Heavyweight Boxing Champion Chris Byrd

Who’s In Your Corner? Heavyweight Champion Chris Byrd

Written by Mei Ling Starkey

Whether playing a sport or going through life, the words of a friend, family member or coach have the power to get us through some of the toughest times. Whether fighting Evander Holyfield, or talking to youth, two-time heavyweight champ and Olympic Silver Medalist boxer Chris Byrd believes the highest level of the sport is giving back. Risen caught up with Byrd to hear how his parents challenged him in the ring, how his wife encouraged him in his relationship with Christ, and how he now uses his platform to give back to young people.

Interviewed Exclusively for Risen Magazine in San Diego, California

Risen Magazine:  You started boxing at age five and competing at ten. How did you decide that this is what you wanted to do with your life?

Chris Byrd:  I come from a boxing family. There are five boys and three girls. All the boys boxed and the girls know how to box. My mom was in my coaching corner. It was in my blood, but I didn’t really know that it was I wanted to do with the rest of my life until I made it to the Olympic trials. I was number two in the United States in my weight class at seventeen years old. The age range was 17-35 so when I was seventeen, I was fighting against grown men. I was this skinny kid that was handling my business in the ring. I made it to the Olympic trials.  I fought against this guy, Ariel Hernandez who was an Olympian. He was the number one guy. I ended up losing to him, but made up my mind that I would be at the next Olympics in four years. That was in 1992. I really made my mind up that I’m not playing around anymore. I knew then that boxing was what I wanted to do.

Risen Magazine: How did you start your spiritual journey?

Chris Byrd: I gave my life to the Lord when I was 22 years old. I got married pretty young and my wife gave her life to the Lord first. She started going to church, reading the Bible, and doing ministry. At the time, I wanted nothing to do with it.  She kept telling me about the Lord and I did not want any part of it. I finally went to church to please her. I wasn’t expecting to become a Christian. I gave my life to the Lord three weeks after I first went to church. God has a plan for each of our lives. For me, my spiritual journey includes not only sharing the Gospel with boxers, but others around the world through the sport.

Risen Magazine:  You saw your wife going to church for a long time, but you just didn’t want to go, so what was the turning point for you?

Chris Byrd:  My wife, Tracy, begged me to go to church with her. Looking back it was a great thing. And then she just stopped asking me to go. I thought she stopped caring about me when she stopped asking me. So I told her that I would go to church with her. Going was the starting point and the real turning point was when I gave my life to Christ.

Chris Byrd versus Evander Holyfield for the IBF Heavyweight Championship Dec 14, 2002.

Chris Byrd versus Evander Holyfield for the IBF Heavyweight Championship Dec 14, 2002.

Risen Magazine: How would you relate the things you have learned in the boxing ring to your relationship with God?

Chris Byrd:  You’re in a constant fight. When I’m in a fight, I pray to God. When I was in the ring, I would look at these big guys and say, “Lord, give me the strength and energy to keep this fight, not only for me but for my opponent also. But I do want this victory.” It’s a battle in-and-out of the ring. In the ring, I fell in flesh and blood. Outside, I’m not. I’m battling against the world. I relate my boxing to a battle, to a fight, and I still do to this day. And that’s good advice for every single human. As a Christian, the thing is if you don’t know that you are in a fight, you are already losing. I never wanted to lose. I always strive and do things unto the Lord. God has my back. I just cling on tight to that. I used to go home all by myself after a fight, after all the celebration and just thank God for getting me through it. I would thank Him that we just won another battle. I thanked him for not getting injured. I prayed early on to the Lord to allow me to be a heavyweight and that I will represent him at the highest level; not knowing as a young Christian, I would eventually become a heavyweight and win titles. For me, it was solely to represent the Lord in the world of boxing.

Risen Magazine: Whether its finances, a battle with health, or relationship issues, a lot of us get to a point where we are ready to throw in the towel. What advice do you have for someone who feels like they are up against the ropes?

Chris Byrd: It is easy to say, but hard to live out. First, choose God and then totally trust and believe God is able to take care of you in all situations. You have to have faith that God can do it. You have to remember that he’s your Lord; he’s your Father. He will take care of you.  Some Christians say, “I believe in that,” but don’t fully believe. And then you have other Christians that will say, “I can’t get through it.” It’s important to go back to God’s word. It shows how God is faithful and how he gets people through situations. The Bible is true and God is amazing. You have to read the Bible to truly understand and believe in your heart one hundred percent. Everybody is not on the same level or same belief system, but at the same time your faith can set you apart. A lot of times, we are able to look back on a situation and say, “I got through it.” Remember that the Lord got you through it. Then we can share how God got us through it with others. Then, when you get in another situation, you will remember how God is faithful. You also have to be in prayer. That’s where I’m at in my life. Even when things get tough, we need to turn to God’s word. When the economy got really bad, a lot of people lost a lot and questioned whom they should trust. We have to remember that we have the Almighty Counselor on our side. The greatest person you can go to when you are going through something tough is the Lord. When I was an amateur boxer and I came to the Lord and some of my friends got in sticky situations, they didn’t know what to do, but they knew what I believed. They knew the type of advice I would give if they called me. Ever since I got saved and started growing in the Lord, its been about him and pointing people to him.

In every battle, I would say, “The Lord got me through it.” Win or lose, I would always point people back to Christ.

