December 29, 2018
December 29, 2018
Chris Byrd

Action Images/Reuters/Tim Shaffer

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CHRIS BYRD is hyped.

“I’m so hyped right now,” he says. “I’m so damn hyped.”

Each time he repeats this line, and he will do so a lot, it sounds peculiar coming from a guy like Byrd, someone who was never hyped during a 16-year professional career, not by himself, not by others; someone who, if anything, was probably the antithesis to hype: relatively small, a southpaw, a non-puncher, quiet, nice.

But today, nine years since he called time on his career, the former IBF and WBO world heavyweight champion delights in telling me he is hyped at least half a dozen times during our interview. He is hyped, he tells me, because he is passionate about boxing, his first love. He is hyped because he has a lot on his mind. He is hyped primarily, though, because in order to soothe the constant pain in his feet, shoulders and hips he is smoking weed and “high as shit”.

“That’s why I smoke,” says Byrd in a trademark high-pitched voice turned higher. “I’ve had one hip replaced, I need my other replaced, and I need both shoulders replaced. But the nerve damage in my foot is worse than all that put together. I’ve had that for nine years. It’s all boxing-related.

“I’ve been through a lot. I’ve done the prescription drugs to sort the pain and I’ve also done the suicidal, crazy stuff. Marijuana is the only thing that can control my pain and help me get through it all.”

Byrd started boxing at five, competing at ten, and would rack up over 300 amateur bouts en route to a silver medal at the 1992 Olympic Games. From there, he turned professional in 1993, initially as a six-foot-and-a-half middleweight, before realising his style and lack of spite wasn’t conducive to being seen or heard, much less becoming rich.

So, after weighing 169 pounds for his debut, Byrd hit 193 for fight number three, and was 207 pounds by August 1994. With that, a middleweight Olympian was a heavyweight professional.

“Nobody in history would think about doing something like that,” he says. “That would be like (Vasyl) Lomachenko after the Olympics going from 125 pounds to 168 pounds and fighting his whole career – and winning titles – at super-middleweight.

“Boxers praise me. They’re like, ‘I don’t know how you did that. That’s crazy.’ But writers and critics don’t think like that.”

Too quick, too slick, during a run of 26 straight wins Byrd never weighed more than 218 pounds. Indeed, only when he met Ike Ibeabuchi – a true, muscle-bound heavyweight with power in both hands – in 1999 did Byrd, fighting with a rib injury, come to understand the benefit of a 36-pound edge in weight.

Fifteen years ago, when I first interviewed Byrd, he said this of Ibeabuchi: “Had he not gone to prison (for sexual assault), he would have ruled the division for a while. Ike was a killer, a destroyer. He would go straight ahead like a young Mike Tyson. He didn’t have the one-punch knockout power of Tyson, but he could put them together and was a beast.”

Back then Byrd was still active, still a champion. Today, though, when hyped, when high as s**t, when unshackled and free to speak his mind, he has an altogether different view.

“So, I fight all these heavyweights and get criticised like crazy and now Ike beats me,” he says. “Ike beat me and all of a sudden he’s ‘The President’. I’m like, really? Just because he beat me? That makes him great, does it?

“If any heavyweight caught me right, I’m going to sleep. I’m a middleweight. Ike hit me with his best shot and I didn’t see it. It knocked my damn head off. And I got up. I’m a middleweight and I got up.

“So, when they talk about Ike being potentially great, he may have been, but he went away. We don’t know. He can’t be great based on a win over me if you then decide to criticise me.”

Byrd has a point, albeit one he labours. Looking back, he was the skilful spoilsport who stopped heavyweights being heavyweights. He shut them down. Used their size against them. This didn’t please everybody – typically, we want heavyweights to be heavyweights – but the sheer fact Byrd was able to do this, when undersized and spitting in response to gunfire, is an incredible feat that shouldn’t be overlooked.

“Put this image in your head: Chris Byrd and Vitali Klitschko,” he says. “Then I’m going to give you a picture of Micky Ward and Arturo Gatti. Now, you tell me, of those four fighters, who has the most heart? Think about it.”

The theory here is that Ward and Gatti, for all the blood and guts and violence, were essentially two evenly-matched 140-pound contenders, whereas Byrd, though less inclined to get down and dirty, was, in 2000, a man of 210 pounds fighting and defeating a 244-pound Klitschko.

“This guy’s backing up from me,” he continues. “I’m not backing up from him. And I’m not a puncher. So, I must be doing something right.

“He then quit after the ninth round. He quit. He had a shoulder injury. After the fight they talked about the shoulder injury more than anything. It was as if I wasn’t even in the ring with him that night. All I got was criticism.

“My side is this: I’m fighting a guy who is six-foot-eight and 244 pounds on ten days’ notice. Oh, by the way, he’s 28-0 with 28 knockouts. I’m six-foot-and-a-half and 210 pounds and I’m in the tenth round with a killer.

“This is some David versus Goliath s**t. I outlasted him in the fight. Vitali is my boy but I’m dying in the ring before I pull out a fight injured knowing I’m going to lose my title because of it.

