BY ERIC RASKIN
Lou DiBella: He was a prodigy. He had amazing power. He had fierce determination and he had no fear of anybody, and he believed that he was the king, that nobody could beat him. He’d walk into the ring and you would almost have this vision of a bull coming at a matador with the steam coming out of the nostrils. Unfortunately, here was a very scary man both in and out of the ring. And it’s unfortunate that we’ll never know what could have been.
Ike Ibeabuchi. No heavyweight of his generation possessed more ability. No heavyweight of his generation possessed less stability. Twenty years ago, on June 7, 1997, the 6-foot-2, 235-pound Nigerian-born heavyweight known as “The President” declared his candidacy with an upset win over David Tua in a brawl that shattered CompuBox records, and 21 months later, Ibeabuchi confirmed that he was indeed the best up-and-coming heavyweight on the planet by knocking out Chris Byrd. He was 20-0 with 15 knockouts, only 26 years old … and he never fought again.
Listen to the audio version of this oral history on the HBO Boxing Podcast:
Ike Ibeabuchi came to the U.S. from his native Nigeria in 1993 at the age of 19, settling in Dallas, Texas. He made his pro boxing debut a little less than two years later, on October 13, 1994, at the age of 21, and over the next 2½ years, he kept a busy schedule, fighting roughly every other month, often on promoter Cedric Kushner’s “Heavyweight Explosion” shows, sharing cards with the likes of Hasim Rahman, Lamon Brewster, and Larry Donald. Facing nondescript opposition, Ibeabuchi stormed out to a 16-0 record, 12 wins by knockout, and caught the eye of then-HBO Sports Senior Vice President Lou DiBella.
DiBella: Heavyweight Explosion was sort of the developmental series for heavyweights, and I would go to the shows regularly. And, you know, it’s a place that I would find heavyweights to use on HBO as opponents and to match up as prospects. And I went to a couple of these Heavyweight Explosions where Cedric had me there really to look at other fighters, really hadn’t mentioned Ibeabuchi to me. But the first couple of times I saw Ibeabuchi, I was like, this guy’s got, like, torrential sort of output of punches and very physically strong and looks scary, and I’m like, “Cedric, this is the guy you should be pushing. Like, let’s find out how well this guy can fight.” Because I’m more interested in this guy than a number of other guys he was trying to sort of pawn off on me for Boxing After Dark. Ibeabuchi was the one that was the most attractive to me.
Ibeabuchi was a complete unknown to almost everyone in boxing when he signed on to fight David Tua in a Boxing After Dark main event in 1997. HBO blow-by-blow broadcaster Jim Lampley admits he’d never heard of Ibeabuchi before that fight was made, and had to make a specific point to train himself to say “Ee-bay-uh-boo-chee” on air instead of repeating the incorrect pronunciation that most people were using, “I-bee-uh-boo-chee.”
The heavyweight division, at the time, was loaded with names that even people who hardly ever watched boxing knew quite well: Evander Holyfield was more or less considered “the man” after his upset November ’96 win over Mike Tyson, and their infamous “Bite Fight” rematch was a few weeks away. Forty-eight-year-old George Foreman was technically the lineal champion, and Lennox Lewis held a belt and was entering his peak years under the guidance of Emanuel Steward. Creeping up on those household names was David Tua, a New Zealand-based Samoan heavyweight with a record of 27-0, 23 knockouts, only 24 years old just like Ibeabuchi. He was perceived as the next big thing in the division and presumed to be a favorite over Ibeabuchi. He’d already scored four knockout wins on HBO over legit up-and-coming opposition: John Ruiz, Darroll Wilson, David Izonritei, and Oleg Maskaev. Former Ring magazine Senior Writer Bill Dettloff was among the many convinced he was seeing something special in Tua.
Bill Dettloff: Tua was gonna be the next Tyson. If you liked guys who could punch, Tua was your guy. Tua was Tyson without the psychopathy. HBO was doing this tournament with all these young heavyweights, and Tua was the guy blowing everybody else out of the ring. He had his faults, he walked around after guys for a while, took him a long time to get rid of Izonritei and Maskaev also. But when he connected, you went bye-bye. He did it, of course, really early with Ruiz. He did it very early with Darroll Wilson. And there was no reason to think, in my mind, that anybody he hit wasn’t going to go. The guy could really crack with the left hook. He was going to be the next Mike Tyson, there was no reason to think otherwise at the time.
Even Mike Tyson, though, never took part in a 12-round war like this. When Ibeabuchi met Tua at the Arco Arena in Sacramento, California in June 1997, the Nigerian got out to an insanely fast start, throwing 91 punches in round one according to CompuBox, 91 again in round two, and 95 in round three, obscene numbers for a heavyweight. Ibeabuchi slowed in the middle rounds, and Tua came on and seemed to sweep rounds five through seven, but soon they were trading on even terms. By the final bell, Ibeabuchi and Tua had combined to throw 1,730 punches, breaking the heavyweight record set by Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier in their third fight, when they combined for 1,591 punches — in 14 rounds, two rounds more than Ibeabuchi and Tua had to work with. Ike threw 975 punches, the most ever by a single heavyweight in a 12-round fight, and that greater activity propelled him to a decision win by scores of 115-114, 116-113, and a far-too-wide 117-111. Dettloff reflects 20 years later:
Dettloff: The thing that stands out about it today to me is the one thing that it lacked, and that was the drama of either guy being hurt, and that’s really saying something when you consider the number of punches particularly that Tua landed. He was credited with landing 282 punches. That should have told us what was going on with Ike. What kind of lunatic gets hit 282 times by David Tua and is still able to speak after 12 rounds? David Tua hits a guy 200 times, the guy’s gonna go, right? But I don’t ever recall seeing Ike hurt at any time against Tua. He walked through the guy’s biggest left hooks all night.
