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For all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these: ‘It might have been!’
--John Greenleaf Whittier
He might have been great. Or maybe not. No one can say for sure, not now and maybe not ever if his long-delayed comeback sputters and dies as so many others have. But in 1999, after impressive, back-to-back victories over fellow heavyweight contenders David Tua and Chris Byrd (who would go on to capture world titles on two occasions), there was at least a strong suspicion that Nigerian-born Ikemefula Charles Ibeabuchi had the potential to develop into a truly special fighter, perhaps one good enough to merit a spot in a talent-jammed upper tier populated by the likes of Lennox Lewis, Evander Holyfield, Mike Tyson and Riddick Bowe.
But Ike Ibeabuchi – known as “The President,” a nod toward the “I like Ike” administration of the late U.S. chief executive Dwight D. Eisenhower in the 1950s – never got the opportunity to prove or disprove he belonged in that elite company. Always mercurial of temperament, to the point that rumors arose that he might be schizophrenic, Ibeabuchi seemingly had a mental meltdown on July 22, 1999, when he was accused of sexually assaulting a woman working for an outcall escort service in his Las Vegas hotel room.
On Nov. 8, 2001, Ibeabuchi submitted an Alford plea on charges of battery with intent to commit a crime and attempted sexual assault. Although he did not admit to the charges, Ibeabuchi’s defense team conceded it was likely the prosecution had enough evidence that their client would be found guilty. He received sentences of two to 10 years for the battery conviction and three to 20 years on the attempted sexual assault, with a judge ruling that the sentences be served consecutively.
Year after year passed and, eventually, Ibeabuchi was all but forgotten. The 6-foot-3 fighter, who was in the 235-pound range when he was wowing the public with his victories over Tua and Byrd, ballooned to 300-plus pounds, all the while his once-formidable ring skills presumably atrophying.
Released from prison in November, the 43-year-old Ibeabuchi (20-0, 15 KOs), reportedly has trimmed down to 245 pounds with the intention of resuming a career that has been put on hold for nearly 17 years. But unlike, say, George Foreman, who ended his 10-year voluntary retirement from boxing with a slow and steady succession of bouts against journeyman types as he gradually worked back into contention, Ibeabuchi is planning an accelerated schedule against a higher grade of opponents. He has hired Michael Koncz, Manny Pacquiao’s adviser, to jump-start his planned career revival, which tentatively is scheduled to begin April 9 at the MGM Grand on the undercard of an HBO-televised show headlined by the rubber match between WBO welterweight champion Timothy Bradley Jr. (33-1-1, 13 KOs) and retiring (maybe) legend Manny Pacquiao (57-6-2, 38 KOs). It has been speculated that Ibeabuchi will dive right into the deep end of the pool, against 26-year-old Mexican-American slugger Andy Ruiz (26-0, 17 KOs), who is ranked No. 8 by the WBO and No. 11 by both the WBC and IBF.
“I am definitely in shape and I understand I would have to prove this,” Ibeabuchi told Kevin Iole of Yahoosports.com. “I need to fight for the heavyweight championship of the world and I understand that I will have to prove myself worthy. Any of the tests that would be required of me, an MRI, an EEG, those kinds of tests, X-rays, things that would be required to obtain a boxing license, were done while I was incarcerated. But I am willing to cooperate and do whatever so that I may obtain my boxing (license) and appear on this card in Las Vegas.”
Foreman, the patron saint of old guys who successfully come back to boxing after a lengthy layoff, said Ibeabuchi appears to be taking a risk, but maybe one that will pay off big. Big George noted the heavyweight division is “wide-open” with one dominant Klitschko (Vitali) having traded the ring for politics (as the mayor of Kiev, Ukraine) and the other (Wladimir) seemingly diminished by his subpar performance in losing his slew of titles to Tyson Fury.
“Not everyone can plot and plan like I did,” Foreman continued. “They don’t have the patience that I did. I deliberately took my time. I stayed off television. I wanted to lay low until I developed my skills.
“As I recall, Ibeabuchi was a very busy fighter, a good boxer who threw a lot of body punches, a lot of combinations. I don’t see him being that kind of fighter now, not after so much time off. But physically, there’s no reason he can’t do it. If he can learn to make three well-placed punches count as much as five or 10, he can be champ. But if he tries to recapture what he had before he went away, he won’t last long.
“Now, 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.”
No two cases are ever identical, but there are precedents to suggest that what Ibeabuchi is seeking to accomplish, while not necessarily impossible, is highly improbable.
There is another 43-year-old heavyweight, Amir “Hardcore” Mansour (22-1-1, 16 KOs), who is in the mix for a possible down-the-road title shot in a heavyweight division suddenly in flux. Mansour, who faces Dominic Brezeale (16-0, 14 KOs) on Jan. 23 at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, served nine years after being convicted for possession of a controlled substance and was 38 when he resumed his career on Aug. 27, 2010, with a second-round knockout of Samuel Brown.
