Long read: Invisible while standing still: Chris Byrd interview
Luke G. Williams
Art by Trevor Von Eeden
American Chris Byrd was one of the most accomplished and avoided heavyweights of his generation. Now he’s forging a successful post-ring career as a faith-based motivational speaker. Luke G. Williams caught up with him for a wide-ranging conversation encompassing faith, family and his formidable fistic accomplishments ...
This article was written and originally published in 2014 in the anthology Boxiana. This is the first time it has been published online.
It takes a special talent - or a foolhardiness bordering on insanity - to stand in front of a heavyweight boxer bigger and stronger than yourself, let them swing their monster fists at you and rely on a mixture of guile, speed, reflexes and eyesight to make them miss, before coming roaring back with rapid flurries of punches of your own. Muhammad Ali famously did it against George Foreman in Zaire in 1974, but Chris Byrd employed such tactics for the majority of his career.
Jim Lampley, the long-time HBO fight announcer, once likened Byrd’s tactical approach to being “invisible while standing still”. It’s an apt metaphor for the criminally under-rated Byrd’s pugilistic career - for so long the invisible man of the heavyweight division, Byrd haunted the boxing scene of the 1990s and 2000s like Banquo’s ghost at Macbeth’s feast, while an array of top heavyweights did their level best to pretend he didn’t exist.
Coupled with his ‘defensive’ style was Byrd’s reputation for clean living, which meant that, more often than not, the media gave him a wide berth. “If I’d smacked my wife around, everybody would have known me,” Byrd once reflected. “The media love it when you do crazy stuff like that, it would have made me bigger, but I wasn’t like that.”
Now that Byrd has been retired for several years it seems an apt time to re-assess his extraordinary talent. Boxing fans love a bar stool debate, so how about this for a hypothesis: Byrd has a good case to be inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame. Whether this statement caused you to laugh in derision or sagely nod in agreement, consider the supporting evidence: if any heavyweight deserves the sobriquet of ‘fearless’, then Byrd does - not only was he willing to fight anyone, anytime, any place and anywhere but, in the process, he twice annexed portions of the World Heavyweight Championship.
Byrd’s list of opponents reads like a ‘who’s who’ of the heavyweight division of the mid-1990s to mid-‘00s; among his victims, he 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.
Oh yes, and Lennox Lewis ducked Byrd, giving up the IBF belt rather than fighting him. Sure, you can argue all day about whether Lewis’s motive was purely financial (Don King paid him a million pounds and a Range Rover to vacate the strap) or whether Lewis simply didn’t fancy trying to solve the riddle of Byrd’s slick, southpaw style, but you can’t argue with the fact: Lennox Lewis ducked Chris Byrd.
Furthermore, Byrd wasn’t even a heavyweight. Well, not a natural one, not even close in fact; in the amateurs Byrd fought from light-welter up to middleweight and he started his pro career as a super-middleweight. Yet in an outwardly insane quest for fistic glory, he cajoled and forced his body into the heavyweight division, squaring off against gigantic heavyweights, ceding massive advantages in both size and power in the process.
Byrd had no right to be campaigning at heavyweight, let alone regularly beating viable contenders or winning world titles in the division. When he fought McCline, for example, Byrd was outweighed by a jaw-dropping 56lbs and throughout his career as a heavyweight he rarely weighed above 215. In the heavyweight boxing landscape, he was David in a land of Goliaths.
Whether you agree that Byrd’s Hall of Fame worthy or not, his achievements are certainly deserving of a substantial re-evaluation. During his career he shipped much criticism for his ‘defensive’ style, Larry Merchant even going so far as it to imply it was ‘unmanly’, but re-watch his contests with the Klitschkos, Holyfield, McCline, Tua et al and Byrd’s bravery, determination, hand speed and ability to slip punches are simply breathtaking. No wonder that analyst Max Kellerman once called him “one of the greatest pure boxers in the history of the [heavyweight] division.”
* * *
Byrd’s website refers to the “desperate streets” of Flint, Michigan, the blue-collar city where he was born in 1970 and spent his childhood. The birthplace of auto giant General Motors, the city’s stark decline throughout the 1970s and ‘80s was immortalised in Michael Moore’s stunning 1989 documentary Roger and Me. “Tens of thousands of lives in Flint have been wrecked, destroyed by the greed of General Motors,” Moore wrote of his hometown in 2000, pointing out that the city suffered from the “highest or near highest per capita rates of murder, rape and theft in the nation”.
