Unfinished business?

Luke G. Williams
20/07/2016 10:36am

Before his April arrest for an alleged probation violation, former top heavyweight contender Ike Ibeabuchi spoke to Boxing Monthly’s Luke G. Williams about his comeback ambitions after over 16 years in prison. With the outcome of his latest legal troubles still pending, Ibeabuchi’s future may be uncertain, but he remains one of the most fascinating and controversial figures in the sport of boxing.

To many boxing fans, the name Ikemefula Charles Ibeabuchi possesses a raw, almost mythic appeal, as well as echoing with the age-old refrain of ‘what might have been’. When the then 26-year-old heavyweight was arrested in July 1999, thus precipitating a series of legal woes that would lead to convictions for attempted sexual assault and battery with intent, his professional boxing record stood at a perfect 20-0, with 15 knockouts.

Having demolished the hitherto undefeated ledgers of leading contenders David Tua and Chris Byrd in 1997 and 1999 respectively, Ibeabuchi was - at the time of his incarceration - probably only a fight away from a shot at boxing’s most hallowed and sacred prize: the World Heavyweight Championship. With his well-rounded boxing skills, the ability to give and take heavy punishment and seemingly limitless reserves of stamina, many felt that the Nigerian’s imprisonment deprived the sport of its next great heavyweight superstar.

For years intermittent rumours of Ibeabuchi’s release and an impending return to boxing flared up, only to die down again soon after. Late in 2015, though, Ibeabuchi was finally released, news that was first broken on the Boxing Monthly website.

After such a long absence from the sport, many expected that the highly educated Ibeabuchi, who earned two degrees while in prison, would turn his back on boxing. Instead, though, the 43-year-old began plotting an audacious and unlikely comeback, 17 years after his most recent professional engagement, namely his five-round demolition of Byrd in March 1999 in Tacoma, Washington.

Having linked up with Manny Pacquiao’s longtime advisor Michael Koncz, Ibeabuchi was originally rumoured to be returning to the ring against undefeated 26-year-old Mexican-American Andy Ruiz Jr. on the undercard of Pacquiao-Bradley 3 in Las Vegas on 9 April.

However, Ibeabuchi himself admitted, when speaking to Boxing Monthly in mid-February by telephone from Arizona, that the Ruiz fight was not a done deal. “To be honest I have not signed any contracts for that fight,” the 43-year-old commented as we began an in-depth and wide-ranging interview, his thick Nigerian accent still in evidence, despite more than 20 years based in the United States. “But yes, I was hoping that there would be a fight for me in April, and I very much wanted to fight on the Manny Pacquiao card.”

Regardless of whether a Ruiz bout ever pans out or not, the man nicknamed The President’ was adamant that the first engagement of his comeback campaign would be finalised soon. “I’m ready to re-launch my career and I’m in good shape,” Ibeabuchi declared confidently, before explaining that his application for a boxing licence in Arizona was currently in the pipeline.

“I am eager to return, by God’s grace. I’m just waiting for Mr Koncz to return from the Philippines [where he had been in camp with Pacquiao], so we can round things off. It’s almost time. I’m feeling very elated about the comeback. I want to prove that nothing has been taken away from me in terms of my boxing skills and techniques. I want to prove I can still become a world champion.” Ibeabuchi even expressed a willingness to tangle with another comebacking heavyweight, in the form of England’s David Haye, commenting. “I’d like to say on the record that I’d like to get in the ring with Mr Haye.”

Leading up to his release, there was widespread speculation concerning whether, as a Nigerian national, Ibeabuchi would be allowed to stay in the United States. Indeed, at one stage he was being held by the US immigration authorities, and was rumoured to be on the verge of being deported back to Nigeria.

When asked to clarify his legal status, though, Ibeabuchi stressed: “I am not going to be deported. After the Supreme Court of Nevada issued my release, my status as a legal resident of the United States had expired, because my green card expired in 2006. Therefore I needed some assistance with the renewal of my green card. I’m legally acceptable and allowed to stay in the United States of America as we speak.”

