Luke G Williams: “In many ways, Ike’s name has fallen out of consciousness.”
By Chris Akers
Ike Ibeabuchi is one of boxing’s great what ifs. At a time when the heavyweight division was in the midst of one of its cyclical golden ages in the 1990s, Ibeabuchi was a heavyweight contender with the potential to reach the heights of fellow heavyweight stalwarts Mike Tyson, Lennox Lewis and Evander Holyfield.
Very muscular with great stamina, he could box and brawl, good power and a good finisher once he had his man hurt, Ibeabuchi has the necessary tools to succeed. Yet a combination of infringes with the law, mental illness, and other factors meant that he did not fulfil the promise on his considerable talent.
Since his last fight against Chris Byrd in March 1999, Ibeabuchi’s name has arguably become unknown amongst younger fight fans. With that in mind, why did Luke Williams, whose book President of Pandemonium: The Mad World of Ike Ibeabuchi, which is published by Hamilcar, decide to write a biography about one of Africa’s most obscure fighters?
“I’ve been interested in Ike Ibeabuchi for a long time, ever since as a boxing mad teenager I watched his fight with David Tua, says Williams via Zoom.“Back in the day in the back of Boxing Monthly, they had adverts where you could send off for videotapes of fights in the States. I read about the David Tua vs Ike Ibeabuchi fight. Tua at that time was on a real high. He’d been on the cover of Boxing Monthly. I’d read a lot about Tua and was very excited about him, and then to read about this guy who beat him and set the Compubox record for the number of punches thrown in a [heavyweight] fight. I’d never heard of Ibeabuchi before this fight and it sounded like such a sensational event.
“A friend of mine from school ordered the fight on video, and ever since I saw it I’d always been interested in Ike and his career, and followed all the things that went wrong, with a sense of horror that this great talent had fallen by the wayside.
“Around five or six years ago I had the idea to write a book about him. And I managed to interview him for Boxing Monthly, who I was writing for at that time. I had written about 10,000 words but I wasn’t quite sure how to pitch the book or where to sell it. Then I just saw the Hamilcar series and it just seemed the perfect fit as it had the crossover with true crime. I didn’t see the Ibeabuchi book as a big book and didn’t see too many people produce small books. I know Paul Zanon from Boxing Monthly, who wrote the Johnny Tapia one, and I said to him ‘Look I’ve got this idea. What do you think?’ He said ‘Yeah, pitch it to them.’ Paul kindly sent an email to them vouching for me and that’s where it came from.”
The start of the book discusses Ibeabuchi’s dad as this strongman who was well respected in his homeland. While much of his father’s history is unknown apart from that fact, the influence his mother had on him is noticeable throughout the book.
“I find it very interesting that his father was this famous strongman in Nigeria. It’s a story that Ike himself has never really referred to that much, or only referred it in passing. Sadly I didn’t have the chance to ask Ike himself about it, because it seems such a remarkable bit of his background. So I don’t know in terms of his father how big an influence he was. It seems like an ideal marketing opportunity. Here’s this great Nigerian boxer and his father was a legendary strongman. But that never got taken up. Whether that was because Ike didn’t want that taken up I don’t know. I don’t know if there was some form of rupture with his father. It’s a bit of a mystery.
“His mother was based in Texas, and he went to America after his mother had gone there. She was a big force in his career, a very close relationship and I know that he and his family were very devastated when she died.”
Like any blood relative, there will be genetic links. It is one link, in particular, that was to have huge repercussions for Ibeabuchi’s life and career.
“Clearly there is this possible link [with mental illness]. She had mental health issues, Ike had mental health issues, so maybe a genetic link there. That’s quite a tragic part of the story. His father seems a more remote and mysterious figure and that adds to the appeal of the story.”
As revered as his dad was in Nigeria, Ibeabuchi’s reputation it could be argued has faded in his homeland.
“In terms of his status in Nigeria and Africa, it’s hard to say. In many ways, Ike’s name has fallen out of consciousness a little bit and so he’s a little bit of a forgotten man even back in Nigeria. Today, Anthony Joshua has Nigerian heritage and I know he’s followed in parts of Nigeria with how he’s getting on. But I think that Ike’s name has fallen away. With the hardcore boxing fans, he still has a high reputation. He’s still talked about. I think there’s a feeling in some circles, a lot of people feel he was hard done by, maybe not knowing the full story in terms of the court case. They are still people who maintain he was set up, he was exploited.”
