Chris Byrd Interview: The Former Two-Time Heavyweight Champ Talks About “The Byrd’s Eye View”
By James Slater — Former WBO and IBF heavyweight champ Chris Byrd, a slick stylist who recently hung up the gloves on an illustrious yet at times unappreciated career, feels he and many of his fellow fighters have a pretty tough time of it when it comes to getting a fair shake from today’s boxing commentators.
“Rapid Fire,” now aged 42 and leaving the game with a 41-5-1(22) record in early 2009, wants to give the fans and the sport a new-look boxing show. Set to be unleashed on the web (as well as on You Tube and a number of other internet outlets) this month, “The Byrd’s Eye View” promises to pull no punches. Tired of the often negative attitude a number of the current well known crop of T.V commentators have, and as weary of their on-air criticism (often from people who, as Chris points out, have never ever boxed; HBO legend Larry Merchant being at the top of his hit list!), the southpaw is looking forward to letting people more qualified to call a fight do the talking.
Along with his own, in-the-firing-line-acquired knowledge of the fight game, Byrd will have a number of fellow pros, both active and retired, assisting him to give it real to the fans. Byrd’s show will consist of pre-recorded shows and, later on, live shows that take in big fights – with shows planned for Las Vegas and, next year, London.
Byrd, who watches as much boxing as he can (as he always has done), says he grew tired of the often downbeat, negative attitude of a number of today’s mike holders; people in the privileged position of being heard in the living rooms of millions of fight fans.
“In boxing, quite often these days, if a boxer loses once, he’s written off,” Byrd says thoughtfully.
“Me myself, for example, after I was stopped by Ike [Ibeabuchi], Larry Merchant said live on air that I was less than a man, that I was whingeing and whining to the referee (after being decked by an hellacious shot in the 5th-round). Granted, this was probably the worst example of bad commentary, from a person who has never been in the ring in his life, but what Larry said was terrible. I was out of it after that shot, man! But millions of people heard what he said and many of them listened to him and believed him.
“The general fans need to know what a fighter goes through, and on the show, we will tell them. For instance, when a guy goes into a fight whilst carrying an injury – which happened to me a few times – and then he loses, who believes him when he talks about the injury later? Nobody. But many times, many times, a fighter has to go ahead with a fight when injured, and there can be many reason why he has to do this. All things like this, and many other controversial issues, we will address and discuss on the show. It will be groundbreaking.”
Byrd, who “never had a job my whole life, outside of boxing,” was especially annoyed, perhaps more so exasperated by, the U.S TV coverage afforded the recent Olympics – the boxing coverage anyway.
“The Olympics has always been a special, precious thing for me and my family. We always watched and we always will. But this time, the boxing coverage was just crazy. They had a panel of four people covering the fights, but not one single former Olympic boxer was on the panel. Are you serious! That was just disrespectful for the Olympians who were boxing. There was no-one calling the fights who could understand that Olympic experience, who had felt it themselves. My story began in the ’92 games, when I won a silver medal. Over in the U.K, you guys had Lennox [Lewis] Amir Khan and Richie Woodhall calling the fights. That’s what I’m talking about, three Olympic medallists; guys who could understand and break down the scoring system. We need to have real Olympic boxers calling the bouts.”
Byrd’s new show promises to have retired greats, active champions and up-and-comers breaking down the live action, as well as discussing a variety of topics. It really should be quite a show. Byrd’s own, quite amazing career is an interesting story all by itself, however. Never a “real” heavyweight, and never a fighter who could be called a puncher, Byrd, who captured his Olympic medal as a middleweight and who turned pro, in January of 1993, as a 169-pounder, did things the hard way. He wanted it no other way.
“My mindset right from the start was to face the best fighters I could and to take the biggest challenges. That was just the way I was taught and brought up by my dad. Certain fighters, and it’s always been this way, have opted to duck certain fighters they thought they couldn’t beat. But me, I had to face everyone, and avoid nobody. I was never a heavyweight, I ate my way up. Sometimes, as a result, I never looked in great shape, with a little bit of a belly, but I still had my skill set, my speed and my boxing brain. I may never have had any punching power, but I didn’t care who you were – if you couldn’t beat me inside 12-rounds, I’d out-box you and defeat you.”
After winning a couple of fights whilst tipping-in at well below the 200-pound mark, Byrd bulked up and joined boxing’s glamour division in the mid-’90s, beating the likes of Phil Jackson, Lionel Butler (a rare Byrd stoppage win, a TKO in the 8th) Levi Billups and Bert Cooper. Then, in early ’99, after having called out heavyweight king Lennox Lewis (“I always wanted to fight Lennox. I called him out when I was 15-0!”), Byrd suffered his first loss, being crushed by the who-knows-how-good-he-could-have-been, soon to go crazy Ike Ibeabuchi.
“It’s interesting, but at that time, I was having a hard time getting the top heavyweights to fight me. I had the division on lockdown. Big guys wouldn’t even spar me in the gym. I couldn’t believe it, I thought, ‘you’re avoiding me!?’ Even the loss to Ike (Byrd constantly refers to the wickedly powerful Nigerian who went to prison soon after his 5th-round win by his Christian name only), most people thought it was just a fluke.”
