Mike Tyson-Trevor Berbick: 30 years later
Thirty years ago today, Mike Tyson demolished Trevor Berbick in two rounds to begin what many thought could be a historic stay at the top of the boxing world. At just 20 years 150 days, “Iron Mike” became the youngest man ever to win a piece of the heavyweight championship and the destructive manner in which he seized Berbick’s WBC crown breathed new life into a weight class that thirsted for its next transcendent figure.
Ever since John L. Sullivan bridged the gap between the bare-knuckle era and the modern game governed by the Marquess of Queensberry rules, the heavyweight class had been blessed by a succession of era-defining characters: Jack Johnson, Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano, Muhammad Ali and Larry Holmes. At this point in history, the heavyweight division was in a transitional period. Ever since Holmes scored his signature victory over Gerry Cooney in June of 1982, “The Easton Assassin” continued to win but he did so, despite gradually eroding skills and conditioning in comparison to that exquisite peak. Holmes gave up his WBC belt when he couldn’t reach an agreement with mandatory challenger Greg Page but he continued his tenure as the universally recognized champion when the IBF installed him as its initial titleholder. Holmes ran his record to 48-0 but his attempt at matching Marciano’s mythic career mark was thwarted by another man’s successful pursuit of history as Michael Spinks became the first reigning light heavyweight champion to dethrone a heavyweight titlist.
Meanwhile, the WBC’s top two contenders – Page and Tim Witherspoon – met for the belt stripped from Holmes, which Witherspoon won by majority decision in what was considered a mild upset in March of 1984. Witherspoon promptly lost the title to Pinklon Thomas by majority decision and Thomas appeared to be the “next big thing” after successfully defending it with a thrilling one-punch KO over ex-champ Mike Weaver. On the WBA’s side of the world, the title was passed from John Tate to Weaver, from Weaver to Michael Dokes, from Dokes to Gerrie Coetzee, from Coetzee to Page and from Page to Tony Tubbs, who defeated Page in April 1985.
In January 1986, HBO, in conjunction with promoters Don King and Butch Lewis, announced the formation of a tournament designed to unify the three major heavyweight titles. The approximately $26 million venture began with a bang on March 22 as Berbick, a 7-to-1 underdog, shocked Thomas by narrow but unanimous decision to capture the WBC title. Twenty-eight days later Spinks out-pointed Holmes by split decision in their rematch to retain his IBF belt, after which the WBA’s Witherspoon (who dethroned Tubbs on Jan. 17) stopped Frank Bruno in 11 rounds in July.
On Aug. 22, the New York Times reported Tyson – following three months of negotiations between “The Dynamic Duo” (King and Lewis) and the Tyson managerial team of Jim Jacobs and Bill Cayton – would enter the tournament and fight Berbick in Las Vegas on Nov. 22, 1986. However, in order to officially earn his spot, he needed to defeat Alfonso Ratliff Sept. 6, the co-feature for Spinks’ tournament bout (and IBF defense) against Steffen Tangstad. All went as planned as Spinks advanced to the tournament final by stopping Tangstad in four while Tyson dusted Ratliff, a former cruiserweight belt-holder, in two.
So now, the stage was set for Tyson vs. Berbick.
Berbick may have been the champion but Tyson was a national phenomenon that was one step away from going global, an extraordinary feat, considering he achieved this status without the springboard of an Olympic appearance. Two decision defeats to Henry Tillman at the 1984 U.S. Trials forced Tyson to turn pro in relative obscurity but, thanks to a masterful media campaign engineered by Jacobs and Cayton, that obscurity was short-lived. The duo sent camera crews to most of Tyson’s early fights (his third round KO of Larry Sims wasn’t filmed because weather woes caused the crew to show up late) and their brevity, as well as their visceral destructiveness, was such that the clips could be shown on the late evening news.