Ibeabuchi had come from out of nowhere to become one of boxing’s hottest commodities. Unfortunately, he didn’t fight again for 13 months. Outside-the-ring problems — serious outside-the-ring problems — disrupted his rise. I had hoped to speak with Ibeabuchi’s trainer, Curtis Cokes, for this oral history, and I came close to tracking him down, even getting a hold of his son Vince, who told me he’d try to get his dad on the phone for me, but I never got beyond that point. I did, however, interview Curtis 18 years ago for an article that ran in the December 1999 issue of Ring magazine. Cokes told me then, “After the Tua fight, Ike changed completely. We always knew he had some problems, even before the Tua fight, but they were never that serious, and they were always kept quiet. But since then, Ike’s been thinking he can do whatever he wants. His biggest problem is that he just doesn’t obey the rules. He wants to break the law. A lot of times, I’ll ride in the car with him, and he’ll drive real fast. I’ll tell him, ‘Slow down, this isn’t Nigeria, we have different rules here, and you’re gonna get yourself a ticket.’ Or he’ll go to the barber shop, get a haircut, and then he’ll just walk out without paying. Of course, we know the barber, so we go back there and pay the guy. But Ike doesn’t get it. He needs help, and he and his family don’t see that. He thinks everybody’s after him. If Ike looks in the mirror, he’ll see the real problem. Something’s wrong with Ike. Ray Charles could see that.” Here’s Eric Bottjer, who became a matchmaker for Kushner Promotions in 1997, shortly after the Tua fight.
Eric Bottjer: He’s the only fighter I’ve ever worked with who was mentally ill. The cliché, when you work with certain fighters, “Oh, he’s crazy, he’s nuts,” because they misbehave and they do things that normal people wouldn’t do. But Ibeabuchi was mentally ill. And was a dangerous person. And made a lot of people around him uncomfortable because of that. I knew that from the beginning. And questioned why we were even promoting him. I had a conversation one day with Cedric, I said, when he was trying to get him out of jail the first time, I said, “Do you really want to be on ESPN one day as the promoter of the world heavyweight champion who murdered somebody? Because this guy is very capable of doing that.” And, you know, because he’s an athlete and because he can produce money, everyone that saw that end of him worked to get him out of the situations that he put himself in. And it was the wrong thing to do. I was point blank. I said, “This guy’s crazy. He’s going to hurt somebody. I don’t want it to be me or you or anybody else. But he’s quite capable of killing somebody.”
Ibeabuchi nearly did just that two months after the Tua win, when he was arrested in Texas after kidnapping the teenage son of his girlfriend and badly injuring the boy by driving into a freeway overpass at a reported speed of 65 miles per hour. There was widespread belief that Ibeabuchi was trying to kill himself, though nobody but Ike knew for sure. Ibeabuchi served three months in jail — that’s the “trying to get him out of jail the first time” that Bottjer referenced. Here’s more from Bottjer on that summer ’97 time frame.
Bottjer: The first day that I started with Cedric, the first time I picked up the phone it was a collect call and it was this long pause and this little girlish voice came on the other end and said, “Ike.” And I had no idea who Ike was at the time. I mean, I knew who Ike Ibeabuchi was, but I had no idea it was him. And I said, “Cedric, there’s a guy calling collect, some guy with an effeminate voice named Ike,” and he said immediately, “Hang the phone up.” This went on for a week, every day. Finally, that Friday, he said, “Look, nobody knows this, but that was Ibeabuchi, he’s in jail. He’s calling me.” And he was in jail at that point for trying to kill the son of his girlfriend. He was delusional. He lived in his own world. And, his mom — I know she passed away recently, I don’t mean to speak ill of the dead, but she was bat-shit crazy too. And she supported him. And Cedric had to deal with this. And of course all Cedric saw was, “I’ve got the future heavyweight champion, I’ve got to do something about this.” But what he should have done was taken this guy to seek medical help. And nobody ever did. Nobody ever did.
Mental illness is not an issue to be taken lightly, and certainly, the point of this oral history is not to point a finger at a troubled man and mock him or diminish him. The point is to tell his story. That’s a job with which HBO color commentator Larry Merchant was also tasked during Ike’s prime.
Larry Merchant: He had the physical ability right, and he could really fight, but there was some part of him that didn’t acculturate and that was not wired right. The instance where he apparently had tried to commit suicide with his girlfriend’s teenage kid in the car, that’s not normal behavior, even for a fighter. Fighters are not all solid citizens, and they may get mixed up in what I’ll call “street stuff,” but that suggests something else.