Although Ibeabuchi was a very troubled character, Williams admits that throughout the writing of the book he comes out with some sympathy for him.
“Part of my reason for writing the book, as well as delve into his story, is to remind people what a great fighter he was and how much potential he had. I think that’s been forgotten a little bit and does get overshadowed by the crime side of things. So in a way, there are two purposes to the book – delve into his story but at the same time remind people of this terrific talent that we had back in the 90s for a little while.”
Despite his breakthrough win over Tua, instead of an increase in the level of opposition, the momentum from that fight dropped and he was not in the ring with that same level of opponent until he fought Chris Byrd two years later. Instead of aiming for world belts, the only trinkets he had after Tua were on his wrist.
“The main reason was not long after the Tua fight he was arrested. He had his first major brush with the law when he crashed a car. At the time in the car was the son of an estranged girlfriend of his. That was the first of a long line of incidents that led to his eventful fall. It happened just a couple of months after the Tua fight. That then got caught up in a court case. Eventually, he was freed and the court concluded that he was not mentally sound.”
What was his motivation behind driving the car that fateful night? Perhaps this is a question we will never know the answer to. But the injuries to the child in the car were so serious, that they will never able to walk properly again.
Ibeabuchi was free to fight again. He fought a couple of journeymen before becoming victorious against Chris Byrd. But just like the Tua fight, so soon after a great victory, he again had a serious brush with the law. Like the last time, another person’s life was affected due to what occurred.
“After the Byrd fight was the big incident in Las Vegas of sexual assault with an adult entertainer. Both of those big fights, the Tua and the Byrd fights, were followed quite soon afterward by major brushes with the law, I guess we can theorise whether he was in some state of accelerated high after these big events. Was he feeling indestructible, was he feeling depressed? I spoke to a psychiatrist from Nigeria and she spoke about how big life events can have a big impact on people’s mental illness, and it might be a big life event that’s positive or negative. Possibly those big fights were triggers in some way for the episodes that followed. But after the Byrd fight, there was no escaping what happened.”
Small instances of Ibeabuchi displaying possible signs of mental illness became more prevalent. People around Ibeabuchi are not looked upon favourably in the book. It was known that Ibeabuchi was a great heavyweight but people around him knew he was crazy and were willing to brush aside his idiosyncrasies and let him carry on. Sadly for Ibeabuchi, instead of getting the treatment he required, he got worse.
“I don’t think the promoters and managers come out of this very well,” states Williams. “Eric Bottler, who is now a matchmaker for Matchroom USA and at the time worked for Cedric Kushner, spoke a lot about this and how when he joined Kushner, he was very concerned about the fact that they were promoting Ibeabuchi and that he spoke to Cedric and said that he shouldn’t be promoting this guy, that he’s not safe to be in the ring and something was going to go wrong. Cedric brushed those concerns off because essentially for Cedric, here was a chance to get control of the heavyweight championship of the world. And I think that drive if you like, that vision, seduced a lot of people into looking the other way or becoming fixated not on not can we help this guy as a man but how can we get this man back in the ring. How can we get his career back on track rather than treating what was going on there?
“Boxers often get exploited, whether they’re mentally ill, whether they’re impoverished, whatever it may be. And that’s part of my love hate relationship with the sport. After the Tua fight and what happened to that kid, he shouldn’t have been back in the ring for a long time until his mental health was sorted out. But he was rushed back in as quick as his team could get him back in the ring.”
It was not just a tragedy that Ibeabuchi was not treated for his mental illness. It was a travesty.
“I think that’s one of the most tragic aspects of the story. Here was a man who desperately needed some form of treatment, some form of help and for whatever reason, he didn’t get that. Lou Di Bella said it to me ‘One of the lessons of this story is that if you’re mentally ill you need to get help but at the same time if you won’t accept that help, what can anybody do about it,’ and I think that’s what Ike came up against. I think that was a cultural and social factor that helped prevent him from getting better or getting the treatment he needed.”