Former Heavyweight Champ Chris Byrd Sizes Up the Cruiserweight Tourney

At just 46 years of age, two-time former heavyweight champion Chris Byrd (pictured with Don King following his 2002 victory over Evander Holyfield) is a broken man.


“I’m paying a price for having fought as a heavyweight,” the 6-1½ Byrd, a silver medalist for the United States in the middleweight division at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, said from San Diego, where he now trains fighters. “I got nerve damage in my left foot. Had it for eight years. It flares up sometimes and burns like crazy. I just got my right hip replaced. I need my left hip replaced. I need both of my shoulders replaced. That’s the damage I took.

“I’m all broke up now. I can’t do nothin’. I go to the gym to train guys and I can’t even hold hand mitts. I just talk to them. They want my brain more than what’s left of my body. I guess I’m blessed in a sense. Yeah, it takes a toll on you, fighting all those years in the land of the giants, but at least I was slick enough to get away with my mind in good shape. I’ll take that tradeoff any day.”

Looking back on a career in which he earned more than $10 million in the ring, mostly against guys with considerable height, reach and weight advantages, the clever southpaw appropriately nicknamed “Rapid-Fire” readily acknowledges that he fought at least one, and maybe two or three weight classes above what he should have had he adhered to the natural dictates of his physical dimensions. But Byrd realizes why “small” heavyweights, once they outgrow the light heavyweight division, often choose to skip past the cruisers, where the limit is 200 pounds. It’s a matter of profitability and prestige, which are far more readily available to even fringe-contender heavyweights than to elite representatives of a bastardized weight class that didn’t even come into existence until 1979, and has generally been as disrespectfully treated as the proverbial rented mule or redheaded stepchild.

All of which is why Chris Byrd is one of the staunchest proponents of the eight-man cruiserweight tournament in something called the World Boxing Super Series, to be televised in America by Showtime, in which the oft-overlooked division (there also will be an eight-participant super middleweight tourney) will vie for $50 million in total prize money and, hopefully, the more equitable paydays and public recognition that it too long has been denied.

The names of most of the cruiserweight competitors might not be well known to anyone but boxing purists, at least on this side of the Atlantic Ocean, but Byrd is impressed by the depth and skills of the field, which includes Latvia’s Mairis Briedis (22-0, 18 KOs), U.S.-based Cuban defector Yunier Dorticos (21-0, 20 KOs), Russia’s Murat Gassiev (24-0, 17 KOs), Germany-based Latvian Marco Huck (40-4-1, 27 KOs), Russia’s Dimitry Kudryashov (21-1, 21 KOs), Ireland-based Cuban defector Mike Perez (22-2-1, 14 KOs), Ukraine’s Oleksandr Usyk (12-0, 10 KOs) and Poland’s Krzysztof Wlodarczyk (53-3-1, 37 KOs).

“The kid from Poland is really good,” Byrd said. “Usyk is an Olympic gold medalist. Perez is coming down from heavyweight, where he had some success. They got a lot to work with, as far as building the division up to where it should be. I hope so, because these guys are fighting for more than themselves, even if they don’t know it. They’re fighting to put their division on the map.”

It has been an uphill battle ever since a half-black, half-Native American from Montana, Marvin Camel, made history by becoming the first cruiserweight champion when he won the vacant WBC version of the then-190-pound title on a unanimous decision over Mate Parlov on March 30, 1980, at Las Vegas’ Caesars Palace. The two had fought to a controversial draw in their first go-round, on Dec. 8, 1979, in Parlov’s hometown of Split, Croatia, a bout most unbiased observers believed should have ended with Camel having his hand raised.

By consensus, the greatest cruiserweight ever remains Evander Holyfield, who became the undisputed king of the 190-pounders when he stopped Carlos De Leon in eight rounds on April 9, 1988, adding the Puerto Rican’s WBC belt to the WBA and IBF straps he already possessed. But Holyfield earned a relatively modest $300,000 for that victory, approximately 50 times less than the $15 million Mike Tyson made for dispatching Michael Spinks (whose consolation prize was a purse of $13.5 million) in 91 seconds in their heavyweight showdown just 10 weeks later. Holyfield’s subsequent entry into the heavyweight ranks set the template, or at least reinforced it, for so many other would-have, could-have, should-have cruiserweights who grasped the huge financial difference between being the wealthy owner of a factory and a blue-collar laborer in it. And Byrd, the youngest of eight children who grew up in the economically depressed town of Flint, Mich., wasn’t disposed to settle for scraps falling off the table of the heavyweight feast.

“I would never have fought at heavyweight if cruiserweight was a more popular and good-paying division. I would have been cool with going to and staying at cruiserweight,” said Byrd, a three-time U.S. amateur national champion who scaled 169 pounds, just one more than the super middleweight limit, for his pro debut, a six-round unanimous decision over Gary Smith on Jan. 28, 1993. “But I had to go to heavyweight because there was nothing there for me. I wasn’t going to get paid right and I wasn’t going to get recognized.