But while Foreman (who, at 43, became heavyweight champion for a second time, on a 10th round knockout of WBA/IBF titlist Michael Moorer on Nov. 5, 1994, after a gap of 20 years since his prior reign ended) and Mansour offer shreds of proof that anything is possible inside the squared circle, the odds against such a return to prominence are very long. Dreams die hard, though, even when penned behind prison walls.
There are those who insist that Tony Ayala Jr., who became the WBA’s No. 1 super welterweight contender before the age of 19, was such a dynamic talent that, were it not for the 16 years he served on a rape conviction, he would have bludgeoned his way into 1980s glory alongside contemporaries Sugar Ray Leonard, Marvin Hagler, Thomas Hearns and Roberto Duran.
Upon his release in April 1999, Ayala, then 35, expressed the hope that he could rediscover at least some of his youthful magic. But, like Ibeabuchi now, he understood that too much time had been wasted to afford to waste any more.
“This is an opportunity I will never get again, and the window of opportunity is closing,” Ayala said when asked if he could become the great fighter and champion his vast potential once suggested. “It has to be done quickly. Time is not on my side at this stage.”
It was perhaps inevitable that Ayala, his demons temporarily in remission but not fully exorcised, lapsed into the same destructive habits after he suffered a broken hand and quit on his stool after eight rounds against Yory Boy Campas on July 28, 2000. Five months later he broke into the home of an 18-year-old woman in the early morning hours and was shot in the shoulder, an offense for which he was placed on 10 years’ probation.
Ayala won four fights following his loss to Campas, but the shimmering mirage of a world title that once had seemed his destiny forever vanished on April 25, 2003, when he was stopped in 11 rounds by Anthony Bonsante. Shortly after that he was stopped for speeding and, when a search of his vehicle revealed that he was in possession of heroin and pornography, he was found to be in violation of his probation and sent back to prison to serve another 10 years. Ayala was 52 when he was found dead of an apparent drug overdose on April 12 of this year in the San Antonio, Texas, gym that was owned by his late father.
Almost prophetically, Ayala had foreseen his fate.
“There was this cycle that kept repeating itself,” he said of his penchant for being his own worst enemy. “I’d fight and receive a great deal of praise. I was everybody’s favorite child. Then, within a short period of time, I would get arrested for being drunk, getting into a brawl, and breaking into somebody’s house or whatever. Then I would fight again and the bad things would be more or less forgotten. Until I did them again, and I always did.”
It doesn’t have to be that way for Ibeabuchi, of course, but his advanced age, 17 years of accumulated ring rust and the nature of the offense that landed him behind bars – a violent sexual crime, for which there is a high rate of recidivism – would appear to place him in the danger zone that Ayala and others (former heavyweight contenders Jo-el Scott, for example, now serving a life sentence for rape and murder) could not permanently escape.
Following his electrifying unanimous decision over Tua on June 7, 1997 – a bout in which Ibeabuchi unfurled 975 punches, a furious pace for a heavyweight – he began to complain of debilitating headaches. Although an MRI scan indicated nothing out of the ordinary, “The President” soon began to hear voices and act irrationally. Despite all the troubling signs regarding his mental stability, Ibeabuchi, weighing in at a career-high 244¾ pounds, was able to knock out the slick-boxing Byrd in five rounds on March 20, 1999, in Tacoma, Wash.
“Oh, I was out of it after that shot, man!” said Byrd of the putaway punch, while also proclaiming Ibeabuchi to be as dangerous a puncher as the Klitschkos, both of whom he had faced.
It was Ibeabuchi’s final fight, at least to this point. Until further notice, he must be considered a curiosity item, a dusty relic from the late 1990s only now rediscovered in the attic of our memories.
The hope is that the impending second career stage of Ike Ibeabuchi turns out to be more Foreman or Mansour than Ayala or Scott, who, prior to his first arrest – on rape charges stemming from his encounters with two underage girls – was cited by former New York State Athletic Commission head Randy Gordon as “as close to being another Sonny Liston as anyone I’d seen. He has so much talent, it’s scary. If he isn’t sidetracked by his trouble with the law, no question he should be a future champion.”
But potential, as famed football coach Darrell Royal once observed, means you ain’t done it yet. If Ibeabuchi’s return to the ring wars should go off the rails, here’s hoping that another wish expressed by the unfortunate Ayala offers some semblance of hope and consolation.
“I made it out of prison after 16 years,” Ayala noted upon gaining his freedom in April 1999. “I survived that f------ hellhole. And you know what? I’ve learned I’d rather be a bad fighter and a good citizen than a good fighter and a bad citizen.”
Here’s hoping that Ibeabuchi has what it takes to still be good at boxing, and be better at life as well.
Bernard Fernandez, a five-term president of the Boxing Writers Association of America, received the Nat Fleischer Award from the BWAA in April 1999 for lifetime achievement and was inducted into the Pennsylvania Boxing Hall of Fame in 2005, as well as the New Jersey Boxing Hall of Fame in 2013. The New Orleans-born sports writer has worked in the industry since 1969 and pens a weekly column on the Sweet Science for Sherdog.com.
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