Seventeen years after the grisly demise of the last man to beat Muhammad Ali, Carlos Acevedo retells the Trevor Berbick story
TREVOR BERBICK, who reigned briefly as the WBC heavyweight champion in 1986, left behind one of the strangest legacies in boxing history: for being the last man Muhammad Ali faced in the ring, in a shambolic promotion exiled to the Bahamas; for being the first title-fight victim of Mike Tyson (in which Berbick suffered such a spectacular kayo loss that he became a permanent Youtube loadstone, like Baby Shark or Gangnam Style); for a bonkers parking lot melee with comebacking ex-champion Larry Holmes seen coast-coast on every sports newscast in America; for his savage murder in Jamaica, after years of scandalous headlines had made him a laughing stock across the globe.
These grim footnotes are hardly surprising when one considers that Berbick was an entrenched member of “The Lost Generation” of heavyweights, a motley, miserable, and morose collection of overweight and undermotivated malcontents who would eventually disintegrate in various blowouts of marijuana, cocaine, Colt 45, late-night revels, Twinkies and Whoppers.
Unlike his Lost Generation stablemates, however, Berbick rarely entered the ring out of condition. His difficulties between the ropes had nothing to do with binge eating, womanising, cocaine, or liquor. After all, Berbick would steer himself back home to peruse his dog-eared bible after training sessions, break out into impromptu hymns, and spend most of his Sundays at church, where he would often preach, energetically, at the pulpit. Long before George Foreman made his miraculous return in the late 1980s, Trevor Berbick had been billed as “The Fighting Preacher.” He had even become an ordained minister at the Moments of Miracles Tabernacle in Nevada. Even as a rising contender he had been considered eccentric, and it was clear that the outcome of his performances hinged on his psychological outlook before the opening bell rang. “First, I’m going to destroy all the devils, I mean the fighters, who stand between me and the unified heavyweight championship of the world,” Berbick declaimed after beating Pinklon Thomas for the WBC title in 1986. “Then I’m coming home. God raised me up for a purpose! I’m here, God!”
Trevor Berbick was born in Port Antonio, Jamaica, in either 1952 or 1954, and spent five years in Guantanamo Bay as immigrant labour. Today, of course, Guantanamo Bay is notorious for its U.S. detention camp, but in the early 1970s, it was primarily known as a military base. There Berbick worked at a variety of jobs to make ends meet. According to Berbick, it was his gig as a maître d’ at a rowdy mess hall that led him to boxing. “You’ve got to understand this,” he told the Miami News. “This was during the Vietnam War and a lot of guys there were going wacko; some guys were waiting to be shipped off to war, others were coming back all busted up, legs gone, nerves shot. One time 50 ships were in the harbour and a lot of the guys were all there for liberty. They’d drink and let off steam, and they’d fight anybody in the streets. They’d put a whuppin’ on you if you couldn’t handle yourself. One night a marine jumped me coming home from work. But I learned a little martial arts from the Special Forces and handled him pretty well. He told me to come on down and join them boxing. I ended up beating the All-Marine heavyweight champ and winning the service tournament. After that, I figured I had a shot at being a pretty good fighter.”
In Halifax, Berbick developed a local following and lumbered his way to an 11-0 record before facing Colombian mauler Bernardo Mercado. Although Mercado had been stopped in his only fights against recognisable opposition, his clubbing right hand was a legitimate weapon. A crowd of more than 10,000 horrified fans gathered at the Halifax Metro Centre on April 3, 1979, to see Berbick plunge to the canvas, unconscious, after absorbing a booming overhand to the jaw in the first round.
For the next year, Berbick drifted across Canada, building his record up to 14-1-1 against an assortment of palookas. His future as a backwater professional seemed assured until Top Rank Promotions miscast him as a stepping stone for “Big” John Tate on the undercard of the Roberto Duran-Sugar Ray Leonard I extravaganza in Montreal. One of the few Lost Generation pugs not associated with Don King, Tate had won the vacant WBA heavyweight title in October 1979, but his championship reign barely lasted six months. In his first title defence, Tate was shockingly poleaxed by Mike Weaver with only 45 seconds left in the 15th round. His future, like that of so many of his contemporaries, would include drugs, prison, privation, early death. In June 1980, however, Tate was on the comeback trail, looking to put the Weaver loss behind him. Berbick, always a rebel at heart, had other things in mind. Just as he had against Weaver a few months earlier, Tate opened a wide lead before imploding late. In the ninth round, a right hand sent Tate wobbling across the ring, and Berbick, in hot pursuit, clubbed him repeatedly until Tate was out cold on the canvas.
