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Original Issue

The Man Nobody Wants to Fight He calls himself boxing's Ebola virus, and for good reason--few contenders in the heavyweight ranks want to take a chance against Chris Byrd's slick southpaw style

Chris Byrd may be the IBF heavyweight champion, but what does
that mean these days? Very little, apparently, at least when it
comes to dividing up household chores with his wife, Tracy. "Look
at me," he says in his Las Vegas living room, sorting through a
pile of laundry on the floor. "I'm matching socks." So it goes
for the newest in ring royalty, who complains Kramden-like that
his work is never done. "I've got the garbage to take out, the
kids will be home from school in a couple of hours...." For this
he beat Evander Holyfield?

Actually, this is exactly why he beat Holyfield in December. He
wanted to luxuriate in the rituals of family, forever secure in a
suburban life that, in addition to such niceties as the title
belt and the million-dollar purses that go with it, includes
folding underwear. Considering Byrd's upbringing, it figures that
he would be a devoted family man. One of eight kids raised by Joe
and Rose in Flint, Mich., Byrd never really left the nest. His
father remains his trainer, and his mother is his assistant
trainer (they're both in his corner during fights) and chief
motivator. "Or," says Chris, who is 36--2 with 20 knockouts,
"slave driver." There couldn't have been much question that Chris
would settle down with someone like Tracy and have children,
Jordan, 9, Justin, 7, and Sydney, 4. That was his destiny.

What's surprising is that a 6'1 1/2", 210-pound former
middleweight with no punching power and a slick southpaw style
that is decidedly nontelegenic would come this far in this sport.
He's always been a highly regarded boxer whom nobody wants to
fight. "I've been the Ebola virus of boxing," says Byrd, who won
a silver medal at the 1992 Olympics before turning pro and almost
immediately moving up to the heavyweight ranks because the money
was better. "Get someone to fight me? I can't even get someone to
spar. I'm telling you, boxers would rather get knocked out by
Mike Tyson than get clowned by me. If you get knocked out, you
can always say it was a lucky punch. But if you're embarrassed by
me, what can you say?"

Byrd's competitive zeal and courage have never been questioned.
Indeed, he's surely the bravest fighter in the game, taking
matches with people he can't possibly hurt. With his middleweight
firepower he's been in a no-win situation in his pro career.
"I've been told that I don't have a professional style," he says,
meaning he doesn't detonate opponents.

It was only two months ago, at 32, that Byrd finally got a crack
at a belt. WBC champion Lennox Lewis, who is widely regarded as
the bona fide heavyweight titlist, has been careful to avoid
Byrd--even forfeiting the IBF crown for refusal to defend--but
Holyfield, desperate to regain his titular glory, met Byrd for
the vacant championship. It was a typical performance for Byrd,
outpointing a stronger opponent, mixing it up in the end to prove
he's not just a finesse fighter. As he did in wins over dangerous
boxers such as David Tua and Vitali Klitschko, Byrd defused
Holyfield's power with his bag of tricks.

Byrd hopes that he can no longer be avoided, that his title
leverage is enough that his promoter, Don King, can force bigger
and more lucrative matches. Byrd would like later in the year to
meet the winner of March's John Ruiz--Roy Jones Jr. WBA
heavyweight title fight, and he wants someday to get in the ring
with Lewis.

For once, though, he has the luxury of picking his spots, not
having to fight injured because he is fearful he'll never get
another chance (he trained for the March 1999 Ike Ibeabuchi bout
with maxi pads taped to his ribs to protect his torn cartilage),
not having to wait out his obvious opponents, not having to fight
through the sport's politics. He still, however, has to fold
laundry. --Richard Hoffer

COLOR PHOTO: MARY GODLESKI/AP SOFT SELL Byrd doesn't blow opponents up, but he made a deep impression on Holyfield in December.