By Tim Graham
Special to ESPN.com
Editor's Note: The Nevada Board of Parole Commissioners has denied Ike Ibeabuchi's early release in a decision announced Aug. 24. He isn't eligible for parole until December of 2007 when Ibeabuchi will be 34 years old.
LOVELOCK, Nev. -- The heavyweight landscape is no different than the dusty and desolate drive along Interstate 80 through the northern Nevada desert.
Scrub brush is the most common life form. Chunks of blown-out tires collect on the shoulder. Glitz along the roadside is just debris and shattered glass. Mirages prove to be nothing more than hot air.
Ike Ibeabuchi comprehends the analogies well.
The hulking Nigerian was once a fearsome contender for the heavyweight title. Now, he helplessly surveys that barren panorama every day from the confines of chain link, barbed wire and bulletproof glass.
He dreams of the day he can enliven the heavyweight division again, but not until Nevada prison officials let him leave Lovelock Correctional Center, the remote desert outpost where he has been serving five to 30 years for battery and sexual assault.
"They should give me the opportunity to define myself," Ibeabuchi says one summer morning. His Nigerian accent has subsided, but still reminds one he's many miles from home.
"Boxing is like life to me. It makes me a better person. It makes me proud of my ability, my sense of organization, my sense of being a human being.
"Boxing makes me a warrior. I strategize out everything in line, and then I execute my plan over another man. Nothing else is like that. You go to church and get on your knees to pray, but God determines the final action. In boxing, you get out exactly what you put in. It makes you feel like a God, pure."
Ibeabuchi knows he could be a factor in the division even though he hasn't competed since knocking out current IBF champ Chris Byrd 5½ years ago. After all, Mike Tyson missed nearly four years and returned from a rape conviction to win a pair of world titles.
Some boxing experts claim Ibeabuchi is still the world's most dangerous heavyweight, an unbeaten phenom who handled heavy-fisted sluggers and slick boxers alike but often lost battles with his own emotional volatility. There was the teenage boy he nearly killed, the demons he and his mother were convinced they saw, the additional accusations of previous sex crimes.
He's dead to the boxing world even though he's only 31 years old. Everybody -- those who worked for him, made money off him and cheered for him -- stopped checking up on him. They wrote him off, but they might be surprised to discover Ibeabuchi is only one step away from leaving prison and fighting again.
"I refuse to be forgotten," Ibeabuchi says. "I refuse to be denied. I refuse to be deprived. I'm ready to get back what is mine."
Ibeabuchi's parole hearing was Monday. Earlier this year, his release date was moved up several months to Dec. 12 when he was credited with 200 days of time served while awaiting trial. There already have been preliminary talks of applying for a work furlough to let Ibeabuchi fight in the fall if parole is granted.
The most significant boost to Ibeabuchi's cause, however, could be that Sig Rogich has taken an interest in Ibeabuchi, and is expected to be his manager. A Las Vegas ad agency executive and crisis-control specialist, Rogich worked for and advised the last three Republican presidents and is a heavy party contributor.
He also helped Gov. Kenny Guinn get elected in 1998. The seven members of the Nevada Board of Parole Commissioners, the group that will decide whether Ibeabuchi leaves prison, are gubernatorial appointees.
"I don't think my involvement plays a big role," says Rogich, who helped Mike Tyson regain his Nevada boxing license after the infamous Evander Holyfield ear-biting episode. "The parole board will look at him and maybe say that it's good to see he's got a good potential business relationship waiting for him and not someone who is going to take advantage of him.
"I don't think parole boards look at who he's associated with. The doctors and wardens will determine what type of person he has been."
That will be the hardest part of all.
Inmate No. 71979
The Lovelock Correctional Center's visiting area is packed on a blast-furnace-hot summer Sunday. Wives, children, parents and buddies gather to lift spirits. As Ibeabuchi's visitor that morning, I wait patiently, left to wonder what manner of savage or man will emerge once the long-forgotten fighter gets patted down and walks through the security entrance.
Will he be the gracious gentleman many insist he is? Will the guards keep him shackled like a captive Chewbacca? What kind of shape will this heavyweight hopeful carry on his once-formidable frame?
After nearly an hour, Inmate No. 71979 arrives. He has a warm smile on his face, and while he might be a few pounds overweight, he wears it well. He appears at ease with himself, and as he strolls into the visiting area the other inmates begin to nudge their guests and point at the man who used to be ranked No. 2 in the world.
"Sorry you had to sit here so long," he says after a surprisingly gentle handshake. "I was working out, and I always wear my headphones. I didn't hear them announce I had somebody here."
