THE last time Ike Ibeabuchi appeared in a boxing ring was on March 20, 1999, when he faced fellow unbeaten contender Chris Byrd at the Emerald Hotel and Casino in Tacoma, Washington. Ibeabuchi’s five-round destruction of Byrd that night would enter boxing legend. But the fact that the unbalanced boxer could even fight that night was a miracle. In this excerpt from his book President of Pandemonium: The Mad World of Ike Ibeabuchi, Luke G. Williams recreates the chaos that surrounded the Ibeabuchi-Byrd bout and captures the recollections of those who were there –including Chris Byrd, Bill Benton, and Eric Bottjer.
★ ★ ★
WHEN he was slated to arrive in Tacoma for his heavyweight showdown with Chris Byrd, Ike Ibeabuchi sat with Bill Benton over 800 miles southeast, in the departure lounge of Salt Lake City International Airport. Benton – a former matchmaker for Ike’s promoter Cedric Kushner – had been tasked with ensuring Ike showed up for the fight.
“They were flying from Phoenix to Tacoma and had a stop-off in Salt Lake City,” Bob Spagnola – one of Ike’s managers – recalled. “Then Ike decided – and it was just Bill and Ike there – ‘No, Bill, I’m not getting on any more planes. The spirits have told me I can’t get on another plane.’”
With Ibeabuchi so close to a shot at the heavyweight title, Benton refused to give in. “He didn’t like to fly to begin with,” Benton said. “We were about halfway and had a connecting flight when Ike said, ‘My spirit tells me not to get on this plane.’ We missed two connecting flights and were just sitting in the airport. Eventually I said: ‘Listen, we’re gonna do one of two things: get on the plane or go back home’. Ike turned to me and said: ‘Bill, if you tell me to get on the plane, I’ll get on it, but I’m telling you now, my spirit is telling me not to get on this plane’. I said: ‘Well we’ve missed two other ones. So let’s get on this plane and go.’ We got on the plane and had a real bumpy flight. I thought, Oh no, Ike’s gonna be up my ass about this. Sure enough, in Seattle we got off the plane and he looked at me and said: ‘My spirit was right’. I said: ‘Hey, I don’t have a spirit!’”
Kushner’s assistant Mitch Winston – who had staked $22,000 on Ibeabuchi to lose, having witnessed the boxer’s troubled mental state – vividly remembers seeing Ike arrive with Benton at the Emerald Hotel and Casino. “[Ike] was shirtless, with a toothpick in his mouth, wearing jeans and a jean jacket, a black cowboy hat, dark sunglasses, and cowboy boots. He was pissed at the world, intense and unsmiling.” Winston also noted that, despite his lack of sparring, Ibeabuchi looked in terrific shape. “His dark aura and ripped physique reminded me of Clubber Lang from Rocky III. It dawned on me he must have been training alone [like] Clubber Lang, in the private confines of his apartment, away from all conspiracies and demonic forces.”
Ron Scott Stevens, who had joined Cedric Kushner Promotions in December 1998 as a matchmaker, admitted he avoided Ibeabuchi whenever he could during fight week. “The whole week I was like, ‘Please, let me stay away from this guy!’ One day they asked me to bring up some lunch for him. I knocked on the door and couldn’t wait to get the hell away. He was a hard guy to be around. He was intimidating and frightening. You never knew what he was gonna do or say. I saw Sonny Liston when I was 11 years old, I guess it must have been when he fought [Floyd] Patterson, and when I saw Ibeabuchi I saw Liston. Liston was this mysterious guy who was supposedly controlled by the Mob and was very sinister. Ibeabuchi had that dark aura around him as well.”
Throughout fight week, Ibeabuchi’s behavior shifted between eccentric and unnerving. Each morning he left his hotel room and marched up and down the hotel parking lot like a soldier preparing for war. Winston witnessed the spectacle with disquiet. “In my view, Ike really thought he was a soldier in the military, going into a ‘kill-or-be-killed’ battle.”
