Slimmer Byrd ready to feast on light heavyweights

For more than a decade, Chris Byrd, who won a silver medal at 165 pounds in the 1992 Olympic Games, masqueraded as a heavyweight. It was a pretty good ruse, as Byrd became a two-time heavyweight champion.

No more. After 14 years of playing with the big boys, Byrd is doing the unheard of. He is dropping down two weight classes to compete as a light heavyweight.

Only two men have ever won a middleweight and heavyweight world title -- Bob Fitzsimmons and Roy Jones. Byrd wants to do things in reverse. Yes, Jones and Fitzsimmons went back down to recapture the light heavyweight crown. But Jones had only one fight at heavyweight, and Fitzsimmons never weighed more than 172 pounds. Byrd fought 38 of his 40 pro fights at heavyweight.

Byrd weighed 211 pounds for his past match against heavyweight contender Alexander Povetkin on Nov. 27. Six months and 36 pounds lighter, Byrd will make his debut at light heavyweight against Shaun George at the Cox Pavilion on the campus of University of Nevada, Las Vegas on Friday on ESPN's "Friday Night Fights."

"I've been a heavyweight so long, looking at my body now I'm like, 'Wow!'" Byrd said. "People look at me now and the first thing they say is, 'Who is that guy?' The next thing they say is, 'How did you lose the weight?'"

Byrd did not hire a fitness and nutrition guru, like Mackie Shilstone, to drop the weight. He did not go on a fancy Hollywood diet. Byrd did it by becoming well like a bird. He started running like the Road Runner -- as much as seven miles at a clip -- and eating like Tweety Bird -- small meals every two hours.

A typical breakfast is two sausage links, oat cereal with honey and a handful of grapes. He eats all his meals from small paper plates.

"That keeps me on track because you can't get a lot of food on those little plates, but I find a way to pack the food on by stacking it up high," he said. "I find I can't eat a lot at one time. But I eat every two hours, so I'm never hungry."

Right after the Povetkin fight, Byrd said he was contemplating a move to cruiserweight and had slimmed his way to 216 pounds. He made up his mind to move to cruiserweight and began to train with an eye toward getting down to 190. He got down to 190 pounds, and the weight kept melting away.

Then it hit him: Why not lose another 15 pounds?

"I was 15 pounds away from light heavyweight and I still had fat on my body. I said 'I'm going to push it,'" Byrd said. "My brother was in town, and I told him I was going to get down to 175 pounds by the time he came back. He told me I was crazy. Five weeks later, when he came back to town I had lost the last 15 pounds. Now if I get up to 182 pounds, I feel fat. I haven't seen 180 pounds in the last three or four weeks."

Byrd was never really a heavyweight. He would have to stuff his face with all kinds of food just to maintain the weight, particularly after he worked out.

Early in his career, he used his slick boxing skills to play hide-and-seek with the big boys. That elusive style didn't win him many fans, particularly TV executives. But it gave him victories over Vitali Klitschko and Evander Holyfield, whom he defeated for the IBF title in 2002.

Later, in an effort to make himself more fan-friendly and TV appealing, Byrd became more of a stationary target. That meant he was getting battered by men who outweighed him by 20, 30 pounds and in the case of Jameel McCline -- 56 pounds.

About the same time that Byrd had shifted his style, he became more disillusioned with the business. Getting hammered on both sides was no fun.

"After I lost to Povetkin, [No. 1], I couldn't believe I lost to that guy, and No. 2, I was thinking, 'What else do I have to prove?'" Byrd said. "I got dogged out most of my heavyweight career being way undersized, and I won two heavyweight titles.

"If I would have beaten Povetkin, I would have had to fight Eddie Chambers and I'm back in line to fight Wladimir Klitschko and get another butt-whipping. Why would I want to fight that monster again? It didn't make any sense."

Jones knows the feeling. He moved up from light heavyweight to win a heavyweight title when he won a 12-round decision over John Ruiz in 2003. Seven months after beating Ruiz, Jones dropped back down to light heavyweight to fight Antonio Tarver. He managed to win a majority decision over Tarver.

"It's a big difference fighting at light heavyweight [from heavyweight]," Jones said. "The speed and the power are different. I was worn down when I came back down. That's because I did it too quickly. I couldn't even throw that many punches. I would say to [Byrd] to give himself enough time so that his body gets used to the weight. You really aren't used to being in the ring and doing things with your body at that [light heavyweight] size. He's going to have to get used to it after being at heavyweight for so long."

Jones, who is currently in negotiations to fight Joe Calzaghe on Nov. 15, likes the idea of Byrd joining the fray at light heavyweight. At age 37, Byrd fits right in with the rest of the division age-wise, including Calzaghe (36), Jones (39), Tarver (39), Glen Johnson (39) and Bernard Hopkins (43).

"It's a beautiful thing," Jones said. "Once I get through with Joe Calzaghe, I'll definitely be looking at Chris Byrd. It would be the first time in history that two former heavyweight champions fight at light heavyweight. He's definitely going to add some excitement to the division."

Shaun George, Byrd's opponent in his 175-pound debut, said he plans on providing Byrd a rude welcome to the light heavyweight neighborhood. George, a 29-year-old Brooklyn product, has had an up-and-down career.

The biggest victory of his career to date is an eight-round unanimous decision over former contender Richard Hall.

"I understand that everybody will be looking at Chris Byrd, that everybody thinks he is going to be bigger and stronger because he was a two-time heavyweight champion. I understand all that," George said. "But this is my opportunity to show everybody what I can do against a southpaw, that I can go 10 rounds, that I'm over all the injuries and that I'm mentally sharper. There is no doubt in my mind that I'm going to win this fight."

Byrd, who trains at home in Las Vegas, has been sparring with his friend, IBF cruiserweight champion Steve Cunningham, to prepare for George. But he really doesn't know what to expect when he climbs into the ring at 175 pounds for the first time.

"I've lost the weight; now I have to see how I'm going to adapt to fighting at a lower weight," Byrd said. "I can spar and train, but until I get in there and compete, I won't know if I can compete at this weight class. It will probably take me two fights to find that out. So this first fight is a real big learning experience for me, trying to adjust to the speed, the weight loss and just feeling comfortable.

"This is the challenge that I've been missing for the last few years as a heavyweight. The business side still isn't that much fun, but boxing has become fun again."

Tim Smith is the boxing columnist for the New York Daily News.