Why you should care
Because while sports brawling may be out of fashion, these moments still pack quite a punch.
Sports are a great way to teach team-building, coordination … and how to throw a vicious left hook. Competitive events tend to have a predictability to them, which is why it’s all the more shocking when a fight breaks out and disrupts the order. But every sport, from NASCAR to golf to hockey, has had infamous brawls.
While the tradition of taking rivalry too far may currently be out of style, thanks to athletes being what Benchclearing author Spike Vrusho calls “more fiscally minded,” it’s unlikely that the rock-’em-and-sock-’em days are gone for good. If history has anything to say about it, politically charged motivations and long-lived rivalries will forever add fuel to sporting fires.
Take a look at these throw-downs in sport, why they stand out and who really lost in each impassioned display of fisticuffs.
Cale Yarborough and the Allison Brothers, 1979
What happened: Drivers Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison’s cars collided multiple times and skidded off the track. Yarborough charged Donnie once he was free from his car, but Donnie’s brother Bobby was quicker and threw the first punch. Yarborough responded by throwing his helmet at Bobby, and they then proceeded to punch, kick and choke each other next to their cars.
Why it stands out: Cars are meant to fly in NASCAR, not fists. The fight was broadcast on CBS and proved more entertaining than watching the guys drive 500 miles. “Looking back now, I think it’s one of the biggest things that ever happened in the sport. It got people’s attention,” Yarborough later said.
The real losers: Richard Petty inherited the win (he’d been behind before the crash) but was totally eclipsed by the brawl. The drivers were fined $6,000.
Atlanta Braves vs. San Diego Padres, 1984
Why it happened: The sport’s as American as apple pie but can also turn as violent as a recess school fight. Most brawls in baseball are whipped up by a two-ingredient recipe: hitting batters with a pitch and trash talk. Braves pitcher Pascual Perez beaned the lead-off Padres batter, later claiming the pitch had slipped. The Padres retaliated by nailing Braves outfielder Dale Murphy and by trying to hit Perez every time he went up to bat. The benches cleared three times for all-out brawls.
Why this one stands out: Vrusho calls this one the “Ben-Hur of baseball brawls.” A whopping 13 people, including players, both managers and two replacement managers, were ejected. “I would think it was one of the stranger days I’ve ever seen, if not the strangest. It really set back the game,” said umpire crew chief John McSherry.
The real losers: Joe Torre, who compared Padres manager Dick Williams to Hitler after the game. The fans who were arrested for joining the fray. Those ’80s uniforms, from the typeface to the color schemes.
Malice at the Palace, 2004
Why it happened: They called foul. Indiana Pacer Ron Artest — who’s since changed his name to Metta World Peace — wasn’t so peaceful after he fouled Pistons center Ben Wallace and Wallace shoved him back, hard. A fan sent his drink-filled cup at Artest, who got testy and lunged into the stands to have a one-on-one with the spectator (though he mistakenly identified a more innocent man as the one deserving of his anger).
Why this one stands out: A free-for-all of epic proportions broke out, in the stands and on the court. The refs called the game, with 45.9 seconds still on the clock and the Pacers up 97–82. While both teams looked like they could make a big run in the playoffs that year, the Pacers were plagued by suspensions and negative press; they only just qualified for the playoffs, losing in the end … to the Pistons.
The real losers: Artest, who earned the title of longest nondrug-related suspension in NBA history (86 games; 73 in the regular season, 13 in the playoffs). In 2005, he asked to be traded.
Canada vs. USSR, World Junior Hockey Championships, 1987
Why it happened: The simple answer: two players. Everett Sanipass and Sergei Shesterikov collided, and then everyone became an enforcer — the rink descending into mad chaos with punches thrown between the teams. This fight had been years in the making, thanks to a Cold War chill that had settled on the ice.
Why this one stands out: “I’ve never seen this in international play,” announcer Don Wittman proclaimed. The lights were turned out on the arena, and the brawl lasted 20 minutes. Broken noses abounded. It was so bad that both teams were kicked out of their tournament that year.
The real losers: The referees, who were described as “wimpy” and derided for a lack of conflict-management skills.
Evander Holyfield vs. Mike Tyson, 1997
What happened: Having been rocked throughout the first three rounds of the fight, the Brooklyn native claimed he’d been head-butted by Holyfield, though a review of the incident determined that it wasn’t true. Tyson responded by biting his opponent’s ear. Tyson “was out of control at that time,” John McGran, author of World’s Greatest Sports Brawls, says, citing charges of violence against women, losing his manager and an end to his undefeated record.
Why this one stands out: He chomped on Holyfield’s ear twice — the second time tearing off a piece. While boxing might be the last place we’d expect a surprise brawl, Tyson made it happen.
The real losers: No one won in this exchange. Referee Mills Lane put the kibosh on the night, but a little too late. Tyson was disqualified and lost his boxing license for a while.