Back from the Brink: Chris Byrd’s Fight for Life
This story appeared in the August 2021 issue of The Ring.
WHETHER CHRIS BYRD’S RETURN TO BOXING HAPPENS OR NOT, THE FACT THAT IT’S EVEN POSSIBLE IS PROOF THAT HE ALREADY WON THE FIGHT OF HIS LIFE
The park hummed only with the doleful cry of a desperate man swaying gently on a swing. That’s where Laurie Byrd found her baby brother, Chris, the two-time heavyweight titlist, a few blocks from his house one April night in 2017. Chris’ face was a ghoulish mask, his bloodshot eyes bigger than coffee saucers in the twilight.
Laurie stood at the park’s edge for a moment wondering what monster had possessed her brother, once a lovable, hyper kid with a beaming smile who would follow her to basketball practice. Chris was wondering, too. His mind was twisted and he didn’t know what to do next. Drown himself in the Pacific Ocean? Hang himself from a balcony for the neighborhood to see? Stuff his mouth with pills and never wake up?
“The pain started and that changed everything.”
– Tracy Byrd
During a 16-year, 47-fight pro career, the undersized Chris Byrd faced some of the most formidable heavyweights of his era, including David Tua, Evander Holyfield, Vitali and Wladimir Klitschko and Ike Ibeabuchi, gorging himself and trashing his body to barely get over 210 pounds.
But for close to a decade after his final fight, Byrd was faced with a battle more daunting than any presented by those big punchers. His clash came against the horrors of anxiety, depression and despair – constant agony that shoved him to the brink of suicide.
If not for Laurie interceding that spring night in 2017 and a handful of others who came to Byrd’s rescue, this would be a far more somber story.
Byrd, a middleweight silver medalist at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, defied logic as a heavyweight in the pro ranks, where he would routinely battle opponents who were larger than he was – often by a wide margin.
Now Byrd, who will turn 51 on August 15, is thinking about returning to the ring for the first time in 12 years. He says it’s to make up for what he missed during his prime, a real chance to show what he can do at his more natural weight of 160. He says he’s a changed man from the walking Halloween costume he wore for many years, enduring the relentless throbbing in his feet, back, hips, shoulders and knees.
He almost lost his family over it. He almost lost who he is. He almost lost his life.
To outsiders, Chris and his wife, Tracy, lived an idyllic life. They were the perfect boxing couple, as close to a modern version of the Beaver Cleaver TV family as there can be in boxing. Their three children – Jordan, Justin and Sydney – quite literally grew up before the boxing community’s eyes. They seemed well-adjusted; they were a joy to be around. Hardly anyone uttered a sordid word or had a negative attitude when it came to Chris Byrd.
It’s why Byrd’s post-boxing career, at least the first incarnation of it, seems so difficult to fathom.
“Everybody in boxing loved Chris Byrd. And you would meet Chris and Tracy, and who could not love them?” said Steve Cunningham, the two-time IBF cruiserweight titlist. “They named our daughter, Kennedy. We’re that close to the Byrds. Chris is the easiest guy to get along with, a nonhostile guy, except when you’re in the ring with him.
“Chris always had it together. My wife and I always looked at Chris and Tracy as our big brother and sister. I love Chris Byrd. When people ask me who my favorite all-time boxer is, I don’t say Muhammad Ali; I don’t say Sugar Ray Leonard. I say Chris Byrd, because I was in four or five training camps with him. I knew the odds were against him on the business side and the size side. I understand what he was up against – and he still went on to become a two-time heavyweight champion.”
Chris Byrd’s pain first started in 2009 in his left pinky toe. It was just a light tingling sensation. At first, Byrd (41-5-1, 22 knockouts) ignored it, but as it continued to worsen and started to spread, his personable disposition grew dark. Byrd’s last fight was a victory, a four-round knockout over the terribly overmatched Matthias Sandow in Germany on March 21, 2009.
After that, the gifted southpaw became a trainer, following the same path as his parents, Joe and Rose Byrd, who trained their eight children in their fabled “dungeon” in the basement of the Byrd home in Flint, Michigan, the incubator of Chris’ awkward, slick style.