Former Cedric Kushner Promotions publicist Greg Juckett shares some of his thoughts on Ibeabuchi’s mental state and what it was like to be around him.
Greg Juckett: There was a paranoia there. I don’t know what the clinical neurosis, the definition of it would be. But there was definitely a paranoia with Ike. If he went down the wrong path mentally, he was very untrustworthy of people, and something would occasionally scare him. He was a very quiet guy. Quiet to the point where it was a little unsettling. I was around him enough where I was okay around him. I definitely had some times just Ike and I. I can remember one time in particular, he would usually stay at the St. Regis when he was in visiting us in New York, and just hanging out in his room with him for a few hours, and I’m telling you I don’t think he said more than two or three full sentences to me the whole time he was there. He would just lay on his bed and read boxing magazines. There would be periods of time where I could be in a room with him where he wouldn’t say anything for 30 minutes at a time, and I would just subtly ask him a stupid question just to break the silence.
Here’s Lou DiBella, sharing one of the most well-traveled stories about Ibeabuchi’s paranoia.
DiBella: I’ll never forget, I was with Cedric, we were doing a Boxing After Dark, and Ibeabuchi’s mother was staying at the hotel with him, she said, “Ike’s not going to fight.” She called Cedric’s room, I happened to be there. Now, you’re a television executive and you hear Ike’s not going to fight, and you’re sitting in the room, so you get rather concerned. And she said, “Ike’s not going to fight, there are evil spirits in the hotel. And they’re coming in through the air conditioning system.” So in typical Cedric Kushner fashion, he said, “Ma’am, turn off the air conditioning.”
Thirteen months after the Tua fight, Ike finally returned to action on July 9, 1998, taking on journeyman Tim Ray somewhat under the radar in Marksville, Louisiana. Matchmaker Eric Bottjer tells his version of an often-told Ibeabuchi story that straddles the fence between humorous and troubling.
Bottjer: He refused to come to the weigh-in. And Billy Lyons, the commissioner, said, “If your guy doesn’t get down here he’s not gonna fight.” He refused to come out of his room. We have no idea why, he just wouldn’t come out. So his trainer called him up and said — it’s like a comedy scene — he’s like, “I need to speak to the president.” And Ike had answered the phone, he’s the only one in his room, and Ike said, “Hold on a moment,” he puts the phone down like he’s going to get the president. And Ike comes back onto the phone as the president, and the trainer explains that there’s a staff meeting downstairs, we can’t get started unless the president is there, we have many important things to discuss but he has to approve everything, and Ike said, “I’ll be right down.” That’s how we got him to the weigh-in.
Ibeabuchi followed his first-round knockout win over Ray with an ESPN-televised ninth-round KO win two months later over trialhorse Everton Davis. Now 19-0 with 14 knockouts, Ibeabuchi signed for a March 20, 1999 fight in Tacoma, Washington, against the purest boxer in the heavyweight division, 26-0 defensive whiz Chris Byrd, on HBO. Here’s Bill Dettloff on Byrd, who was highly thought of enough at the time that he was the betting favorite over Ibeabuchi.
Dettloff: In my view, Byrd was on his way to becoming his generation’s Jimmy Young—and I mean that as a compliment. I, for one, thought Byrd would beat Ike. He’d just come off that really good win against Jimmy Thunder, who, granted, was a limited guy, but Byrd was at his best against big, strong, slower guys who could punch. So, that said, Ike seemed to me to be made to order for him — a big, muscular guy like that who was knocking guys out.
Before Ibeabuchi could get into the ring with Byrd, however, there was drama. Here’s Eric Bottjer on a training camp gone awry.
Bottjer: When he fought Byrd, he didn’t spar. We didn’t even know if he was going to show up for the fight because his only day of sparring, he had worked with Ezra Sellers, and Ike had suffered a small cut during sparring, and they stopped the sparring, and in the locker room where the gym was, Ezra was getting dressed, and he put a wedding ring on his finger, and Ike saw the ring, and he goes, “Hey, you cut me with that ring.” Which of course makes no sense because (a) they have boxing gloves on, and (b) Ezra wasn’t even wearing the ring. So he attacked Ezra.
Sellers in fact filed a legal action and alleged that the attack left him needing reconstructive surgery on his right ACL. Assistant trainer Jay Wilson, who wrapped Sellers’ hands, also filed an action, alleging that Ibeabuchi attacked him too. Then, as the fight neared, Kushner’s people had trouble getting Ibeabuchi on a plane from Texas to Washington state because he told them, much like those air conditioning vents, there were demons and evil spirits on the airplane. As Curtis Cokes told me in 1999, “Ike finally got a later flight that, I guess, didn’t have demons on it.” Here’s Bottjer on the scene in Tacoma.
