Chris Byrd - The Real “Real Deal”?
26.07.05 - By Lee Hayes: I remember back in the mid-80's when I first started hearing buzz about a promising young light heavyweight amateur named Evander Holyfield. The first thing that struck me was his name, which I immediately fell in love with. The second was after I saw him fight. I loved his talent, and his aggression. He seemed to fight as if he had no fear. I remember when Main Events put Evander in against Lionel Byarm for his first professional fight. Byarm was 9-1-2 at the time. The word on the street was that Evander was being matched way too difficult so early. I had to agree. How many fighters face opponents with that type of record in their first pro fight?
Article posted on 26.07.2005
Lou Duva insisted that he knew what he was doing, and that his kid Holyfield was not only ready for anybody, but that he would be fighting for the world heavyweight championship one day. Larry Holmes was uncontested heavyweight champion at the time - Holyfield was 6'2 177 lbs- and one couldn’t help but wonder if Lou had been nipping in the bottle previous to making his business decisions.
That was to be an ongoing theme through out Holyfield’s career. “You are too small”, “you won’t be able to take a punch of a real heavyweight” and “you won’t punch hard enough to knock out true heavyweights”. Holyfield for his part, would have none of it. He continued training, getting bigger and better, and continued blasting out every opponent they put in front of him. He unified the Cruiserweight division by 1988, and again, Main Events and Lou Duva insisted that their guy Holyfield was going to be heavyweight champion of the world. Of course, by this time, the world had a new dominant heavyweight in Michael Gerard Tyson. Probably, in his prime, the most fearsome fighter to ever walk the planet. Unlike when Holyfield first made the comments, it wasn’t just ridiculous, it had now become down right absurd!
Still, in mid-1988 Holyfield insisted on his goal and began his journey with the big boys. He continued KO’ing opponent after opponent, only to hear the same things over and over again, “you’re too small”, “Tyson will kill you!”. In all seriousness, he should have been intimidated. Tyson had just annihilated Michael Spinks, who had come up from light heavyweight to beat Larry Holmes twice for his straps. It had taken Tyson 91 seconds to finish the job, and it was easy to see Evander in those same circumstances at the time.
Well, things change, and there are never any guarantees in life, let alone the sport of boxing. Tyson went on to get knocked out by Buster Douglas (which was to be a tune up for Tyson before facing his mandatory, Evander Holyfield) and Holyfield ended up fighting Buster for the title. He was an under dog, because again, he was just too small. The “Real Deal” won by KO in the third round, with a perfect counter right hand over a lazy wide uppercut, from a bigger...allegedly “better” man.
When Holyfield fought George Foreman, after the fight Foreman would say, “He’s got no power. I don’t think very much of him”. He couldn’t get any respect no matter what he did.
Eventually new young fighters would come on the scene, in what would end up being the most talented heavyweight generation ever, outside of the 70's and early 80's.
In late 1990, Holyfield would get his chance to prove himself against undefeated super star Riddick Bowe. The same chants started all over again, “you’re too small!”. On late night TV show, Arsenio Hall, Hall had both Bowe and Holyfield as guests, and Bowe kept repeating the same saying over and over, “a good big man always beats a good small man”. It seemed to really irk Evander. We all know how the fight went, and it seemed that Bowe’s physical style and size indeed gave him an advantage, although Holyfield showed pure heart through out as he tried his best to beat Riddick. It was a great fight, but in the end, it seemed that a good big man could beat a good small man. Holyfield would win his titles back by majority decision against Bowe a couple of years later, and go on to have a hall of fame career. Still, it is notable that the tall, larger fighters he faced always seemed to give him troubles. Lennox Lewis did, and Bowe stopped him in their rubber match. The truth is that Holyfield really was better than most imagined. He wasn’t just a “good small fighter”, he was a great one. That’s why he was able to pull through so many matches where he seemed to be physically handicapped. It also didn’t hurt that he would eventually grow in to a fully muscular heavyweight frame, as most would agree that 6'3, 217lbs is not a small man (Muhammad Ali weighted similar during his prime). It did get me to thinking however, how Chris Byrd fits the mold that was painted for Evander, much more accurately than Holyfield himself.