Legal discussions to one side, Ibeabuchi was keen to emphasise to Boxing Monthly that he had been training hard since leaving custody. “So far I’ve been training mainly for stamina and strength,” he explained. “I have reserved the last phase of my training regimen for sparring and boxing training. I intend to prove that I’m in good shape to maintain another run at the heavyweight title. I was ready to fight for the title after beating David Tua [in 1997], but I had to wait. After a lengthy incarceration, the doubts should be erased soon about Ibeabuchi’s fighting ability!”

In terms of his tactical approach, Ibeabuchi claimed that his boxing style would undergo only minor changes, despite his advance in years. “If it isn’t broke, don’t change it. However, I intend to jab a little bit more. I want to use my jab to set up my hooks, as well as to protect myself effectively. You can be sure that you will see a very sound defensive fighter when I return. I intend to protect myself as I want to be here for quite a while after I have become the world champion.”

Some might consider a comeback after nearly two decades out of the ring to be a risky proposition, but Ibeabuchi was adamant that he harboured no doubts. “I have unfinished business in boxing,” he stated in a serious tone, his voice never wavering. “It’s more a case of why shouldn’t I come back, rather than why should I!

“My strength is that I have not been defeated. So let’s fight and let’s see if any heavyweights can prove or disprove my ability. I want all the heavyweight fighters out there to attempt to defeat me or hand a loss to me. I don’t see anyone in the division at this time and I didn’t see anyone in the division in 1999 [who could beat me]. Most people might think I should have retired by now, but I haven’t been a world champion. To me that is an insult, so I have to redeem myself. I want to be a world champion, before day turns to dusk.”

When asked to consider how he would have fared against the long-retired likes of Lennox Lewis, Evander Holyfield and Mike Tyson had he not been imprisoned, Ibeabuchi was philosophical. “I wanted a title shot against the winner of Lennox Lewis and Holyfield,” he explained.

“Everyone thought that Lewis defeated Holyfield in their first fight and after their second fight I believe Lewis would have fought [Michael] Grant and I would have fought Holyfield. But while waiting for the Lewis-Holyfield rematch I was locked up so unfortunately I didn’t continue with my 21st fight until now. The Holyfield fight did not happen, nor Lewis or Tyson, so commenting on them now would be crying over spilled milk.”

The most famous instance of a successful heavyweight comeback after a long absence remains, of course, George Foreman. The ‘Punchin’ Preacher’ returned to boxing in 1987 after nearly a decade of inactivity, his remarkable renaissance culminating in him lifting the world heavyweight title for a second time at the incredible age of 45 in 1994, courtesy of a tenth-round KO of Michael Moorer.

When asked if he drew motivation from Foreman’s example, Ibeabuchi replied by arguing that he was better placed than Foreman had been to make a comeback. “I don’t compare myself to Mr Foreman. I am a technical, tactical fighter and I remain undefeated. Mr Foreman was returning from a defeat against Muhammad Ali [as well as against Jimmy Young]. Although he was an Olympic gold medallist, I maintain that at this stage of my life I have more skills and more mobility than Mr Foreman when he returned. Yes, he became a world champion at the age of 45 but I have a copy of the fight and if Mr [Michael] Moorer had been listening to his trainer then Mr Foreman would not have become world champion again!”

Although some might dismiss such a response as arrogant, Ibeabuchi’s softly spoken manner, coupled with his formal demeanour, ensured that his critique of Foreman did not come across as mean-spirited. Indeed, throughout our conversation as a whole, Ibeabuchi created an endearingly mild-mannered and friendly impression, chuckling from time to time while also projecting a quiet and serious aura.

This overall impression was quite at odds with the common media stereotype of him. At one point in the interview, when I addressed a question to him using his Christian name, Ibeabuchi interrupted me to say: “Mr Williams, would you please refer to me as Mr Ibeabuchi? I prefer to be addressed by my surname. I would appreciate that.” It’s possibly the most polite rebuke I’ve ever received.

Returning to the subject of Foreman, it is interesting to note that the 67-year-old former two-time heavyweight champion greeted news of Ibeabuchi’s potential comeback with encouragement, having told Bernard Fernandez of sherdog.com: “Physically, there’s no reason he can’t [come back]. If he can learn to make three well-placed punches count as much as five or ten, he can be champ … If he really is coming back against a credible opponent, it must mean somebody believes in him, and he believes in himself, too. And if he can pull it off, he’s right back on top. This could be an exciting thing.”

