The idea of putting a 20-year-old in the ring with the heavyweight champions of any era is more than just bad managing. Not only would doing such a thing be negligent, it would be criminal … unless that 20-year-old fighter was Mike Tyson. Although “Iron” Mike’s career is marred with despicableness, nothing can diminish the significance over his record-setting defeat of WBC champion Trevor Berbick in Las Vegas on November 22, 1986.
Revisionist historians often try, saying that Tyson benefited from a weak era in boxing. However, winning the heavyweight title at 20 in any era is pretty remarkable. If any fighter was the benefactor of a weak era, it was Berbick.
Make no mistake. Berbick was a solid fighter, but would have had difficulty wining a belt in any era other than the mid-80s. His most memorable victory was his decision over a completely shot Muhammad Ali in the “Drama in Bahama.” His most notable loss before November of 1986 was a lopsided 15-round decision to Larry Holmes in 1981.
Unfortunately, it was not the only one. Early in his career, Berbick was knocked out in one round by journeyman Bernardo Mercado. In 1982 and 1983, he dropped back-to-back decisions to Renaldo Snipes and cruiserweight S.T. Gordon.
Losses like that would usually shatter a fighter’s title hopes, but this was during the championships runs of fighters like James “Bonecrusher” Smith, Michael Dokes, and Pinklon Thomas. Berbick persevered and pulled off eight straight wins, before decisioning then-WBC champion Thomas in March of 1986.
For his first defense, the 32-year-old found himself facing a young 20-year-old fighter who had garnered more immediate attention than any other fighter in recent memory. With a technique honed by the late Cus D’Amato, Tyson had burst onto the boxing scene in 1985 with a never before seen combination of speed and strength, demolishing his first 15 opponents in 40 minutes and 25 seconds.
So electrifying was Tyson that Sports Illustrated made him a cover boy in January of 1986 before his network television debut. He continued his rampage that year, averaging more than a fight per month, and only going the distance twice. By the fall of 1986, a title shot was inevitable.
While no fighter had cracked his style at this point, the entire boxing community was certain of one thing: don’t trade punches with Mike Tyson. In Berbick’s corner before the fight, his trainer, Angelo Dundee, reminded the champ, “Don’t forget: Box him; move side-to-side; don’t go head to head.”
When the opening bell sounded, Berbick must have forgotten the advice because he stood directly in front of Tyson, jabbing sparingly. In the middle of the first round, Tyson jarred him with a smashing right. Towards the end of the round, a left-right combination, punctuated with a left hook sent Berbick reeling across the ring. Somehow the champion managed to keep his feet and closed the first round hanging onto Tyson for dear life. The general consensus among all spectators was “Don’t blink.”
A few seconds into Round 2, Tyson staggered the champ with a reaching right. Berbick, trying to flee the hornet’s nest of punches, veered to the other end of the ring, where Tyson dropped him with a short, crisp right.
Berbick quickly jumped to his feet. Instead of running, he remained in front of Tyson, grappling as often as he could. In the final seconds of the round, Tyson dropped him with a compact left hook. Berbick collapsed. He tried to stand up but fell back into the ropes. The soon-to-be ex-champ managed to make it to his feet before the count of 10, but his eyes were glazed and his legs were rubbery. Referee Mills Lane promptly stomped the fight.
The new champion not only had a piece of the title, but also a place in the Guinness Book of World Records. At 20 years, 4 months, and 22 days, Tyson surpassed another D’Amato-trained fighter, Floyd Patterson, to become the youngest heavyweight champion of all time. Patterson won the undisputed title, vacated by the retirement of Rocky Marciano, by knocking out Archie Moore in five rounds on November 30, 1956, just five weeks shy of his 22nd birthday.
Tyson silenced the purists and the diminishing league of skeptics when he beat WBA champ Bonecrusher Smith in March 1987 and then added Tony Tucker’s IBF belt that August, a month after turning 21, to become the first undisputed champion since Leon Spinks beat Ali.
After the Berbick fight, Tyson had a tough time fastening his championship belt. Laughing as the belt fell down past his hips, the newly crowned champion said, “I am just a kid. I can’t even keep the belt around my waist.”
Since Tyson’s record-setting night, several fighters have won the heavyweight title or a piece of it. The youngest of them was Riddick Bowe at 25 years, 3 months, and 3 days.
Since the days of John L. Sullivan, Tyson and Patterson are the only two fighters younger than 22 to win the heavyweight title. It is likely that Tyson’s record will never be broken.