That notoriety led to appearances on ESPN’s “Top Rank Boxing” series and Tyson not only lived up to the hype, he exceeded it. His debut against Lorenzo Canady lasted just 65 seconds while his next two outings against John Michael Johnson (39 seconds) and Donnie Long (88 seconds) helped create an indelible imprint on the sporting public. To viewers, a Tyson fight not only guaranteed brutal action but also devastation that approached cartoon-like proportions. Fighters weren’t just knocked down; they flew through the air before doing so. Bones were broken inside the ring and many opponents psyches were shattered long before their ring walks. His annihilations once prompted broadcaster Randy Gordon to cite the length of an average Tyson fight in terms of seconds, not rounds.
In every conceivable way, Tyson was a marvel. While he was well-muscled, he wasn’t muscle-bound. His hand speed rivaled that of fellow Cus D’Amato disciple Floyd Patterson and Ali, the standards by which historians compared all other heavyweights in that category. Though Tyson struck with incredible force, the asset that separated him from everyone else was his upper body movement. His rocking side-to-side motion not only allowed him to slip punches with relative ease; it also served as a timing mechanism for his power counters. An added but underrated, dimension was his footwork, which seamlessly created difficult-to-decipher punching angles. Finally, his power wasn’t limited by his stance; he could deliver knockout drops whether he was orthodox or southpaw. Needless to say, this collection of fistic assets were far too much for his peers to cope with, and the result was a 27-0 (25) record entering the Berbick fight.
Beyond the physical, Tyson was a wonder in other ways. Thanks to being given access to Jacobs’ massive fight film collection, Tyson acquired a deep knowledge and appreciation of the sport’s history, so much so that, even while still a rising star, he was an analyst on an ABC Sports special that recounted the great heavyweights of the past. Though still in his teens, Tyson offered thoughtful analysis and handled himself with poise in an environment that would have rattled most of his chronological peers. Also, the story of the grandfatherly D’Amato plucking the troubled Tyson from a correctional school and having him live in his Catskill home created an attractive back story.
The packaging of Tyson couldn’t have been executed better but, in order to maximize its potential, he had to beat Berbick. The 32-year-old Jamaican’s amateur career was brief but highly accomplished, for, in the space of just 11 amateur bouts, he had won a bronze medal at the 1975 Pan American Games (losing in the semifinal to future titlist Michael Dokes) and earned a spot on his country’s 1976 Olympic team. Berbick lost his only Olympic bout to eventual silver medalist Mircea Simon of Romania and he liked Montreal so much, he decided to relocate there after the Games.
Berbick, by then, the Canadian heavyweight champion, vaulted to international prominence on the undercard of the first Roberto Duran-Sugar Ray Leonard fight in Montreal after scoring a shocking ninth-round KO over former heavyweight titlist John Tate. Three fights later, the rugged Berbick met then-WBC champion Holmes and, while he lost a lopsided decision, he was the first of Holmes’ nine challengers to go the 15-round distance. After easily disposing of Conroy Nelson in two rounds, Berbick pounded out a 10-round decision victory over Muhammad Ali, who, by then, was a bloated 39-year-old shell.
Berbick re-energized his title hopes by flooring and defeating the then-undefeated Greg Page but back-to-back decision losses to Renaldo Snipes and S.T. Gordon placed Berbick on the back burner. Eight straight wins, including those over Ken Lakusta (KO 10), David Bey (TKO 11) and Mitch Green (MD 12), provided justification for challenging WBC champion Thomas, who was looking to add to the star power he created with his wins over Witherspoon and Weaver. With Eddie Futch as his chief second, Berbick’s physicality got the best of Thomas’ science en route to beating the 7-to-1 odds against him, acquiring the WBC belt and raising his record to 31-4-1 (23).
When Berbick’s fight with Tyson was announced, the Jamaican was installed as a 6-to-1 underdog but as fight time, neared those odds dropped to 3 1/2-to-1 because of one nagging question: Was this too much, too soon for Tyson?
As Tyson strode toward the ring, he looked like an amalgamation of those who preceded him. He oozed the bravado of Sullivan and Johnson while his bowl haircut echoed that of Dempsey. His fists carried the blunt force trauma of Marciano, Liston and Foreman; his bob-and-weave revived memories of Joe Frazier. His technical prowess compared favorably to that of Louis and his peek-a-boo defense was borrowed from Patterson. His ambition to be great mirrored that of Ali and Holmes, who did his best to break out of Ali’s shadow but didn’t quite get there in many eyes, despite his prodigious numbers. His garb was Spartan: Black trunks, black shoes, no socks and a Hilton bath towel – likely appropriated from the venue’s host hotel – with a hole cut in it for his head.