“I went through my whole career thinking, man, when are they going to buy into the David and Goliath story? That’s my whole career right there. I should have just come in at 201 pounds all the time and really made a point.”

Chris Byrd

The only men to beat Byrd at heavyweight were Ike Ibeabuchi, Wladimir Klitschko and Alexander Povetkin, while victories over the likes of Vitali Klitschko, to win the WBO title, Evander Holyfield, to lift the IBF title, and David Tua, Fres Oquendo, Jameel McCline and DaVarryl Williamson, prove Byrd was more than just a defensive wizard.

Ultimately, though, it’s the fights that didn’t happen which best summarise the Flint native’s career and unconventional style.

“Ask your boy Lennox why he didn’t fight me,” Byrd says. “All the heavyweights know. Don’t get me wrong, Lennox was a great fighter, but it was always about styles between us. Boxing is always about styles. Lennox never wanted to fight me because of my style.”

In 2002, Lewis decided to give up his IBF world heavyweight title rather than defend it against Byrd, his mandatory challenger.

“People didn’t want to fight me for one reason: my defence,” Byrd, 41-5-1 (22), says. “More than my defence, it was my tenacity. I’m not going to quit. I may be a little non-punching guy, but I’m going to fight you. And I won’t look for a way out when it gets tough.

“Let me also put this is in your mind. Who fights off the ropes nowadays? I was fighting for my life off the ropes in every single heavyweight fight because these guys are so physically dominating.

“I did a lot of my training against the ropes because I knew that’s where I’d end up. I had to figure it out. When I teach other boxers, I teach defence first. Everybody goes with offence first and it’s wrong.

“Defensively, I did crazy stuff. I was spinning Evander Holyfield. I was spinning David Tua, too. I spin people around in the circle. I can put you in a blender all day long. That’s what I call it – the blender. I’ll have you following me.

“It’s a mental strategy more than a physical one. Mentally, I’m messing with them. They get frustrated. They say to themselves, ‘I can’t believe he just did that.’ Then I do it again. Defence offsets everything. Guys hate it. It’s a test you can’t pass.”

That said, even the finest defensive heavyweight of the modern era wasn’t elusive enough to escape the damage boxing leaves on its participants. In addition to his physical woes, Byrd went through nine years of neuropsychology and was recently diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) having been informed he has seven of the nine symptoms. Alas, he’s on the ropes again: bobbing, weaving, slipping, sliding. Surviving.

“Prescription drugs messed up my head,” Byrd admits. “I nearly got arrested in downtown Los Angeles. People noticed me going crazy and started filming. They were shouting, ‘Hey, isn’t that Chris Byrd?!’

“Recently, in December, this dumb doctor gave me these pills even though I said I can’t do prescription drugs. He said, ‘No, this will be fine. It’s like taking three over-the-counter pain pills. Don’t worry about it.’

“Man, I almost jumped on my daughter. I live by the ocean and one day I went out there and wanted to jump in the ocean. I didn’t want to live anymore. Those pills make me crazy.”

Vladimir Klitschko of Ukraine (R) strikes WBO Heavy-Weight World Champion Chris Byrd of the U.S.A. during their fight in Cologne late October 14, 2000. Klitschko won on points after twelve rounds. JS/WS

Byrd’s doing better now. He’s doing better thanks to these near-misses, and an understanding of what caused them, and he’s doing better, most of all, because of an old amateur team-mate’s weed stash.

“Shannon Briggs gave me the marijuana and that’s a wrap,” Byrd says. “I never believed in any of that stuff before. I never smoked or drank a day in my life. But once he gave me that medicine, I felt as steady as a plant. There ain’t nothing better. It really helps.”

Byrd now smokes all day, every day.

“I’m legally disabled because of boxing,” he explains. “I’m in tons of pain as I’m speaking to you. My feet are on fire. But marijuana at least calms it all down to a point where I can function. Otherwise, I just go crazy.

“It’s got so bad that I’ve wanted to cut off my feet a few times. People have had to stop me. They go, ‘No, man, don’t cut your feet off!’ But if that takes the pain away, I don’t want them. Cut them off. I’m not boxing no more. I don’t need them.”

Despite these travails, Byrd, 47, knows he’s one of the lucky ones. He knows his defence, at times beautiful, hasn’t saved him entirely, no, but it has certainly given him a better quality of life than some of his peers, those who perhaps ignored its importance.

“All of us who have done boxing are in some kind of serious pain now,” he says. “A lot of guys have mental problems. I have two brothers who have dementia because of this sport. They are 55 and 60.

“Fundamentally, this is a brain sport. Your brain is being knocked all over your damn skull every time you step inside that ring. They talk about football, but we get hit in the damn head for a living.

“Everybody is messed up. Lamon Brewster’s eye is gone from boxing. It has him in all kind of pain. James Toney is all jacked up. Riddick Bowe is gone. Ray Mercer is probably the best one, but even he’s not doing all that good.

“This is just the reality of the sport and it feels like nobody wants to talk about it. Guys are struggling after boxing, man. They can’t get a job. They can’t function. They have no education. They’re just out there in this big, bad world with nothing to do.”

Chris Byrd gets high. He does it to ease pain. He does it to not feel low.