By 2010, the pain had spread. Chris couldn’t sleep for more than two or three hours at a time. Doctors tried to find answers. Chris was diagnosed with peripheral neuropathy, a sometimes excruciating condition caused by nerve damage.
Chris was prescribed numerous anti-inflammatory medications. But the pills had awful side effects, which came to a head in June 2010 when Chris went to see a basketball game in which his sister Laurie was coaching in Los Angeles. Chris went to the game with Tracy, his son Justin and his nephew. After the game, as the family was walking to their car in the parking lot, Tracy mentioned Justin had said something disrespectful to her. The boys were teenagers at the time.
“When we got in the car, I lost it on my son and nephew,” Chris recalled. “I remember screaming at them and wanting to fight them. I was going crazy. I went into a rage. I got out of the car and challenged my son and my nephew to fight. Someone saw this and called the cops. Tracy was trying to tell me to stop. My son and nephew wouldn’t get out of the car, they were so scared. I was circling the car yelling and going crazy.
“I was able to calm myself down when I realized I was acting nuts. I got back in the car. Everything calmed down, but everyone was looking at me like I was crazy. We started driving out of the parking lot and immediately cop cars were driving towards me and behind me, blocking me in.”
There were six police cruisers. Chris stopped the car. The police jumped out, guns drawn, and told the family to get out of the car and hit the ground. Chris and his family complied. After being handcuffed and interrogated, the police allowed Chris’ family to go without any charges.
This, however, convinced Tracy that something was wrong with Chris. His doctor immediately took him off the medication.
“I used to sit in my garage all day and not talk to anyone. I remember telling Tracy that I wanted to end it all. For me, life was over.”
– Chris Byrd
“I started having issues in my hips and both shoulders, and the neuropathy spread all the way up my leg,” Chris recalled. “I could not take the pain any longer. I was no longer sleeping at night. I was starting to feel a little better with the drugs, but then I started to have outbursts. I would lose my temper.
“I finally told Tracy about all of the thoughts I was having. I would have dreams of killing myself, Tracy, my entire family in their sleep. One night, I had a dream of hanging myself from my balcony, naked, so the whole neighborhood could see me. I was so aware these thoughts were not normal. I was so scared of these thoughts. They were so real and so vivid, but I was too scared to tell anyone, because I thought everyone would think I was crazy.”
By August 2010, his family did.
“Chris became someone different, someone I didn’t know,” recalled Tracy, crying. “I still love him. That will never change. He’s always going to be the love of my life. His pain started small and gradually got worse, and worse, and worse. I spent years taking Chris to doctors, begging anyone for help. It reached a point where it became too much for him. It was hell. Chris sucked it up. We were still a family. We did things together. Everyone knew Chris was in pain, and during that time it pained me seeing Chris that way. We had a great marriage that everyone saw. My kids had the best dad, and I had the best husband.
“The pain started and that changed everything.”
Chris spent the summer of 2010 in his bedroom. He was severely depressed and did not see the point of living anymore. Justin was so worried about him that he spent the summer with his father, watching TV. The only time Justin left his side was when Tracy came to bed, or to get his father food.
The rage and thoughts of suicide subsided for a time, though the pain continued to worsen. It reached another crescendo in 2017. Tracy hid anything that Chris could grab to possibly harm himself, like knives and medication.
One weekday morning in April 2017, Chris got up from another bad night.
“That morning I woke up from the pain and I couldn’t take it anymore; all I wanted to do was take some pills and go to sleep for good,” he remembered. “I used to sit in my garage all day and not talk to anyone. I remember telling Tracy that I wanted to end it all. For me, life was over. No one was able to help me. I couldn’t take medication because of my mental state. This was the eighth or ninth time I went through this. My family was used to it.
“But this outburst was worse than the others. I was in pain everywhere. When you’re in real pain, you don’t think right. It’s when it got super serious. I would say that it was the closest I ever came to doing something. I wanted to walk into the ocean, and when I thought I would float back to the shore, I didn’t want my family to see me that way. I remember sitting on the ledge in my backyard, and I wanted to leave the house.