Bottjer: We actually paid Raymond Anis to come in as a standby because we didn’t even know if Ike was going to show up and fight. And he showed up, and he was wearing sunglasses the whole time, and he wasn’t speaking to anybody. And, it was very spooky. And I remember the HBO meeting where they interview the fighters, Larry Merchant, his first question was, “We heard there was an incident at the gym, you started training, and you suffered a cut, has that affected your training at all?” And Ike just sat there and didn’t move and didn’t say anything for literally like 10 seconds. It was very uncomfortable. And the whole room just, like, froze, like nobody said anything. And finally Ike in his little girl voice said, “What cut?” It was bizarre. So basically, like, “You’re imagining this, I’m not going to talk about it.” Normally those interviews go half an hour. I remember looking down at my phone and they dismissed Ike after 13 minutes. Because he wasn’t saying anything. And when he walked out of the room, Jim Lampley looked at me and he goes, “That guy’s flippin’ crazy.” And I said, “Yeah, you know, he is.”
Here’s Lampley himself on his perception of Ike as a person.
Jim Lampley: I spent no time with him other than in fighter meetings, but when your own promoter is going around telling people bizarre stories about you, and trying to help people understand how totally, completely off the wall you are, then yeah, you’re wacky. I mean, you might expect that from other people’s promoters, or boxing writers who have spoken to somebody who tells them the truth. But when his own promoter was going around telling those stories, you knew he had to be completely off the wall.
Bottjer added one of those too-bizarre-to-make-it-up details: He said on the night of the fight, Ibeabuchi refused to get into the ring and fight Byrd unless he had a Snickers bar, so one of the guys in his entourage had to hurry to the local convenience store and get him a Snickers. As touch-and-go as it all felt, Ibeabuchi did make it into the ring with Byrd, officially weighing 244½ pounds, 36½ more than the slippery Byrd. The first few rounds were a classic chess match. Byrd suffered a cut over his left eye in the third round, but still felt that he was in control of what was, to that point, a closely contested fight. But even when he was having success against Ibeabuchi, the clever southpaw was coming to find his opponent to have more dimensions and more ring intelligence than he anticipated. Byrd explains:
Chris Byrd: Most heavyweights don’t have a lot of boxing sense. Not thinking in the ring, they just come in swinging at me. And I can see all that stuff coming. But he was different, where he would come, and he would just use his knees, get up under, try to get low, and pick his shots, and after the fight, watching the fight over, Curtis Cokes and his corner were smart! It’s all about strategy. “Hit him anywhere. He’s gonna run into something” — that’s what he was telling him. So, he’s gunning more for my shoulders knowing how I’m dipping and how I’m moving, I’m eventually going to get caught on the chin. Because where my hands were, and how I was moving. I was actually having a lot of fun. Until I got hit with that — it looked like it was an uppercut, but he turned it into a hook or something, boom, I walked right into it.
Indeed, with 51 seconds left on the clock in round five, Ibeabuchi landed the punch that ended Byrd’s fun. Here’s another one of Kushner’s matchmakers, Ron Scott Stevens, on the signature punch of Ibeabuchi’s career:
Ron Scott Stevens: When he hit Byrd with that left hook, I tell you, I have almost, maybe once or twice, in all the years I was around ringside, that I heard a guy get hit like that. It was like, oh my god, what a punch that was. I’ll never forget that punch. Because I thought that maybe he’d killed a guy.
Remarkably, Byrd got up. He slipped down again moments later when Ibeabuchi tried to follow up, and referee Ron Rall called it a knockdown. After the eight-count, Ibeabuchi charged in, landed a couple more huge shots and missed wildly with some others, and with one second left on the clock, Rall called a stoppage that was, on careful inspection, poorly timed — Byrd was defending himself adequately at that moment — but then again, it might have been the difference in allowing Byrd to enjoy a fruitful boxing career for another 10 years. Here’s Byrd’s recollection of the whole final minute of the fight.
Byrd: I got a little arrogant, thinking I’m unhittable. Cause I just thought, Oh man, he can’t hit me! I’m gonna slip everything. And, boom. Got a little bit smarter guy, smart corner, know what he doing, and just caught. When I got knocked down the first time, I got, literally, the canvas woke me up. I was asleep before I hit the ground, and when I hit the canvas it woke me up. I didn’t go to sleep, I got back up. I still fought. And it was a bad — I mean, slobber came out of my mouth, I fell flat on my face. But my will to win. And then, go down, get back up, go down again, get back up, but then I complained to the referee, like, Why you stop the fight? It hit the five second, before the round, five or 10 seconds, and I’m walking back to the corner, and Ike kept throwing at me. I thought it was the bell. So I’m like, oh my goodness, and he stopped the fight, I’m like, What are you doing? Why you stopping the fight? The bell rung! But I had my bell was still ringing, that’s what was ringing was that bell.
After that fifth-round TKO win, Ibeabuchi declared, “I’m ready. I’m now ready for the heavyweight championship of the world.” It was a sensational win, a reason for everyone on Team Ibeabuchi to celebrate, at least for a little while. Trainer Curtis Cokes gave me a great quote when I interviewed him in 1999 for The Ring magazine. He said, “People don’t realize how hard it is to get him in the ring. They just see the finished product. After the Byrd fight, Cedric and I immediately just hugged each other. We were so relieved that we had done it.” Here’s HBO’s Jim Lampley on where Ike Ibeabuchi stood after this win that advanced his record to 20-0.