Risen Magazine: That’s so cool because you have so much respect in the ring and in your sport. Your friends and your fans respect what you say because of your accomplishments and your life experiences.

Chris Byrd: Everybody that knows me as a boxer, and even some of my fans, saw me as the “religious guy.”  A lot of opponents were fearful of me because I transitioned from mid-weight to heavyweight class. They didn’t understand that God was giving me power to battle all these big guys. In every battle, I would say, “The Lord got me through it.” Win or lose, I would always point people back to Christ.

Risen Magazine: Your corner or coaching team consisted primarily of family members including your mom. What was the best coaching advice she gave to you while you were in the ring?

Chris Byrd:  My mother was hardcore. My father was the head coach. He gave me advice in front of me in the ring. My mother was in my ear. She would say, “You know how hard you train, you’ve got a family, you’ve got kids to support, you better get in there and work.” That advice trumped anything my father said. I was a mama’s boy and I would talk to my mom a lot about the sport. We talked a lot about amateur, when I was an amateur, and pro, when I was a pro. She would always tell me how hard I worked. She never thought I was tired. She had all these sayings, “You didn’t look tired. You didn’t look hurt in the ring. You don’t get hurt.” She would say those things when she was in the corner, and then she would bring up my wife, family and kids… serious stuff. It would always get me. “Remember how hard you worked, all those mountains you ran, all those punches you took, and you’re gonna quit and give up now? You don’t want to keep going?” It was stuff like that she would use to motivate me. And that to me was everything. She was in my ear constantly telling me stuff like that. It was very encouraging in the corner. It gave me that extra boost to go out there and fight. It made a lot of sense. It didn’t matter how big the guy was, how strong, his reputation, my mother didn’t care at all. She would remind me, “He’s not better than you. Remember that. He’s not better than you. Get out there and fight!” It was easy for her to say, I was the one who had to go out and battle.

Risen Magazine:  I love that! What was the toughest loss or defeat for you?

Chris Byrd: It was honestly the Olympic finals. I never cried in a boxing match. I had over 300 boxing matches and never cried. I cried like a baby after that match. I had envisioned myself with a gold medal. For me it was an awesome event. I was not even considered to win a medal. It was baffling though. I had one of the best Olympic performances in boxing my first four fights ever. It was packed in the arena every time I got in the ring. Everyone wanted to see me fight; it was like a show. I was so arrogant and so cocky going into the final. It was devastating. In my mind, I had the gold medal around my neck, but I actually won the silver. It was devastating. It was a blessing though. I didn’t realize it until one of my teammates told me. He said, “You work your whole life to this point.” He didn’t win a medal. Only three of us won a medal that year. One was gold, one was silver, and one was bronze. After that, he just kept saying, “We worked our whole lives and I didn’t get one, but you got one!” It put everything into perspective. I was devastated. I cried in the locker room. I couldn’t believe I lost the gold medal. In a fight that I thought I won also. It was a very close fight. That was the toughest loss, even more than my professional career. In my professional career, God just blessed me to get to that level. I was a mid-weight in amateur and heavyweight in pro. I was fighting all these big guys in heavyweight. It was just a blessing.

Risen Magazine:  It’s awesome you are able to look back on it and have that perspective now. Speaking of silver medal, as a silver medalist, two-time Heavyweight Champion of the World, who was your favorite person to box against?

Chris Byrd:  Evander Holyfield by far. Evander is a legend of the sport. My goal in boxing was to box what I called the “Big Three.” They were the Chevy, Chrysler, Ford of that time. It was Lennox Lewis, Mike Tyson, and Evander Holyfield. These are the three greats of the heavyweight division in my era and the era right before me. So Evander was a little bit older when I fought him, so he was a little past his peak years. But it was definitely an awe moment. I was in the ring and I kept thinking, “I’m getting ready to fight Evander Holyfield. I’m going to get hit by Evander Holyfield.” I was in awe in my corner. He won the first round because I was in such awe. My father got in the corner and said, “What are you doing? You gotta give me a fight.” Because it was my moment; it was my time. Then after the first round the awe was over. I thought, “This guy is going to try and knock me out so I gotta go to work.” [Byrd eventually did go on to beat Holyfield in the fight.]

Risen Magazine:  Most of our readers have never experienced a knock out, what does it feel like?

Chris Byrd:  There is no feeling. I have been TKOed (technical knock out). I have never been knocked out cold. I’ve hit the mat. I was knocked out in the air and the mat woke me up. You don’t feel anything. You just go to sleep. It feels like you take a nap for a second and then you get up. Most boxers when they get hit, they go to sleep for a moment, and then the canvas wakes you up. I’ve never been knocked down as an amateur, but when you turn professional, it’s a whole different ballgame, especially heavyweight boxing. The feeling I really can’t tell you, you have to experience it yourself.

Risen Magazine: Well, I hope I never experience one.

Chris Byrd: Yeah, it’s a strange feeling because when you do actually realize you are down on the ground, I remember thinking, “Why am I down on the canvas? Why am I looking at this guy’s socks instead of his eyes?” Then you realize, “I’m getting pounded at this moment. I gotta get up.” It’s the strangest feeling.



Irish Band: Rend Collective Experiment. Left to Right: Gareth Gilkeson, Chris Llewellyn, Will Herron, Patrick Thompson (standing) and Ally Gilkeson. Photo by Andy Hutch

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