Byrd was an accomplished amateur. He finished as an amateur with a record of 290-25, which he topped off with an Olympic silver medal in the super middleweight division. If someone had told you back then, that Byrd had intentions and goals to go all the way from Super Middleweight to win a Heavyweight title belt, you would have thought he was crazier than Duva appeared to be nearly a decade earlier. Yet relatively early in Chris’s career, his team announced their intentions to do just that. You could hear the laughter miles away. Byrd wasn’t nearly a muscular or big as Holyfield, he was starting out at an even lower weight, and unlike Evander, even at an early stage it was obvious that Chris didn’t have a set of “heavy hands”. To add to the lack of realism, in 1994, when Byrd finally moved up the 200+ division, the dominant heavyweights were Riddick Bowe, Evander Holyfield, Mike Tyson, Lennox Lewis, Ray Mercer, Michael Moorer, Donovan “Razor” Ruddock and Tommy Morrison. All heavy handed punchers. This was not a place for a guy who started out his professional career at 169lbs.
Still, even with those imposing objects in his way, Team Byrd insisted that it could be done. Chris said his body could put on the required weight, and that he felt his superior, almost “uncanny” defense would be enough to get him through the trials. It did seem that defense was a lost art, and watching Byrd on his way up was like watching a Heavyweight Pernell Whitaker. Whitaker may have been the best defensive fighter out side of Willie Pep to ever put on the gloves. The sterling compliment did not go wasted on Chris.
Byrd moved rather silently up the rankings of the division, beating the usual journeyman and trial horses. He put on a clinic against the always tough Ross Puritty. He had his way with Bert Cooper, and stopped the chinless adonis, Jimmy Thunder. In fact, what is little known is that Byrd had been building up his confidence to take heavyweight punches, and began sitting in the corner and making fighters miss while countering them all night long. He had decided that not only could he make them miss, but even if he didn’t, “so what”? He could take it and give it back just as well. That all changed in March of 1993 when he faced little known Nigerian Heavyweight prospect Ike Ibeabuchi. At the time, we knew relatively little about Ike. After the fight, we’d know plenty. He walked right through Byrd as the HBO team watched on. It had seemed that HBO’s broadcast team had taken a disliking to Byrd and his style for years already, particularly Larry Merchant. Merchant was merciless after the fight, claiming that Byrd was “less than a man”. Merchant was ignorant to the fact that Ibeabuchi had separated four of Byrd’s ribs early in the fight. Chris would not back down. Unfortunately, he stuck with the style that had suited him well up until then, and he tried to trade with the hulking Nigerian. Even when Byrd finally was knocked down in the fifth round by a wickedly perfect left hook/uppercut, Byrd immediately got up and continued attempting to fight. It was already too late and Ike walked over him. It’s notable that even after facing what many believed to be the future of the heavyweight division, Byrd was still on his feet, protesting the stoppage, separated ribs and all. Luckily, he would learn from this lesson. He would no longer stand and trade with a bigger stronger heavyweight, and from that day on for the next few years, Byrd would stand and trade less, and use the center of the ring more, like a slick boxer is suppose to. The change suited Byrd well. He went four straight fights without any setbacks, all by stoppage. Impressive for a guy so small, that had just been lambasted by a “real heavyweight puncher” and had to put up with so much garbage from his detractors.
By this time, the heavyweight division was again being filled with notable hopefuls and up and comers. There was Shannon Briggs, Andrew Golota, David Tua, Hasim Rahman, Danell Nicholson, Obed Sullivan, Corrie Sanders, and two gigantic cartoon character looking muscle men from the Ukraine by the name of Klitschko on the horizons.
The older Klitschko brother, Vitali, had already won the lightly regarded WBO heavyweight title belt, and was suppose to be facing off against Donovan “Razor” Ruddock, on April Fools Day, 2000. Ruddock had to pull out of the fight for a case of “hepatitis”, but what’s not generally known is that Ruddock actually pulled out of the fight because he had a botched surgery performed to reverse an earlier vasectomy. Ruddock’s “loss” became Chris Byrd’s gain. It’s become folklore that Byrd took the fight on two weeks notice, however Byrd swears that it was seven days. He has also complained that many things mysteriously went wrong when he got to Germany, although there have been rumors, few have been confirmed. The facts are that when he arrived, his training equipment did not for days. He had no way to properly prepare for the week he was there. He arrived in Germany weighing 218lbs, and by fight night he was 210, because of a “severe case of diarrhea” caused by unknown reasons. Probably just the change in diet. He also discovered upon arriving at the arena that he would be fighting in a relative phone book. Clearly set up to give an advantage to the power punching Klitshcko, who’s record was 27-0 (27) at the time.