Chris Cornelius Byrd, born on 15 August 1970, was one of the lucky ones. Amid neighbourhoods pockmarked by broken homes and the fast-declining social fabric of a city in crisis, he had the cosmic good fortune to be born into a strong and secure family unit, rather than into an environment characterised by dysfunctionality. His father, Joe Senior, and mother, Rose, acted as his moral and sporting compass throughout his formative years, as well as his amateur and pro career, serving as his trainer and chief second.
“My mother and father were always in my corner,” Byrd tells me from his home in San Diego, his unmistakable Midwestern drawl noticeable, even across a crackling transatlantic phone-line. “At championship level I’ve never known of another fighter who had their mother in their corner, maybe it happened at a lower level of professional or amateur boxing. And she stayed with me not just for one fight, but from the first fight to the last fight! She was always in my corner. A great motivator for me, my mother was. She’d tell me stuff in the corner that didn’t pertain to boxing, for example, she’d say: ‘son, your kids, your family, you make sure you take care of them!’ Stuff like that, serious stuff, which made me think.”
The Byrd household was steeped in boxing; from the tiny eight-by-eight ring in the basement, which refined Chris’ defensive genius, to the subject of the excited chatter across the breakfast and dinner table - the house pulsed, vibrated and resonated with the smells, sights and sounds of the sport. While working, like much of Flint’s male populace, at GM Motors, Joe Senior simultaneously forged a career as a journeyman boxer (compiling a résumé, according to BoxRec, of 13 wins, 20 losses and one draw, including a three-round defeat against Earnie Shavers). Joe trained youngsters from all across Flint, still does in fact, and served as the chief coach for the American national team at the 1992 Olympics - while also raising eight kids of his own, five of them boys. They all boxed, of course, even the girls - Chris’ sister Tracy excelled at pro level, winning several world titles, while his brother Antoine once fought Roy Jones Jr. for the IBF Super-Middleweight title.
Quite simply, boxing and the Byrd family were and are inseparable. Chris confirms this perception: “We all boxed. It was a family affair. Being the youngest I wanted to be like my brothers. So it was a fighting home! My father had boxed everywhere and boxed all kinds of boxers. He would get a call to fight in Washington on a Monday, fight, lose, come back and fight somewhere else the next Wednesday to make extra money. He worked at GM but he wanted his kids, especially the boys, to be boxers. We even had a dog that was a boxer! Everything in our household revolved around boxing. I started when I was five.”
Byrd’s amateur career was stellar and garlanded with frequent laurels. As well as compiling over 270 victories in the unpaid ranks, he also succeeded in being crowned United States Amateur Light-Middleweight Champion in 1989, moving up in weight and winning the national middleweight crown in 1991 and 1992. However the peak of his amateur career came at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, when dominant victories against Mark Edwards (21-3), Aleksandr Lebziak (16-7), Ahmed Dine (21-2) and Chris Johnson (17-3) won him a place in the final of the middleweight competition.
Ultimately, Cuban master-boxer Ariel Hernández denied Byrd the ultimate glory of gold in a close final. Going into the third and final round the duo were tied at 4-4, before Hernández edged the decision 12-7. “He moved so much, he out counter-punched me,” was the 21-year-old Byrd’s immediate assessment after the contest. “I know I can do a lot better, but the guy didn’t fight back.” A somewhat ironic comment, given the criticisms Byrd would ship later in his career. However there was no shame in defeat for Hernández was a quality operator who would retain his crown four years later in Atlanta, putting into perspective how impressive Byrd’s silver-medal achievement was, particularly given the steady decline of American amateur boxing since the 1980s. Thankfully, with the benefit of hindsight, Byrd is now able to temper the disappointment of not winning a gold medal with his pride at his Olympic achievement. “I wanted that gold medal so bad,” he recalls, a touch ruefully. “I did come home with a silver though.”
