When reviewing the records of past fighters, few pose the “what if” question quite like the short career of Ike Ibeabuchi.
Ikemefula Charles “Ike” Ibeabuchi was from Nigeria who competed from 1994 to 1999 in the heavyweight division. Inspired by the defeat of Mike Tyson at the hands of significant underdog, Buster Douglas, he decided to take up boxing. Shortly afterwards he moved to America and earned a strong reputation as a heavy-hitting, natural, heavyweight with a blinding work rate; an extreme rarity amongst the blue-ribbon division.
After winning 16 straight fights, Ike made a leap in competition to take on undefeated prospect David Tua for the WBC International Heavyweight title on June 7, 1997. Tua was 27-0 and considered by many analysts to be ‘the next Mike Tyson’.
The commentators at ringside had never seen Ike fight and considered him cannon fodder to the monstrous left hook of Tua before the bout began. A thrilling fight in its own right, both boxers sought after the centre of the ring. Barely taking a step back, both men smashed each other with hard shots, but it was Ike who threw the cleaner, more technical punches.
What really won over the judge’s incredulous awe was the blistering pace of Ike. Ike set the individual CompuStat record by throwing 975 punches and averaging 81 per round. The heavyweight average is around 50. Both men set a CompuStat heavyweight division record with 1,730 punches thrown.
Unfortunately, after this astounding win, Ike had the beginning of his trouble outside the ring involving a false imprisonment charge centred around the custody of his son. This put a halt to Ike’s career, forcing him out of the ring for over a year. Ike, unphased inside the ring, went on to have a first-round knockout against Tim Ray and a technically sound TKO performance over Everton Davis showing virtually no ring rust. Rebuilding his momentum, Ike would challenge Olympic middleweight silver medallists Chris Byrd.
American Chris Byrd won his medal at the 1992 Olympics and continued the start of his professional career as a middleweight and then decided to substantially increase weight and become a heavyweight – albeit a small one, routinely weighing in at a little over 200 lbs. While he assembled an impressive run of wins in the mid-1990s, much of this came by elusiveness and rope-a-dope tactics rather than raw power.
Now he stepped into the ring with Ibeabuchi, who had spent over a year out of the ring after his mind-boggling record-breaking win over David Tua and the legal troubles he experienced soon after. He had displayed he had lost none of his edge, but his behaviour outside the ring was becoming increasingly erratic. For him, his nickname “The President” had become his persona, and no one was going to deny him his regal lifestyle.
The first round saw Ike, like so many other heavyweights before him, struggle to land on Byrd, whose speed made him such a difficult opponent to hurt. With Byrd was making the Nigerian miss by inches with tight slips and rolls. A stark contrast from the looming bowling ball of Tua. Ike elected to go to the body but quickly found out that this was also difficult to hit, owing to the quick feet of Byrd, who by the end of the round had racked up some eye-catching counters.
Round two saw both men stick to their game plans. Byrd was maintaining a good distance but looked to be being pushed back. When the two men exchanged, Ike was accurate with his straight punches. Byrd managed to deflect some of the cuffing hooks and overhanded shots that were now coming thick and fast his direction.
In round three that number steadily increased and Byrd found himself backed up against the ropes and facing a barrage of punches. The hard shots clearly took energy from Byrd, as he became less of a moving target after this – much had been made of the risk Ibeabuchi was taking in accepting a high-risk, low-reward encounter with Byrd, but in turn it was becoming quite apparent that the pace was at another level than what Byrd was used to. Ducking and rolling ensured that Byrd could maintain some of his composure on the ropes, but Ike’s work rate was buoyed by the reaction his punches were making.
The fourth round was a strategic affair with both men throwing feints and baiting each other. Byrd’s elusiveness was something that Ike had never had to deal with and with the Nigerians telegraphing power shots, Byrd was able to counter on a pivot. However, the stalwart determination of Ike again managed to bull the smaller American to the ropes, crunching the ribs with potent bodywork.
The dramatic climax came in the fifth. With Byrd slotted into the ropes again, Ibeabuchi unleashed a vicious left hook, followed by a right hook to drop Byrd on the canvas. The stunned, drooling Byrd tried to argue it was a slip, but that was clearly the injury talking – no one could possibly rationally argue that. Seconds later, Byrd genuinely did slip, but was given a second eight-count regardless. After Ibeabuchi landed another prolonged combination, the referee eventually stepped in to end the fight. Chris Byrd had lost his unbeaten record along with his consciousness.
For Ibeabuchi, this was an enormous triumph, and in his post-fight interview he claimed he was ready for a world title shot.
A few months later, Ibeabuchi was arrested at the Mirage in Las Vegas on suspicion of battery and sexually assault, with further allegations leading to him being remanded. After being deemed mentally unfit to face trial, it was two-and-a-half years before pleading guilty without admitting guilt). He was sentenced to a minimum of five years in jail, but it wasn’t until November 2015 that he was released. Upon release, Ibeabuchi planned a return to boxing, but all thoughts of this ended when he was again detained in April 2016 for violating terms of his probation.
Ironically, Ike Ibeabuchi fell on the same sword as Mike Tyson, the man whose fall from grace inspired him growing up. And just like Iron Mike, it is easy to ponder on the success the Nigerian born heavyweight may have had, if he had managed to stay out of trouble. One can even speculate on how well he might have fared if he had got his hands on Riddick Bowe, Lennox Lewis, Evander Holyfield or even Mike Tyson himself.