It's sad that most sports fans – perhaps, even most boxing fans – remember Trevor Berbick only for getting pummeled by Mike Tyson in 1986. Or for getting attacked by Larry Holmes in a parking lot in 1991. Or for his out-of-the-ring troubles that seemingly made more headlines than did his boxing career.
But this is a tribute to Trevor Berbick, the fighter. Because, for a time, he was a damn good one.
Like the night, in 1980, when he walked into a Montreal ring as an unknown, on the undercard of the first Roberto Duran-Sugar Ray Leonard brawl, and flattened former WBA heavyweight champ John Tate. Sure, Tate had been knocked senseless in his previous fight, by Mike Weaver. But, make no mistake, Berbick was supposed to be the fall guy. He was supposed to be the guy who gave Tate a shot of confidence on his way back to the title.
Instead, Tate took a longer nap than he did in Knoxville three months earlier, courtesy of the hulking Berbick's powerful, clubbing blows.
For that, Berbick earned himself a shot at the real heavyweight king at the time, Holmes. And, you know what? It sure wasn't easy for the “Easton Assassin,” widely regarded as one of the top 10 heavyweights of all time. The aggressive Berbick stayed after Holmes all night long, firing those familiar wide punches and taking a good number of slashing blows in return.
In the end, Holmes was just too slick, too fast, too good for the one-dimensional slugger from Canada via Jamaica. But Berbick made him work for it before losing a unanimous decision on April 11, 1981. A few months later, Holmes destroyed Leon Spinks in three rounds, which tells you something about Holmes' abilities at the time – and, ultimately, Berbick's.
Later that year, Berbick beat up the shell of Muhammad Ali in the Bahamas. It ended up being Ali's final fight – ensuring that Berbick's name would forever be the answer to the Trivial Pursuit question, “Who was 'The Greatest's' final opponent?”
The win got Berbick another big fight, on another big night – the undercard of the Holmes-Gerry Cooney extravaganza in Las Vegas, June 11, 1982. The circumstances were similar to the Tate fight two years prior: He was brought in as a punching bag for a favored opponent, Greg Page, the USBA heavyweight champion and the man thought to be Holmes' heir apparent, on a big card.
But Berbick surprised the experts again, outhustling the much more talented Page – who entered the ring at a career-low 221½ pounds – to earn a unanimous 12-round decision.
It was a victory for substance over style.
This was the height of Berbick's career. He was 22-2-1, and considered one of the more dangerous heavyweights in the world. And he was taking on all comers.
So he stepped in the ring against hard-punching Renaldo Snipes as a heavy favorite. Snipes' career was in a tailspin – he lost to Holmes and Tim Witherspoon, and drew with the sloppy Scott Frank – and Berbick was expected to make quick work of him.
But no. Berbick entered the ring overconfident, tried to put Snipes away early, and was hammered to the canvas twice by right hands. He lost a decision, and dropped in the ratings.
And his career began to follow a familiar pattern – Berbick won when he was supposed to lose, and lost when he was supposed to win. An example? In his next fight, he lost to S.T. Gordon – a cruiserweight.
But then, Berbick went on an eight-fight win streak, upsetting David Bey, and beating Mitch “Blood” Green in the process. He earned his second title shot, against WBC heavyweight champ Pinklon Thomas on March 22, 1986.
Like Page, Thomas was easily a better fighter than Berbick. But he was lazy, and coming off a long layoff. Berbick took advantage. Again, he outworked a better opponent and finally won the prize.
He was finally a champion.
It didn't last long, though. Tyson, then a phenomenal teenager, was Berbick's top contender. And, again, nobody gave Berbick a chance.
But why not? He was easily the most experienced fighter Tyson had faced, and he was coming off the biggest victory of his career, the decision over Thomas. And, at 6-foot-3, 220 pounds, he was bigger than Tyson.
Berbick entered the ring wearing black trunks and high black stockings, a psychological ploy that was designed to fluster Tyson, whose customary ring attire was black trunks, no socks.
Tyson even had to pay some $$$, since he broke the WBC's rule of wearing the same colored trunks as the defending champ. Give Berbick credit for creativity.
And something that people fail to mention is that, while Berbick was bombed out by Tyson in two rounds, he sure wasn't scared. Even after the then-“Baddest Man on the Planet” began connecting with his hydrogen bombs, Berbick never willingly backed up. He soaked up the shots as best he could and fired away in return.
But it was obvious from the beginning that Berbick couldn't match Tyson's hand speed, and that was ultimately his downfall. The end came when Tyson landed a fierce left hook to the head that dropped Berbick on his back.
He tried to get up – two, three times – but his legs were spaghetti with extra sauce. His big heart finally got him to his feet like a drunk at last call, but referee Mills Lane stopped it.
He wasn't done. Berbick went 11-2 over his next 13 fights, beating the likes of Jeff Sims and Melvin Foster. But he lost to bigger names Carl “The Truth” Williams and James “Buster” Douglas over that stretch as well, spelling his end as a world-class campaigner.
But, even as a washed up veteran, Berbick was good enough to go 10 with Hasim Rahman in 1996.
So, let's not dismiss Berbick as a lucky pug who fought in a weak era. He was more than that.
He was a fighter who was always in shape, wasn't afraid of a fight, and always gave the fans their money's worth. And he happened to pick up a heavyweight title belt along the way.
Not bad, Berbick. R.I.P.