* * *
It’s a truism that bears repeating: amateur pugilistic glory is no guarantee of success in the pro ranks. Mind you, an Olympic gold medal certainly helps get you started. Hell, even a talent totally unsuited for the pro game can use a gold medal to potentially set them up financially for life (exhibit A: Audley Harrison). But Chris Byrd had ‘only’ pocketed silver and the difference in chemical composition between Au and Ag makes a big difference. So while Byrd’s Olympic teammate, the lightweight gold medallist Oscar De La Hoya, flashed his golden smile and launched his pro career on a wave of hype and adulation as a televised main event attraction in Los Angeles, Byrd’s own professional career began with a whimper rather than a bang. “A year went by and I had two fights,” Byrd explains with a sigh. “I didn’t even get paid for those fights; that’s the business, of boxing, I guess, but I was sitting there thinking: ‘man, this is crazy!’”
Having weighed in at 165lbs during the Olympics, few would have envisioned that Byrd would ultimately end up fighting as a heavyweight. Indeed, in the wake of turning pro after the Olympics he initially fought at the super-middleweight limit of 168lbs and planned to continue campaigning in or immediately around his natural weight. However fate, and a promotional sleight, changed the course of his career forever, setting him on a collision course with the most prestigious, and terrifying, weight division in boxing.
Byrd himself takes up the story: “There were three guys, promoters, who wanted to take a look at me and my brother. So we scraped together some money and flew out to Las Vegas. When we got there, the guys wouldn’t even talk to us. They said: ‘we’re going with a heavyweight.’ I was like, oh … OK, then I’m going to become a heavyweight and whatever heavyweight they chose to promote, I hope I come across him one day so I can show those guys they messed up!”
Transforming his naturally slender physique into a frame sturdy and strong enough to do battle with bona fide ‘big men’ was a huge challenge, and one that, initially at least, Byrd admits he approached in a somewhat haphazard and eccentric fashion. “I had no money and I’d never really lifted weights,” he recalls with a laugh. “I had a little 140lbs set of weights in my basement, so I started lifting them and I started drinking protein shakes. You should have seen my body, I was skinny up top, with little skinny arms like [1990s American rap duo] Kris Kross, I did curls everyday and my arms didn’t grow at all! I didn’t know anything about lifting weights, and I had a big stomach too. I was an Olympian and I looked bad!”
It’s an amusing tale, but Byrd’s endearing talent for self-deprecation masks a deeper truth; namely, the astonishing level of dedication and determination needed to ensure the transmogrification of a naturally slender middleweight into a heavyweight mobile enough to utilise his boxing skills, but also sturdy enough to withstand the murderous fists of 17 or 18 stone behemoths.
Fortunately, discipline had long been the watchword chez Byrd. “My father from a young age would tell us, you’ve got to be disciplined, you gotta set a goal, and focus on that goal,” Byrd emphasises in a video on his website. “That idea carried with me through my whole career. Discipline, for me, was that nobody should have to get up and tell me to go run, train hard or push me to another level … I set my own clock. I got up when it was cold outside in Flint, Michigan in the wintertime. I was up at 5 o’clock in the morning when it was maybe ten [degrees] below [freezing], twenty below with wind chill factor. You gotta want this thing.
"My father really instilled that into a lot of his boxers, especially his boys and especially me. I developed a motto: ‘how bad do you want it?’ It carried over to me as a professional. When I think about all the mornings I had to get up and go run, in the freezing cold, all the licks I took in training, all the sweat, the blood, the tears, everything, I went through, it was because of how bad I wanted it.
"My wife would yell that [motto] and I would hear and it would give me more energy, more strength and more power to become the best I could be.” To succeed Byrd realised his dedication not only had to extend to the physical, but also to the realms of the mental and the tactical. “I became a boxing freak,” he reveals. “I was always watching boxing in order to study every Heavyweight. I didn’t care if it was a journeyman, a guy who was coming up the ranks or a champion, I taped them on VHS, watched them and studied them.”
* * *
“And Jesus said unto them, Because of your unbelief: for verily I say unto you, If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible unto you.”
Matthew, 17:20, King James Bible
“14 October 1993, I gave myself to Jesus Christ.”
