HIS WIFE was recovering from surgery, so ESPN2 color commentator

Teddy Atlas

had an excuse for not being at ringside for his network's Friday night telecast of the

Chris Byrd-Shaun George

light-heavyweight bout in Las Vegas.

Then again, Atlas had a pretty good idea what would happen at the Cox

Pavilion.

Byrd (40-5-1, 21 KOs), who twice held versions of the heavyweight championship, was knocked down three times and stopped in the ninth round by George (17-2-2, 8 KOs). Thirty-seven pounds lighter than he had been in his most recent bout on Oct. 27, Byrd, 37, had to be taken to a local hospital after he suffered a severe shoulder injury on one of his three trips to the canvas.

It was just the sort of worst-case scenario that Atlas and others had feared might happen.

"When Chris returned to the dressing room, the doctors had to sedate him to pop his shoulder back," said Byrd's wife and manager, Tracy Byrd, who publicly vowed not to let him fight again. "The medicines were a bit overwhelming for his body and they couldn't wake him. The result of that was they had to rush him by ambulance to the hospital and use other meds to counteract the ones given to him in the dressing room. It was very scary for his friends and family."

Not nearly as scary, though, as the sight of nice-guy Byrd, his leaner and chiseled physique notwithstanding, being pummeled from pillar to post like some $25-a-round sparring partner.

"I came in here looking for the knockout and I got it," George, a 5 1/2-1 underdog, said with the confidence of someone who had had the same vision as Atlas of how the fight would transpire. "I should have put him away in the first round, but he is crafty. I gave him a lot of movement and made him look stationary."

It might be argued that Byrd, a silver medalist at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics as a 165-pounder, hadn't had enough time settling into his newly streamlined body. There possibly is some merit to that theory, but, still, a man who used to routinely "clown" much larger heavyweights - his term for making them look foolish with his superior defense and mobility - looked as if he were mired in quicksand against George. The Brooklyn, N.Y., fighter landed his right hand almost at will, flooring Byrd in the first round and never allowing him to establish any kind of rhythm.

Atlas has been around long enough to know that six-pack abs alone do not a winner make.

"My only concern is that sometimes things can be mirages," Atlas told me a few days before Byrd took on George. "I'm not going to compare what Chris is doing to what [Muhammad Ali] did when he took off all that weight to fight [Larry] Holmes in 1980. Ali's body looked great, too, but he didn't come down the right way. He did it with diuretics.

"But Chris is at a similar age to what Ali was then [38]. He's been in a lot of tough fights, particularly over the last several years. For a long time, he was a slick guy who didn't sustain much damage.

"Then he started taking more punishment, and it's punishment from much bigger guys. His style began to change a little bit. Instead of being that guy who was like a ghost in front of you, he was there to be hit. He wasn't quite as slick as he once was."

Put it this way: A partially restored classic car shouldn't be judged by its replacement upholstery, but what's under the hood. And Byrd's boxing odometer, regardless of his impressive new chassis, has loads of mileage on it.

"The punches that registered on that body are still on that body," Atlas noted.

Enter the young

Although it would appear that Chris Byrd and several other fighters of his generation have squeezed the last drop out of their talents, HBO's "Boxing

After Dark" telecast Saturday from Pimm, Nev., indicates that at least a couple of fresh faces are entering the pipeline.

Junior middleweight James Kirkland (22-0, 19 KOs) needed only 66 seconds to dispose of

Eromosele Albert (21-2, 10 KOs) in the first bout of a TV

tripleheader, and junior lightweight Yuriokis Gamboa (10-0, 8 KOs) closed the show with a unanimous, 10-round decision over Darling Jimenez (23-3-2, 14 KOs).

Kirkland, 24, has the distinction of being trained by a woman, Ann Wolfe, whose unconventional methods include tying a heavy bag to the back of a slow-moving truck. Wolfe, who is 24-1 with 16 KOs as a super middleweight, devised the idea of combining roadwork with resistance-punching. It's worked for her and, if Kirkland's rout of Albert is any indication, it's working for him, too.

Gamboa, 26, won a gold medal for Cuba at the 2004 Olympics before defecting during a trip by the Cuban national team to Venezuela in December 2006. He has all the requisite skills to become a superstar in the pros, but, with 400-plus amateur bouts, he could prove older in boxing years than any date printed on his birth certificate.

The 2-ounce solution

That welterweight unification showdown between WBA champion Miguel Cotto (32-0, 26 KOs) and IBF titlist Antonio Margarito (36-5, 26 KOs) wouldn't be taking place July 26 at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas had not the Nevada State Athletic Commission consented to approve 8-ounce gloves for the bout instead of 10-ouncers.

Cotto, who prefers 8-ounce gloves, said he would not have agreed to fight in Las Vegas for the first time in 3 1/2 years if the NSAC had insisted on the larger mitts. *

Send e-mail to fernanb@phillynews.com.