Ike Ibeabuchi abducted his estranged girlfriend’s 15-year-old son one night in 1997 and was driving along the Interstate 35 in Austin with him in the car when he decided to ram it into a concrete pillar in an attempt to end it all.
Ibeabuchi was only 24, a heavyweight boxer at the peak of his powers, but who was slowly being consumed by his inner demons. As he was dragged away from the rubble, covered in blood and dust, wide-eyed and delirious, he thought he had ended his nightmare.
It had only been a couple of months since he outgunned David Tua in an epic fight that still boasts the record for most punches thrown in a heavyweight contest (1,730). The win had catapulted him into contention for a world title fight. He had moved one step closer to emulating his hero Mike Tyson.
Ike Ibeabuchi was on the verge of the boxing big time 20 years ago but his life unravelled due to his mental illness
But that dream would only ever be a carrot dangling in front of him; always close, never in reach.
As it was, the torturous months and years of persistent headaches, hearing voices and seeing demons that followed his victory over the highly-rated Tua would ultimately thwart him from fulfilling his potential.
It drove him to commit a kidnapping on that fateful night in Austin where two lives were altered forever. The boy in the passenger seat of Ibeabuchi’s car suffered severe injuries and would never walk the same again. Ibeabuchi was sentenced to 120 days in jail for false imprisonment and forced to pay $500,000 in a civil settlement.
Ibeabuchi served his time and returned to the ring the following year, picking up two comfortable wins over modest opponents to extend his flawless record to 19-0. On March 20, 1999, Ibeabuchi – despite being a broken man on the inside, tormented daily and converted by his alter-ego ‘The President’ – truly announced himself on the world stage with a spectacular knockout victory over Olympic silver medallist Chris Byrd.
‘I’m ready now, I’m ready for the world heavyweight championship,’ he declared in the ring afterwards. A sea of nodding heads agreed. Few would dispute that he wasn’t. Some even claimed that he would blow away the ageing rulers of the division at the time, Lennox Lewis and Evander Holyfield, that it wouldn’t even be a contest, that he would just need to show up to win a world title. The esteemed Ring magazine even named him as ‘boxing’s most dangerous man’.
This was his 20th successive victory – and most impressive to date – since turning professional, all of which had come in front of an American audience – the place to be as an emerging heavyweight in the 90s. Ibeabuchi, it seemed, was destined to reach the very top in the blue-riband division. But it wasn’t to be.
Instead, it was here, as he had just scaled new heights, that his career slipped away, descended into the darkness and was consigned to the footnotes of heavyweight history.
Nine years previously, Ibeabuchi was just getting ready to embark on his boxing journey. Initially, he had hoped to become a soldier in the Nigerian Defence Academy, but that dream was discarded after spending one night in with his uncle watching ’42/1′ underdog James ‘Buster’ Douglas shake up the boxing world by stopping Mike Tyson in 10 rounds to capture the heavyweight title. He was hooked immediately.
His home was Isuochi, an area of Umunneochi in south-eastern Nigeria. But for Ibeabuchi it was imperative to leave his homeland and travel to America to fulfil his ambition of becoming a professional boxer. He grew up with little to appreciate and decided to leave behind all he had known to travel across the Atlantic as a teenager with his mother, Patricia, who had secured a job as a nurse in Dallas.
Ibeabuchi was dedicated to his craft and would spend most of his days in the boxing gym not far from his home, honing his skills. He was gifted with natural, devastating power and quickly established a fierce reputation, notching up notable victories as an amateur. He won the Golden Gloves in the Dallas and Texas State tournaments in the heavyweight category in 1994 and defeated Duncan Dokiwari, who would go on to be a bronze medallist for Nigeria at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, before turning over to the paid ranks.
Thousands of miles from home, in a downtown, dingy Louisiana convention hall on October 13, 1994, Ibeabuchi made his professional debut in front of no more than 100 people. He stopped his opponent in two rounds and began his climb to the top.
He racked up 16 wins on the trot before significantly stepping up in class to face New Zealander Tua three years after his first fight. By this point, he was topping the bill in front of 10,000 spectators in California.
IKE IBEABUCHI FACTFILE
Born: Isuochi, Nigeria
Nickname: The President
Height: 6ft 2in
Total fights: 20
Wins by KO: 15
The people in attendance got their money’s worth. Ibeabuchi was sensational, impressing with his relentless attacks and come-forward style. The two traded off in a slug-fest that had fans on the edge of their seat and on their feet in applause come the end. Ibeabuchi took a unanimous decision victory. It should have been lift-off from there, but it was the start of his downfall.
He tried to kill himself months after and began to act more and more erratically as time went on. He adopted the nickname ‘The President’ from fans and glorified in that moniker. At times he believed that was his real identity and would insist on people calling him ‘President’. His late promoter Cedric Kushner said: ‘It was his alter ego, where ‘I am The President’ (meant) not of the United States, but maybe president of the world.’
Inside the ring, everything was still going to plan while outside things were falling apart. Ibeabuchi earned himself a position at the front of the queue to challenge for the world title after a brutal stoppage of Byrd in 1999 but would never cash in on that opportunity – or fight again for that matter.
Soon after, he was accused of sexually assaulting a dancer he’d hired from a local escort service to come to his room at a hotel in Las Vegas. The 21-year-old woman told police he had tried to rape her in the closet when she had asked for money up front. When the police arrived, Ibeabuchi had barricaded himself in the bathroom and only came out after officers used pepper spray under the door.
