HOUSTON -- Muhammad Ali fought in the Astrodome years ago. So did Larry Holmes, another world heavyweight boxing champion.
Then there was the bizarre fight of last night. That's when another marquee battler, Houston Oilers defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan, threw his fist into the ring.
Ryan, though, didn't hit an opponent. He punched a fellow coach, offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride, on the left side of the face. During a game. During a shutout victory, 24-0, against the New York Jets. During the Oilers' record 11th consecutive victory. On what should have been a happy birthday for owner Bud Adams.
This, of course, was a most unusual, stunning way to storm into the NFL playoffs, into a bye week, in front of a national television audience and 61,040 customers. In knocking the Jets (8-8) out of the playoffs, the Oilers (12-4) almost KO'd each other.
This place isn't the House of Pain. It's the House Divided. Ryan-Gilbride testified just before halftime. Then, in the fourth quarter, two Oilers coaches got into a fight upstairs in the coaches' box and had to be separated.
"The only thing that might hold this team back is if the coaches kill each other," said Jets quarterback Boomer Esiason. "If they stay on the same team, they have a chance to go all the way."
The Ryan-Gilbride incident came in the final seconds of the first half, with Houston leading 14-0. After the Oilers got the ball back at their 33 with 37 seconds left, two pass plays were called. On the second, Jets end Marvin Washington sacked quarterback Cody Carlson and forced a fumble that Jets tackle Bill Pickel recovered.
Ryan objected to the play-calling and expressed his displeasure on the sideline after the turnover. Upon overhearing the criticism from nearby, Gilbride walked toward Ryan, spoke his mind and was met by a Ryan punch to the left ear. Other Oilers quickly stepped in and ended the one-blow bout.
"It's just a difference in coaching," Ryan said afterward. "It was in the heat of battle. That's all I've got to say."
Gilbride got a police escort out of the stadium soon after game's end and did not comment.
The ill will between the two isn't new. It's no secret that Ryan, in his first year with the Oilers, and Gilbride, in his fifth season here, haven't gotten along. One reason is that Ryan has often criticized the offense. When he joined the team, Ryan referred to the Oilers' Run-and-Shoot scheme as "Chuck and Duck."
As last night showed, those would be fighting words. In playing for pride and momentum into the playoffs and to continue a winning streak, the Oilers ended up evoking memory of such bickering successful baseball teams as the Oakland A's and the New York Yankees of the 1970s.
Damage control was strong and pervasive in the Oilers' locker room. Most coaches, including head coach Jack Pardee, and players wouldn't comment on the fights. Those who did said the problems would have no negative effect on the Oilers in the playoffs.
"Compared to all the other bad stuff that has happened to us this past year, this doesn't even register on the meter," said cornerback Cris Dishman. "There was the baby thing [tackle David Williams' pay was docked when he skipped a game to be with his wife during childbirth], and the Buffalo thing [blowing a 35-3 playoff lead last January], and then one of our guys [Jeff Alm] goes and kills himself.
"This isn't on the Richter scale. Fights happen. Families have disagreements."
Somewhat lost in the scuffle was another brilliant performance by the Oilers. Gary Wellman caught eight passes for 106 yards. Carlson passed for two touchdowns. Gary Brown gained 85 yards rushing and 43 receiving and scored twice and went over the 1,000-yard mark. The Oilers' defense had six sacks and tied a club record for most shutouts in a season, two.
The Oilers did all that against a team that had to win to earn a playoff berth. But because the Jets lost, Pittsburgh (9-7) qualified.
"We just had a great win," Pardee said. "I have no comment on that other stuff."