“My family tried to grab me and I threw them off me. I would go crazy. It would be like blacking out. I had been going to doctors every day, and I had enough. When I finally broke, I broke. It led to that.”
Chris walked through the front gate with tears streaming down his face. Drunk on emotion, his ungainly stroll led him to a local park a few blocks away. Laurie followed from a distance. When Chris sat on the swing, Laurie approached him to see if he was OK. Chris sneered at her, warning her away.
Chris kept repeating, “I want to kill myself; I want to cut off my foot; I don’t want to live anymore.”
“The pain was so unbearable, and I kept telling him that I couldn’t understand what he was going through; it was like Chris was possessed,” recalled Laurie. “I looked at Chris and it was like I didn’t know this person.
“I was scared of him because I didn’t know what he was going to do, but I was there to protect him, too. To see him go through that broke my heart. I talked to him and I told him, ‘Momma wouldn’t want to see you like this.’ That calmed him down. (Rose passed away in June 2015.)
“It was like an angel came down and landed on his shoulder. He calmed down. He said, ‘You’re right. She wouldn’t.’”
The pair started laughing and everything went silent. They eased back up, brother and sister, and walked to the house. It seemed like a lifetime to get there, with Chris repeatedly saying, “I’m good, I’m good.”
“That’s the closest I came to actually doing something extreme. Then a million thoughts go through your head that you can’t do it,” Chris said. “It hit me that those committed to suicide are committed to doing it. I thought about how many people I would hurt. I was never committed to doing it. I didn’t want to cause my family any pain. That’s what saved me. I second-guessed myself the whole time.”
Four months later, a chance meeting changed everything.
What Chris Byrd experienced is very much like what many retired NFL veterans go through, living with omnipresent pain. He was dealing with 11 years of no sleep while in constant agony. He was growing psychotic.
Today, Byrd says he is in a good, lucid state of mind.
That journey to recovery began in August 2017 while among a group of people discussing the medicinal benefits of cannabidiol (CBD), one of the many chemical compounds found in marijuana. But unlike THC, marijuana’s main psychoactive component, CBD has no intoxicating effect.
This is where Chris met Tammie Thomas, a cannabis consultant. She didn’t know anything about Byrd but felt instant compassion when Chris shuffled up as the last speaker of the meeting. His feet didn’t spread more than 12 inches apart as he walked to the front of the group.
Within seconds, Chris was sobbing.
“I couldn’t believe that they had Chris speaking,” Thomas remembered. “He was announced as a former two-time heavyweight champion. This guy? A former two-time heavyweight champion? My heart hurt for him.
“Afterward, I knew Chris was going to be bombarded with people, so I passed along my number to him. Chris told me he suffered from neuropathy, which destroys your nerves. It’s very hard to combat and hard to treat. I told Chris I knew I could help him, and Chris was shocked, because for 11 years he had gone to every doctor he could to deal with the pain.”
Byrd waited a week to call Thomas and asked her for a home consultation. His entire family, who had grown frustrated with Chris’ behavior, would be on hand to listen to Thomas talk about the therapeutic benefits of cannabis.
Thomas noticed something about the Byrd family as she spoke to them. In her opinion, they were done with him.
“Chris couldn’t finish a sentence without his family answering for him,” she said. “I asked Chris what he was going through, and his family just cut him off. They treated him like a washed-up fighter that they put in the corner. I remember being with Chris alone in his kitchen as he was making his smoothie, and he looked at me and said he wanted to start boxing again.
“He had this look that no matter what anyone thought, he was going to fight. I remember leaving the house that day thinking he had no support and no one believed in him. I thought about it again that night and [how] if he had one person to believe in him, he was going to be able to do it. Chris was ready to check out. Chris did put his family through some hell, too, but there were people who did give up on Chris.”
From Tracy’s perspective, she was protecting Chris from himself.
“I didn’t and don’t want to see Chris fight again, and I would do anything to this day to protect him,” Tracy said. “I still care about Chris. I would consider myself blessed to love again the way I loved Chris. No one ever checked out on Chris. It was torture for me and torture for the kids. I finished Chris’ sentences – but I did that the whole time Chris and I were together. I fought for him for 12 years, and I checked out when he started getting involved with these new people in his life and Chris wanted to fight again.
