CHRIS BYRD may be the IBF heavyweight champion, but what does that mean these days? Very little, apparently, at least when it comes to dividing up household chores with his wife, Tracy. "Look at me," he says in his Las Vegas living room, sorting through a pile of laundry on the floor. "I'm matching socks." So it goes for the newest in ring royalty, who complains Kramden-like that his work is never done. "I've got the garbage to take out, the kids will be home from school in a couple of hours..." For this he beat Evander Holyfield?
Actually, this is exactly why he beat Holyfield in December. He wanted to luxuriate in the rituals of family, forever secure in a suburban life that, in addition to such niceties as the title belt and the million-dollar purses that go with it, includes folding underwear. Considering Byrd's upbringing, it figures that he would be a devoted family man. One of eight kids raised by Joe and Rose in Flint, Mich., Byrd never really left the nest. His father remains his trainer, and his mother is his assistant trainer (they're both in his corner during fights) and chief motivator. "Or," says Chris, who is 36-2 with 20 knockouts, "slave driver." There couldn't have been much question that Chris would settle down with someone like Tracy and have children, Jordan, 9, Justin, 7, and Sydney, 4. That was his destiny.
What's surprising is that a 6'1½", 210-pound former middleweight with no punching power and a slick southpaw style that is decidedly nontelegenic would come this far in this sport. He's always been a highly regarded boxer whom nobody wants to fight. "I've been the Ebola virus of boxing," says Byrd, who won a silver medal at the 1992 Olympics before turning pro and almost immediately moving up to the heavyweight ranks because the money was better. "Get someone to fight me? I can't even get someone to spar. I'm telling you, boxers would rather get knocked out by Mike Tyson than get clowned by me. If you get knocked out, you can always say it was a lucky punch. But if you're embarrassed by me, what can you say?"
Byrd's competitive zeal and courage have never been questioned. Indeed, he's surely the bravest fighter in the game, taking matches with people he can't possibly hurt. With his middleweight firepower he's been in a no-win situation in his pro career. "I've been told that I don't have a professional style," he says, meaning he doesn't detonate opponents.
It was only two months ago, at 32, that Byrd finally got a crack at a belt. WBC champion Lennox Lewis, who is widely regarded as the bona fide heavyweight titlist, has been careful to avoid Byrd—even forfeiting the IBF crown for refusal to defend—but Holyfield, desperate to regain his titular glory, met Byrd for the vacant championship. It was a typical performance for Byrd, outpointing a stronger opponent, mixing it up in the end to prove he's not just a finesse fighter. As he did in wins over dangerous boxers such as David Tua and Vitali Klitschko, Byrd defused Holyfield's power with his bag of tricks.
Byrd hopes that he can no longer be avoided, that his title leverage is enough that his promoter, Don King, can force bigger and more lucrative matches. Byrd would like later in the year to meet the winner of March's John Ruiz-Roy Jones Jr. WBA heavyweight title fight, and he wants someday to get in the ring with Lewis.
For once, though, he has the luxury of picking his spots, not having to fight injured because he is fearful he'll never get another chance (he trained for the March 1999 Ike Ibeabuchi bout with maxi pads taped to his ribs to protect his torn cartilage), not having to wait out his obvious opponents, not having to fight through the sport's politics. He still, however, has to fold laundry.