Thursday, 7 October 2021

1986: Mike Tyson v Trevor Berbick

To a lot of boxing writers, pundits, and fans, Mike Tyson was a breath of fresh air in the heavyweight division as he moved menacingly towards a shot at the WBC world title. To most opponents in 1985 and 1986 he was like a terrifying hurricane enveloping them and unleashing pain. 

November 22, 1986 would see another chapter written in the Tyson story. Coming into his fight with WBC champion Trevor Berbick, Tyson had won 27 fights, 25 inside the distance, with 15 wins coming inside the first round. The hype and sense of expectation surrounding Tyson was reaching fever pitch.

The Guardian's John Rodda neatly summed up this feeling, describing the need for someone like Tyson in the heavyweight ranks. "Ponderous, over-sized pretenders have shuffled about in a three-way split of the heavyweight championships, leaving a public either bemused or bored, or both, and television, the most powerful force in the sport, impatient."

Indeed it had been promoters and television, in the form of HBO, that had formed a unification tournament to end the uncertainty. With Michael Spinks holding the IBF belt, Tim Witherspoon the WBA, and Berbick the WBC version, the move to crown one champion was welcomed in the boxing fraternity.

Berbick had claimed the WBC belt by defeating Pinklon Thomas in a unanimous points decision in March 1986. Born in Jamaica but representing Canada, the 33-year-old had a record of 31-4-1 coming into the Judgment Day bout with Tyson, although few were giving him any hope of keeping his belt; Tyson was priced at 2/9 with Berbick at 3/1.

The champion talked the talk, claiming Tyson was stepping up in class by meeting him, yet he would be unable to walk the walk later. "I am going to give him a whipping before I knock Tyson out," Berbick boasted. "I'm looking to take him out in the seventh." Tyson predicted a sixth round win. The fight would not go beyond the sixth minute.

A crowd of 8,800 in the Las Vegas Hilton greeted the fighters, with celebrities and boxers amongst the spectators. Muhammad Ali, who had lost to Berbick in his last ever fight in 1981, was rumoured to have asked Tyson prior to the fight to "Kick his ass for me." Tyson admitted in 2020 that he wanted to kill Berbick for the way he had destroyed the former great who was way beyond his best by then. 

Thankfully, Berbick was able to walk away from the ring after the fight. Yet it soon became apparent that Tyson was going to get the job done quickly. Both men may have been wearing black shorts - Tyson as challenger was later fined $5,000 for refusing to change - but you could hardly confuse the pair.

With a height and reach advantage, Berbick really should have attempted to use this to keep Tyson out of harm's way. But that was easier said than done. Berbick later bemoaned the fact that he had made a "silly mistake trying to prove my manhood", as he became swamped by the ferocity of his opponent. As the first round developed it appeared that any game plan the champion may have had was now dust.


Immediately caught with a left hand from the challenger, Berbick was rocked back, as the task ahead of him was hammered home. A crunching right from Tyson saw Berbick attempt to fight fire with fire, as he desperately tried to land some blows in retaliation. Trading punches in close quarters to Tyson was not the wisest move.

Trying to hold Tyson and push him away at various points of the opening round, Berbick continued to take punishing shots. A combination rocked the champion, his legs wobbling as he staggered across the ring, and it looked as if Berbick would become another first round victim. But somehow he managed to make it to the bell.

A right over the top at the start of round two added more jelly to the legs of Berbick, as a flurry of punches sent the champion down for the first time. Taking a standing eight count, unsurprisingly Berbick glanced anxiously across the ring, his eyes revealing that he knew there was more of the same coming his way.

A thumping body shot was followed by two rights to the head, Berbick trying his best to cling on when he could, hoping to get to the end of the round. But another blow to his ribs saw Berbick drop his hands and a left hook finished the job.

It seemed to take a while for Berbick's brain to inform his legs that the left Tyson connected with was bad news. Going down in slow motion a split second after the punch, Berbick tried his best to get to his feet. But his legs prevented this. Staggering across the canvas, legs turned to jelly, the champion twice fell, before referee Mills Lane ended the fight. The very definition of punch drunk.

Watching the fight on ITV early on the Sunday morning, the sight of Berbick lurching from one side of the ring to the other became one of the defining memories of sport in the 1980s. The Tyson hype was justified. At 20 years and 145 days, he had become the youngest ever world heavyweight boxing champion.

"You think Cus liked that?" Tyson immediately said to his manager Jim Jacobs, paying tribute to his mentor who had died the year before. "I expect he's up there now looking down saying I made a lot of mistakes," he added at a press conference. It was hard to spot any, with journalists and boxers adamant that a star had arrived.

Angelo Dundee, who had trained Ali and worked in Berbick's corner predicted: "He's going to be a great, great champion." Thomas Hearns issued a chilling warning: "When you go into the ring with him, you are entering the dead zone." George Foreman noted that the speed of Tyson's punching was amazing.

Spinks, watching ringside, was less impressed, indicating that Berbick did not fight back in any way. Jacobs had a theory for this. "I sincerely believe Mike creates and aura of invincibility and his opponents freeze," he noted. In June 1988 Spinks would discover the hard way what it was like to get into the ring with Iron Mike

Talk turned to the next stages involved in unifying the division. But the Mirror's Ron Wills neatly summed up the situation. "You can forget about the tournament to decide the undisputed champion. Tyson is now the only heavyweight in the world who matters." 

He may still have a few obstacles in his way to prove this. Yet it was hard to disagree that Tyson was the future of the division. The heavyweight boxing picture may have been a bit smudged since the days of Ali, Frazier, and Foreman. But Mike Tyson was about to make things a lot clearer as the 1980s progressed.

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