The news broke that former heavyweight champion Trevor Berbick was dead. Like most things that involved Berbick, there was a twist to the rest of the story.
It was reported that he was found murdered in a church courtyard near his family’s home on the island of Jamaica. That such violence occured on sacred ground was unsettling and so was the news it came so close to his home. For years, Berbick seemed lost, spiritually and geographically.
Berbick died from four wounds to the back of the head, a cowardly attack against a former boxer. The odds of someone overcoming the brutish Berbick head-on were long indeed. Ready for more unsettling news? It is being reported that he was attacked with a machete or a knife. Local police have arrested a 20-year-old man with the murder and people believe the two may have been involved in a dispute over land.
Berbick turned pro in 1976 but broke from anonymity when he upset John Tate on the undercard of the first Sugar Ray Leonard-Robert Duran bout in 1980. The following year he lost a 15-round decision to Larry Holmes in a WBC title fight. He would later capture the WBC title from Pinklon Thomas, but only managed to keep it for eight months.
The heavyweight was born in Jamaica, raised in Canada and fought in the United States. But he never seemed at home. He was trained by the likes of Eddie Futch, Sam Solomon and Angelo Dundee, but always appeared in need of guidance.
The win that afforded him the most recognition was his 1981 decision over Muhammad Ali, the last time Ali would engage in a prizefight.
The loss that afforded him the most pain was his 1985 knockout at the hands of Mike Tyson. Berbick would lose his WBC title that night and Tyson would become the youngest heavyweight champion in history. Tyson dropped Berbick twice and after the second knockdown, Berbick stumbled about the ring, trying to regain his feet. He even pounded the canvas with his fist, showing the frustration that accompanies a man who can’t remain upright. For years, Berbick sought a rematch but never put himself in position to warrant one.
I had breakfast with Berbick once, it was 1994 and Dennis Rappaport and Fred Kesch were promoting heavyweight prospect Melvin Foster. The fight was on Long Island and I interviewed the former champion over coffee and pastries. He was distracted, not entirely focused on my questions or even the fight at hand.
When I asked about the Ali fight, he suddenly focused on the conversation. “I was in good shape and I think he was in the best condition he could be in,” he said. “I won it because I worked the body and kept the pressure on him. And I was jabbing too, hitting him in his chest and his shoulders. He was moving and boxing. I learned how to fight a boxer. He hurt me a few times but it wasn’t the type of hurt that it was going to take everything out of me. I came back and threw more punches.
“It was a great motivation to fight him. But then there was a sympathy. I’m saying, how can I every really, really hurt him, try to really hurt him seriously. I was hoping that I’d hit him and he’d just go down and out. It gave me a sense of limitation in how I punched. It’s not that I was less aggressive but cautious on how and where I hit him. So I stayed with the body because I figured it would do less damage. That’s what won me the fight.”
When I mentioned Tyson, he remained focused, but turned bitter. “He’s a joke,” he said. Another man sitting with us, a man of Jamaican descent who was part of Berbick’s entourage, said, “That’s the fight we want. He’s got something we want.”
“He took my belt,” added Berbick, even though Tyson was in jail at the time for rape and had been an ex-champion for more than four years.
At this time, Berbick had already endured a rape conviction of his own. He was trying to regain his title, his stature in a sport that once made him a respected man. A few days later he would beat Foster on a split decision. His awkward, mauling, brawling style could give anyone fits.
After the Tyson loss, Berbick fought in spurts. He won a bunch of fights, but each time he stepped up in class – Carl Williams, Hasim Rahman, Jimmy Thunder – he was defeated. His final record stands at 50-11-1.
His record outside of the ring was worse. He had been arrested for assault, fraud, driving with a suspended license. He was twice deported from the U.S. There was also his famous street-fight with Holmes, much later in each man’s career, when the fighters hurled themselves over parked cars to get at one another after a press conference.
It would seem Berbick never quite found a comfort zone, either in or out of the ring. It was a sad end to a sad story.