News April 2016

Former two time heavyweight champion Chris Byrd talks career, Klitschko bros and AJ potential


By Michael J Jones

BEING A HEAVYWEIGHT boxing geek I find myself asking a question I’m genuinely intrigued by. “What do I weigh now? I’m 192lbs and still in good shape” replies former two-time heavyweight champion Chris Byrd, now 45-years-old.

Not many heavyweight champs drop a chunk of weight after retirement but it’s fair to say Byrd, from a big boxing family, is no ordinary man.

In an hour-long interview with, Byrd often refers to himself as “a little guy” when discussing various points of his 41-5-1 (22) fight career. For a smaller heavyweight at 6’1½” and around 210lbs, “Rapid Fire” didn’t do badly at all; twice winning portions of the heavyweight championship and claiming the scalps of Vitali Klitschko, David Tua and Evander “Real Deal” Holyfield among many others.

Amazingly, Byrd had won an Olympic Silver medal at the 1992 Barcelona Games as a slender middleweight, losing a close decision to Cuban Ariel Hernandez in the final.

After an outstanding 275-33 amateur career, it was early into his pro campaign the prospect made the decision to bulk up to compete with the big men of boxing.

“I started boxing very young and my Father (Joe Byrd who coached his son all through his career) wanted me to box regularly so I was boxing exhibitions for a long time before I started competing at the age of ten. Back then me and all the other boxers would fight every single weekend my Father took us everywhere through Canada and all over the USA to box.”

“I was a three-time US champion in 1989, 91’ and 92’ but I also made every final from 1988 to 92’ which meant I made the finals for five years straight which was a big accomplishment for me. I went to the Olympics and was one step from a Gold medal and I lost a close decision I really thought I won.”

“When I turned pro as an Olympic Silver Medallist, I expected to live for a while off my medal but I ended up on independent shows. After a couple of fights like that I ended up not boxing for about a year and a half. A manager contacted me about signing me and I agreed to meet him in Vegas. I went up there and put all my hopes on that meeting only to be told he’d signed a heavyweight instead.”

“I was so distraught I nearly cried so I decided there and then; I was going to become a heavyweight.”

The determined southpaw ate himself to his new weight division and fully admits he never bulked up in the correct way but stayed hungry in his quest to become the heavyweight champion of the world.

“I trashed my body in that time just eating bad foods but I kept at the weight. I boxed often on the Tuesday Night Fight shows in front of small audiences and I was like ‘wow I’m an Olympic Silver Medallist and this is how it is?’ People looked at me and said I looked fat but I was still elusive and determined. I didn’t care how small I was I worked hard to succeed.”

Although the Michigan heavyweight remained under the radar for much of his first five years as a pro, his early record is littered with familiar names in the heavyweight ranks such as former world title challengers Phil Jackson and Bert Cooper plus solid contenders like Jimmy Thunder and Elieser Castillo.

“I fought, at that time, a lot of guys who were fringe contenders and guys who had just fought in major fights; like when I fought Lionel Butler it was just after he’d fought Lennox Lewis. They were fighters who had been good and were veterans but also there were a lot of other guys then who just didn’t want to fight me.”

“I was 15-0 and I called out the big three; Lennox Lewis, Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield. When George Foreman won the title (in late 94’), he gave HBO a long list of guys he was willing to face (in his first defence), and then he had a list of one guy he didn’t want to fight; and that one guy was me.”

“Years later when the IBF elimination tournament was arranged David Tua even tried to sue me saying I wasn’t worthy of fighting him all because he didn’t want to fight me. That’s why I give Vitali and Wladimir Klitschko a lot of credit they actually wanted to, and were willing, to face me.”

After making his debut in January 1993, Byrd would stay undefeated for over six years and accumulate a 26-0 (14) record. Fast becoming one of the most avoided fighters of recent years, Byrd was eventually pitted with the menacing Ike Ibeabuchi in March 1999 in Washington.

Ibeabuchi, nick-named “The President”, was 19-0 (14) and feared after coming through a war to take David Tua’s unbeaten record two years previously. It was thus a match between two young, talented unbeaten heavyweight prospects yet Byrd held no fear ahead of the bout.

“I felt they put Ike on a pedestal after he beat Tua” Byrd reflects some 17 years later. “With big muscular guys like that I always had the intention to drag them into the second half of the fight. I’d make them miss, frustrate them and then when they tired, take over.”

