Byrd-Oquendo not your typical title fight

Posted: Tuesday, September 09, 2003

Chris Byrd is the IBF heavyweight champion.

He holds a real belt. It used to belong to Lennox Lewis, and Byrd had to beat Evander Holyfield to get it.

Byrd also has an Olympic silver medal, a 35-2 record and two of the fastest hands in boxing, but he's spent the last nine months trying to lure everybody anybody into the ring.

''I'm the test in the heavyweight division,'' the 33-year-old southpaw said. ''Nobody wants to take the test. Nobody wants to study for something so hard.''

The knock on Byrd is his style, which is so herky jerky that some fighters don't want to get into the ring with him. He doesn't throw a nasty power punch or slug his way through his fights, but he is elusive and wily. And, unlike some in the heavyweight division, he's a nice guy.

''In this era of craziness, if I were an ex-criminal or if I beat my wife, I'd be really easy to promote,'' he said.

Byrd is fighting No. 2 IBF contender Fres Oquendo on Sept. 20 at the Mohegan Sun Casino in Uncasville, Conn.

Oquendo, another nice guy, has a 30-1 record and more speed and agility than name recognition.

''We need to clean up boxing's image,'' said the 30-year-old Oquendo of Puerto Rico. ''We have an opportunity to show the boxing world there are some class-act fighters out there. We're the new generation.''

Boxing's heavyweight division doesn't put a premium on such bouts. Toe-to-toe slugfests draw big crowds, and pre-fight antics make headlines.

''I don't fit in at all,'' Byrd said from Las Vegas, where he trains. ''You see me at any fight, I've got my wife with me. That's my best friend.''

Byrd and Oquendo see a void atop the heavyweight division, where Lennox Lewis, Holyfield and Mike Tyson have dominated the headlines for so long.

Lewis is on the sidelines, pondering retirement. He surrendered the IBF belt rather than face Byrd, who then perplexed an aging Holyfield to seize the vacant title.

Tyson, who hasn't fought since stopping Clifford Etienne in February, is mired in legal and financial problems.

Byrd is in a perfect position to take advantage. His bout is being carried by HBO, immediately after the replay of the Sept. 13 fight between Oscar De La Hoya and Shane Mosley.

Byrd hopes people tuning into that bout will stick around for a different kind of heavyweight boxing.

''For those who understand the sport, who like to interpret a fight plan strategy, this is going to be an interesting fight,'' said Kevin Barry, who trained David Tua in his win over Oquendo and his loss to Byrd.

''But we're talking about your average Joe Blow, who sits on a bar stool with a can of beer.''

Oquendo believes this title fight can win over casual fans without news conference charades, especially coming on the heels of the De La Hoya fight.

''We're both artistic fighters,'' he said. ''This is an art. It's like Monet, Van Gogh. They painted beautiful paintings. We make beautiful, precise moves.''

Byrd has been installed as the favorite by Las Vegas oddsmakers, and he said he's hoping a dominating win will get him the recognition he seeks.

Whether it will give him a big-money fight remains to be seen.

''Nobody is putting their hand up to fight Chris Byrd,'' Barry said. ''The guy is extremely quick. He's the most awkward fighter in the heavyweight division. He takes a punch very, very well, and he has the fastest hand speed.

''Who wants to fight him?''

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