Friday, May 23, 2008

Freddie Norwood

I was very depressed when I read about Freddie Norwood’s knockout loss to Donnie Edwards on the Wednesday Night Fights. I used to manage Freddie when he was an unbeaten and (for a short while) unbeatable junior featherweight.

More than with any other fighter I’ve managed, Freddie Norwood’s career was one where cultural subtext played an influential role in contributing to his lack of success (and I say this although Freddie won the featherweight championship twice.)

Because he was small, black (black specifically in an East St. Louis-limited-access-to-white-people kind of way), taciturn, and consummately efficient in the ring, it was nearly impossible to get fights for him, no matter the terms.

I had a standing offer to all of the major promoters and TV guys that, if the opponent weighed 130 or less, they needn't bother asking me whether Norwood would take the fight: the answer would automatically be yes.

Even with that kind of open-ended proposal in place, almost nothing materialized. I’d get brave sounding phone calls asking whether we’d take chump change to fight some high-profile prospect or other. I’d always agree to the terms (knowing that, for a guy like Norwood, there’d never be any money until there was no choice but to pay him real money) and caution the guy making the offer that the other side would back out.

When the other side did back out, I’d ask why not drop Fighter X and keep Freddie? We all know the answer to that question.

Under the circumstances, it was almost inevitable that Norwood’s career would never completely develop. He was too much like the great black unwanted fighters of the 1930s, 40s, and 50s--too good, too subtly efficient and too culturally defined as “bad” black—black without crossover appeal.

By the time Norwood won the featherweight title, he was already a couple of years past his best. It says something about his level of proficiency that he was able to beat Juan Manual Marquez long after he’d hit his prime.

And it makes me wonder what a fighter like Freddie Norwood might have been if he’d been allowed to develop under more salubrious conditions. At 122, he was a better fighter than Floyd Mayweather has been at any weight (and a similar fighter, maybe not surprisingly.) It’s a moot point; he’s finished now and we’ll never find out.

I think a lot of the best fighters fade on the vine, unseen and kept far away from their less dangerous, more telegenic counterparts.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Chris Byrd: A Rare Overachiver

Unfortunately Chris Byrd never earned the monster pay day. Sure, he had a fair amount of decent money fights, but due to his style being closer to Pernell Whitaker's than Joe Frazier's, he never was a draw in the heavyweight division. A heavyweight must be a genuine life-taker to become a fan favorite and draw at the box office. Muhammad Ali is the only heavyweight Super-star who wasn't a knockout artist. Boxing fans clamor to see a knockout scored by a supposed great heavyweight much more so than seeing him win with skill, speed and brains.

In January of 1993, Chris Byrd weighed 169 for his pro-debut. A year and a half later, the former 1992 Super-middleweight Silver medalist weighed 200 for his fourth pro fight. From 1994 through 2007, Byrd campaigned as a heavyweight, despite his light heavyweight body and bone structure. It was a calculated gamble, but he made the most it and had more ring success than he did financial success. Chris benefited fighting during an era of heavyweights that were much bigger than they were skilled. He realized that bigger in boxing is only an advantage when the bigger fighter can deliver his size and power. Which Byrd was very good at nullifying. The loose and relaxed Byrd undressed and exposed practically every heavyweight he confronted. He won a piece of the heavyweight title and defended it successfully. He gave former champ Vitali Klitschko his first defeat, and schooled David Tua, who may be the best single punch hitter since the 1970s version of George Foreman.

While still close to being at his best, he was only outclassed by two fighters, Wladimir Klitschko, currently the top fighter in the division, and Ike Ibeabuchi, who had the potential to be one of the best heavyweights to come along since Larry Holmes. The problem he had with Klitschko and Ibeabuchi is they were both very big and very skilled. Definitely too much for a full fledged light heavyweight, or probable Cruiserweight to handle.

Finally, after 13 years of sharing a ring with big heavyweights and being an overachiver, his body started to breakdown, resulting in him slowing down and getting hit more. In his last bout (10-27-07) as a heavyweight, he was stopped by Alexander Povetkin in the 11th round. The version of Byrd who fought between 1999 and 2003, would've won nine of 12-rounds versus the 13 fight Povetkin. After the loss to Povetkin, Chris thought he had enough left to drop down to the weight he maybe should've competed at earlier in his career. For the seven months between Povetkin and his last fight versus Shaun George, Byrd re sculpted his body and weighed in at 174 pounds, five more than he did for his debut 15 years earlier. The drop in weight led to Byrd getting injured, along with his confidence being shook. When he climbed into the ring to fight Shaun George, his body was shredded and cut. To some, he may have looked good, but to most respected boxing observers, he was really just an empty package, wrapped in pretty paper and a colorful bow. Chris was dropped in the first round, and it was evident from that point on, that he left his legs and punch in the training room. He found that his body paid the price fighting dinosaurs, and had nothing left, especially after he depleted it so much over the last seven months getting down to the light heavyweight limit. Byrd absorbed a terrible beating and took more punishment than I'd ever want to see him or any fighter take. He also had a few minor complications afterward, but has recovered and is fine now.

His wife and manager, Tracy, said she'll implore him not to fight again. I hope her influence makes the difference and she can save Chris from himself. Something that won't be easy, because Chris is a very tough and determined guy. Luckily, he's just as smart as he is tough. So I hope that he never laces them up again, and starts a new career passing along his experience and knowledge to those who could benefit from it. His options are open, and he can do almost anything he wants. I hope that's the direction he goes.

In closing, Chris and Tracy Byrd are very easy to cheer for. They happen to be two of the best people I've ever met, not just in boxing, but during my entire life. Those who know boxing respect Chris Byrd as a man and as a fighter, and we all know just how special and unique he was to accomplish everything he did in compiling a pro-record of 40-5-1.

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