Lampley: Byrd was too slippery for most of his opponents, but he wasn’t too slippery for Ike. Pinned him against the ropes, hammered him with body shots, knocked him the F out. It was just a stunningly great performance. So at that moment, he became the hottest thing in the heavyweight division — probably already was, but that underlined it again, he hadn’t had that much activity leading into the Byrd fight. And that’s when other promoters began competing for his services and ultimately created the opportunities that brought him down.
Before the conclusive fall, first there were those inevitable smaller stumbles that Ibeabuchi simply couldn’t seem to avoid in the wake of a career-altering win. As was the case after he beat Tua, success begat stories — some odd, some humorous, some truly scary, some all of the above. Here’s one of the more harmless ones, from his occasional New York City caretaker Greg Juckett.
Juckett: At the St. Regis, we walked down into the lobby and there were some really high-end boutiques in that hotel. It’s right on Lexington in Midtown. He probably picked out a couple thousand dollars, considering the price points of the clothes that were in this place, couple thousand dollars worth of items. And he had had a clerk helping him for a good 30 minutes, and I’m just kinda standing by, watching him shop. And finally it gets to the point where we get to the counter, it’s time to check out, and there’s quiet for a second, and Ike turns to me and he says, “Pay for this.” And I said, “Well, Ike, frankly I don’t have enough money to pay for this right now.” And he said, “Well, call Cedric.” So here I am at this boutique with Ike and the clerk and I’m on a cell phone and I’m telling this to Cedric and Cedric was like, “Are you nuts? Tell him to spend his own money on it.” But long story short is we wasted this poor clerk’s time and, I guess, everybody’s time, because we ended up just leaving the place empty-handed. It was kind of an awkward, embarrassing situation.
Around this same time, Ibeabuchi had a memorably uncomfortable appearance as a guest in the ESPN2 Friday Night Fights studio, and Juckett told me that, in what seems to have been typical Ibeabuchi fashion, Ike tried to back out of his trip to Bristol, Connecticut at the last minute, only to have Juckett calmly talk him into getting into the car and honoring his commitment. But those stories don’t compare to this one from HBO executive Lou DiBella.
DiBella: I had a very famous — well, sorta famous in the industry, among insiders and people who knew, but I had a sorta famous lunch with Ike and Cedric and other employees of Cedric, and we were at a restaurant in Manhattan. And I got along well with Ike back then. But he was a very untrusting kind of cat. He was very paranoid. We’re having a lunch, and we’re talking about his future. Da-da-da-da, and it’s going pretty well. You know, he’s a little bit sort of sullen. But he’s conversing, and it’s going really well. And then we start asking, talking about, we get off topic on boxing and more topic on life. So I’m asking him, “What it was like when you were growing up?” normal questions. And the answers were not, like, effusive, you know what I mean? They were sort of short. And then I said, “Well, where are you living now?” And then he picks up a steak knife, like literally, into his hand, like you might thrust it into someone. And he plunges it into the table. And the knife is sticking out of the table. And he, like, looks me in the eye and he goes, “Why do you want to know where I live?” And I’m like, “Dude, Ike, I don’t give a fuck where you live. I’m not asking for your address. I was just making conversation. The same way you might ask me where I live. And then I would tell you the town I live in. I was just sort of curious where you were taking up residence these days. But I don’t need to know.” And I was like, “And please do me a favor: If you have to emphasize anything, don’t pick up a knife again in my presence. Don’t do that, please.” The damn knife was sticking out of the table. And Cedric just continued eating into his food like this was a normal occurrence.
What happened on June 12, 1999, was definitely not a normal occurrence, by anyone’s standards. Ibeabuchi’s first arrest of the year was initially swept under the rug, but I did some digging 18 years ago and found out about an incident at Dallas-Ft. Worth Airport that saw Ibeabuchi charged with disorderly conduct, resisting arrest, and criminal mischief. I saw a copy of the report filed by the DFW Airport Department of Public Safety, and it explained that Ibeabuchi was denied boarding onto an overbooked plane but insisted, “You know what, I am going on the airplane anyway. You will have to stop me.” When one of the two officers on the scene told Ibeabuchi he was under arrest for disorderly conduct, he ran down the jet-way, pushing passengers aside. More officers were called in, and pepper spray was used to finally subdue him. Then when Ibeabuchi was thrown into a police car, the report stated that he “kicked out the door windshield.” But incidents like this didn’t see the light of day, at least not initially. There was money to be made on Ike Ibeabuchi. The problem was, after the Byrd win, he kept refusing to sign on the dotted line and make some of that money. Here’s Eric Bottjer on some summer 1999 negotiations.
Bottjer: Ike was offered a million dollars to fight Michael Grant at one point. And Grant, it’s funny, I was talking to Craig Hamilton, who was Grant’s manager, my friend, about this recently, Grant had actually accepted the fight. It’s funny, Craig, this week, told me, in hindsight, “I’m glad Ike went away because that wouldn’t have been a good fight for us.” Ike was offered a million dollars, of course we were thrilled, because we thought he was going to win the fight and that’s a lot of money. And Ike demanded 10 million.