As the champion, Berbick had the honor of choosing the color of his trunks. Pointedly, he chose black, thinking that would throw off Tyson’s equilibrium by forcing him to abandon what had become his trademark. Instead, Tyson willingly forked over the $5,000 fine out of his $1.5 million purse and dared Berbick to press the issue. He didn’t.
Though the 6-foot-2 1/2 inch Berbick had a three-inch height advantage and a decisive seven-inch reach edge, the 218 1/2-pounder scaled three pounds lighter than the challenger. Still, the centerpiece of Berbick’s plan was to stand his ground, push Tyson backward as often as possible, use his upper-body strength to drain Tyson’s gas tank and drag him into the middle rounds, where his experience and clubbing punches would finish the job. Tyson’s plan was much simpler: Seek and destroy.
Both men applied their game plans in the early moments. While Berbick shoved Tyson backward, the challenger showed off the gifts that got him to this stage. Consider how he set up his first landed punch: Tyson’s bob-and-weave allowed him to get within his proper punching range, after which he feinted a jab, floated to his right, dipped his shoulder and connected with a hook to the jaw. Yes, Tyson’s raw power would have made him a great fighter by itself but he enhanced that greatness by doing all the little things that laid the foundation. But each time Tyson struck, Berbick tried to answer in kind. A moment after Tyson missed with a zinging right-left, Berbick dug in three body shots before clinching and walking Tyson backward.
“Berbick is showing no respect and no fear for Tyson,” Colonel Bob Sheridan declared on the international broadcast. “That might cost him.”
Still, Berbick persisted. After tasting a right cross-left hook, the champion tapped his chin, shoved Tyson backward and landed a light right uppercut. Tyson was unaffected by the non-verbal byplay. His unwavering composure would have been impressive for a fighter of any age but, for a 20-year-old with less than two years of pro experience, it was exceptional.
An overhand right By Tyson caused the crowd to emit loud “oohs” and another right-left prompted Berbick to beckon Tyson in with both gloves before inducing an extended clinch. This time, perhaps tellingly, Tyson maneuvered Berbick backward before referee Mills Lane broke them.
With 28 seconds remaining in the opening round, Tyson neatly ducked under Berbick’s hook and instantly countered with his own. Following a landed jab, Tyson unleashed a four-punch salvo – right-left-right-left – that sent Berbick reeling across the ring. Tyson then launched his first sustained attack of the fight but, instead of holding on or backing away, the defiant Berbick opted to take the remaining fire before slapping on yet another clinch.
At the bell, as Tyson walked away, Berbick fixed a hard stare, lifted his chin and stuck out his mouthpiece. It was as if he were saying, “See? I took your best and I’m still here!”
“That was a big, big round for Mike Tyson,” said HBO analyst Larry Merchant. “Not only because he showed he had faster hands and beat Berbick to the punch but because he did show the patient aggressiveness that we talked about earlier. Tyson is everything people could have hoped for in that round.”
Berbick’s unsettled situation extended to his corner. Chief second Angelo Dundee, long known for his meticulous pre-fight preparation, did not have his tools at the ready.
“Where’s the f**king sponge?” he yelled to one of his assistants. He had to wait several seconds before he got it, then proceeded to yell at his charge with a voice that often cracked.
On the other hand, Tyson’s corner, headed by Kevin Rooney, was serene. Rooney leaned in close and issued instructions in a low, even tone.
“Stay very calm,” he said. “Look to place the body shots first and then the head.” Then, lightly tapping Tyson’s right deltoid with the back of his hand, he added, “Great round.”
But the calm that reigned in the corner was instantly transformed into violence as Tyson opened round two with an overhand right that rocked Berbick to his core. Tyson missed a home run hook and a jab but he scored heavily with a second right, missed with a hook and landed a right to the ear that sent Berbick sprawling. Ever insolent, Berbick jumped to his feet even before Lane could begin his count. The clear-eyed Berbick continually nodded his head and raised his gloves to indicate he was raring to go.