Ibeabuchi looks much different than the bloated defendant who received his sentence in January 2002. Some claimed he was topping the scales at more than 300 pounds from years of inactivity. Not even close.
He says he weighs 260, merely 13 pounds more than his optimal weight. It's hard to tell for sure how trim he is through blue jeans and a dark blue, long-sleeved work shirt that barely contains his broad shoulders. But he looks healthy. He says he works out at least once a day, occasionally three times. He runs. He shadowboxes. He takes his vitamins.
"I'm like a new car that's been parked," Ibeabuchi says. "I might not be the latest model, but my engine is still fully intact."
He has a scraggly goatee and long, straightened hair that turns curly again at his neckline. The desert sun has noticeably darkened his skin, the tan lines from his wristwatch revealing a far lighter shade.
"I'm grateful I've spent this time here," Ibeabuchi says. "I'm ready to put the world on my shoulders. ... I appreciate the serenity, the calm I acquired in prison. If not for the stain on my name, there's nothing wrong with taking a five-year break, especially when people in boxing didn't appreciate my efforts then."
Ibeabuchi's demeanor is an eerie mix of intensity and charm. He slips into his notoriously unsettling, faraway stare when he speaks of matters that stoke his passions. He flashes a disarming cherub's grin when he's not taking himself so seriously, "Oh, Lord have mercy" his lighthearted refrain.
Mercy, however, is something Ibeabuchi knew little about before prison.
Inside the ring, he was unforgiving. Outside of it, he was despicable.
Ibeabuchi planned on joining the Nigerian military before he witnessed a life-altering event: Buster Douglas knocking out Mike Tyson in 1990. Ibeabuchi took up boxing, twice beating countryman and eventual 1996 bronze medalist Duncan Dokiwari. He emigrated to the Dallas area with his mother in 1993, won the Dallas and Texas Golden Gloves tournaments in 1994 and turned pro.
He annihilated his opponents, compiling a 20-0 record with 15 knockouts.
"He went into the ring like a bull with steam coming out of his nostrils," says former HBO Sports executive Lou DiBella, who now works as a promoter. "It was vintage 1985, 1986, 1987 Mike Tyson."
Ibeabuchi easily dealt rising contender David Tua his first defeat in a blistering 12 rounds that broke the CompuBox heavyweight record with 1,730 punches thrown; Ibeabuchi threw 975 of them, the second-most tallied by a heavyweight. Ibeabuchi was even more impressive against Byrd, the best defensive heavyweight around, dropping him twice before the bout was stopped in the fifth round.
"I had rage when I fought Chris Byrd," Ibeabuchi says. "I was militant. I was hitting him to hurt him."
He had sullied two perfect records in the span of four fights, but those close to him knew he was doing a fine job of ruining his own career.
"He was the best heavyweight prospect I've ever seen," DiBella said. "He had a world of ferocity. He had hand speed. He had a chin.
"He had everything, but he didn't have himself. He was never mentally sound."
Ibeabuchi has come to admit he's a flawed human being. Five years in lockup have a way of eroding the vanity, the misdirected blame, the false justifications.
"I'm more humiliated than (concerned with) spending time in prison," Ibeabuchi says. "I have a moral standard. I'm not perfect. I'm a human being. I was the person preaching on TV and reciting passages from the Bible. But I was a hypocrite."
Rage was the common denominator in Ibeabuchi's pattern of outlandish, often criminal, behavior. It made him act irrationally, usually putting others' lives in grave danger. He has been accused of attempted rape, attempted suicide and attempted murder.
"He was seriously damaged emotional goods even before he exploded," HBO boxing analyst Larry Merchant says. "My belief, when he got locked up, was that boxing dodged another bullet."
Distraught over a perceived snub in the WBC rankings two months after he beat Tua, Ibeabuchi slammed his car into a concrete pillar on Interstate 35 north of Austin, Texas. With him was an ex-girlfriend's 15-year-old son.
The boy suffered "numerous injuries" from the accident "and will never walk normally again," according to the criminal complaint. Ibeabuchi was charged with kidnapping and attempted murder, but the courts concluded he was trying to commit suicide, and he was sentenced to 120 days after pleading guilty to false imprisonment. He paid a $500,000 civil settlement.
"It was a very frustrating case because what he did wasn't as clearly criminal as what I expected him to get involved with down the line," said District Attorney John Bradley, who prosecuted Ibeabuchi.
"I fully expected that his contact with the criminal justice system had not ended with our county. We weren't able to get him examined, but it sure seemed to me -- even if he was a heavyweight boxer looking at making millions of dollars -- that he should have been committed to a psychiatric community and treated."
That incident, Merchant says, "began to peel away the skin of the onion."
