Heavyweight boxer who outpointed an ailing Muhammad Ali before being destroyed by Tyson and sliding into crime
THE boxer Trevor Berbick fought in two of the most significant heavyweight bouts of all time, bouts that linked two eras in the sport. He ended the career of Muhammad Ali in the Bahamas in 1981 and, five years later, was the other man in the ring the night Mike Tyson became world heavyweight champion.
But Berbick himself was one of the heavyweight fall-guys. While the win over Ali and becoming WBC heavyweight champion did not make him, the loss to Tyson destroyed him and haunted him in the years after. His life went on the slide after that bout in Las Vegas in 1986 and ended violently at the weekend when he was found dead in a churchyard near his home in Norwich, Jamaica, about two miles from where he was born. Wounds to his head indicate that he was attacked from behind by an assailant with a machete.
It was a bloody end to a life he always believed was destined for greatness. Berbick was born in Port Antonio, Jamaica, in 1955 — though it was speculated that he might have been as much as five years older than he claimed.
In 1976 he boxed for Jamaica at the Montreal Olympics. By then he had already moved to Canada, having prepared for the Games in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Taylor Gordon, who trained him as an amateur in Canada, remembered him as a good friend. “He borrowed money from me when he was an amateur and paid back every cent,” Gordon said. “Then he actually offered me a handful of $100 bills after he won the world championship and returned to Halifax. He thanked me all the time.”
Berbick remained in Canada to turn professional, winning 18 and drawing one of his first 20 bouts, including a win over John Tate, the former WBA champion, before earning a shot at Larry Holmes, the WBC champion, at Caesar’s Palace, Las Vegas, in April 1981. Berbick so infuriated Holmes at the press conference before the bout that he chased Berbick out of Caesar’s Palace and into the valet parking area. There Holmes hurled himself over the bonnet of a car in an attempt to catch him. Berbick may have managed to escape a beating in the hotel’s driveway but Holmes beat him in the ring, winning a 15-round unanimous decision.
Eight months later Berbick had a role in one of the saddest events in boxing history, when he was selected as a suitable opponent for the faded 39-year-old Ali. The former three-times world champion had been badly beaten by Holmes the previous year, but, pressured by the need to make money, wanted to box on. In Nassau, in the Bahamas, there was a commission happy to license him.
The bout took place in a cowfield with a cowbell to signal the rounds, but Ali could not perform and was easily outpointed over ten rounds.
Berbick went on to win the Commonwealth title but losses to Renaldo Snipes and S. T. Gordon meant that it was five years before he was to get another shot at the world title. Don King, the promoter, offered him the chance to challenge Pinklon Thomas for the WBC title at the Riviera, Las Vegas, on March 22, 1986. The verdict was again unanimous, but this time Berbick won.
His reign was to be short. King had organised a heavyweight elimination tournament to crown an undisputed world champion. He expected the young Tyson to win it and so it proved, with Berbick’s WBC title being followed by the WBA title held by James “Bonecrusher” Smith and, finally, the IBF title of Michael Spinks.
As a sign of his arrival as a world force, the defeat of Berbick — on November 22 at the Hilton Hotel — could not have been more sensational. In the first round, Tyson clubbed Berbick around the ring. Midway through round two, Berbick was on the floor. He beat the count but walked straight into more punishment and a punch so devastating that it knocked him down three times — the outgoing champion regaining his feet twice only to fall over again.
It was the beginning of the end for Berbick, who became delusional, so much so that he told anyone who would listen that he had been drugged before the bout. It was a view he held until the end. “I still have nightmares about that fight, when I think about what they did to me, my manager, my doctor,” Berbick claimed to The Jamaica Gleaner a fortnight ago. “I could have beaten Tyson. My manager told me I had to lose and to make sure the instruction was carried out, the doctor drugged me. From the beginning of the fight, I knew something was wrong, I had no legs to stand on.”
He continued to box regularly but was beaten when he stepped up into world class, losing to Carl Williams and James “Buster” Douglas.
He then started to get into serious trouble outside the ring. In 1991 he was convicted of assault in Florida for holding a gun to his former business manager’s head and accusing her of stealing $40,000. A year later he was convicted of raping a family babysitter and forging his ex-wife’s signature to get a $95,000 mortgage on a house in Miramar, Florida. He was given a four-year sentence and served 15 months in prison.
When he was released, he returned to the ring but a points defeat against Hasim Rahman, in Atlantic City, in 1996, was the last time he flirted with the top end of the sport. In 1997 he was deported from the US. He re-entered the country and was deported a second time.
He boxed six more times in Canada and won the Canadian title but, after a win against Shane Sutcliffe in Vancouver in 2000, he was found to have a brain injury and lost his licence to box.
Back in Jamaica, problems continued to dog him. In 2003 he was accused of burglary, although he was cleared after the alleged victim, his sister-in-law, said she did not wish to pursue the matter.
But he seemed more settled in his last few years, taking up fishing and coaching youngsters to box. He said recently that he was looking for a good screenwriter to tell his story. What a tale it was.
He is survived by his wife and six children.
Trevor Berbick, Heavyweight boxer, was born on August 1, 1955. He died on October 28, 2006, aged 51.
Source: The Times