Around the same time, Ibeabuchi had a reported $700,000 offer for what would have been an easy win on HBO over chinny Jeremy Williams, but he wasn’t interested. Kushner turned to a variety of people to intercede, including HBO’s Larry Merchant.
Merchant: I got a call from Cedric Kushner, asking me if I would talk to him, as a neutral party who had extolled him in his appearances against Tua and Byrd. And I did speak to him. And I tried to explain to him what this could do for his career. And he went into a kind of a semi-rant that he had already proven he was the best heavyweight in the world, and that they should give him the titles, and that this was some kind of scheme in that he wasn’t getting what he should have gotten. That’s the sense of what he said to me. And it was at that point that I realized that in addition to whatever other issues he had outside the ring, that he didn’t understand how the system worked.
Here’s Lou DiBella on the struggle to get Ibeabuchi back in the ring and back on the air at HBO to build on his momentum.
DiBella: He was already sort of like, “I am the champ, I’m the king.” His ego was getting the better of him, and he didn’t want to hear of any intermediate steps, he wanted to hear about, “When am I going to make the big money? When am I fighting for the title?” Basically, he was on the cusp, but he was sort of one fight away. And he elected not to fight at all, and frankly, if I recall, that’s where his troubles started. But that was also not very rational and it was a poor decision. People weren’t, like, guys with titles back then, or the champions, no one was running and saying, “I want Ike Ibeabuchi.” Who the fuck wanted that? No one wanted that fuckin’ guy. It was like, “I don’t want Ike Ibeabuchi! This guy’s a fuckin’ animal. What do I need him for?” You had to build it to where Ike Ibeabuchi against someone was going to be a big-money fight. And that was sort of like, we thought, the last step, the last moment, let’s get one more nationally televised big win, let’s continue to build the big myth of Ike Ibeabuchi. And at that point, he only wanted to hear about big money, he was having issues with Cedric at the time over money. He thumbed his nose at that particular show. And then it wasn’t too long after that that he was in trouble.
On July 22, 1999, it all came crashing down. Ibeabuchi was in Las Vegas, reportedly being courted by Don King, who was no stranger to trying to woo other promoters’ fighters. According to Clark County Police Lieutenant Tom Monahan, hotel security at The Mirage casino was called in the early-morning hours after guests heard a commotion. Monahan soon arrived on the scene and a 21-year-old “entertainer” called to Ibeabuchi’s suite told the officer that the boxer had sexually assaulted her. Monahan reported that he found Ibeabuchi in his hotel bathroom with the door locked from the inside, and officers were unable to get him to surrender until they shot pepper-spray under the door. “We believe this was forcible rape,” Monahan told the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Days after that arrest, details surfaced of a similar accusation from December 1998 that hadn’t gone public. There was another paid female companion accusing Ibeabuchi of sexual assault, also in Las Vegas, at Treasure Island. There was no arrest that time around, police said, because the case lacked evidence. But after the Mirage incident, Ibeabuchi went to jail, and a judge initially ordered him to be held without bail. Here’s Greg Juckett on what brought Ibeabuchi down.
Juckett: Ike kind of didn’t have a complete respect for women other than his mother. He was very close with his mother. But I think, I don’t know if it was a cultural thing, but I think women were a bit second class to him. So I don’t know if the incident with the call girl just set him off because he felt that she should be honored to be around him or for whatever reason, but I think the combination of a little bit of money, a little bit of fame, his lack of respect for women, he was in Las Vegas with access to women who are willing to be accessible, of course, it was a bad combination.
When I spoke to Curtis Cokes shortly after the arrest, he told me, “It’s very frustrating. Sometimes I can’t sleep, thinking about how we were right at the threshold, how he was all set to become champion. And he keeps killing everything we’ve worked for.” But there were bigger, more serious concerns here than Ibeabuchi’s boxing career, obviously. Here’s Eric Bottjer.
Bottjer: Whatever sympathy you might have felt for his mental illness kind of dissipated because he was not like a sad — he wasn’t mentally ill in a sad way, he was mentally ill in a dangerous way. He could hurt you. Some people are mentally ill and they just go into a shell and they’re depressed and they can’t deal with life. Ike felt the world owed him a living and should bow down to him and had these grandiose ideas of who he was. He wasn’t a very sympathetic character on any level. I felt that he should be institutionalized, not only for him, but more importantly for the safety of anyone around him.
The question of whether Ibeabuchi belonged in jail or in a mental institution persisted. At first, he was deemed incompetent to stand trial, when medical experts concluded that he was bipolar, and he remained in a state mental facility and received medication. Two-and-a-half years after his arrest, Ibeabuchi was deemed mentally sound enough to stand trial, and he entered an Alford plea to avoid going to trial. He was sentenced to 2-10 years for battery with intent to commit a crime as well as 3-20 years for attempted sexual assault.