Entering the ring on fight night, laughter could be heard amongst the classless spectators, who thought Byrd’s size was hilarious. What followed would wipe the smug grins off of their face. Vitali entered the ring to what Jim Lampley described at the time as a “Heavyweight version of a Naseem Hamed entrance”.
The fight got off simply enough, Klitschko used his physical attributes to dominate the first few rounds. Byrd ducked and dodged his way defensively to avoid as many of his blows as he could. It looked like a modern day David and Goliath. Only when Jack Demspey fought Jess Willard for the title 80 years previous, had their been such an obvious disparity in a heavyweight affair. Unfortunately for Chris, he did not share Jack’s startling KO power. As Klitschko continued to pile up points, one thing became obvious to the unbiased, conscientious observer. Byrd was finding Vitali’s mid section incredibly easy to tag, and with the same short left hands that would later rock David Tua, Evander Holyfield and Andrew Golota. The effects were not explosive, or immediate, but after two minutes of the second round, Vitali’s mouth already began to hang agape.
Klitschko would nail Byrd with the kind of shots that had felled 27 previous opponents, however much to Vitali’s chagrin, Chris was able to either roll with the shots, avoid them out right, or simply take them. Vitali would push down on Byrd’s back whenever Chris tried to bob and weave under his shots and for obvious reasons, Byrd was unable to hit Vitali’s face cleanly. He continued hitting the one area that was open to him, the body. Most of Byrd’s power punches in the fight were to the abdomen. They clearly made Klitschko feel uncomfortable. Still, Vitali was landing the harder blows, and obviously winning the fight. As he returned to his corner after round two, Byrd said confidently to his dad, Joe Byrd, “I’ll wear him out (nod) I’m gonna wear him out”. I couldn’t help but wonder how a small Evander Holyfield would have done against this 6'8, 245lbs giant, knowing how Holyfield generally struggled with anyone over 6'4. Byrd was fighting an even bigger opponent than the “Real Deal” had, and he was smaller to begin with.
Now much has been made about Vitali Klitschko’s torn rotator cuff and it’s effects on the fight, but I have long believed that if he did in fact hurt his shoulder, it was more to do with the way Byrd kept pawing down Vitali’s multiple attempts to land jabs on the slick south paw. (Anybody that has ever boxed a lefty knows that it can be very wearing on the shoulder as hands continually collide).
Now, some say that Vitali entered the ring with an injury that night(he himself has claimed that is false), and some say it happened as early as the second round. I’ve also read that it was injured in the third or fourth, depending on the source. I’ll give Vitali the benefit of the doubt and assume that it happened late.
Based on the revisionist history I now see amongst newer boxing fans regarding this fight, I have decided to do a compilation of the amount of punch attempts that he made from during the 5th round on (and a slight play by play of some other interesting events):
Round 5: Klitschko throws 62 attempts with his left hand (albeit that most of them were more pawing motions), of those 9 land. This is Byrd’s best round so far in the fight, as he actually begins picking up the pace, and as Larry Merchant describes “doing what he should...making him pay when he misses”. Vitali is showing no signs of a sore shoulder or being in pain. Also notable, the crowd begins to cheer for Byrd with every combination he lands. Compubox says that Vitali throws 62 official punches (as Compubox does not count pawing half jab motions, however I have to clearly display how uninjured his shoulder actually was at this time) landing 13. Byrd throws 38, landing 19.
