He was billed to be one of the greatest heavy weight boxers of his generation. He said he took to boxing after watching journeyman James Douglas knock out the then invincible Mike Tyson in Tokyo in 1990. Before leaving Nigeria for the United States of America in 1993, he had in the amateur ranks twice defeated Duncan Dokiwari who would later win a bronze medal for Nigeria in the 1996 Olympics.
Ike Ibeabuchi, born September 21 1973, quickly took to boxing in the USA, where his mother, Patricia, had moved to in 1990, and was working as a registered nurse. He came under the tutelage and guidance of former world welterweight champion Curtis Cokes, who said of the young talent: “He was raw when he walked in my door, but each day you would have to teach him something new because he improved so fast. It was tough to keep up with him.” In 1994, just one year after arriving in the US, Ike won the Texas State Golden Gloves. He turned professional the same year with a second round knock-out of one Ismael Garcia on October 13.
After winning 16 straight fights against carefully selected opponents, mostly club fighters and journeymen, Ike got an opportunity to prove himself in the big league when he was squared against the Samoan hit-man David Tua, for the WBC International Heavy weight title on June 7, 1997. At that time, Tua who had a record of 27-O, was considered the ‘next big thing’ in boxing and a massive favourite to win the fight. The fight was nothing short of spectacular, with both men throwing bombs at each other without either taking a backward step throughout the duration of the fight. They ended up setting a world record of the highest number of punches thrown in a heavyweight fight after exchanging a combined 1,730 punches through the 12-rounds that the fight lasted. Ike also set an individual record of the highest number of punches thrown by a heavyweight: he threw 975 punches throughout the fight, averaging over 81 punches per round, against the average of 50 punches per round for heavyweights. The 6ft 2inches strongly built, extremely quick and power-punching Ike Ibeabuchi was declared the winner of the fight by a unanimous decision of 117-111, 116-113 and 115-114. Boxing enthusiasts can watch the highlights of the fight on Youtube (visit www.youtube.com, and search for Ike Ibeabuchi v David Tua). It is a fight that needs to be watched to appreciate Ibeabuchi’s potentials.
Ironically Ibeabuchi’s troubles started or deepened after the David Tua fight. Though Ike complained of a terrible headache after the fight, several tests in the hospital, including an MRI scan, found nothing wrong with him. But from then it was alleged that he began nursing feelings of being plagued by demons and occasionally acting it out. For instance it was reported that a couple of months after the Tua fight, he became depressed over a perceived snub in the WBC rankings. He was alleged to have abducted the 15-year old son of his former girl friend and slammed his car into a concrete pillar on Interstate 35 north of Austin, Texas. According to the criminal complaint, the boy suffered “numerous injuries” from the accident “and will never walk normally again.” Ike was charged with kidnapping and attempted murder, but the courts concluded he was perhaps trying to commit suicide and sentenced him to 120 days in jail after he had pleaded guilty to false imprisonment. He also paid $500,000 in civil settlement. Several other instances of bad behaviour were reported against him, reminding one of Tyson at the height of his fame.
Ibeabuchi returned to the ring after thirteen months of inactivity and of reportedly exhibiting other weird behaviours to score a first round knockout over journeyman Tim Ray in July 1998. Two months later, he stopped another journeyman Everton Davis in nine rounds. Ike’s next fight would be against Chris Byrd in March 1999. Byrd, a highly elusive southpaw with an awkward style, won the silver medal in the 1992 Barcelona summer Olympics as a middleweight. At the time of the fight with Ike, Byrd, who would later become both the IBF and WBO champion, was undefeated in 26 fights and was touted as ‘knock-out proof’. But with only 48 seconds left in the fifth round, a left-handed boo punch from Ike followed with a right hook sent Byrd to the canvas, face first. He was knocked down once more before the referee stopped the fight after being severely punished with power punches when he got trapped between the ropes. With the victory over Byrd, no one in the boxing world could afford to ignore Ike or doubt that he had truly become a top contender for the World heavyweight title. He turned down an offer of $700,000 to fight fringe contender Jeremy Williams and $1m for a showdown with the undefeated Michael Grant.
The fight with Chris Byrd however turned out to be Ike’s last fight.
In July 1999, it was alleged that Ibeabuchi who was staying at The Mirage Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas had called a local escort service for a prostitute. The 21-year old woman claimed the deal was only for her to be there to strip for him and nothing more but that Ike wanted to get physical and attacked her in a walk-in closet after she demanded to be paid up-front. The Police was called in but Ike barricaded himself in the bathroom and the police had to discharge pepper spray under the door to coax his surrender. Following the incident, the police re-opened a similar sexual assault allegation from eight months earlier that took place next door to the Mirage hotel. Ike, who was alleged to exhibit symptoms of a bipolar disorder, was deemed incompetent to stand trial and was sent to a state facility for the mentally ill where a judge granted permission to force-medicate him. Eight months later and some two-and-half years after his arrest, he was ruled cogent enough to plea.
He entered an Alford plea (also known as Kennedy plea in the state of Virginia), where a defendant concedes that the prosecution had enough evidence to convict him while not admitting guilt. Had he gone to trial and been found guilty of rape, he could have received 10 years to life in prison, but instead he got two to 10 years for battery with intent to commit a crime and three to 20 years for attempted sexual assault, to be served concurrently.
Ibeabuchi was paroled on the first charge in 2001 and has been denied parole on the second charge four times. He was denied parole in August 2004, in August 2007, in February 2009 and on May 1, 2012. He is believed to have gone for another parole hearing in May 2013 but the details are not yet made public. At the end of his time in Jail, Ike who has obtained two college degrees while behind bars also faces a likely deportation to Nigeria.
No one can excuse the crimes Ike was accused of committing. But there are also issues of whether his punishment is proportionate to his alleged crimes. He has been behind bars for 14 years for ‘attempted sexual assault’ while Mike Tyson who was actually convicted of rape served only three and half years in jail.
Opinions also differ on whether he was really nuts or just had a hard time adjusting to life in the USA and to instant fame and wealth. For instance Chris Byrd, whom he knocked out in fifth round, believed he was nuts and his evidence was: “Before our fight he spent time just walking around the parking lot of the hotel. Sort of acting like he was in a military march. I thought it was some type of game then I realized, this guy is just nuts.” Ike’s former trainer Curtis Cokes however disagreed: “It wasn’t that he was nuts, he just had a hard time adjusting to life in the US compared to Nigeria. Things he would do there were ok, and here they weren’t. He just didn’t get that.”
I have a strong feeling that both Ike and his mother who resigned from her nursing job to work fulltime with his son, made mistakes in managing their instant fame and affluence, which probably got them on the wrong side of boxing politics. What is important here however is whether depriving Ike of his freedom and the opportunity to earn a living from his craft for over ten years is not enough punishment for his crime of ‘attempted sexual assault’ and other shortcomings?
Sadly missing in the Ike Ibeabuchi saga is the voice and legs of the Nigerian government. Despite his shortcomings, Ike fought as a Nigerian and brought glory to the country with his victories in the ring. But where is the Nigerian government in Ike’s greatest hour of need? What would fire the Nigerian patriotism in him if he is eventually released?
In a country that truly value its citizens, the government would have been very actively involved in the diplomacy of ensuring that while Ike paid for his alleged crimes, it would be in such a manner that would correct rather than destroy and in such a way that his punishment would not be disproportionate to his alleged crimes.