Boxer who beat Muhammad Ali
Monday 30 October 2006
Trevor Berbick, boxer: born Port Antonio, Jamaica 1 August 1954; twice married (six children); died Norwich, Jamaica 28 October 2006.
Trevor Berbick had much to suggest that he would have had a long reign as world heavyweight boxing champion - except for the bad luck in the timing of his career. He reached his peak at the same time as the 20-year-old Mike Tyson exploded on to world boxing: the images of Berbick staggering and cartwheeling across the ring under the impact of Tyson's savagery at the Hilton Hotel in Las Vegas on 22 November 1986 - the one-sided action was stopped in the second round with Berbick helpless in the arms of the referee - established both the victor's aura of invincibility and Berbick's reputation as a loser.
Until then his career had been one of relative success. Berbick was born in Port Antonio, Jamaica, in 1954 - or 1955 (there is some confusion over his exact age, as with much of his life: he himself said, "Legally I'm a spirit. I have no age"). In early life worked as a forklift handler at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, but moved to Canada (later taking Canadian citizenship) after representing his home island in the Olympic Games at Montreal in 1976.
He made his professional début in September 1976 and continued to box until a blood clot on the brain forced him to retire in June 2000. By then he had established a record of 62 contests - winning 50 (33 by knockout), 11 defeats and one draw. Berbick was Commonwealth heavyweight champion between 1981 and 1984, when he forfeited the title for failure to defend it within the stipulated time limit.
Berbick's first challenge for the WBC world heavyweight crown was unsuccessful - he was outpointed by Larry Holmes at Las Vegas in April 1981. In December that year he achieved his most famous victory by outpointing the three-times world champion Muhammad Ali over 10 rounds at Nassau in the Bahamas. His opponent may have been a shadow of his former self - and, indeed, he did not fight professionally again - but it was an illustrious notch on his belt and Berbick won by a clear margin.
On 22 March 1986 he outpointed Pinklon Thomas in Las Vegas in his second bid for the WBC world heavyweight championship. With the quality of the heavyweight division in decline following the retirements of Holmes and Ali, Berbick, who punched with power and moved well, was one of their better prospective successors and seemed to have the fistic world at his feet - if only Mike Tyson had chosen a different profession, and his own life outside the ropes had been a little more settled. His remaining 12 years of boxing were by no means entirely unsuccessful, but he could not escape from the image of that November battering and did not compete for the world crown again.
The "loser" tag followed him outside the ring - he was beset by legal problems and had frequent clashes with the law. In 1991 Berbick was convicted of assaulting his former business manager and the following year he was sentenced to five years' imprisonment - of which he served 15 months - for sexually assaulting his family baby-sitter. Also in 1992, he was convicted of forging his ex-wife's signature to obtain a mortgage on a house. His troubled private life had much in common with that of his conqueror, Tyson.
After retiring from the ring Berbick worked as a trainer - mainly in Florida, where he had moved in 1984 - and when he was deported from the United States (for the second time) in 2002 returned to live in his native Portland parish in Jamaica. His body was found in the churchyard of the Norwich Baptist Church on Saturday morning with a chop wound to his head, apparently made by a machete. Friends had seen him at a party the previous evening and into the early hours of the morning. He was pronounced dead on arrival at Port Antonio Hospital.
In spite of his chequered record Trevor Berbick is remembered with affection as being "magnanimous" by acquaintances and by the Jamaican boxing fraternity. He recently ran boxing clinics in Trinidad and was yesterday due to be a special guest at a boxing evening in St Ann's Bay, Jamaica.
C. Lloyd Allen, former President of the Jamaican Boxing Board, paid tribute to him as "a fine athlete and human being" - "one, who in his way, made a difference. He was always thankful of others, never forgot his early beginnings and those who helped him along the way."
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