Underlying and underpinning all of Chris’s actions post-October 1993 has been the omnipresence of his Christian faith. As far as he is concerned it’s that faith - in Jesus, in God, in the resurrection - that gave him the mental strength to fight as a heavyweight. As he speaks about his beliefs, his voice drops in tone ever so slightly, his words echoing with conviction and sincerity. “From the time I gave my life to Jesus Christ, I’m telling you the truth … the Lord instilled in me no fear. I’d fight everybody and anybody …
"And I prayed … I’d pray: ‘Lord, please make me a heavyweight!’ I didn’t have a plan, I didn’t have a clue what was going to happen. I was just sitting there hoping something was going to happen. I prayed about it; ‘Lord, if I can become a heavyweight and if I start fighting I’m going to glorify you at the highest level’.”
For Chris there is no contradiction between the concept of love preached by his faith and his profession as a prize fighter. “I’ve been questioned on that a few times,” he admits. “I look at it like this: it’s what you do for your livelihood. Of course, I was in a hurt sport, and if I hurt my opponent I got the victory, but it’s not about damaging another man. It was my job, what I did every day, how I made a living for my family. There was no thought of killing. Boxers may talk trash, and say we are going to do this or that, but we know that after a fight is over, both guys hug each other and there is major respect.
"Most of us, probably 98 per cent of boxers, are friends out of the ring. I don’t look at it as a blood sport. Boxing is just another sport. In soccer or American football you get injuries too, serious injuries, major injuries. In boxing it’s the same thing; injuries are just part of sport. People view it as you’re trying to knock somebody’s head off, but back when the prophet Paul wrote he compared scripture to “as one that beateth the air ... [I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection]”. Being like a boxer, that’s how he disciplined his body for the Gospel. It was like a training camp for him.”
* * *
Despite his Olympic accomplishments, Byrd’s early bouts as a heavyweight barely made a ripple in the wider boxing pond. “I was an Olympic silver medallist and I was fighting in a nightclub,” he chuckles with disbelief. “A nightclub! I had about seven fights there, then someone had me fight on a bigger card and I was like the walk-in bout. But I was so impressive that people were saying: ‘wow, where’s this kid been? An Olympic silver medallist and he’s fighting here? This little middleweight is now fighting as a heavyweight?’ My career took off from there.”
Emboldened by his aforementioned Christian faith, Byrd’s early career credo was an admirable one: ‘fight everybody and anybody’. So it was that he swiftly accumulated an impressive ledger of victories, negotiating every challenge that was thrown his way and refusing to take the ‘tomato can’ route to a world ranking. For example, in just his eleventh fight, Byrd squared up against world-ranked and future IBF cruiserweight champion Arthur Williams. Despite a vast deficit in experience compared to his 28-fight opponent, Byrd deservedly edged a keenly fought contest on a split decision.
Three fights later Byrd faced former WBC Heavyweight Championship challenger Phil Jackson, then 34-2 and on a five-fight unbeaten streak since extending Lennox Lewis to eight rounds. Byrd totally dominated the Miami native, winning 119-109 on all three judges’ scorecards. Lionel Butler, Levi Billips, Bert Cooper, Jimmy Thunder and Ross Puritty were among the other decent trial-horses and fringe contenders to be bamboozled by Byrd’s beguiling combination of a southpaw stance, fast hands, swift upper-body movement and elusive defence.
By the beginning of 1999, Byrd had been a pro for six years and had an unblemished record of 26-0. As he sought to make the step up to challenge for a world title, few of his peers were in a hurry to face him. “I called out every major heavyweight in boxing and was willing to face any of them,” Byrd recalls. “Everybody knew it. I think that’s why in the late ‘90s I was the most feared guy. Nobody wanted to fight me. It was so hard to get these guys to come out. I kept saying: ‘they’re going to wait until I get old! That’s when they’re going to face me!’
"Between the age of 25 and 28, oh my goodness, nobody wanted to touch me. I was like, are they serious? Is that what boxing is? I was left handed, I was fast, I was very elusive, not a big puncher but I was willing to fight them all, from Riddick Bowe to Ray Mercer to Frank Bruno. Ask any of them!”
Eventually, Byrd did find a live contender who was willing to fight him - Nigerian Ike Ibeabuchi. Then 19-0, Ibeabuchi was viewed as a loose cannon in the heavyweight division after a series of legal problems in the wake of his sensational points win against unbeaten and hyped contender David Tua. To facilitate the fight, Byrd had to make significant financial sacrifices. “Looks like he’s getting paid almost twice as much as me,” he shrugged at the time. “But that’s OK. I’ve always wanted to fight the best and now at last someone who’s rated highly by the experts is going to fight me.”