“I did that with another big muscular guy in Jimmy Thunder (stopping him in the ninth) and I honestly thought I’d do the same to Ike. He had great stamina against Tua but its more draining hitting air than hitting the target so I really thought I was going to wear him down.”

For four rounds, Byrd kept Ibeabuchi at distance and avoided any big punches. Quicker of hand and foot, “Rapid Fire” was more than holding his own until a devastating left hook turned the fight on its head in the fifth round.

“I weighed in at 208lbs for that fight. You see I was never a heavyweight, that was 208 weighing in fully dressed with my body full of liquids. In essence, as in many of my fights, I was a cruiserweight against a heavyweight. He was a solid 244lbs…its heavyweight boxing and he just caught me before I could take the sting out of him.”

“The shot he caught me with; any other heavyweight would have gone down. I give him credit but it was something I worried about my whole career. I was a little guy and with these bigger guys they hit unbelievably hard and throw massive shots.”

“I was still avoided after Ike beat me though.”

Following his first defeat, Byrd reeled off five wins by way of knock-out before gaining a late call to challenge WBO champion Vitali Klitschko in Germany following the late withdrawal of “Razor” Ruddock.

“I got the call on the Thursday, left for Germany on the Sunday so I only had three days of training at home and a few days there in Germany to prepare it was like a whirlwind. I always said I’d fight anyone, any-time and I was just glad he was willing to fight me.”

The contest 16 years ago to the month, began with the older Klitschko brother looking to hammer home his lead hand against his much-smaller opponent. Byrd struggled to make much of an impression but had more success as the bout progressed and by rounds eight and nine was actually bringing the fight to the defending champion.

The 27-0 Ukrainian was way ahead on the cards after nine rounds but, shockingly, retired on his tool citing a torn rotator cuff to the disgust of the US commentators. Chris Byrd was the new WBO heavyweight champion of the world.

“Vitali was big, strong and good…but you just don’t quit” says Byrd critically, one of only two men to ever claim victory over Vitali. “I once fought a ten-rounder, broke my nose bad in the second and still went nine more rounds and won. Another time I had my ribs smashed and carried on…I was always taught by my Mother and Father ‘don’t ever quit’ …see I was all about being a finesse guy but I was also very tough.”

Was the winner sure the injury was real following his upset of Vitali?

“Well…he was a guy who was used to knocking guys out and dominating. He never came close to knocking me out so he was probably tiring and there I was coming on so he probably lost some heart. I also was throwing good body shots and I’m sure a few of those hurt him but it was still a huge surprise when he quit. I had all kinds of injuries through my career and never complained.”

“I watched the British guy Danny Williams dislocate his shoulder in a fight that wasn’t even for the world title and he just carried on and knocked the guy out…fighters should never quit!”

Alas the euphoria of being the new WBO champion was unfortunately short-lived as Byrd was prevented by a man hell-bent on avenging his brother’s loss…

“It was crazy as they made (Wladimir) the number one contender and then wouldn’t let me fight until that match was made. I ended up out of the ring over six months while he boxed twice in that time. They kept saying the fight was made and then finding an excuse to postpone and change the dates. I lost the fight but I got played big time and I realised I wasn’t the main man at all.”

The twelve round world title bout in Cologne turned out to be a bad match-up for the defending champion who was out-muscled and down twice before dropping a 120-106, 119-107 and 118-108 points decision.

“It was just a tough match-up for me” sighs Chris. “Vitali was a big strong guy but it was just totally different with Wladimir. It was something about his size, jab or style and he gave me a good licking.”

Not dwelling on his second pro reverse, Byrd regrouped the next year to lift the USBA belt with a decision over dangerous-but-erratic Maurice Harris before being pitted against murderous punching Kiwi David Tua as part of the IBF’s tournament to find their new top contender. Most people thought Tua would prove too strong but Byrd had other ideas…

“Tua was a guy I’d actually wanted to fight my whole career” Byrd reveals to Livefight. “I thought he beat Ike (Ibeabuchi) in that fight; it was close but I felt David won. Everybody thought I’d get knocked out because he hit so hard but he was shorter than me and I always liked fighting guys who were smaller than I was.”

“Short guys would never beat me or get anywhere near me; that’s why I always wanted to fight Mike Tyson. Little aggressive guys would march at me and play into all of my traps and get frustrated. He tried to sue me to stop the fight happening as he probably knew what was going to take place.”

