Chris Byrd: An Appreciation
Now that the image of Chris Byrd’s one-sided loss to Wladimir Klitschko has faded from our memories a bit, it is my hope that the sight of him being counted out on the canvas in Mannheim, Germany will be replaced by the many other stellar moments of his career. Byrd is too good of a fighter and too good of a man to deserve anything less.
The likelihood of the former IBF heavyweight champion earning another title shot is very small. Byrd had a tough enough time getting fights when owned the belt. Now, that he has once again joined the ranks of challengers, he will be hard-pressed to find titleholders willing to risk their belts against him.
It is the story of Chris Byrd’s career. He is a fighter who has taken the hard road and never received his fully warranted due. His willingness to take the most challenging path in front of him was evident the moment he turned professional.
After winning a silver medal as a middleweight at the Summer Olympics in Barcelona in 1992, Byrd turned professional. The obvious choice would have been to stay at middleweight, where his punching power would have matched his speed. Instead, Byrd moved up to heavyweight for his third professional fight.
Despite a lack of punching power, he ripped through his first 26 opponents, making his often larger opponents look bad with slick moves and easily won rounds. Then in March of 1999, Byrd squared off against the also-undefeated Ike Ibeabuchi in Tacoma, Washington. The fact that Ibeabuchi had a two inch and 35 pound advantage was nothing new to Byrd. However, Ibeabuchi was no average heavyweight. Most boxing writers, including me, consider the hard-punching Nigerian to be one of the most talented heavyweights of the past ten years.
During the first few rounds, Byrd was able to employ his speed and round-winning punches, but in the third and fourth, Ibeabuchi landed several shots that sent Byrd into the ropes. In the fifth, he dropped Byrd twice and blasted him with a wicked left hook/right cross when the referee stopped the fight with one second left. Shortly after that bout, Ibeabuchi was convicted of attempted sexual assault and battery and sentenced to 30 years in prison. Had that not happened, the state of the heavyweight division would be much different today.
But it did, and Byrd continued to work his way through the murky heavyweight division. He rang off four straight victories and then went to Germany to face Vitali Klitschko. The 6’7” Vitali thoroughly dominated the fight, but Byrd caught a break when a shoulder injury forced Vitali to retire on his stool at the end of the ninth round. Six months later, Byrd found himself in the ring facing brother Wladimir for the WBO heavyweight title. The younger and equally sizable Wladimir used his seven inch reach advantage to keep Byrd at bay, sending him to the canvas in the ninth and eleventh rounds. When the final bell sounded, Wladimir had won at least ten rounds on all three judges’ scorecards.
Two devastating defeats can send many fighters to pugilistic purgatory, but Byrd has proven his mettle time and time again throughout his career. He bounced back with two easy wins before out pointing David Tua in an IBF heavyweight title eliminator bout in August of 2001. Only three people, Lennox Lewis, Ibeabuchi, and Byrd, have defeated the immensely powerful Tua.
With that win came a shot against Evander Holyfield for the IBF title. Byrd easily outpointed the aging four-time heavyweight champion, becoming only the second southpaw in history to earn a heavyweight title (Michael Moorer was the first).
For a fighter, winning a title should often mean big paydays and blockbuster fights. Unfortunately, while Byrd’s style is an athletic marvel, it does not produce the blood-and-guts knockout power that turns fighters into pay-per-view extravaganzas.
After his win over Holyfield in December of 2002, it took Byrd nine months to get another bout. His first title defense was an uninspiring decision over Fres Oquendo. The state of the heavyweight division only worsened with Lennox Lewis’s retirement in 2004. The situation became so bad that Don King signed Andrew Golota as Byrd’s next opponent to add some excitement to the sport. When the two fought in April of 2004, Byrd stood toe-to-toe with the Polish fighter and ended up with a disappointing draw. Boxing writers and fans once again complained about the poor state of the heavyweight division.
For his next bout, Byrd faced the 6’6”, 270-pound Jameel McCline, who decked Byrd in the second round. At the time, it seemed as if Byrd’s title would go to his much larger foe. However, Byrd showed why he was a champion and stuck and moved for the next ten rounds, eking out a split decision.
For the first time, his mental and physical toughness as a champion earned the appreciation of fans and sportswriters, but the big fights still were not available. So Byrd was forced to pass the time with a twelve-round decision over DaVarryl Williamson in October of last year.
Finally, he had no choice but to travel to Germany for a rematch with Wladimir. It was the best option available and a chance for Byrd to avenge his only redeemable loss.
The fact the Byrd could not beat Wladimir was not surprising. He is 6’7” with the devastating power and fast enough hands. To beat him, a fighter has to take an unbelievable amount of punishment to get inside. If that fighter does not have the knockout power to dispatch his opponent with a couple of well-placed shots, then Wladimir can neutralize him with a clinch before any damage is done.
Byrd could have spent the entire fight on the outside, simply staying away from Wladimir. Instead, he fought like a champion and tried to penetrate Wladimir’s attack. That six round fight showed the boxing world a great deal about Byrd’s heart, but unfortunately, considering his opponent, it was not enough.
If Byrd does not fight again, he should leave boxing with no regrets. By all accounts, he has a wonderful wife and family. For a light punching, blown-up middleweight, Byrd did wonders with his talent. He won a heavyweight title and successfully defended it four times. His only losses were to Ibeabuchi and Wladimir Klitschko, two of the top fighters of this heavyweight era who both had tremendous size and reach advantages over him. During his pugilistic journey, he beat Holyfield, Tua, and Vitali Klitschko.
When boxing fans lament over this lousy heavyweight era, and pour over its weak fighters, I hope they do not include Chris Byrd in their lists.