Another man well qualified to comment on the prospect of Ibeabuchi returning to the ring was the last man to have faced the Nigerian: Chris Byrd, who was somewhat more circumspect than Foreman when speaking to Boxing Monthly. “Oh, it’ll be tough for Ike,” the 45-year-old former IBF and WBO champ stressed. “He beat David Tua in a very close fight, he beat me and that put him to superstar status. Everybody was going crazy for him, but now it’s been 17 years and he’s 43 years old.

“In terms of his physical stature, he was considered ‘big’ 17 years ago. I think he was about 244 pounds when he fought me. But there’s a lot of bigger guys than him now out there now who are ready to rumble. Age catches up with everybody, I don’t care who you are! So it’s going to be tough, especially in an era of big heavyweights. God bless him on his journey and more power to him for coming back at 43 though. Hopefully he can make some waves, but it’s going to be a tough uphill battle.”

The final word, though, must go to Ibeabuchi himself, whose most revealing response during our lengthy conversation came when I asked him how it felt to be free again after so long in custody - a question now laced with a certain degree of dramatic irony considering the events that have unfolded since we spoke.

After a pause, Ibeabuchi’s answer hinted that he possesses a motivation for returning to the ring that exists beyond dreams of championship glory, and that boxing remains at the very core of his being, his existence and his identity. It was also a response lent extra poignancy by the news that broke in April, several weeks after this interview, that the Arizona US Marshals Service had arrested Ibeabuchi for allegedly violating the conditions of a probation order and that he was once again facing the prospect of extended legal wrangling.

“I don’t know if I am free yet,” he admitted, an almost wistful tone to his voice. “I won’t feel free until I step into the ring to carry on where I stopped after my 20th fight. So I won’t know the answer to that question until I return to the boxing ring. I can’t consider myself free until then.”

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IBEABUCHI AT HIS BEST

Ike Ibeabuchi talks BM through the two fights that made his name, namely his unforgettable 1997 war with David Tua and his 1999 crushing of Chris Byrd.

Ibeabuchi-Tua, 7 June 1997, Arco Arena, Sacramento

“Going into the Tua fight I was confident. My trainer Curtis Cokes and I knew we could beat him. We trained to go the distance and we also prepared to throw many punches. Energy and work level were needed to defeat him. He was a formidable opponent, but we took his left hook away from him. I wasn’t surprised how intense the fight was, but we were confident in our plan and execution, and the result was unanimous. [Ibeabuchi won on all three judges’ cards – 115-114, 116-113, 117-111]. We didn’t intend to set any records [the fight still holds the Compubox record for most punches thrown in a heavyweight bout at 1,730, more even than the legendary Thrilla in Manila]. I knew [Muhammad] Ali and [Joe] Frazier had set a record but no way did we intend to beat it. I’m proud of that though and I enjoyed the fight - I just wish I had sat more on my punches, especially when I was commanding the fight. Although Mr Tua was a durable fighter, there’s no doubt in my mind, if I had reduced the number of punches thrown and had sat on them maybe I would have been able to knock him out. I would have preferred to stop him than go 12 rounds!”

Ibeabuchi-Byrd, 20 March 1999, Emerald Queen Casino, Tacoma

“No one wanted to fight Mr Byrd or I, so we fought each other in the hope of getting a title shot. It was a tough fight in which I risked my unbeaten record and a potential title shot but I was literally broke. I had moved from Dallas, Texas to Chandler, Arizona, I had no money - there were a lot of issues that I was going through. I had challenged everyone for a title fight and no one had responded. Mr Byrd was a very good boxer, but the only reason I really took the fight was for the money. I asked for half a million dollars and got $300,000. I was in Nigeria and I received a phone call that Mr Byrd wanted to fight me so I jumped on a plane immediately. Byrd had a very different style, he was the reverse of Tua. Curtis Cokes my trainer, who is a legend, developed a plan that I wasn’t sure would work. We developed the left uppercut. I’m a right hander and use the right uppercut, but Curtis wanted me to have the option of a powerful left uppercut as well as a right uppercut. In the first four rounds I moved away from his left as he was a southpaw. Then when I trapped him on the ropes in the fifth I could unleash on him. He was like a Superman being able to stand up again after that punch, but I knew he couldn’t stay up much longer so I went after him.”