The fight was set for 20 March 1999 in Tacoma, Washington and proved one of the great disappointments of Byrd’s career. The first four rounds were tight, with Byrd swaying out of the way of many but not all of the Nigerian’s lunging hooks and body shots and scoring himself with some quick counters. However, in the fifth round, Byrd was caught by a massive left uppercut. Although he bravely rose and beat the count, after a further flurry of destructive Ibeabuchi punches, and another visit to the canvas, the referee intervened and stopped the contest as the round ended.
In retrospect, Byrd admits that the fight represented a crucial junction in his career. “Most definitely that fight was a turning point,” he confirms. “It was huge. For me, it was God really getting a hold of me. That’s how I look at it. At that point I was undefeated, I was on my way to the title. I had a love-hate relationship with boxing fans. The message-boards had blown up, some people were saying I was no good, but then other people were saying I was good. Inwardly though, I thought I was the man. I thought I was untouchable. I thought: ‘Ike can’t whup me. I don’t care! Bring on the best heavyweight! I’m undefeated, nobody can whup me!’
"When the Ike fight was made I told Max Kellermen, who was working on Friday Night Fights at ESPN: ‘he ain’t gonna touch me, he’s big and he’s going to be clumsy and slow, just like the rest of them.’ I had this arrogant, over-confident attitude, like I couldn’t get touched … and I got touched! But that’s a part of boxing, especially heavyweight boxing. I got caught. But when it happened it really shook me up, I was like, OK, it’s not about you. I’ve been given this ability to glorify God, not to glorify me … So I took a step back.”
* * *
With his tricky style intact but his unbeaten record gone, Byrd was at risk of becoming just another forgotten contender. He regrouped with four quick KO wins against forgettable opposition, including faded Cuban Jose Ribalta, but it was a chance occurrence in April 2000 that resurrected his career. Veteran Canadian Donovan ‘Razor’ Ruddock had been due to face Vitali Klitschko in a WBO heavyweight title bout but withdrew ten days before the contest in Berlin with hepatitis. In a move that HBO commentator Larry Merchant described as “90 per cent arrogance, ten per cent ignorance”, Klitschko’s team approved of the far trickier Byrd as a last-minute replacement.
Vitali had a perfect record of 27 fights and 27 knockouts going into the fight and, early on, racked up the rounds. Nevertheless, Byrd had some success neutralising the Ukrainian’s pawing left jab with his right, and also scored with a few sharp left-handed counters. As the contest entered the later rounds, Byrd was increasingly backing a tiring Klitschko up, growing in confidence throughout the eighth and ninth rounds with some highly effective counter-attacks. Nevertheless Klitschko’s decision to withdraw before the start of the tenth with a shoulder injury, while well ahead on points, was bizarre at best, unforgiveable at worst.
Although the judges had Vitali ahead by scores of 88-83 (twice) and 89-82 at the time of his surrender, such a reading of the fight flattered him; in terms of punches landed Byrd only trailed Vitali 132-124 on the Compubox stats, showing the fight was far closer than it may have first appeared. With Byrd finishing strong and Vitali tiring, the final three rounds would have been fascinating. Such speculation matters not though; in the record books the fight will forever be a Byrd victory, and a victory which earned him the WBO portion of the heavyweight title.
“Everybody in Germany thought I was gonna get knocked out,” Byrd reflects today of the astonishing victory. “He was bigger than I thought, I looked at him and was like, wow, this guy is huge! The crowd started laughing because I was so small. I thought if I got past four rounds, this fight is gonna be mine. After I came back to my corner at the end of the ninth round, I sat and my lawyer looked up at me and said: ‘I think he quit!’ Me and my father looked over and they were throwing in the towel. I just jumped straight up in the air. And I cried. I couldn’t believe, at this point in my career, that I was holding a portion of the heavyweight title against a guy who’d been undefeated.”