Byrd beat the slimmed-down Tua on a unanimous decision to retain the USBA title and lift himself to the spot of IBF number one contender in line to face linear world champion Lennox Lewis. The Brit star had just demolished “Iron” Mike Tyson in eight rounds but decided not to defend his titles against Byrd.

Shortly after “Rapid Fire” bested Tua, Lewis vacated the IBF title.

“I was so excited after beating Tua that I was going to fight Lennox Lewis who was the best of his era and the number one heavyweight on the planet at that time but it wasn’t meant to be. You see many people all the way through my career, didn’t want to fight me and it’s only after I stopped boxing I really understood that.”

“There was 24 ex-heavyweight champions who all met up recently in Florida and a few guys brought out their long-held grudges. Pinklon Thomas went at Larry Holmes bad, he’d obviously held on to that grudge for thirty years. Afterwards, Lennox came up to me and asked me why I hadn’t asked the question to why he never fought me and I just said there’s no grudge or animosity with me now my boxing career had ended.”

“I heard from various guys who had worked in Lewis’ camp that I had been discussed and was deemed a guy who was awkward and had a style which was hard to look good against but if I’d have fought Lewis and been knocked out I would have just been proud to say I fought the best guy of my era.”

In December 2002, Byrd was matched against former cruiserweight and heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield in Atlantic City with the IBF crown up for grabs. Holyfield was 40-years-old but still a capable war horse who had only ever lost to Riddick Bowe, Michael Moorer, Lewis and John Ruiz.

The slick Byrd was not to be denied though and put on a boxing master-class to thrash Holyfield on points to become a two-time champion.

“When I started out I wanted to face the big three; Lewis, Holyfield and Tyson. I only ever got to fight Evander and I would have liked to have boxed him when we were both in out prime and I said that to him after the final bell.”

“I saw Holyfield as a former small guy like myself and I just knew he wouldn’t be able to hit me with nothing as I was too elusive and hyped for the fight. I call that a fun fight as it was an easy one for me. He probably knew it would be tough but he had nowhere else to go; I was number one and he was number two so he had to box me.”

Following arguably the finest victory of his career Byrd would then engage in three tough distance fights back-to-back over the next two years. A close unanimous decision against Fres Oquendo was followed by a draw against the determined Andrew Golota in New York. A final, punishing, war against former sparring partner and friend Jameel McCline concluded the trio of close, many said controversial, contests.

“I didn’t really rate Oquendo but my former Olympic team-mate Montell Griffin warned me he was awkward with sneaky power and he was completely right. Oquendo hurt me a few times but I felt I did enough. My wife Tracy said during the fight I should cut off my dreadlocks as it looked like I was getting hit more than I was but I underestimated him.”

“When you win a world title you think ‘this is it’ and that’s the time to enjoy everything but it’s actually the time when people come gunning for you and start bringing their 'A plus' game because they want what you have and it was the same with Andrew Golota.”

“If I’d have boxed a non-title ten-rounder against Golota I probably would have won easily but, because I had that title, he came at me with everything…and he was absolutely huge too.”

Byrd escaped with a draw with two judges marking a score of 115-113 to each man while the third had it even at 114-114. If the champion had found Golota huge he was going to face an even bigger challenger next time out in the shape of 6’6”, 270lb Jameel McCline.

“I’d sparred Jameel and it was all OK but in the fight with those smaller gloves on it was completely different and he really put it on me. I was down in the second, rocked badly in the third and barely made it through. I honestly think that was the fight which pretty much retired me as it took so much out of me.”

“I took three months to recover from that fight. The night of the fight I didn’t want to go to asleep because I was afraid I’d never wake up. I stayed awake the whole night and never slept until the next day.”

Byrd would have one more successful defence of his IBF belt when scoring a clear decision over DaVarryl Williamson in Reno. His fifth and final defence would see him lose his title when Wladimir Klitschko scored a seventh-round stoppage win in the two men’s’ rematch.

“His lawyer called me about a fight with Klitschko and I assumed they meant Vitali” explains the 45 year old former champion. “When they said it was Wlad I was confused but it still wasn’t hard to take the fight. If I was offered right now the fight with Wlad, with seven years out of the ring and 45-years-old, I’d still take it straight away because I’m a competitor.”

“By then Wladimir had me figured out and beat me well again but it was always my intention to fight the best. My plan beforehand had been to beat Wlad and then face that giant Nicolai Valuev (then WBA champion). I never ducked nobody and I never turned any fight down even when it was for short money.”

