Chris Byrd, a heavyweight champion who looks too small to be one, and Wladimir Klitschko, a former champion who once looked too big and strong to lose, have proved those perceptions wrong.
In both cases, it gives the opponents a refreshing humility for today’s International Boxing Federation title bout in Mannheim, Germany.
“I’m still trying to prove I belong in this division,” said Byrd, who rose from an amateur middleweight U.S. Olympian to a professional heavyweight champion. “I may be a small guy, but I want to be huge in this division.”
Byrd’s 39 victories in 42 bouts include only 20 knockouts. In defending his title, he will try to avenge his loss to Klitschko 51/2 years ago. Klitschko (45-3), who has knocked out 40 opponents, floored Byrd twice in their first fight, winning an easy unanimous decision.
But Klitschko, like Byrd, remembers his shortcomings as much as his successes. After suffering knockout losses to Corrie Sanders and Lamon Brewster, “I lost the respect of my opponents,” he said. Critics said he had “no chin, no stamina” and wrote him off.
Rather than gloat in assessing his subsequent victory over highly regarded prospect Samuel Peter, Klitschko said, “I learned that a dead man can keep walking and walking and walking.”
Beating Peter also vaulted him into this title shot. “Criticism is a great motivator,” Klitschko said. “And performance will change disrespect.”
He and Byrd spoke Wednesday on a conference call from Germany. Despite the time difference, their fight will be televised live to the U.S. (4 p.m. Saturday, HBO).
Byrd, 35, is five years older, six inches shorter and about 25 pounds lighter than his 240-pound, 6-foot-6-inch challenger. He insisted he has learned over the years to pick his spots to slug it out with bigger opponents, such as Andrew Golota, David Tua and Jameel McCline, but conceded he will have to rely on the quickness and guile that have carried him this far.
Asked if he would try to “check” Klitschko’s suspect chin at the outset, Byrd replied, “If you try to check somebody’s chin, you will get checked.”
Lack of knockout power has diminished Byrd’s status in a division where fans want big punches and sudden endings. Klitschko acknowledged such expectations.
“Knockout is the best way to win,” he said. “Winning by points sometimes still leaves a lot of questions.”
This will be Byrd’s first fight since he split with promoter Don King. “I’m happy to be free,” he said, but declined to elaborate on the breakup of their relationship, alluding instead to boxing politics that prevented him from “fighting the top guys in recent years.”
With the muddled state of the division, a decisive win could stamp Byrd or Klitschko as king of the heavyweight hill. If, as has been rumored, there is a tournament among the various champions-who now include Hasim Rahman, Sergei Liakhovich and Nicolay Valuev, “You’ve got to come through the winner of this bout to be the man,” Byrd said.
When Klitschko’s older brother Vitali retired as World Boxing Council champion because of lingering injuries, it dashed the brothers’ dream of being heavyweight title-holders at the same time.
Now Wladimir hopes to succeed his brother on the throne.
(c) 2006, Chicago Tribune.
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