Nevertheless, there were still people in the boxing business who believed Ibeabuchi had a future. In 2004, Ike was coming up for possible parole and promoter Bob Arum, along with well-connected businessman and political consultant Sig Rogich, were working behind the scenes to try to get him out. Arum was a podcast guest on the Adam Carolla Show last November, and Ibeabuchi’s name came up. Here’s a taste of what Arum had to say:
Bob Arum: When he was first indicted for battery, assault-battery, his manager/adviser convinced me to go visit him in a house they were renting in Las Vegas. And, I met with him because, obviously, he was a tremendous talent. And he scared the bejesus out of me. The guy was so totally nuts that I knew that if he escaped punishment, or if he served his time and then came back, that it would be really dangerous to promote him because he was so unstable.
There are those, however, who believe Arum was perfectly willing to promote Ibeabuchi until it all went haywire when the boxer granted writer Tim Graham a jailhouse interview. Graham had previously written a column for ESPN.com that gave Ibeabuchi some small degree of benefit of the doubt about his guilt, and Graham thinks it was that column that led Ibeabuchi to select him as the journalist to reach out to in 2004, when he was just about up for parole. Ibeabuchi sent Graham a letter, thinking Tim would be the right person to tell his story, and they arranged an interview at Lovelock Correctional Center, which would later famously house O.J. Simpson. Graham recalls what occurred.
Tim Graham: He seemed sane, and he didn’t seem dangerous in a sense of, like, his temper was going to be tripped at any time. But what seemed dangerous to me is as I’m interviewing him, and he was about to come up for parole, knowing that this story was going to be on ESPN.com and read by a lot of people, and probably including the people who were deciding on whether or not they were going to let him out, is that the sentiments, his feelings didn’t translate very well into English. Even though he speaks great English — the accent is detectable, but he speaks beautiful English, but the masculinity in it, the hyperbole, the brawn, the misogyny of all these things. And you have to keep in mind that he’s in for a crime against a woman, in which he assaulted a prostitute and then barricaded himself in the room, so he was just speaking almost about how women were kind of property, that of course he wouldn’t need to rape anybody, women should just bow to him and he should take whatever he gets whatever he wants, and if a woman doesn’t want to have sex with him then he doesn’t want to have sex with her so why would I need to take it? There are so many women out there who would want to. And I’m thinking to myself, boy, this is not going to resonate very well. It was just a sense of, he doesn’t understand what he’s saying and how it’s going to come off. And really, as a journalist, it’s not my job to filter the guy.
Graham’s article ran on ESPN.com and included Ibeabuchi’s quotes suggesting his attitudes toward women had not evolved, and soon after, Ibeabuchi was denied parole. Was the article a factor in that?
Graham: Ike Ibeabuchi felt it played a significant role in not getting his parole. And he sent me a letter, it was the second letter that I received from him, in which the greeting was, and I’m quoting, “Tim Graham you bastard.” So that was, you get an idea from that letter that he sent me what he thought of the story. I’ll continue to quote, and he says, “You misrepresented my opinion on women in your article but you promised me that you would be truthful” — all caps. “You caused me my parole, you son of a gun. I don’t ever want to see you again.” It was the disconnect there. He clearly thought that I screwed him.
A decade passed and Ibeabuchi remained in jail. He finally completed his sentence in 2014, and there was talk of deportation back to Nigeria, but he was released by United States Citizenship and Immigration Services in November 2015 as a free man in America. Ibeabuchi, 42 years old at the time, connected with Michael Koncz, best known as an advisor to Manny Pacquiao, and talk of a comeback began. Here’s Eric Bottjer:
Bottjer: When he was let out recently, a friend of mine from Las Vegas called me, Steve Rolins called me, and said a friend of his was training Ibeabuchi and he wanted to get him a fight. I said, “Look, do me a favor, and I’m not being dramatic here: Tell your friend not to go around that man ever again. Like, just don’t go around him. He’s going to hurt somebody. He really is.”
Koncz’s efforts to get Ibeabuchi on the pay-per-view undercard of Pacquiao’s April 2016 fight with Tim Bradley fizzled out, and a few days after that fight card that Ike wasn’t on, he was arrested in Phoenix, Arizona, for probation violation. In April 2017, I reached out to Koncz in an effort to interview Ibeabuchi for this podcast. Koncz confirmed that he is still working with Ike and asked if there would be compensation for Ike for doing the interview. I told him there would not be but that I wanted to give Ibeabuchi an opportunity to provide his perspective, and Koncz replied, “Alright, let me talk to him.” I followed up with Koncz multiple times after that, but never received a sign of progress. I learned in June, just days before this oral history was posted, that Ibeabuchi is currently in custody in Arizona due to multiple probation violations — which might help explain why Koncz stopped returning my messages. Will Ibeabuchi ever fight again? He’s 44 years old, hasn’t fought in more than 18 years, and is still facing legal issues. The question has stopped mattering to just about everyone except maybe Ibeabuchi himself and the people working with him. Adam Carolla asked Bob Arum on his podcast what kind of money he thinks Ibeabuchi left on the table.
Arum: I don’t know, but it was the heavyweight division and people love a puncher, and while he probably couldn’t have made what Mike Tyson made, but he would have been damn close. You know, hundreds of millions of dollars, sure. But again, again, that’s life, that’s life. You have to be a person, you have to be sane, you have to comport yourself with some kind of dignity and some kind of grace in order to realize that type of reward, and he couldn’t do it.
