Tonight in Atlantic City, two of the heavyweight divisions top prospects put their undefeated records on the line in two distinctly different matchups.
In the first bout, undefeated Chris Byrd of Flint Michigan was featured against Cuban defector Eliecer Castillo. Byrd is the "love 'em or hate 'em" type of fighter. His admirers enjoy his quick hands, slick defense, and fresh approach to heavyweight boxing. His detractors call him boring, a no-power slapper who has hand-picked his way to a 25-0 record. Tonight both groups were right on target.
It only took the east coast crowd 90 seconds before the first booing began. It was justified. Byrd was waiting to see what Castillo would do. Castillo just waited. The two men stood toe to toe and.....looked at each other. Byrd flicked some light jabs, and Castillo threw less than 2 dozen punches over the full three minute stanza. For a couple of rounds, they were in fact stinking up the joint. Byrd was pitty-patting his way through consecutive 10-9 rounds while Castillo picked his punches, to put it nicely. In truth he just was not displaying much activity. It might have been a good game plan against Byrd, if Castillo had brought a game plan. In a press conference before the fight, he had to ask reporters to point out which one Chris Byrd was.
In the fourth round, Castillo did manage to do some good hard body work. Had he been able to keep it up, the bout might have been interesting. Unfortunately, his body attack only served to defeat him. By slowing Byrd down just a bit and taking him off of his toes, Byrd began to set down on his combinations more in the following rounds. Castillo also found himself punched out after hunting for Byrd's body, and by the sixth round he was flat out exhausted.
This was the point in the fight that Chris Byrd failed. His opponent across from him was exhausted, he was able to throw and land combinations seemingly at will. He needed to knock out his opponent. This is heavyweight boxing. This is a television fight. This is a no-name opponent. End it.
Not Chris Byrd.
To the chorus of increasingly persistent "Boooo!"s from the crowd, Chris Byrd wouldn't, or couldn't knock out his opponent. Castillo had never fought above cruiserweight and was gasping for air for the final half of this fight. Byrd seemed content to flurry in spurts and win on points. Although there were no clinches for much of the fight, it couldn't have been more uninteresting. Byrd coasted to a unanimous decision that had all three ringside judge's scorecards (and my own) reading 99-91 Byrd.
Part of me felt sorry for Chris Byrd. He's from a boxing family, and is a very well schooled technical fighter. As he stood in the ring in victory, waiting for the Larry Merchant interview that would never come, most of the crowd taunted him with catcalls. To many fans of the sport, a boring win is just as bad as a loss. Tonight, I nonetheless found myself agreeing with them.
Next up was heavyweight prospect Michael Grant. Touted by HBO as the top prospect in the division, Grant brought his incredible physique into the ring against the tough opponent Obed Sullivan. At 6'3" and 230 pounds, Sullivan was still dwarfed by the 6'7" 255 pound athletic prodigy.
In the first round, Grant flashed his huge jab for only a few seconds before completely forgetting that it is one of his best weapons. Sullivan, out to prove that his passive loss to Hasim Rahman was a fluke, rushed Grant early and often. Midway through the opening round, either a right hand or a headbutt opened a slight cut over Grant's left eye. Although after the fight he claimed that it did not affect him, it clearly did. He immediately forgot his jab, and for the first several rounds looked nervous, anxious and green. At the end of the third, cutman Joe Souza (one of boxing's finest) had to yell at Grant to not worry about the cut, which he had under control.
Sullivan took advantage of the lack of Grant's jabbing to move the fight to the inside. He rushed Grant, pushed Grant, and most of all hit Grant to disrupt his rhythm. It worked. Sullivan forced Grant to fight in a phone booth, where he could hit back. The middle rounds were very close, with Grant winning many of the tight exchanges by the virtue of his size and accompanying force. Michael Grant also stole a few rounds in the final seconds, when he would step back and fire big shots from the outside.
Although it wasn't the flashy fight we had hoped young Grant would give us, he was more than competent against the very game Sullivan. Roy Jones mentioned that Michael Grant had excellent infighting skills for a big man. Certainly Grant held his ground, but I suggest he have Don Turner show him some tapes of a prime Riddick Bowe to see what a real big man can do on the inside.
All night, Grant's team of Tommy Brooks and Don Turner urged their inexperienced fighter to throw his huge jab and follow it with a big right hand. In the 9th round, he finally did. And when he did, Obed Sullivan folded. The first knockdown came a minute into the round. The first crisp four punch combination from the outside that Grant attempted all night did the trick. Sullivan was on his feet quickly, assuring referee Tony Orlando that he was fine. Grant opened up on him some more, and Sullivan showed he has a fantastic chin by absorbing many shots before Grant himself slowed down. For a moment, it looked as though Sullivan had shaken off the effects of his beating. Grant, however, began another assault, and after a dozen unanswered punches, Orlando halted the bout. Sullivan did not protest, and may have temporarily been out on his feet.
Michael Grant's name has been mentioned as a fall opponent for Lennox Lewis if a unification deal with Holyfield cannot be worked out. While Grant certainly has the physical gifts to compete with Lewis, he lacked the poise and maturity that he would need in such a big fight. Although he emerged victorious, it was clear that Grant's focus was off. The Foremanesque jab he used to stop David Izon early was absent for much of this fight, and mainly because Grant was distracted by his cut. He deserves credit for stopping the experienced Sullivan and will come away from this bout much wiser for the experience....but he still is a fight or two away from tangling with the likes of Lennox Lewis.
Both Byrd and Grant moved forward tonight with wins, but neither had the outstanding performance they needed to put their name on the lips of the fickle boxing public. The heavyweights of the future are not quite the heavyweights of the present.
-Michael Grant displayed one of the most bizarre celebration dances in the history of sports tonight. After Tony Orlando called a halt to the bout, Grant ran across the ring. As he was running, he jumped a good five feet in the air HORIZONTALLY and landed with a thud on his side. If it was a giant slip, Grant didn't act like it, pumping his fist as he regained his footing while cheering his own victory.
-HBO announcers took a dig at rival Showtime's Holyfield-Akinwande pay-per-view event on June 6. While noting that Chris Byrd's heavyweight bout had gone a good 6 or 7 rounds without a single clinch, Jim Lampley noted "If you like hugging, then next weekend is your weekend."
-Eliecer Castillo's corner is using the new math. After the 5th round, they berated their fighter by telling him that "you've lost all 5 rounds". After the 6th round, they told him "the fight is dead even". After the 7th round they told him "you only have two more rounds to go". [the fight was scheduled for 10].
-Michael Grant continues to have problems with his protective cup. In the David Izon fight, his cup rode up high on his body and protected him from Izon's body attack. Sullivan's corner notified the New Jersey State Athletic Commission prior to the fight about this problem, and when Grant came to center ring for final instructions, the referee informed Grant that certain belt shots would be called legal. Throughout the fight, Grant's cup continued to crawl up his frame, and at the end of each round, Grant had to shove it back down into his trunks. Larry Merchant had the quote of the night commenting that "Grant's cup runneth over."
-1st Runner up for Quote of the night: "Ray Charles could close his eyes and hit him with a left hook on the chin." -Obed Sullivan's trainer urging him to throw his left against Grant.