Ibeabuchi developed a new persona based on his nickname, "The President." At times when he was being churlish or refusing to complete a simple requirement such as attending a weigh-in, his handlers would appeal to The President's regal nature by convincing him it was the noble thing to do.
"There were times when he thought he was really a president," DiBella says. "He would get into these mental states where he insisted on people calling him The President. It was his alter ago, where 'I am The President,' not of the United States, but maybe the world."
Stories began to circulate that both Ibeabuchi and his mother both were seeing demons. Promoter Cedric Kushner says Ibeabuchi on two occasions had to be literally dragged onto airplanes before fights because of perceived demonic forces.
Then there was the time Ibeabuchi wielded a knife during a dinner meeting in New York to discuss a possible three-fight HBO deal.
"We were having a fine meal at a nice restaurant," Kushner says, "and mid-course Ike picked up a big carving knife, slammed it into the table and screamed 'They knew it! They knew it! The belts belong to me! Why don't they just give them back.'
"That was a peculiar experience," Kushner says. "That wasn't the type of conduct I expected to romance the guy from HBO. (Ibeabuchi) was like a Viking."
Three months after his decisive triumph over Byrd, Ibeabuchi had more trouble at an airport, and this time it wasn't the demons that refused to let him on board.
His flight out of Dallas-Fort Worth was overbooked, and he didn't take kindly to the news. As he stormed wildly through the terminal, police threatened him with pepper spray.
"You better shoot me," he replied. They sprayed him in the eyes and handcuffed him.
That wouldn't be the last time Ibeabuchi was pepper-sprayed. The next occasion would mark the stinging end of his freedom.
'My Little Secret'
Ibeabuchi never cared for the dating game.
"I feel women should bow to me," he says. "I have a great ego in going after women. I'm not a person to rape a woman because I'm of the belief she should want to be with me. If she doesn't want to be with me, I don't want to have sex with her."
He admits he has a weakness for prostitutes. They're easier to deal with than girlfriends. They're always willing, and they're disposable.
"I have had sex with escorts many times," he says. "It's no strings attached. I paid with checks and credit cards.
"It was a guilty pleasure. When we have secrets, God has a way of telling you 'I saw what you did.' I thought I could get away with it, but God had to make my little secret public."
In July 1999, he was staying at The Mirage Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas when he phoned Room Service -- not the folks who bring food to the door, but a local escort service that comes a-knockin' with something entirely different.
Ibeabuchi insists the argument was over the form of payment, that the dispatcher told him a personal check was OK. The 21-year-old woman said she was there to strip and nothing else. She claimed he attacked her in the walk-in closet after she demanded to be paid up front.
"He invites her up to his room and begins to get physical with her," says Christopher Lalli, a Clark County chief deputy district attorney. It got loud enough that people in the adjoining room notified hotel security.
"When they enter the room," Lalli says, "a woman, naked from the waist down, is running toward them. These are three strangers, and she ran right into their arms."
Ibeabuchi barricaded himself in the bathroom, and police discharged pepper spray under the door to coax his surrender.
"How can I have the audacity to rape someone I'm paying to have sex with?" Ibeabuchi asks. "In Nigeria, I wouldn't be in prison for what I did. The system here (in the U.S.) makes sure someone gets punished whenever a woman cries. This was a call girl, an escort."
Ibeabuchi's defense faced the further difficulty of the Clark County DA's reopening of a similar sexual assault allegation from eight months earlier that took place next door to The Mirage, at sister-property Treasure Island.
Still, he was released on bail and placed on house arrest -- able to train and fight again until his trial -- but he was remanded after two more sexual-assault allegations surfaced in Arizona.
"The troubling thing for us was this was not an isolated incident," Lalli says.
Lalli says the case against Ibeabuchi's crimes at The Mirage was solid. There was physical evidence, eyewitness testimony, a pattern of unacceptable behavior.
"It was evidence you don't have nine times out of 10 in these cases when you go to trial," Lalli says.
But Ibeabuchi was deemed incompetent to stand trial and was sent to a state facility for the mentally ill. Medical experts concluded he exhibited bipolar disorder, and a judge granted permission to force-medicate him. Eight months later, 2½ years after his arrest, he was ruled cogent enough to plea.
He entered an Alford plea, conceding the prosecution had enough evidence to convict him while not admitting guilt. Had he gone to trial and been found guilty of rape, he could have received 10 years to life in prison, but instead he got two to 10 years for battery with intent to commit a crime and three to 20 years for attempted sexual assault, to be served consecutively.
"We felt confident he was going to spend a good chunk of time in prison and then get kicked out of the country," Lalli says.
Ibeabuchi claims he now has a better understanding of what's right and what's wrong. He has had five years to contemplate his sins.
