Fight #40: Ike Ibeabuchi vs. David Tua, June 7, 1997, Sacramento, CA
Nigeria vs. New Zealand in the heavyweight division. Going into this 12-round affair, both fighters were unbeaten prospects. Tua was 27-0 with 23 knockouts, and Ibeabuchi was 16-0 with 12 knockouts. Despite that, neither fighter would ever go on to win a world title, making it the only fight on this list that featured no world champions, past, present, or future.
Tua was the more highly-regarded prospect. He had scored a devastating first-round knockout of John Ruiz one year earlier that had earned him comparisons with a young Mike Tyson. But his fight with Ibeabuchi, whose opposition to this point was decidedly unimpressive, put the lie to those comparisons. From the opening round, Ibeabuchi established a furious pace, popping a stiff left jab and showing a willingness to exchange on the inside. In the early rounds, the announcers, and Tua's corner, expressed skepticism that he would be able to maintain this same workrate for 12 full rounds, but he practically does. In fact, this is one of the most action-packed heavyweight fights I can ever recall watching.
That busy left jab prevented Tua from getting off his own combinations, and so he settled for throwing one-punch haymakers that often missed their target. Tua, however, was an incredible puncher: in 2002, the Ring Magazine would list him as one of the 50 greatest punchers in boxing history. In round 9, Tua landed a perfect uppercut to Ibeabuchi's jaw. It seemed to momentarily slow down the Nigerian, but in the following round, he came right back out and went back to the jab, winning both that round and the 11th round as well. Realizing he needed the knockout, Tua went for broke in the 12th round, throwing haymakers with Ibeabuchi, who showed a surprising willingness to trade with Tua even though he was up on the scorecards. The fight ends with each of them landing left hooks to each other in the middle of the ring. Compubox numbers show that Ibeabuchi ate over 280 punches from Tua, an astoundingly high number of punches to take from such a historically great puncher.
The judges gave Ibeabuchi a unanimous decision, with scores of 117-111, 115-114, and 116-113. I also had it for Ibeabuchi, 115-113. At the announcement of the decision, the ESPN announcers declare that the heavyweight division has a new force. The fight moved Ibeabuchi to 17-0, but shockingly he would step into the ring only three more times, winning all three by technical knockout. He finished his career with a mark of 20-0 with 15 knockouts, and never fought for a heavyweight championship.
The question is why? When he fought for the last time in 2000, he was only 26 years old, undefeated, and with a seemingly promising future. What happened to Ike Ibeabuchi?
So I did some research. According to all who knew him, he suffered from serious mental health issues and was given to fits of delusional behavior and paranoia. He apparently insisted that everyone call him "The President," and he seemed to genuinely believe that he was the president of the world. At times his handlers could only convince him to do things by appealing to his regal status: "Go to this weigh-in because it is very presidential." That sort of thing. At one meeting with HBO executives to discuss a possible three-fight deal, Ibeabuchi began screaming, took a large carving knife and slammed it into the table. Then, two months after the Tua fight, Ibeabuchi got into a car accident where he abducted the 15-year-old son of his ex-girlfriend and slammed his car into a concrete pier, in an apparent suicide attempt that left the 15-year-old unable to walk again. Two years after that, he was arrested for sexual assault, and eventually sentenced to 2-10 years in prison. He ended up serving all of it as his parole was denied several times due to mental instability. Released in 2014, he was soon back in jail following a parole violation. He was released from prison again in September of last year, at which point he was handed over to ICE for deportation back to Nigeria.
Among people who followed this era of boxing closely, Ibeabuchi is one of the great "what-if" questions. Next to Lennox Lewis, many think he was at the top of the division as far as talent was concerned. But there was even something about Ibeabuchi's win over Tua that struck ringside observers the wrong way. As one writer put it, Tua "was credited with landing 282 punches. That should have told us what was going on with Ike. What kind of lunatic gets hit 282 times by David Tua and is still able to speak after 12 rounds?"
If you are poor in America, the cure for mental illness is not therapy, or medication, or psychiatric treatment. The cure is a jail cell, or a boxing ring. If you are poor in America, the primary goal is not to help you to heal, but to find some way to make money off your insanity. That is the story of Ike Ibeabuchi. As for David Tua, he would go on to finish his career with a record of 52-5-2 with 43 knockouts. He fought once for the title, losing a unanimous decision to Lennox Lewis in the year 2000, just as Ibeabuchi's life was falling apart, his career already over.
Here is a video of the fight: