Alum grapples way to victory in rising sport: beach wrestling

4 – minute read

Stepping onto a warm, sandy beach in Barbados, Jabari Irons already knew he was a champion.


“When I compete, I train to win,” said Irons.


The first-time Barbados Open Grand competitor beat six others in his weight class but ultimately lost by one point to three-time Pan-American Champion Yurieski Torreblanca of Cuba.


A veteran traditional wrestler, Irons joined the up-and-coming category of beach wrestling after suffering a rib injury in spring 2022 — five weeks before the U.S. Open freestyle wrestling tournament. The injury required six to eight weeks to heal.


“I needed to figure out what I was going to do,” said Irons. “Either sit around and do nothing or take my chances with the beach wrestling.”

FGCU grad
FGCU grad
Irons is heavily involved in his students’ success at Irons Elite Wrestling Club.

Beach wrestling is easier on the ribs, he said, because this style of wrestling doesn’t use what is known as a gut wrench, a technique where you lock up your opponent and do a side roll.


Past injury or not, Irons is hungry. He wants to place in the U.S. Open and get selected for the national team; he wants to do well in the World Championship to get ranked worldwide; and he wants to compete in the international tournaments between the U.S. Open and the World Championship.


Just like an injury got him into beach wrestling, it was an injury in high school that led Irons into wrestling. As a freshman football player in high school, Irons got hurt riding dirt bikes and wouldn’t have been able to return to the field until two months after the start of the season.


Playing around with friends one day, Irons said someone started bragging that “they could beat anyone there because they’d joined the high school wrestling team.”

“And I thought, ‘OK, I’ll see about that,’” said Irons with a laugh. “I was already a physical kid, and fighting and roughhousing was always something that I would do for fun. So I was like, there’s a sport that teaches you how to fight for free?”


It changed his life.


“The mindset and lessons that wrestling taught, you can’t replicate,” said Irons. “The mental fortitude it gives you. Wrestling is a team sport, but when it comes down to it, it’s you against the person in front of you. It forces you to take accountability. If you lose, who will you blame?”


It was that mental fortitude that got him through what he calls his “soft introduction” to homelessness when, at 14, he had to flee his home because of violence. He stayed with friends, family members and people from his church through the summer that year, eventually landing with his father for the last two years of high school.

FGCU grad
At Irons Elite Wrestling Club, Jabari Irons teaches boxing, wrestling, jiu-jitsu and Muay Thai to students 5 and older.

He was still pursuing wrestling during his time at college in Georgia when he and his friend experienced the nightmare of gun violence. Irons’ friend, whom he calls “a literal angel on Earth,” was killed despite Irons’ attempts to protect him. Irons was shot twice.


“It was very sad and scary as I was being rushed to the hospital,” said Irons. “The only thing running through my mind was, ‘I didn’t help enough people during my time on Earth. Give me more chances to touch lives on Earth.’ I ended up making it through, and that’s the main reason I started this business.”

At Irons Elite Wrestling Club, he teaches boxing, wrestling, jiu-jitsu and Muay Thai to students 5 and older. Irons is heavily involved in his students’ success. To date, he has helped at least eight students obtain full-ride college scholarships, thanks to his extensive network.


Irons thinks about his friend all the time. His fading scars remind him to “attack [his] dreams because you never know if today might be your last.”


The real homelessness, he said, happened during the COVID-19 pandemic. His roommates at the time disapproved of him continuing to give private wrestling lessons during lockdown. They told him he had to give it up or leave. He chose to leave. Irons spent the next two months living in hotels.


Irons enrolled in the FGCU Complete program and found housing. He went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in integrated studies with a minor in entrepreneurship.


“I was 23 years old, and I didn’t want to waste time anymore,” said Irons. “I wanted a career.”


Irons’ next goal is the U.S. Open in August. But first he has an international beach tourney in Jamaica.


“I try not to think about the possibilities,” he said. “I try to take the next step to where I want to go. I don’t let anything hold me back.”

Subscribe to 360