Rebounding from the loss to Ike, a 21-1 Byrd bounced back with a handful of so-so wins, before scoring what today is considered a huge upset: the 9th-round corner retirement win over future heavyweight king and almost certain future Hall of Famer Vitali Klitschko.
“All of a sudden, the heavyweight division had big, big guys. Before the 2000s, the guys were around 220 to 230, now all of a sudden they were up to 250 and 260, and they could fight. It had never been like that before in history. But I still wanted to fight the best heavyweights, no matter how big they were. The writer Michael Katz wrote an article on me, where he wrote that each time I fought, I was walking a tightrope; where the other guy, the real heavyweight, had to just nail me with one shot and have a chance at ending it, whereas I had to go the full 12-rounds and box my way to victory. The fight with Vitali, I took on a week’s notice. It was tough, fighting a guy so big, and then his brother in the next fight, but I feared no-one. I took pride in making a guy miss and then countering with ten or fifteen punches (Byrd’s fast combos earning him his “Rapid Fire” nickname). As I said, over 12-rounds, I was hard to beat.”
Byrd’s win over “Dr. Iron Fist” was overshadowed by the fact that Vitali “quit” (the aforementioned Merchant again proving very critical, of the giant from Ukraine this time), and Chris was pounded by a revenge-hungry Wladimir in his next bout, losing a 12-round decision, being decked twice along the way in Germany. But despite losing the WBO crown he had held for a little over six months, Byrd’s time as a heavyweight ruler was far from over. A fine, August 2001 win over the lethal-hitting David Tua earned the Flint lefty a second title shot.
“The win over David Tua has to rank as my best win. That victory got me the [IBF] mandatory for Lennox Lewis. Lennox had just beaten Tua, and now I had beaten him. But Lennox didn’t want any part of me. He gave away his title rather than fight me. No way would I ever give away my belt, that’s what we fighters work for and are identified by, the belts we win. I like Lennox, but, oh, did he badmouth me! But it was kind of funny, because of the way he badmouthed me. He said I was too small and not a real heavyweight. He said I couldn’t punch. That being the case, he should’ve definitely fought me then! It should have been an easy fight for him (laughs). But my team and I, we soon heard the whispers coming from his camp. They didn’t want any part of this kid. Emanuel Steward knows it, they all know it. Of course, they’ll deny it till the day they die. It was the same with James Toney and with Roy Jones, who didn’t want to risk it with me. I’m through putting it out there, they all know the truth.”
Instead of landing his dream fight with Lewis, Byrd bagged a fight with a faded yet still well respected and hugely popular Evander Holyfield. Byrd scored a wide 12-round win in December of 2002 to take Lennox’s vacated strap.
“Holyfield, he didn’t want to fight me either, but he had nowhere else to go. I was ranked at number-one, he was at number-two. He was a smallish guy like myself – as a matter of fact, seeing Evander do so well as a heavyweight in the mid-1990’s inspired me. After Holyfield, all the really big guys came in. I just wanted all the major challenges.”
Now a two-time heavyweight titlist, Byrd got busy defending his IBF crown. Wins over Fres Oquendo, Jameel McCline (all 270-pounds of him!), DaVarryl Williamson (“one of the most powerful fighters I ever met; his right hand was unbelievably powerful!”) and a draw against Andrew Golota saw Byrd hold onto his title, before he ran into “Dr. Steel Hammer” for a second time.
“Oh, wow, fighting Wladimir, it was like a magnet versus metal! It just wasn’t my night. It was such a big event, I ran down the catwalk and stood right in the middle of the ring trying to stare him out. I never do that! Normally, I look down, maintain my composure and then box. But I tried to be a slugger. I tried to knock him out! That was just foolish of me. He’s a tough guy, who has power and who uses his height and reach very well.”
Though he carried on and engaged in further big fights, Byrd’s glory years had passed. A win over the gifted Alexander Povetkin, who had captured an Olympic gold at the 2004 games and was now 13-0 as a pro, might have earned Byrd, by now aged 37 and sporting a 40-3-1 ledger, a second crack at Wladimir, but the young Russian instead scored an 11th-round TKO (Byrd entered the fight with injured ribs, a disability he kept secret. Of course, as he’s already explained, nobody believed the vanquished fighter when he revealed this later!)
A subsequent drop down to light-heavyweight resulted in a heavy loss to Shaun George (“I lost the weight way too fast. I wanted to show that I was really a light-heavyweight, not a heavyweight.”) Byrd showed his usual guts and courage in rising from a 1st-round knockdown, one that badly dislocated his shoulder leaving him in tremendous pain, only to be TKO’d in the 9th. While a final ring appearance saw Byrd go out a winner up at cruiserweight, with “Rapid Fire” hammering out a 4th-round TKO over a 4-3 fighter in March of 2009.
But Byrd is about to fly high again – on his tremendously intriguing-sounding new web show.
“There will be questions asked that have never been asked,” Chris says tantalisingly. “The show will allow the fans to get the real fighter’s perspective on so many topics: the business side of boxing, tales from being in camp, and what it’s really like to live the life of a fighter. I really want the viewers to understand what we go through. This show will cut out all the crap.”
“The Byrd’s Eye View” should be some experience!