The upset win over Tate eventually earned Berbick a shot against Larry Holmes, the only consistent heavyweight of the early 1980s. With seven WBC title defenses since 1978, Holmes was an established champion coming off the first marquee win of his title reign: a pitiful butchering of the feeble Muhammad Ali. On April 11, 1981, Berbick became the first title challenger to last the distance against Holmes, but that was as much credit as he could wrangle from the loss. While Berbick never seriously threatened Holmes, he underscored his ruggedness and raised his profile enough to qualify for another significant payday. In a stroke of dubious luck, a warped Muhammad Ali chose Berbick for his comeback opponent.
Already manifesting symptoms of his future affliction (“Parkinsonism”), Ali was not fit to enter the ring again. Essentially banished from America, Ali took his circus act offshore, to the Bahamas, roughly 50 miles from the Florida coast. His swan song was a pathetic sideshow that featured a fugitive (James Cornelius) dabbling as a promoter, a rickety baseball field with limited amenities used as an arena, a cowbell to toll the rounds, and two pairs of gloves shared by all the fighters on the card.
Before a ragged crowd in Nassau, Berbick outpointed a lifeless Ali and in the process earned more recognition than he had in his entire career. A decision over undefeated Greg Page seven months later seemed to solidify Berbick as a legitimate contender, but consecutive losses to Renaldo Snipes and cruiserweight ST Gordon reversed his momentum and branded him a journeyman.
Still, Berbick was an authentic spoiler, and when he scored upsets over David Bey and undefeated Mitch “Blood” Green in 1985, he qualified for a shot at undefeated WBC titleholder Pinklon Thomas. As one of the few heavyweights not given to waddling around the ring, Thomas had a chance to improve the lowly reputation of his division. Instead, he battled delusions of grandeur. Inactive for nearly a year after winning the WBC title, Thomas decided that he would not only be a manager and a trainer but also an R&B singer. These extracurricular pursuits distracted him right up to the day of the fight, when he could be found in the lobby of the Riviera Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas, hawking cassette tapes of a song he had recorded in hopes of landing a major label contract. Unfocused and underprepared, Thomas dropped a grueling decision to Berbick, who forced the fight on the inside and outworked him.
His shock win over Thomas, who had been a 6/1 favorite going into the fight, set Berbick on the path to an astronomical payday. For $2.1m, Berbick signed a contract that put the entire blood sport concept of risk-and-reward in stark context: he agreed to defend his WBC title against the rampaging terror, Mike Tyson.
On November 26, 1986, Berbick squared off against Tyson at the Hilton Hotel, Las Vegas. Fittingly, for Berbick, at least, the HBO card was billed “Judgment Day.” Without the mobility of a James Tillis or Mitch Green, the only men to have gone the distance with Tyson in 27 starts, Berbick would be more than just the 3/1 underdog looking for the upset: he would be the sporting equivalent of a ritual sacrifice.
However cocksure Berbick was outside of the ring, there was nothing he could do once the opening bell rang, although he tried shoving Tyson several times to assert his ruggedness. Trying to intimidate Tyson, 20 years old and permanently in search of “bad intentions” the same way a Buddhist pursues nirvana, was bound to backfire. Tyson bombarded Berbick throughout the round, and with only a handful of seconds left, he landed a right hand that sent Berbick lurching. At the sound of the bell, Berbick summoned enough energy to stick out his tongue at Tyson, but it was more than just false bravado: it was a sign that Berbick was already disoriented.