“It’s absurd when you think about how I was this lanky, skinny kid in the 92’ Olympics and I ended up facing the hulking 96’ super-heavyweight champion twice as a pro. I was never a heavyweight but God gave me super-natural talent to achieve what I did because a man my size had no business winning anything in the heavyweight division.”

Now in the position of contender again having reigned for four years as the IBF holder, the former champion took a year out before returning with a stoppage win in the Bahamas. He would then face the streaking Alexander Povetkin back in Germany. Povetkin proved too young and strong and wore Byrd down for a late stoppage win.

Shortly afterwards, Byrd then made the bizarre decision to drop weight to compete in the 175lb light-heavyweight division. His debut at the weight was a disaster however as the bullish Shaun George pasted the jaded 37 year old in nine one-sided rounds.

“I had it in my head that I was going to show everybody I wasn’t ever a heavyweight by dropping back to light-heavyweight and that was truly the end of my career. I dropped 40lbs in five weeks and then stayed at that weight for another five before the fight. I was a marathon runner and was running 13-14 miles every day but I just didn’t look healthy.”

“At the weigh-in the commission didn’t want to let me fight; I looked anorexic and everyone said I didn’t look good. I had visions of fighting Bernard Hopkins and Roy Jones Jr but losing was the best thing. If I’d have won I may have kept fighting but, after one more fight, it was very easy to walk away.”

“What happened was, I little later got a call to go over and spar Vitali Klitschko and I did really good against him. I weighed in as a cruiserweight while he was 255lbs but I did real good; I was even the first to spar him every day. They got me a fight over there and I won but I just didn’t have the desire and passion anymore.”

“I’m very proud of what I accomplished in my career as both an amateur and a professional and many don’t get to walk away like I did with everything still in good condition so I’ve truly been blessed by God.”

Byrd still follows boxing closely and keeps a close eye on his former division and one man in particular has impressed the former champion greatly in recent years.

“Anthony Joshua man…just wow” he praises of the newly-crowned IBF champion about Britain's newest heavyweight star. “In an era of big men he’s an absolute monster. He’s young and unbelievably still improving and he has that attitude that he wants to get even better. If he works on his defence and a couple of other little things I really think he can be a very dominant heavyweight champion.”

“He’s got huge potential, a lot of ability and, if he stays hungry, the sky really is the limit.”

America’s leading heavyweight, WBC champion Deontay Wilder faces a dangerous defence on May 21st against former champion (and former Byrd opponent) Alexander Povetkin. I ask Byrd whether Wilder can come through his toughest test to date away from home?

“It’s an interesting fight and I feel Wilder is still in the learning phase of his career but he has that big right-hand. People question him but there’s no doubt he carries serious, fight-changing, power in that right. With Povetkin he brings the pressure and, if he can avoid the Wilder right, the fight will fall into his favour.”

“Some smaller guys have gotten to Wilder pretty easy and Povetkin can also but Deontay has the length and that right…I don’t want to call it but it should be a good fight.”

…and Fury-Klitschko 2 in July?

“Fury went out last time, moved, boxed and kept it long and Wladimir wasn’t used to that. Fury can do the same things and still win so it’s Klitschko who has to change from last time. Klitschko I don’t think is as confident as the smaller guy and will have to be the aggressor in the rematch.”

“The first fight favours Fury but Wladimir will need a better game-plan this time or it’ll probably be the same result again.”

The former champion has been far from idol in his seven years away from the ring. As well as coaching fighters he also has a weekly boxing show and is currently promoting ‘Champions Cigars’ alongside fellow boxing stars Riddick Bowe, Ray Mercer, Lamon Brewster (Byrd’s cousin) and James “Lights Out” Toney.

“I’m still having a lot of fun training fighters and I’ve been promoting ‘Champs Cigars’ with the other four. We’re also trying to get a reality show on TV which would be fun.”

The southpaw David who took on the heavyweight Goliath’s and lived to tell the tale, Chris Byrd was a silky-slick, quick-handed southpaw whose style masked a grit and determination which saw him scale the heavyweight heights to twice become heavyweight champion of the world.

He was rarely appreciated for his efforts in his prime but there was no doubting he was a true world champion is a very tough era…and accomplished all as “a little guy”.

Chris “Rapid Fire” Byrd’s website

Champions Cigars website

To follow Byrd on Twitter it’s @Slipmaster92

Many thanks to Chico Sherwood for setting up this interview.

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