“You know, I used to spar with Steve Cunningham, who’s a two-time cruiserweight champion. We must have sparred a thousand rounds. Let me tell you, Steve can fight. He was long, he was fast and he had crazy skills. He showed me that the cruiserweights ain’tno joke. But even Steve, who had a family to support like I did (Chris and wife Tracy have three children), felt the need to dabble at heavyweight. He was getting $250,000 for title defenses and was seeing some heavyweights at or near the top level, who weren’t as good a fighter as he was, getting $2.5 million to $10 million.

“Steve and I would go places together sometimes, boxing places, where you’d think people would know who was who and what was what. But everyone would come up to me and not him. When you put in all that time becoming a world champion, you want to get more of a reward for the fruit of your labors.

“I remember when Steve met Floyd Mayweather and he had to introduce himself. Floyd didn’t have any idea who he was. Unbelievable.”

But after twice claiming heavyweight titles, and going 5-2-1 in bouts with championships on the line (in which he was outweighed by an average 24.9 pounds, with the largest disparity being 56 pounds), Byrd came to the realization that even the most daring and resourceful of sparrows can’t hope to fly with condors past a point when the risk far exceeds the reward.  After being stopped in 11 rounds by Russia’s Alexander Povetkin (weight gap: 25 pounds) in an IBF eliminator on Oct. 27, 2007, Byrd announced his next bout would be at light heavyweight, necessitating the drastic paring of almost 37 pounds.

“I should have gone to cruiserweight first and then, if I wanted to, continue working my weight down to light heavy,” Byrd said. “I lost all that weight in five weeks! I was at the Bernard Hopkins-Joe Calzaghe fight, which was five weeks before my fight with Shaun George, and I was already on weight (he came in at 174). I became obsessed – too much so – with making weight. I was running 14 or 15 miles a day. Trained all the time. It was just nuts. And I did it all on my own, without a personal trainer.”

The outcome, George winning on a ninth-round TKO, was not really a shocker given the circumstances. Byrd would fight just once more – as a cruiserweight, which might have been his best course of action all along — before retiring, stopping Matthias Sandow on March 21, 2009, in Stuttgart, Germany. He now says he hopes the WBSS proves an aesthetic and financial boost for fighters who deserve better than what those consigned to the cruiserweight netherworld have too long become accustomed.

“People will get to see the best cruiserweights and, hopefully, they’ll be treated as well as anybody in any division,” Byrd said. “I don’t understand and never did why the cruiserweights get so little attention. That is a very athletic division. People are going to see what so many of us in the boxing business already know. This tournament format is a smart idea. I’m not sure how good it’ll be for Showtime, but for the cruiserweights who will be competing, oh, man, they got to be in heaven.

“In the past I’d hear people say, `Oh, the cruiserweights can’t fight. If they could, they’d be heavyweights.’ And I’m like, `Are you for real?’ That kind of attitude always surprised me.

“I laugh when I see guys in lower weight classes arguing over three or four pounds. Try regularly giving away four or five inches in height and reach and 30 or 40 pounds in weight. At heavyweight, you’re more worried about power than speed. At cruiserweight, you got to be worried about both.”

Byrd said he is particularly interested in seeing how Perez, who has fought only once as a cruiser, a first-round knockout of Viktor Biscak on June 10 of this year which ended a layoff of 25 months and during which he shed 42 pounds, will handle the heavyweight-to-cruiserweight transition. Not only that, but Perez still might be dealing with the mental effects of his 10-round unanimous decision over Russia’s MagomedAbdusalamov on Nov. 2, 2013, in the Madison Square Garden Theater. Abdusalamov, a married father of three, collapsed shortly after the bout and had to undergo emergency surgery at a New York hospital to remove a blood clot on his brain. He is still incapable of walking, talking or caring for himself.

“I would think he’s still haunted by what happened to Abdusalamov,” Byrd said of Perez, who would seem to have enough concerns in a strictly boxing sense.

“How he does depends on whether he lost all that weight the right way, over time, and his mindset is not that he’s going to be facing slower, plodding heavyweights,” Byrd said. “If he thinks, `I’m lighter now, I’ll be quicker than these other guys,’ he’ll be in for a surprise. I don’t care about sparring; you can spar small guys all day long, but it’s different getting in the ring with cruiserweights who are among the best in the world. They’ll be coming at him completely different, and Perez could be in for a rude awakening. All those guys in the tournament move good and they can punch like heavyweights.

“I hope Perez adjusts well, but if he goes in there with the idea that he’s used to being in there with really big guys, so he ought to dominate, he’s got another thing coming.”

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