The punches were coming at me at warp speed
CHRIS BYRD made a career out of beating up bigger men. The southpaw halted Vitali Klitschko in 2000 to claim the WBO heavyweight title, and outscored Evander Holyfield two years later for the IBF strap. Despite his success, the 6ft slickster was perennially encouraged to drop down in weight and pick on someone his own size.
After a bruising loss to Alexander Povetkin in 2007, he decided to do just that. He started to lose weight. His target was the cruiserweight division but the rate at which he peeled pounds encouraged him to drop even further. Seven months after tipping the scales at 211lbs for the Povetkin fight, Byrd scaled 175 for a light-heavyweight duel with Shaun George.
But it went badly wrong. There was no substance beneath his lean frame. His legs looked like matchsticks. His face was gaunt.
“I lost 40lbs in five weeks,” Byrd recalls. “I became obsessed with running and I was on a runner’s high. I was running 13 or 14 miles a day. It felt good because the weight was just coming off. But when I got in the ring, I didn’t have nothing. I couldn’t even warm up before the fight.”
Disaster loomed from the opening bell. George – a fringe contender at best – was nowhere near as formidable as Byrd’s previous opponents but he reeked of danger. The former champion, so used to attacking giants, felt like he was in a parallel universe.
“The punches were coming at me at warp speed. The punches were probably not that fast to anyone else but me! I knew I was in trouble straight away. I had nothing. I took it for granted that he wouldn’t hurt me because I could take a heavyweight punch. I was wrong. Boxers can punch, regardless. I weighed 175, he weighed 175, and he was punching hard. I’d lost so much weight so quickly that it hurt me. With hindsight, I should have done it gradually, I should have come down to cruiserweight first.”
Like so many who lose weight, Byrd had been seduced by his reflection.
“I was at the Joe Calzaghe-Bernard Hopkins fight, five weeks before my fight, and I weighed 174lbs that day. I kept the weight off because I had become obsessed by it, big time. I hadn’t been that light since 1993, I thought it was great. But once the weight has gone, you’ve actually got to get in the ring and fight. As soon as the fight started I knew I was in trouble.”
After eight one-sided rounds, Byrd collapsed under another assault in the ninth round. He was reminded of his hellacious descent when Eddie Chambers – another small heavyweight who enjoyed success against vaster fighters – dropped down to cruiserweight on Saturday (August 3). Although it wasn’t quite the disaster that Byrd endured, he lost a convincing decision to Thabiso Mchunu.
“I think Eddie took it for granted that he was going to lose the weight and dominate at cruiserweight but it’s not that easy,” Byrd explains. “You have people in boxing criticise the cruiserweight division but the division has better athletes than at heavyweight. It was an eye-opener for Eddie and I experienced the same thing. Everyone was telling me to go down in weight and I’d dominate, but I looked at certain guys and I knew it would be a tough matchup. Maybe I could have won a title there but the fact is it was easier for me at heavyweight. They might punch harder, but they’re slower, a little lazier, and they get tired faster. If you’re a smaller guy, and you can hang in the fight long enough, you’re going to outlast them. You can do a lot of things they can’t do. This is not a career-ender for Eddie Chambers, it’s an eye-opener.”
Although “Fast” Eddie can come again, the journey is over for Byrd. Now almost 43 and out of the ring since 2009, he has no plans to fight again, no matter the size of the opponent.
“I never announced my retirement, and I probably never will. But you’ll never see me back in the ring!”
Read more from Byrd - including his take on Klitschko-Povetkin and Haye-Fury - in this week's BOXING NEWS
For top class boxing analysis go to Byrd's Eye View