Byrd also noted Ibeabuchi’s military-style spectacle. “When we got to the hotel, he [Ibeabuchi] was outside looking at the sky, walking back and forth,” Byrd remembered. “My father looked at me and said: ‘You’re fighting a crazy man. There’s something wrong with him. He’s just out there walking up and down, looking at the sky’. My whole team, my wife, everybody, we were like, that’s very strange.”
Later, Byrd’s father and trainer Joe bumped into Ike’s trainer Curtis Cokes in the casino lobby. The two men had known each other for years. When Byrd saw Ibeabuchi wandering around, agitated and staring at the ceiling, he asked: ‘Curtis, what’s he doing?’ Cokes apparently replied: ‘Joe, that dude is gone.’ Publicly, Cokes maintained an upbeat facade telling the Austin American-Statesman: “Ike’s in good shape and his attitude is good. This is the biggest fight of his life. [It] should lead to a world-title fight.” Cokes predicted the bout wouldn’t impress people based on style: “Chris makes everyone look bad. He hasn’t fought a decent, clean, enjoyable bout in his career. It will be ugly – unless you get him out early so that you don’t have to see the rest of that junk.”
Byrd’s awkward southpaw style and his ability to hit without being hit were the major reasons why no other top heavyweight had yet dared to face him. He had a 26-0 record and was – along with Ibeabuchi – habitually avoided. “He not only beats ’em, he embarrasses ’em,” said his attorney and agent John Hornewer. Byrd recalled how confident he was. “I was undefeated, I was on my way to the title. I thought I was the man, untouchable. I thought, You can’t whup me! I don’t care! Bring me the best heavyweight! Nobody can whup me! When the fight was made I told [ESPN analyst] Max Kellerman: ‘He ain’t gonna touch me, he’s big and clumsy and slow just like the rest of them!’”
As the fight drew closer, Ibeabuchi caused bemusement at the traditional “fighter meeting” conducted by HBO. “Ike’s behavior was very odd,” Eric Bottjer – another Kushner employee – said. “Larry Merchant and Jim Lampley were there. I was there. Ike walked in wearing sunglasses and a cowboy hat and sat down. The first question was, ‘Ike, we understand you were cut during training, we wanted to know did this affect your preparation in any way?’ Ike said nothing and just sat there for, I don’t know, 10 seconds. It may not sound like a long time but when you’re in a room full of people waiting for an answer it’s an eternity. Finally in a very lispy, high-pitched voice he said: ‘What cut?’ That pretty much ended the interview. They normally last 30 minutes or so. I was checking the time and after only about 13 minutes Jim politely ended it. When Ike left, Jim looked at me and said, ‘That man’s crazy.’ Which he was.”
Another meeting served to antagonise Bill Benton, adding to the siege mentality around the fighter. “All the guys from HBO were there and everyone was talking like Byrd had already won the fight,” Benton remembered. “I said, ‘You know what guys, I don’t think I should be here. I represent Ike Ibeabuchi and you guys are talking like he’s already lost. I don’t know how much you know about boxing but evidently it isn’t very much. Ike’s gonna knock him out; Byrd’s too open to get hit’. They all just chuckled.”
Ibeabuchi picked up on Benton’s sour mood. “Ike said to me: ‘What’s wrong? Are you worried?’ I said, ‘Ike, I worry about every fight.’ He looked at me and said: ‘I’ve already fought this fight three times [in my head] and I won all three times. I’m gonna knock the guy out.’ I replied: ‘I’m glad you’ve got the security of a positive mind.’”
In his dressing room before the fight on Saturday night, however, Ibeabuchi’s mind did not seem positive, settled, or secure. In fact, just as he was expected to enter the ring he informed his team he would be staying put – unless he was brought a Snickers bar.
“I didn’t see the incident but I was told later that Ike refused to go in the ring until he had a Snickers,” Bottjer confirmed. “I understand that [Ike’s manager] Steve Munisteri had to go find a Snickers and then everyone had to wait for Ike to eat it.”
Ike then ate the Snickers bar, and the fight was on.