Former heavyweight champion Trevor Berbick will always be remembered as the other guy for the two most notable fights of his career.That's no surprise because, for those two fights, the stars he stood across from in the ring were Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson. Berbick fought them both. He went 1-1. Yet, Ali and Tyson were the stories on each of those nights.
Although Berbick won an easy 10-round unanimous decision against a faded Ali just a few weeks shy of his 40th birthday, the story was not Berbick defeating the great former champ. Instead, the story of their December 11, 1981, fight in the Bahamas was the final chapter in Ali's legendary career.
Berbick, who grew up in Jamaica listening to Ali fights on the radio, was an afterthought. Almost five years later to the day, on November 22, 1986, Berbick, now owner of the WBC heavyweight championship, was set to make his first title defense, and again he was not the story. Instead, the spotlight belonged to his opponent: Tyson, the 20-year-old sensation.
Most in the crowd of 8,800 at the Las Vegas Hilton weren't there to see Berbick. Instead, they had come to see the expected coronation of Tyson, at 20 years, 4 months, 22 days -- as the youngest heavyweight champion in history.
Sure enough, Tyson took care of business. The scene was unforgettable: Tyson landing a crushing left hook in the second round and Berbick crashing to the floor, getting up, falling down again, getting up and falling down for a third time. He looked like a fish flopping around as referee Mills Lane stopped the fight.
Yes, Berbick, who was found dead in Jamaica on Saturday October 28th, an apparent murder victim at age 51, will be remembered most for his bit parts against those legends.
But he had a solid career beyond those two fights and was one of the top heavyweights of the early 1980s, although, like many fighters, he stayed too long. He finished his career in 2000 with a record of 50-11-1 with 33 knockouts.
"He beat some great fighters," said Bobby Goodman, Don King's matchmaker, who worked with Berbick from 1980-85 and knew him well. "He was a very determined guy in the ring. Whatever he may have lacked talentwise, he made up for with desire. He was a tough guy to discourage. His main asset was his toughness. He was a hell of a fighter, a hell of a heavyweight. It's a shame for it to end this way."
Berbick had several brushes with the law late in his career and in retirement, and he still talked of another big fight in the future.
He began his boxing career relatively late, but made the most of it. After just 11 amateur fights, the 21-year-old Berbick secured a spot on the 1976 Jamaican Olympic team that competed in Montreal. After the Olympics, Berbick stayed in Canada, where he turned pro and won the Canadian heavyweight championship in 1979.
He didn't always like fighting. "My sister, Beverly, and her friends would look after me. I never fought back home. I don't like fighting," he once told The New York Times. As a teen he worked in a nightclub at the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where he encountered many Marines.
''Marines are supposed to be tough,'' Berbick told the Times. ''They've got to believe that one Marine should be able to beat up three ordinary guys. They feel they're superior. They'd go out on weekends and fight sailors, and that's how I'd get into hassles." In order to maintain order at the club, Berbick learned to box at the base's gym.
"After that, I never had any trouble," he told the Times. "They're supposed to be toughies, but once I established myself as champion of the base, they gave me respect. The best way to be friends with a Marine is to beat him up.''
Although he had won the Canadian title, Berbick was boxing in obscurity until he landed the fight that would change his career. He was hand-picked to be the opponent for former WBA heavyweight champion John Tate, who was making a comeback three months after losing the belt via 15th-round knockout to Mike Weaver in an upset.
Berbick and Tate met on the undercard of the first Roberto Duran-Sugar Ray Leonard welterweight title fight in Montreal on June 20, 1980. Berbick, just 14-1-1 entering the fight, knocked Tate unconscious 22 seconds into the ninth round to launch himself as a player in the heavyweight division.
Three wins and 10 months later, WBC champ Larry Holmes, in the midst of a dominant reign, gave Berbick a title shot. Although Berbick was a 50-1 underdog, he fought well. He hurt Holmes in the sixth round and landed many hard shots throughout the fight. But Holmes, with his lethal jab, had too much for Berbick and retained the title on a 15-round unanimous decision.
Two fights later, Berbick defeated Ali and then won 11 of his next 13 fights. Along the way, he beat contenders Greg Page (2½ years before Page won a world title), David Bey and Mitch "Blood" Green.
It was enough for Berbick to earn a shot at WBC champion Pinklon Thomas on March 22, 1986, in Las Vegas. Berbick, again an underdog, won a close unanimous decision. For once, Berbick was the story After the fight, Thomas told the assembled media, "Trevor Berbick fought a great fight. He took my title. It's his."
But not for long. Eight months later, Berbick met Tyson in his first defense.
The victory against Thomas was the pinnacle of Berbick's career. The loss to Tyson followed, as did losses to other name opponents such as Carl "The Truth" Williams and Buster Douglas. By the time Berbick lost to rising contenders Jimmy Thunder and Hasim Rahman in the mid-1990s, he was merely a name for those young fighters to etch onto their records, the way Berbick had once done with Ali.
Again, Berbick was the other guy.