Round 6: Klitschko again paws with Byrd using his left arm. They are not full jabs, but merely half jabs that are common when a conventional fighter faces a south paw, however, it seems incredibly unlikely that a fighter would throw a total of 110 of these pawing half jabs with an arm with a torn rotator cuff. Klitschko does. He lands 6 of them. Again, Byrd’s offense is up and he’s landed some nice counter left’s to the head that backed Vitali up. For two consecutive rounds Byrd is actually pushing Vitali back with offense, or as he would later refer to it “walking him down”. Still no mention of an injury in Vitali’s corner. What can be seen in between the 6th and 7th rounds, is Vitali clearly using his left arm to wipe off sweat from the top of his head.
Round 7: Just as the round begins, and Byrd is called to a neutral corner to have tape fixed, HBO expert judge, Herald Letterman joins the team and states that he has Vitali comfortably ahead by a score of 59-55, which means Vitali is definitely ahead in the fight, however he goes on to say “the judges definitely see Vitali Klitschko suckin’ air. His mouth is wide open, and he’s definitely started to tire in round six.”
Round 7: Vitali again throws multiple half punches and full punches with his left arm. I count 57 total. Klitschko is breathing deeply and difficultly through the entire round, even visibly gasping at one point. He even throws a wicked low blow which he is warned for near the end of the round. Just before the round closes we hear Merchant say “We have the strange site of David going forward and Goliath going backward”. Compubox posts new stats in-between the 7th and 8th rounds that in all previous fights, Vitali has managed a 47% connect ratio, and that he was hitting 25% this evening. Byrd’s stats show that through his career he had been landing 40%, and was landing 39% on this night. Still in between rounds, Klitschko’s corner tells him “keep your distance with your left”, to which he nods “yes”. Still no mention of a shoulder.
Round 8: Incredible, Vitali actually increases his activity with his left arm in this round. His left handed punches are no longer pawing, but fully extended jabs. He throws a total of 60 throws with his left arm. He also throws more left hooks in this round than in any previous. He misses with 6 left hooks to the head, but lands two flush to the body, and two vicious left hooks that look low. Byrd keeps coming and seems more energized. Compubox puts up the numbers leading up the end of the 8th round, Vitali has 436 thrown, with 115 landed, for 26%. Byrd for his part has thrown 246, landing 100, for 41%. Again, no mention of the shoulder.
Round 9: Near the beginning of the round, Lampley announces that someone in Klitschko’s corner wants to notify them that Klitschko’s left hand is “hurt”. Strange, since Vitali comes out for this round blaring left hand after left hand. In the first minute, he has thrown 18 jab attempts, 2 left hooks to the body and 4 attempts to the head. With a minute to go in the round, Chris lands 4 solid hooks which wobble Vitali and have him reeling around the ring, leading Merchant to exclaim “That was Byrd’s best serious of punches, about 10 seconds ago”. Incredibly, Vitali answers back with three straight left hooks to the body. Not something I would expect from someone with a torn rotator cuff. Byrd continues to land hooks to Klitschko’s head. Klitschko looks dead tired, yet continues to throw out mainly left hands. At the end of the round, Klitschko’s corner says to him “take it easy, take it easy...okay, is it hurting?” to which he rolls his head down and does not answer back. Then they say “it’s over! We are giving up!” at the same time the compubox numbers show up stating that in round 9, Klitschko threw 66 punches (mostly left hands) landing 17, for 26%. While Byrd threw 38 punches, landing 24 (most of them power shots landing flush on Vitali’s head for the first time in the fight) for an incredible 63%!
Anybody reading this article is more than welcome to re-watch this fight with my evaluation side by side and try to contradict it. I’ve spent the time going over it, instead of stating half truths and misconceptions. That’s what happened in the fight. Vitali Klitschko was worn down because he couldn’t stop Chris Byrd. His shoulder may have went out, but it was because he continually threw jabs that were parried in mid air by the elusive Byrd. Byrd had much better conditioning, despite the fact that he took the fight on 7 days notice, and had no training gear when he arrived, with a severe case of diarrhea. Vitali simply ran out of steam and Byrd sensed it and started coming on like a champion should. When the chips were down, Byrd showed the heart of a champion and did exactly what he stated he would after the second round (at which point he had taken a 6 minute one sided beating) “I’m gonna wear him out”. Evander Holyfield would have been proud.