In the second, a wobbly Berbick shuddered every time Tyson connected, until, finally, barely 20 seconds into the round, a barrage of punches floored him. But Berbick immediately jumped to his feet. Wide-eyed, groggy, and surprised, Berbick took the mandatory-eight from Referee Mills Lane, and when the fight resumed, he braced himself for the worst. Two minutes into the round, Tyson opened up with a combination as Berbick tried to crowd him in centre ring. A thudding left hook landed on the forehead and produced a delayed effect that would eventually give way to one of the most frightening examples of what a precise blow from a professional boxer can do to the nervous system. There was a brief pause after Tyson connected and then Berbick plummeted, seemingly in slow motion, and crashed onto his back. His first instinct was to scramble to his feet, but his equilibrium was haywire, and he staggered across the ring, tumbling into the ropes, where an errant forearm knocked a ringside photographer out of position. With Mills Lane tolling the count, Berbick again tried to rise, and again his legs mutinied beneath him, sending him dive-bombing to the canvas with a thud. A final attempt to regain verticality ended with Berbick tottering into the arms of Mills Lane, who promptly halted the massacre.
For Berbick, the loss was humiliating. Careening around a ring that seemed more like the playfield of a pinball machine designed by Playmatic or Bally Midway – Night Rider, say, or Moon Flight – seemed to shatter his already frail psyche. In fact, his loss to Tyson seemed to mark a grim turning point. From now on, it would be one calamity after another, a seemingly endless series of tribulations. His breakdown began in the autumn of 1990 when he was arrested for assaulting a man he believed had been courting his wife, Nadine. That lead to Nadine initiating divorce proceedings. In November, Berbick was charged with aggravated assault after he menaced his ex-financial manager at gunpoint. Finally, and most disturbingly, Berbick was accused of raping his babysitter in Miami.
Six months later, on April 7, 1991, Berbick took part in a fracas with Larry Holmes that epitomised his now-disordered life. Holmes, returning to the ring after an absence of four years, had just won his first fight since 1985, stopping hapless Tim “Doc” Anderson in one round at the Diplomat Hotel in Hollywood, Florida. As if to underscore just how far Holmes had drifted from his days as a headliner in glitzy hot spots such as New York and Las Vegas, the low-rent press conference after the fight degenerated into one of the trashiest boxing highlights of the last 30 years.
There, while Holmes celebrated his kayo win, stood an impassive Trevor Berbick. His midnight-blue suit, gaudy tie, white pocket square kerchief, and sunglasses out of place among the pastel shirts, Zubaz, and tracksuits. Even when Holmes, from the dais, insulted him, Berbick remained motionless. But when Holmes wrapped up the press conference and returned to his suite, Berbick gave a surreal, disjointed speech to the media that included accusations Holmes had consorted with a prostitute and had conspired with her to destroy not only his marriage but his career, as well. In no time, Larry Holmes returned to the lobby and pummelled Berbick through the doors of the Diplomat and into the parking lot, where, for the moment, at least, the commotion was over. But while a dishevelled Berbick aired his grievances to a gathering crowd, Holmes charged out of the hotel, face contorted in anger, and raced across the parking lot. With this running start, Holmes vaulted himself over the bonnets of two cars (a Toyota Supra and an Oldsmobile) and sailed through the air like a Wuxia star and dropkicked Berbick to the pavement. A mad scramble ensued before police officers could separate the impromptu combatants. When it was over, a police escort lead Berbick back to his home in Miami, and Holmes went on to perform with his R&B band, Marmalade, that night.
In December 1991, Berbick was charged with grand theft and mortgage fraud, just a few days before he lost a farcical boxer-wrestler match to Nobuhiko Takada in Japan. Five months later, Berbick was convicted of sexual battery in the case involving his babysitter. Eventually, Berbick spent 15 months in prison.
After his release, Berbick returned to the ring in the mid-1990s and only a failed CAT Scan in 2000 kept Berbick from continuing his farcical career into his fifties. When his immigration status in Canada lapsed, Berbick snuck back into the U.S. illegally. From Florida, Berbick was deported to Jamaica, where he moved in with his mother and began menacing his neighbourhood.
On October 28, 2006, after a night out at a bar, Berbick was on his way back home when he was ambushed by two men in the darkness. They beat Berbick with a crowbar and a pipe, leaving him mortally wounded on a dirt path. His nephew, Harold, and an accomplice were arrested and later convicted of murdering Berbick. During his trial, Harold Berbick claimed that his uncle had physically abused his mother and that Berbick had also threatened him. According to the Jamaica Gleaner, Trevor Berbick, his skull split open by numerous blows, was found only a few feet from the Church of God Chapel.