“Fighters go through life thinking it’s only us who go through pain. It can create mental illness.”
– Lamon Brewster
“Chris’ family still supports and loves him. No one wants to see Chris get hurt. I stayed, and I stayed, and I stayed. This wasn’t Chris Byrd, the underdog guy boxing loved. I checked out when it reached a point of no return. He was set in his mind that he was going to fight again. He’s completely different. But it will kill me to ever see Chris get hurt. I would die for him.”
Thomas told the Byrds that if you took the whole cannabis plant from the ground and used it raw, it’s proven to have strong medicinal purposes – though only in high doses.
“If people think they can smoke a joint and it’s going to cure all of their ailments, it’s the farthest thing from the truth. It’s a pain pill; it’s temporary; it’s a band-aid,” Thomas said. “When the high wears off, you’re back in pain again. The first two, three months with Chris, he was on 1,500 to 3,000 milligrams a day, drinking it and doing suppositories.
“Those were our two primary methods of delivery. When you do it through the rectum, you don’t get high, because it bypasses the liver. When you inhale, ingest or smoke cannabis with THC, it processes through the liver, which converts it into a psychoactive compound. By doing suppositories, that’s avoided.”
Three years after they met, Byrd has been relatively pain-free.
“Once Chris’ body was healed, he is probably doing about 100 milligrams a day as maintenance to control inflammation, not because he needs anything healed,” Thomas said.
Another cathartic moment occurred in 2018, while on a speaking engagement in Yuma, Arizona, with Chris’ cousin, former WBO heavyweight titlist Lamon Brewster. Now 47 and mentoring at-risk children in Indianapolis, Indiana, Brewster was with Byrd during a massage therapy session.
The masseuse struck a nerve in Byrd’s left ankle and he exploded in agony. Brewster could feel the emotion from across the room.
“And it was good, because we’re fighters and we make a living hiding our pain,” Brewster said. “We’re programmed to do that. Fighters go through life thinking it’s only us who go through pain. It can create mental illness. Chris sat up and slammed his first down on the mat. He said, ‘I can’t do it. I can’t deal with this for the rest of my life.’
“The one thing about being a champion is we’re normally by ourselves a lot. When you’re alone like that and you’re in pain, there is no one you can express that to and explain what you’re feeling. I never saw Chris like that before. It caught me totally off guard; I didn’t try to calm him down. What he was going through I would put no one on earth through.
“I kept encouraging him to talk more. I wanted him to get it all out. If the river is overflowing, you don’t try to stop it. I kept telling him, ‘Let it out! Let it out, cousin!’ Chris had to get it out. That was his crossroad. His mind snapped back. I understood his pain, because my pain drove me half-crazy. People don’t know what pain can do to you mentally, not just physically.”
Laurie was once fearful that she might get that call in the early hours of the morning about Chris, afraid one of his outbursts would be in public and he would wind up in jail. Her concerns have since been allayed.
Byrd hopes that his road to recovery may lead back to the ring, although whether any state athletic commission would allow it, given what he’s been through, is a fair question and a story for another day.
He has aspirations to box exhibitions with Mike Tyson’s Legends Only League.
Redemption, though, did not come without potholes. There has been collateral damage. Byrd is on disability, much of his boxing earnings dissipated by his medical care.
And there is more.
“Tracy and I are separated on our way to divorce,” said Chris, who was set to launch his own cannabis company called Healthy Byrd. “Tracy and I have a relationship. Me and my children are cool. They’re grown now. I realize the hell that I put them through. I could step outside myself and see what I was going through, but I will say this: They didn’t know what I was going through.
“I was in so much pain. I asked the doctor to cut my left foot off. I lost so much time because of all of the pain I was in. I promised myself once I got through the pain, I would come back to boxing [as a] middleweight. I proved everyone wrong the first time when I became heavyweight champion. I’ll shock the world again. I can look at myself in the mirror and I can say, ‘I made it. I made it.’”
Joseph Santoliquito is an award-winning sportswriter who has been working for Ring Magazine/RingTV.com since October 1997 and is the president of the Boxing Writers Association of America.