Sensing the coronation was just seconds away, the crowd stood and waited for the final wave of carnage to commence. Instead, Tyson took his time. He winged single shots that landed lightly or whizzed past the target while Berbick successfully slapped on a series of clinches while cranking the occasional uppercut.
Tyson’s next wave began at the halfway point of the round: A ramrod jab to the face, a scything right to the short ribs and an overhand right-left hook that caused Berbick to stumble. But again, Berbick survived by clinching for 23 seconds, then eight more. If Tyson was to win the title, he had to find a way to break through Berbick’s stonewalling.
Just as it looked as if Berbick would make it to the bell, Tyson struck – and did so with his customary blend of power and precision. Tyson landed a compact right to the ribs, whiffed on a massive right uppercut and connected with a short hook to an area between the temple and the bridge of the nose. The effects of the final blow, which traveled less than a foot, created ripples that would last years in terms of legacy but, for Berbick, they were instant and immense.
Berbick crashed back-first to the canvas and, here, the civil war between his massive competitive drive and his badly compromised motor skills began. Berbick managed to raise himself to a knee but when he tried to push himself up the leg collapsed and propelled him to the ropes. He then used his left glove to push down on the bottom rope but, when he tried to use his right leg to haul himself up, the limb failed him again. With Lane still counting, Berbick tried to rise a third time. Here he managed to get to his feet but his glassy, half-open eyes and blank expression told Lane everything he needed to know. At 2:35 of the second round, Lane confirmed the transfer of power with a wave of his arms.
“It’s over,” intoned HBO blow-by-blow man Barry Tompkins. “That’s all. And we have a new era in boxing.”
Tyson handled his elevation with a shrug of his shoulders. Eschewing the congratulations of his team for the time being, Tyson immediately walked toward the freshly minted ex-champ, who was being escorted to a waiting stool. The still-dazed Berbick was unable to acknowledge Tyson’s attempt to congratulate and console him.
Tyson then kissed Jacobs on the lips and WBC president Jose Sulaiman on the cheek. The swarm surrounding Tyson at this moment was massive and now that he had become the youngest man ever to earn a share of the heavyweight title, that swam promised to grow exponentially.
“They were funny punches,” Berbick said afterward. “They came from funny directions. I still can’t believe I got caught. I was trying to prove I could take his best shot.”
“I came here very confident and I knew I wasn’t leaving this ring alive without the championship of the world,” Tyson told ITV’s Reg Gutteridge. “I was throwing deadly and accurate punches.”
When asked about fighting the winner of Witherspoon-Tubbs II (which was scheduled for the following month but never took place), Tyson declared, “I’ll fight anybody. I’m the best fighter in the world. No man can beat me.”
That boast only held true for another three years and change. “Iron Mike” continued to rack up knockouts and became the undisputed champion despite his increasingly chaotic personal and professional life. The stress finally caught up to him in February of 1990 in Tokyo when James “Buster” Douglas stopped Tyson in round 10, a result many deem the biggest upset in boxing history. A rape conviction interrupted Tyson’s career for four years but he went on to win two more belts before back-to-back losses to unheralded underdogs Danny Williams and Kevin McBride forced the 38-year-old to retire with a 50-6 (44) record. Despite not having lived up to his full potential, Tyson’s achievements still netted him first-ballot enshrinement into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2011.
When fans and historians reflect on Tyson, they’ll remember the drama he created wherever he happened to be. However, in terms of his in-ring success, they’ll surely recall the night he made heavyweight history against Trevor Berbick. For him –and for those who watched it – it was a night for all time.
Lee Groves is a boxing writer and historian based in Friendly, West Virginia. He is a full member of the BWAA, from which he has won 15 writing awards, including 12 in the last six years and two first-place awards since 2011. He has been an elector for the International Boxing Hall of Fame since 2001 and is also a writer, researcher and punch-counter for CompuBox, Inc. He is the author of “Tales from the Vault: A Celebration of 100 Boxing Closet Classics.” To order, please visit Amazon.com. To contact Groves, use the email [email protected].
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