He denied the accusations and was initially released and placed under house arrest to enable him to train and fight pending his trial. Matters were made worse by the reopening of a previous case of sexual assault against him. The incident had occurred eight months earlier at the Treasure Island Hotel and Casino. He was rearrested and remanded in custody after a number of similar allegations came to light in Arizona.
His defeat of David Tua in a memorable slug-fest saw Ibeabuchi on the path to a world title fight, but he never made it that far
His fight against Tua set a record for the most punches ever thrown in a heavyweight contest – a remarkable 1,730
Ibeabuchi was examined by medical experts amid fears of his mental state before proceedings for his hearing. They concluded he was not fit to stand trial on the grounds he suffered from bipolar disorder.
He was transferred to a state-owned medical facility and, with permission of the judge, was medicated by force for eight months. He was later deemed competent to enter a plea and agreed to submit an Alford plea – which in American law means pleading guilty without admitting to committing the crime on the basis that the evidence is unfavourable against the defendant. The judge sentenced Ibeabuchi to two to 10 years for battery with intent to commit crime and three to 20 years for attempted sexual assault, with the sentences to be served consecutively.
The conviction rocked the boxing world, but not more than it did his mother. Ike was all she had and his sentencing left her in bits. She was adamant that he was innocent, however, and insisted he had fallen victim to a wicked conspiracy. She claimed promoters had tapped their phones, broken into their home, put chemicals in all of their food and drink and paid women to come forward with sexual assault allegations against her son.
Ibeabuchi was undefeated after 20 fights, winning the WBC International heavyweight title, before he was sent to prison
She wrote in a letter six years after the verdict: ‘Cedric Kushner was hounding Ike to renew his contract with him, Ike informed Cedric that he needed to shop around to have a better understanding what his worth was and if he matches it, that he will continue with him. Cedric was not happy about this because he knew that he had been under-paying Ike while other promoters and managers were highly interested in Ike due to his promising boxing career. Managers and promoters don’t want boxers to negotiate deals; they want to be the ones to do all the negotiations so that their underhanded deals will not be known by anyone other than themselves.
‘Because of these dealers and their methods, we had to leave Dallas and moved to Arizona to seek refuge from them. Unfortunately, they followed us to this state and the nightmare continued. They tapped our phones, forced themselves inside our home, they put chemicals in all of our food and drinks, and they would disengage our house alarm and enter our home at any time of the day or night.
‘These promoters went so far as to fly and bring false charges against Ike in Gilbert and Scottsdale while he lived with me in the same house, by paying a couple of women to accuse him of attempted kidnapping and sexual assault. The police investigated these charges and threw them out because there was no basis for these charges against him. Since they did not achieve their aim here they followed him to Las Vegas and repeated the same charges, which has kept Ike in jail.’
She also claimed her son was not mentally ill and was denied proper legal representation, adding in her letter: ‘Ike has never really been tried or convicted of these false accusations or charges. The Las Vegas court sent Ike to Reno mental hospital for evaluation, but before his arrival, the staff had been informed that Ike was dangerous, crazy and many other suggestions that made the staff apprehensive to his arrival. Upon Ike’s arrival at the hospital, the staff found that these statements were not even close to being truth, rather they found Ike to be peaceable, respectful, loving and co-operative.’
However, the people who worked closely with Ibeabuchi had a completely different story. Kushner, who was his promoter, recounted several incidents that led him to believe Ibeabuchi was mentally ill during a TV interview back in 2012.
He said: ‘We were having a fine meal at a nice restaurant and mid-course, Ike picked up a big carving knife, slammed it into the table and screamed “They knew it! They knew it! The belts belong to me! Why don’t they just give them back?” That was a peculiar experience.’
Respected matchmaker Eric Bottjer was also of the opinion that Ibeabuchi was mentally unstable and claimed he was refusing to get into the ring to fight Byrd unless he had a Snickers bar, and made a member of his entourage run to a nearby convenience store to get him one.
Ibeabuchi has spent time in prison for false imprisonment, battery and attempted sexual assault. He is pictured (right) after his release in 2014 – but he soon ended up back in prison. Now aged 46, he is again due for release in September this year following almost 20 years in jail – and he is still contemplating a comeback to boxing
He also said during an HBO documentary: ‘He’s the only fighter I’ve ever worked with who was mentally ill. The cliche, when you work with certain fighters, is “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. 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.” 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.”
‘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-s*** 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.’
Ibeabuchi’s story took another bizarre twist when in 2007 the Supreme Court threw out his Las Vegas conviction after a process of appeals. The lower courts refused to release him. He eventually was released by the Nevada prison system in early 2014, but was handed straight to US Immigration & Customs Enforcement, which detained him in Arizona. It took another year and a half for Ibeabuchi to finally be released, but his mother had passed away the previous year after battling for so long for his freedom.
Ibeabuchi was placed on lifetime parole and at 42, began plotting his return to the ring. Promoters, however, were reluctant to work with him and only five months after his release he was rearrested for breaking conditions of his probation and is still in an Arizona prison to this day. He is expected to get out in September this year and, despite everything, still has ambitions to fight again.
Even now, as it approaches the 20th anniversary of his last fight, there remain thoughts of ‘what if?’ What if he didn’t do some of those awful things? What if he had received the help he needed? What if he had had a title shot sooner? What if he was never sent to prison?
The overwhelming impression is that, were it not for the out-of-ring transgressions, Ibeabuchi would have been the next big thing.