In his very next outing, Byrd returned to Germany to fight Vitali’s younger, more talented brother Wladimir, and was humbled by the younger Klitschko’s superior boxing skills combined with similar physical advantages. Byrd had lost to a bigger “good man”. He continued learning and honing his craft.
Some ask why Byrd has been able to come back from two devastating losses like the ones he suffered at the hands of Ibeabuchi and Wladimir. I think that the answer is many fold. First, he has a support system as good as any in the game. With his father and mother being in his corner his entire career, and his wife as his manager, Byrd always knows that his team is with him through everything. Unlike other fighters who get dropped and picked up by trainers and managers like yo-yo’s after losses. Secondly, his faith in God seems to get him through the most trying of times, and when I see him enter the ring to fight behemoths like the Klitschko’s, Andrew Golota or Jameel McCline, I can’t help but think of Psalm 23:4 “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death: I will fear no evil” because none of us can really imagine what it is like to be a light hitting former super middleweight coming in at 6'1 and around 210lbs fighting a guy who is 6'8 and 245lbs.
Byrd fights large fighters on a regular basis, as if he thrives in the competition. When he beats an opponent that size, it really means something, because it’s that much harder to do when your opponent knows they can out muscle and punch you. They always come game looking for a knock out. Holyfield knew what that was like. He even said before he fought Byrd in 2002 that he greatly respected Chris (most likely because he knew what the road was like). He stated that Byrd’s skills were superior as a boxer and that he deserved the win. Sure Holy was past his prime by then, but you must remember that just as Holyfield dreamed to take on the likes of Larry Holmes and Mike Tyson during his climb from a lighter weight, when he was balked at, so did Byrd pick out Holyfield and Lewis. Evander got his chances at Larry and Mike, and went 3-0(2) against them. Byrd got his chance to fight Evander and won. Lennox Lewis openly avoided Chris Byrd, even stating he would not fight him regardless of his mandatory position. Chris for his part was eager to see how he could do against the great champion.
I’ve stated time and time again, that my criteria for a great fighter is not that they win every single fight (lest Rocky Marciano be ranked as the only great heavyweight in history) but merely that they show up, always in professional shape and try fight the best opponents they can. Byrd has done this. He’s always out sized and out muscled, like Holyfield was suppose to be. Holyfield was a stronger, harder hitting man. He developed in to a legit 224 pound fighter. Byrd in my opinion is much more like the way Holyfield was suppose to be. Small, under powered, light hitting, and ballsy as all hell. He has a great chin, only being stopped once by Ike Ibeabuchi, and he’s a very likable guy. Hell, after Wladimir Klitschko was violently KO’d by Corrie Sanders, Chris was asked if he though Wlad was “chinney”. Byrd had a chance to take a cheap shot at only the second man to beat him as a pro. Instead, he said, thoughtfully and respectfully, “nah, he just got caught. Any man can get caught. He’s not chinney. He can come back from this.” He’s a lot kinder than I in his assessment. Particularly after the way Wladimir and his camp lead by Shelly Finkel have relentlessly called him a “coward” and claimed that he was “running”. Maybe Byrd should get on the phone with the younger Klitschko and try teach him a lesson in manners and professionalism. Then again, maybe they will get the chance to do it in the ring.
Byrd is currently scheduled to face Davvaryl Williamson in defense of his IBF crown. Williamson is a career journeyman who has only been considered a threat because of the way he was able to easily knock down Wladimir with a glancing blow before their fight had to be stopped on a technicality. Byrd should have an easy one sided victory ahead of him, although it’s a sure thing that Williamson will come out with guns a blaring as Byrd’s opponents always do. Perhaps if Wladimir beats Calvin Brock, he and Byrd will have their chance for a rematch, and Klitschko’s fans will be quieted for good. Since Byrd has had many successes over the past 5 years since they fought, and Wlad has been barely able to keep on his feet against journeyman after journeyman. We will have to wait and see. My bet is on Byrd to win by unanimous decision, and possibly to make Wladimir quit or drop from exhaustion.
I think history will show that Holyfield was indeed a great fighter, that turned out to be a legitimate Heavyweight great, but as far as a tiny fighter, using nothing but old school skills to better the large gargantuan, freakish sized heavyweights of the new millennium, Chris Byrd is for all intense purposes “The Real Deal”.
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