Byrds more than bargain-basement boxer and coach

MIKE LITTWIN

August 04, 1992|By MIKE LITTWIN

BARCELONA, Spain -- Joe Byrd, the U.S. boxing coach, never intended to train fighters in his basement.

In fact, when his wife suggested it after Byrd lost his old training site, he said, "I've got too much class to put no gym in my own house."

But he did anyway, and it's important to know about the gym when you watch Joe's son, Chris, fight for a medal here. Because Chris is always leaning on the ropes, doing his Ali rope-a-dope imitation. He learned that in the family gym. He couldn't help but learn it.

Seems the space in the basement is a little cramped. A 12-foot-by-12- foot ring fits snugly (an Olympic ring is 20 by 20), meaning, says Joe Byrd, "Whenever Chris takes a step in any direction, he's got to be on the ropes."

That's the official explanation, but it doesn't quite explain everything about young Byrd. Like why he stuck his tongue out at his opponent yesterday. Chris, a 6-foot-1, 163-pound middleweight, is a showman -- some would say showboat -- who's got a great smile, an appealing face, a regulation tongue and a style that might sell tickets someday. It also looks like he can fight a little bit, which isn't surprising, given his background.

His father was a fighter before he turned trainer. His three older brothers were fighters. Even his sister used to fool around in the ring. And his mother, Rose, is a coach. Yes, a coach.

(Joe on Rose: "Whenever Chris would fight, Rose'd holler so loud it'd drive everybody crazy. I made her a coach so she'd have to be in the corner, and if she hollered, they'd throw her out. But she's a pretty good coach.")

Rose Byrd is the one in the stands hollering here. Joe Byrd is the one at ringside who seems so remarkably calm when his son is in the ring. Chris Byrd is the one who would be Sugar Ray Leonard.

But you can't know the family unless you know the gym. It's back in Flint, Mich., a hardscrabble town that you'd expect to produce fighters. Joe was a pro fighter back in the '50s (43-24) who became a trainer because fighting was what he knew. He got himself a pretty decent place in Flint, a junior high school no longer in use. He had a big ring, and then the grant that kept the place running gave out and they tore the building down.

"I thought they were joking," he said. "One day I got there, and they changed the locks. I had to bust open a door to get my equipment."

Not knowing what else to do, he went to Detroit to look at gyms. Somebody took him to the Second Baptist Church in old Greektown, where, in the basement, they had a little ring. He heard the story of how this church basement was once a stop on the underground railroad in slave days, and how as many as 150 slaves would spend the night in the room.

"I figured if they could fit 150 people in that little room, I could do something with my basement," said Byrd, who did enough to get himself named the Olympic boxing coach.

For the past five years, Chris Byrd has been training in that basement when he wasn't off winning national titles. A father/son coaching arrangement is always at least slightly problematical.

The father says that he has to remind himself that it's his son and not simply some boxer when Chris is in the ring. Chris thinks his father remembers too well.

"When I'm training, he's more than father," Chris said. "I don't like it when he's in the basement."

He's been in some gym or another with his father for 16 years, since he was 5. He started fighting amateurs when he was 8. Joe Byrd

had one son who fought in the Pan American Games, but he had thought for a while Chris might be the best.

"I told Rose he was the one, but she didn't think he was serious enough," Joe said. "That's the thing about him. He always acts like he don't care. He's got that fighter's attitude."

Yes, he has attitude. Just watch him fight. He's got his hands down (much against his father's wishes) and offers up that chin, daring you to hit it. Usually, you hit air, as he's ducking, bobbing, weaving, the whole catalog of evasion. He looks as if he could dodge a heat-seeking missile. Or else, he's leaning on the ropes (again, against dad's wishes), covering his face, taking shots on his gloves before delivering a giant left at his opponent.

Or he sticks his tongue out (Joe said he'd never seen that one), which is what Chris did yesterday against Algeria's Ahmed Dine, whom he beat, 21-2, computer or no computer.

"He kept looking at me like he knew I couldn't hit him," Chris said, "so I showed him I could hit him and stick my tongue out at the same time."

While he talks, he sports this big, irresistible smile. He'll fight next in the semifinal round, guaranteeing him at least a bronze. That would seem plenty since most people thought he would lose in the second round to a Russian fighter.

But the Byrds never saw it quite that way.

"Well, you know fathers," Joe said. "We didn't come here for a bronze. We want a silver or a gold."

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