To actually make hundreds of millions of dollars, Ibeabuchi probably would have needed to become the legit heavyweight champion of the world. From 1999 to 2004, save for a brief interruption in 2001 when Hasim Rahman temporarily took hold of the title, that distinction belonged to Lennox Lewis. Here’s Jim Lampley on a potentially epic showdown that we never saw.
Lampley: Oh, he was the logical foil to Lennox Lewis. Lennox Lewis was the best heavyweight of that era, Lennox Lewis was in a dominant period, and everyone could see, here was a guy who had the skills, and the punching power, the physicality to actually have a fight with Lennox Lewis and challenge him. And there was this tremendous romantic urge on a lot of ringsiders to say, “Oh, he’ll kill him, he’ll beat Lennox Lewis, dadadadada.” I never thought that, because I was always a tremendous admirer of Lennox’s talent and his mentality also. He was 100 percent more squared away and more carefully collected a person than Ike Ibeabuchi would ever have been. So I think he would have had significant advantages in that regard. But it was a fight that you wanted to see.
Here’s Eric Bottjer’s take on Ibeabuchi’s chances.
Bottjer: He definitely was, other than Lennox Lewis, the best heavyweight of his era, as far as, you know, talent. And he would’ve given Lewis a hell of a fight. I think he was the only guy that could’ve beaten Lewis during the era where Lewis fought. I know Lewis was upset by Rahman in 2001, but he straightened that out later that year. But Ibeabuchi was an immensely talented fighter, a real physical force, and very smart in the ring. He was almost the polar opposite of what he was like outside of the ring.
Bill Dettloff wrote an article in the August 1999 issue of KO magazine that began by quoting the Billy Joel lyrics, “You may be right / I may be crazy / but it just may be a lunatic you’re looking for.” Here’s Dettloff on whether Ibeabuchi would have gone all the way if he’d had the mental wherewithal to keep out of trouble.
Dettloff: Ike was a tremendous talent in the ring, but I’m a big believer in the theory that you just can’t separate an athlete’s emotional makeup from his athletic talent. If he’s not a nutcase, he’s probably not as good a fighter, right? Maybe he is, I don’t know. But probably not. There’s no way to tell. Would Tyson have been as great one-tenth less crazy? Or Tony Ayala Jr.? The most accomplished people are always at least half crazy. You take away the crazy, and they’re just like the rest of us.
Lou DiBella shares Dettloff’s sentiment about playing the “what if” game with Ibeabuchi.
DiBella: It’s sort of a wasted exercise to think about. But it’s also, it’s like, what if a guy wasn’t self-destructive, what if a guy didn’t have all these problems, what if a guy was able to keep himself on the straight and narrow? What if a guy would have been a different person? It was clear to me that Ike was on a trajectory to become a heavyweight champion — which I really believed, I believed that this guy was going to become heavyweight champion. Like, I didn’t have a doubt, you know what I mean? Like, I would have bet that this guy would have been heavyweight champion, that’s how positive I was. It’s unfortunate that we’ll never know what could have been. You know, there’s been a lot of wastes of talent in boxing, and I think that he may be one of the greatest, because I actually think that he was given every tool to be heavyweight champion.
Nearly 20 years after his final fight — assuming he doesn’t eventually make a comeback — it’s interesting to ponder whether Ibeabuchi might be overrated or underrated. On the one hand, countless mainstream sports fans don’t even know his name. But Dettloff spells out the alternative case.
Dettloff: Ike benefits from having his career ended prematurely, the same way — I’m going to commit blasphemy here and say that Salvador Sanchez benefited from his career ending prematurely. Consider if Mike Tyson had dropped dead or been imprisoned or disappeared after beating Michael Spinks, he’d be considered one of the best one or two or three heavyweights ever. And there are other guys like that. If [George] Foreman had retired after beating Ken Norton or Joe Roman, people would think he was the best ever. Roy Jones and Antonio Tarver. Right? So yeah, if all those guys’ careers had ended before we got to see them at their worst, we’d remember them at their best.
Here’s Jim Lampley on whether there’s a degree of mythmaking at play with the way fight fans think of Ibeabuchi.
Lampley: There’s no question that a lot of people had wanted to see somebody upend Lennox Lewis, because Lennox was overshadowing American fighters, and Ike at least trained and lived in the United States, so there was this tremendous urge on the part of a lot of people to say, “Oh, this is the guy who will destroy Lennox Lewis.” That was a wishful thought. It was not a rational, balanced thought. But a lot of people had it. And I think he benefits from it to this very day.
We’ll give the final word, the final attempt to put Ibeabuchi in perspective, to Tim Graham.
Graham: I’m not going to lament the loss of a career based on the things that he did to other people. And we’re talking about things that he went to jail for. He drove himself into a concrete pillar with a 15-year-old boy in the car, that he went to jail for the first time. He was ruled to have been trying to commit suicide, but he was willing to take a 15-year-old boy with him. So this is a guy who deserves no sympathy. But, from a boxing fan’s perspective — take away the nefariousness of his character — from a boxing fan’s perspective, it was a big loss to the sport.
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