* * *
Byrd’s joy was short-lived; Wladimir Klitschko exacted revenge for his brother’s defeat six months later with a wide decision victory, knocking Byrd down twice along the way. Once again, though, just when his career looked down and out, Byrd scrambled his way back into contention the hard way, courtesy of an impressive win against the under-rated Maurice Harris and a sensational unanimous decision victory against the teak-tough New Zealander David Tua - a performance Byrd still rates as one of his best. A virtuoso performance of the noble art of hitting and not getting hit, Byrd kept Tua off balance and countered his opponent’s attempts to cut off the ring or bully him on the ropes with quicksilver movement and razor-sharp counter-punching.
The Tua victory made Byrd the IBF number one contender, setting up a potential contest against then unified champion Lennox Lewis. But the Brit refused to play ball. ”He gave the belt up,” Byrd explains in a matter of fact manner that soon gives way to indignation. “We were in negotiations but he gave the belt up. I kept calling his bluff with whatever offer they made: ‘I’ll take it!’ I’d say. You sure? ‘Yep, I’ll take it!’ I just wanted the opportunity. I view Lennox Lewis as one of the greats and I just wanted to fight the greats. I mean, win or lose, you fight!”
After Lewis released a statement claiming there was “no public interest in a Lennox Lewis/ Chris Byrd bout” and that such a contest was “meaningless”, Byrd was matched with the legendary Evander Holyfield in December 2002 for the vacant strap. “Holyfield was a guy I’d looked up to my whole boxing career,” Byrd confesses today. “I can honestly tell you I was in awe of him. So beating him was the best feeling I’ve ever had in boxing.” Once again, Byrd’s pure boxing skills were simply too perplexing for an opponent to handle; the fact that for once an opponent didn’t tower over him must have also made a refreshing change for Byrd.
Ultimately, Byrd would defend his IBF title four times in a reign lasting a little over three years, winning decisions against Fres Oquendo, Jameel McCline and DaVarryl Williamson, as well as drawing against mercurial Pole Andrew Golota. The McCline victory was particularly notable, coming as it did against a man whose immense bulk totally dwarfed Byrd. In the early stages of the fight McCline also seemed to have his number.
“I got knocked down in the second round and almost got knocked down in the third,” Byrd recalls. “I overcame a deficit and fought my way back to a victory. That was a great comeback fight. And I was fighting a big huge man! I’m good friends with Jameel and he later told me he weighed 285lbs on the Saturday of the fight. And I weighed in at 214 with my clothes and shoes on! I’m full on the scales, to look good to the public and so the media wouldn’t kill me, but I stopped eating afterwards so at the time of the fight I was probably 208lbs!
"He looked totally different when he got in the ring. I was like, ‘wow!’ My father even said to me: ‘That’s a big man! Get your hands up, son!’ Jameel looked huge across the ring! But when it’s fight time you’ve got to battle. That was a great victory for me because I had to come back. Sometimes you’ve got to just bite down and go for it!”
Byrd’s IBF reign finally ended at the fists of an old nemesis, Wladimir Klitschko bludgeoning him to a seventh round TKO defeat in April 2006. In retrospect, it was a bout that proved the end of Byrd’s career as a top-rank heavyweight. Losses to Alexander Povetkin in 2007 and Shaun George, during an ill-advised drop to light-heavyweight, followed and Byrd ultimately quit the sport after a cruiserweight victory against Matthias Sandow in 2009. And that’s when the challenges started afresh …
* * *
When the bright lights of stardom are extinguished and the roar of the rabid crowd fades, many sportsmen and women find themselves lost in depression and seek solace in alcohol or drugs.1 Although he avoided these pitfalls, Byrd admits that he too found retirement a daunting challenge.
“I’d been boxing since I was five years old,” he reflects. “It was all I’d ever done. I’d never had a 9-5 job. So when I was done, when it was finally over, that was my identity gone. It felt very empty. It was devastating because I’d been so used to having a routine my whole life, I’d always got up early to go running and the running was for a purpose - I knew I had a fight coming up. I’d go to the gym and I’d know it was for a purpose - a boxing match or a tournament. Then it was over and I was like, man! What do I do? How do I get up? Do I go get a job? But I don’t have a skill set! Do I do something just to bide the time?”
