on campus so I got my 11s dyed all black, and everyone thought that I had the ‘Space Jam’ patent leathers. They were like, ‘Where did you get those? They’re not even out.’ I said I had a hookup at Nike, lying through my teeth.”
What are your favorite Air Jordans of all time?
“The 4s. The black 4s are my all-time favorite, [and] I still don’t own a pair of them. I want them, but they’re hard to find in a size 15. And I don’t buy Jordans. I had a Nike deal, and at the end of my career, I said this is the third time I got cut, and usually give you two weeks after you get cut for your deal. Through my account, I went out and got every single pair of Jordans I could get my hands on. Until this day, I still have pairs of Jordans stacked up in my closet that are fresh; I use the closet in my office to stack up all of my Jordans.”
What is your closet balance like between sneakers and all other types of footwear?
“94 percent Jordans, and I only wear them about 4 percent of the time. I’m always waiting for the big event to wear them, but once that big event comes, it’s not big enough. I want to make sure when I showcase them it’s going to be photographed, you’re going to see them. And I also don’t like walking on cement in them.”
How many pairs do you have?
“I’m down since I’ve given some away, so I’m now down to maybe 70 pairs of shoes, with about 50 pairs of Jordans. The rest are dress shoes and workout shoes.”