originally published February 10, 2012
I could have been a boxer.
Of course, this would have necessitated a completely different childhood from the one I experienced, probably in a different city with different parents and a more gritty urban soundtrack playing as a dismal grey rain pierced through the neon glow of a dingy street while a saxophone wailed in the… what was I talking about?
Right, boxing. Specifically, the boxing of Mr. Trevor Berbick, a heavyweight out of Jamaica who bridged two stupendous eras of boxing – really the final two eras before MMA and Ultimate Fighting replaced the graceful sport of jabs and hooks with a lot of sweaty, near-naked man-groping.
Berbick was born in Jamaica in 1954. The “Early Life” section of his Wiki page states that he claimed to have had a vision from God at age sixteen, but there’s no mention of what that vision may have been. Perhaps God told him that his destiny was to hit people for a living. Maybe God recommended a trip to the Degobah system. I would have been helpful if God had included some advice on staying away from babysitters and his crazy-ass nephew later in life, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
Berbick came to Montreal in 1976 to box in the Olympics for his homeland. Mircea Simon, the Romanian who would go on to win the silver medal, pounded him out of the competition. No matter, Berbick decided to stay in Canada and go pro. He won his first eleven fights and earned a shot at the WBC Continental Americas heavyweight title. He fought and lost.
Berbick nabbed the Canadian Heavyweight title with his next win, and no doubt the sports reporters did their best to assign him a nickname: The Jamaican Ja-Mauler, Raging Berbull, The Jamaicanizer… I’m sure they came up with something.
He became one of the foremost boxers of the late 70s and early 80s. So much so, he received an invite to try to snag the WBC Heavyweight title from Larry Holmes at Caesar’s Palace Las Vegas in 1981. Holmes was 36-0, and had just beaten Muhammad Ali six months earlier. Unfortunately, the Mistaken Jamaican was not ready for this one; Holmes won in a unanimous decision. This was more than a fight for Berbick – he and Holmes did not like one another, and neither of them kept quiet about it.
Berbick got his shot at Ali before the year was out, and because all of Ali’s fights at that point were legally required to possess catchy names, this one was dubbed “The Drama In The Bahamas.” (better than Ali’s suggestion at a relocation, which would have made this “The Romantic Comedy In Albany”).
Ali lost the fight after ten rounds. It would go down in history as Ali’s final fight, and probably Berbick’s proudest moment, even though no belts were on the line. (How about “The Kick-Assau in Nassau”? How does one get a job naming fights?)
Speaking of belts, it strikes me while researching this article that there are far too many belts to be won in professional boxing. This could be why the sport never quite caught on to the extent of pro football or baseball. Berbick’s fingers touched seven different belts for various organizations, and that’s all within a single weight class. I’m not certain whether the International Boxing Organization (IBO) is more important than the World Boxing Council (WBC) or the International Boxing Federation (IBF), but I am tempted not to care. It’s just too confusing, like trying to figure out what the fuck everyone on a cricket field (pitch? squirehold?) is doing.
Back to Berbick. With a record of 31-4-1, he strode into the Hilton Hotel in Las Vegas to defend his WBC Heavyweight title against a 27-0 kid named Mike Tyson, age 20. Berbick did fairly well, making it as far as the second round before being knocked down twice and having the fight called on a Technical Knock-Out. It was ugly. You can see a video of the knock-down on Youtube, and I have to admit, it’s kind of funny watching Berbick stand up and fall down again. And again. Tyson’s the vertical one, in case you don’t recognize him without his face ink.
This was the last moment of true historical significance in Berbick’s career. He closed out Ali’s boxing oeuvre and, by handing him his first professional heavyweight belt, launched Tyson’s. In 2010, Mike told YES Magazine that his motivation that night was to get some revenge for the beating Berbick had handed Ali in his last fight. Tyson felt Berbick was a little too merciless and wanted to show him the same cruelty.
Luckily, Berbick was one of Don King’s promotional flock, so his career just kept on rolling. As the 80s came to a close though, his life began to unravel. In 1991, he flew to Japan for a Boxer vs. Wrestler match with Nobuhiko Takada. Berbick was expecting a kickboxing-style fight, but complained to the ref when Takada turned out to be legally allowed to kick Berbick below the belt. Berbick left the ring, refusing to finish the fight.
The following year, his feud with Larry Holmes resurfaced in the form of a public brawl. (Yes, it’s on Youtube) The video shows Berbick being led away by police, complaining about being kicked and punched by Holmes, when suddenly Holmes leaps in with a flying drop-kick. It’s all very classy.
In 1992 he was sentenced to five years in a Florida prison for sexually assaulting his children’s babysitter. He served 15 months and lost two and a half years of his career. In 1997 he violated his parole and was booted out of the US.
In 1999 he beat Shane Sutcliffe and once again won the Canada Heavyweight Title, 14 years after he’d lost it. Three fights later, Berbick retired.
I’d like to offer a happy ending here, where Berbick returns to the streets of Jamaica to teach underprivileged children how to give back to the world by punching people through fluffy red gloves. But Berbick’s story comes to a close in a Norwich, Jamaica church on October 28, 2006, where his head was bashed in by a lead pipe. His nephew, Harold Berbick, with whom he’d been having some kind of land dispute, was sentenced to life in prison for the murder.
Now that I think of it, that’s the reason I didn’t become a boxer. I knew I’d end up in a land dispute with some nephew that would do me in. Well, that and I don’t like to get punched. Two reasons, that’s all.