Once again it was the force of his faith that supplied Byrd with the answer. “God really in prayer just opened up everything to me. Boxing was something that God gave me to use for his glory and I realised that after I stopped boxing, my gift now was to speak to young people. It came about when I got asked to speak at a college game here in San Diego. Somebody asked me if I could come and share my testimony about how I came to know the Lord.
"It started from there. After I finished, a company that represents speakers came up to me and said: ‘hey you have a great story, would you mind us representing you and getting you out there to speak?’ I thought if it was God’s will, then of course I should. So I prayed about it and that was it - I was soon speaking not only in churches but doing corporate speaking too. It’s pretty fun, it’s almost like being back in boxing again, performing in front of a crowd!”
Since that first speaking engagement, Byrd has travelled the length and breadth of America spreading his message of clean living, devotion to God and emphasising the importance of maintaining a clear direction in life. “I’ve spoken in a lot of schools, all over the country. It’s been really good touching kids with not just the religious aspect of things but also talking to kids about what their goals are as a youngster.
"Some kids, especially high school kids, have no idea what they want to do after high school. Time goes by so fast when you’re young, so I try to hit home on those type of topics and, of course, Godly topics also, because you’ve got to have that solid foundation to achieve anything in life.”
Among modern sports stars the temptations of fame, sex, drugs and rock n’ roll are greater than ever. Even Byrd’s Barcelona Olympics teammate, the clean-cut Golden Boy himself, Oscar De La Hoya, has succumbed to the dark temptations of substance abuse. Byrd himself is therefore in a seeming minority in having lived and maintained a consistently clean living lifestyle.
“I wasn’t perfect growing up,” he emphasises. “Nobody’s perfect, only Jesus Christ is perfect, but I’ve always led a Godly life. I didn’t smoke, drink, I didn’t cheat on my wife and I’ve been married for 20 years. At the highest level of the game I tried to live a Godly life. I got through unscathed as far as addictions or getting in trouble or this and that were concerned, I led a clean life. So now when I see these young men coming up through boxing or any sport, I want to talk to them, mentor them. I believe that people can be led to the Lord by someone who made it at a high level in sport but still managed to keep their Christ-likeness. It’s been a blessing.”
As for boxing, as befitting a member of the Byrd family, Chris is once again involved in the sport, after a brief hiatus. “I left boxing completely for three years,” he admits. “I was burned out and a little frustrated by stuff. But I’ve come back and started training boxers, getting guys to a higher level.”
Byrd has also branched out into the world of social media, with his own online video and audio podcasts and shows, distributed via his website www.chrisbyrd.com. “I like breaking down fights,” he explains. “I’ve done that since I was little, watching boxing and giving my opinion on the sport comes naturally. A lot of boxing fans and commentators never fought. You know, many people could talk about football on a pro level because they played it at high school, but most people have never boxed before, so I wanted to give my opinions of boxing and give them to a broader range of people worldwide.”
* * *
When thinking of Chris Byrd one image particularly springs to mind. To me, it sums him up; it’s from a video of a speech he made at a church - he’s talking to a crowd, who are hanging on his every word. He’s endearing, funny and entertaining. Unbelievably, he’s joking about his loss to Ike Ibeabuchi, and encouraging his audience to laugh about it too.
As he strides across the stage, joking about the slobber falling from his mouth after that murderous Ibeabuchi uppercut, I realise that, unlike many former boxers, Chris probably doesn’t need the validation of a Hall of Fame induction weekend to make him feel comfortable in his own skin. You see, my theory is that Chris Byrd didn’t fight to make himself feel better, to slay personal demons or to boost his ego or self-belief. No, he fought to compete and express what he saw as his God-given skills. And when the applause died down and his career came to an end, he simply applied his skills to a new field, a new context and a new mission - one that he probably finds more fulfilling than boxing.
Tellingly, Byrd seems pleased that his boxing career peaked at a level just below the worldwide superstardom ‘enjoyed’ by the likes of Tyson, Lewis and Holyfield. “I always think of my career…” he reflects as he starts to wind up one of his speeches in church. “If I’d have been one of those guys who got to that level of outrageous fame, where would I be? … What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul? That’s me. I’d have lost my soul in the process and put Jesus on the backburner. I probably would have gone in a whole different direction mentally.”
Chris Byrd has found inner peace and is a content man, devoid of regrets or any sense of self-recrimination. We could all learn a lesson from that.