"I was getting away with it," Ibeabuchi says of his old sexual habits. "I thought call girls or escorts were prostitutes. I thought they were choosing to have sex with you for money. I have found I was in error, and now I'm making amends."
'A Scary, Scary Individual'
Many elements are in place for Ibeabuchi to be paroled. The board ruled favorably two years ago when he was up for consideration on his lesser charge.
By all accounts, he has been a model prisoner. He seems to have a positive relationship with the guards. He claims the only mark against him on his prison record is for making an unauthorized phone call.
He has received college credits in psychology, philosophy, business math, personal finance, English and computer technology. He says he hasn't needed to take any medication since he was sentenced in January 2002.
On June 22, Ibeabuchi faced a psychological review panel -- required for sexual offenders eligible for parole -- and was "not found to be a high risk to re-offend."
Ibeabuchi's public parole hearing was before three commissioners via video conference from Carson City. The victim had the right to testify. The decision will be made in a closed meeting and announced later.
Even if he's granted parole, Ibeabuchi will face another hurdle: As an immigrant convicted of a felony, he will face immediate deportation. Rogich is hopeful Ibeabuchi will be permitted to remain in the U.S., but concedes that luxury could be difficult given the Department of Homeland Security's restrictive guidelines.
Lalli expressed alarm at the prospect of Ibeabuchi's discharge from Lovelock.
"It scares me to death," Lalli says. "He is a scary, scary individual. The thought of him walking around on the street unsupervised is disconcerting."
Who's The Baddest?
The visitor asks Ibeabuchi if, after all these years of self-examination, he still possesses the rage that made him so ruthless in the ring.
"I have my rage still," Ibeabuchi replies, his chin still fixed toward the distance, but his eyes slowly shifting to the man across the table. "None of my fights will go as long as the number of years I spend in prison."
"I wouldn't want to be the first guy Ike fights when he gets out jail -- for a lot of reasons," said Ibeabuchi's former manager, Houston-based attorney Steve Munisteri. "A lot of pent-up frustration is going to come out in those gloves."
Ibeabuchi's goals seem quite lofty. They consist of unifying the world titles, beating the Klitschko brothers on consecutive nights, luring Lennox Lewis out of retirement and facing Tyson in the ultimate malfeasance matchup.
"My rap sheet is similar to Mike Tyson's rap sheet," Ibeabuchi says. "It would be the biggest fight of all time. People want to see who really is the baddest guy."
More immediately, if the parole board smiles upon him, Ibeabuchi's goal is to fight a top-15 contender.
How much can a 31-year-old, slightly overweight fighter, rebounding from a 5½-year layoff, truly accomplish?
"You never lose your power, and he never was beat up," Munisteri says. "If the heavyweight division remains in the state it is today and he gets himself in shape, who knows what might happen? Can a guy at 31, who's taken no abuse, do it? Yeah, it's possible."
And is he really 31? Dominican baseball players aren't the only athletes who lie about their age.
Merchant doesn't consider Ibeabuchi's age nearly as much as his psyche.
"He could go out there in two or three fights and think he's king of the world again," Merchant says. "But he's got to show that he can deal with success, that he can deal with what comes with winning fights. Can he handle the jungle that is boxing? Can he handle the money?"
Ibeabuchi guesses he lost around $80 million in purses while he was incarcerated. Munisteri ventures a career-earning estimate at closer to $500 million.
He'll never get that back, but as a curiosity in a sport desperate for box-office draws, he shouldn't have any difficulty making a nice living under boxing's big top.
"Long-term, I think he can be heavyweight champion of the world. He's very talented, very articulate and very intelligent," says Rogich, who likely will organize Ibeabuchi's affairs. "Short-term, he needs to make sure he has a long-term plan. He needs to make sure his life is on an even keel. I think we can get him there."
An Unbroken Spirit
Ibeabuchi slumps back into his chair and, again, stares silently into the distance. It's now late afternoon, and there's nothing left to talk about. The boxing, the crimes, the parole, the cell, the future, the past. It has all been covered.
Then, in a flash, he slaps his meaty hands on the table as an expression of excitement comes across his dark face. His eyes are still fixed dead ahead, and he speaks as though he were talking more to himself than to anyone else.
"People gotta get one thing straight: Because I'm locked up (they think) I'm dead and forgotten," Ibeabuchi says, his head starting to nod slightly. "But my spirit, my confidence and my faith are up. No matter how long they keep me here, that can't break my spirit.
"This is a mental fall that requires a mental rise. This is a test. This is nothing compared to what other great men have gone through. I'll pass this test."
Tim Graham covers boxing for The Buffalo News and is a contributor to ESPN.com.