Byrd’s eye view of the heavyweight division

Luke G. Williams
14/01/2016 10:16am

Former IBF and WBO Champion Chris Byrd was one of the top heavyweights of the late ‘90s and early ‘00s, despite regularly ceding huge advantages to his opponents in terms of weight, height, power and reach. 

Having begun his amateur career as a light-welter and his pro career as a super-middle, Byrd had no right to be campaigning at heavyweight, let alone regularly beating viable contenders or winning world titles in the division.

Among his victims, Byrd vanquished the legendary Evander Holyfield and was one of only two men to ever defeat Vitali Klitschko. By my count, Byrd fought and defeated 11 men who held or challenged for world titles - Holyfield, Klitschko, DaVarryl Williamson, Jameel McCline, Fres Oquendo, David Tua, Bert Cooper, Uriah Grant, Lionel Butler, Phil Jackson and Arthur Williams - while four of his five defeats were against top or very high quality opposition: Wladimir Klitschko (twice), Ike Ibeabuchi and Alexander Povetkin.

Since his retirement in 2009, Byrd has worked as a motivational speaker, as well as in various training roles in boxing – presently he is in Hollywood working as defence coach for Jean Pascal and head trainer for Joel Diaz Jr ahead of their upcoming bouts against Sergey Kovalev and Abraham Gomez on 30 January in Montreal.

Boxing Monthly caught up with the personable and highly intelligent former champion by telephone in order to gauge his opinions on today’s heavyweight division …

BM: What was your take on the Fury-Klitschko fight?

CB: Tyson Fury executed a great gameplan. Usually, he’s flat-footed and comes forward and before the fight it concerned me that he wasn’t going to use his height and reach. But he used his movement and his length well and he made Wladimir Klitschko think. Klitschko doesn’t like getting hit and he’s not used to fighting bigger guys. So for me the outcome wasn’t anything to do with Klitschko’s age, it was just the style and strategy that Fury came up with for the fight. It was perfect. He made Wladimir not throw punches because he had to come forward and try and be the aggressor fighting a taller guy, but Klitschko just couldn’t pull the trigger … so now he knows how it felt to be me, feeling those punches coming down from a bigger guy while you’re trying to avoid them!

BM: How do you figure a rematch would go?

CB: Hey, I think it could be similar! It could also be a little more explosive because now Wladimir knows he has to take more chances. But is he willing to? Look, he’s been very comfortable since he beat me for the title in 2006, nobody’s really challenged him or pushed him to the limit. Samuel Peter was probably the last guy who really pushed him; he was big and strong, but short! Yes, he came forward and made Wladimir fight, but with Fury, Klitschko’s now fighting a taller guy that moves, so now Wladimir has to be the aggressor. It’s hard to develop a strategy to fight a guy like that. I was always a guy who liked to figure out a strategy, so I’d say that Wladimir is going to need a strong corner to help him figure Fury out, because if he has the same strategy as in the first fight it will go the same way! 

BM: Let’s now turn our attention to the American heavyweight scene, specifically Deontay Wilder, the WBC champion. He’s got a fight coming up on 16 January against Artur Szpilka. What do you think Deontay’s prospects are?

CB: Deontay is still a work in progress. He won the title from, in my opinion, a green champion, a work-in-progress type guy [Bermane Stiverne]. That’s why Deontay has been fighting guys that aren’t so strong. This next fight is a step up for him though; he’s fighting a leftie who’s fast and can fight a bit, so style-wise let’s see if he can figure it out. Wilder punches pretty good but, you know, he’s fought a lot of guys who weren’t at that high a level so, although he’s got a lot of knockouts on his record, really he’s still learning and he still does certain things that make him look like a beginner.

Having said that, he’s been taking the right course in my opinion - even though he’s a champion he’s been fighting some weaker guys, so that he keeps learning and gets more confident. You have to remember, it’s been like a whirlwind for him, the way he’s been thrown into the mainstream from the amateurs to now. He won a bronze medal at the Olympics but probably didn’t even have 30 amateur fights, so he’s still a work in progress. There’s also a question mark with him – when things start to get really rough in there against certain guys, like an Anthony Joshua or even a Dillian Whyte, can he handle it? Good strong guys with speed and skill will test him.

BM: A key ‘top ten’ heavyweight fight recently was Luis Ortiz versus Bryant Jennings. Do you think in Luis we finally have a Cuban heavyweight who might win the title and make a big impact? 

CB: Hmm ... Maybe. He’s decent. Left-handed, typical Cuban style. He could do some damage, but Bryant Jennings, to me, is a beginner. I had a rule for myself when I was boxing that I couldn’t ever let a guy beat me if he only started boxing in his 20s! Ortiz has a lot more experience than Jennings, he’s like 36 years old I think. But I’m always real critical about these things and I’ve got to say that, yes, it was a great win against Jennings, but I noticed Ortiz still leaves himself open. Plus, although he seemed big compared to Jennings, he’s not really a big guy in terms of the heavyweight division, where there’s a lot of very big guys.

BM: Is Anthony Joshua the best young prospect out there?

CB: Maybe, yes. He won the Olympics and now he’s making his mark and breaking guys down. What I like about him is that he uses his height and his reach and his physical abilities to his advantage. He’s confident and getting better. He’s a specimen! A big guy who fights like a big guy, knows what attributes he has and uses them. He’s on the right path towards domination. The biggest thing for me is developing a skill set that can enable you to be dominant, to take over the division. You don’t just want to win the title and then have a question mark over you, like Wilder has right now. When you become champion you don’t want people thinking: hmm, can he beat this guy or that guy? If you’re champion you should be willing to fight everybody, anybody, all-comers. Anthony Joshua has been stopping fringe contenders who maybe were expected to last rounds with him and that was a great fight with Dillian Whyte. To have a fight that early between two prospects willing to fight each other and risk that 0, well, props to them! That was a learning experience for both fighters. Whyte will be better to for that experience also.

BM: You’re not a gambling man, but if you had to put your theoretical money on someone, do you think that Joshua can be a dominant heavyweight champion down the road, or are the titles going to keep on moving around?

CB: I don’t go by hype, I go by ability. Anthony Joshua is a tall, big guy who is getting better. If his development continues and matures as it is, oh my goodness he could be unstoppable, a dominant guy, because he has all the ability to do it and a lot of room for growth also. As long as he doesn’t mentally check out and start thinking he’s the man already, and he’s still willing to learn and grow then, yes, he can be the dominant guy. And I’m not saying this because I’m talking to an English reporter, I’m saying it because it’s true!

More on Chris Byrd at www.chrisbyrd.com