The fighting preacher: Trevor Berbick

Garnette Cadogan recalls the highs and lows of the late Jamaican boxer Trevor Berbick, who fought Muhammed Ali and Mike Tyson

Trevor Berbick. Photograph by the Gleaner Company Limited

At around five in the morning on October 29, 2006, in rural Portland, Jamaica, a deacon was walking across the churchyard of the Norwich Church of God when he stumbled upon a 6-foot-2 -inch man lying face down in the grass. It was former heavyweight boxer Trevor Berbick. He had spent the night out with friends at a local bar, but this ordinary Saturday hadn’t caught him drunk or hung over. He was murdered, attacked from behind, a few feet from his doorstep.

Despite his success, Berbick is remembered for fighting two of the giants of the day, Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson. He was the challenger against Ali, and the defender against Tyson; but always his opponent was the big attraction. Indeed, Berbick is often considered more milestone than competitor: Trevor Berbick, the last boxer to fight Muhammad Ali, and the man Mike Tyson beat to become the youngest heavyweight champion in history.

His legacy is reduced to a mere dozen rounds: ten with the 39-year-old Ali on December 11, 1981, when the revered boxer-cum-dancer couldn’t defeat 27-year-old Berbick; and two on November 22, 1986, with 20-year-old Tyson, whose brute force and ferocity dethroned the 32-year-old Berbick, stripping him of both title and self-respect.

But he deserves to be remembered for more than that. His professional career consisted of 62 fights, with 50 wins (33 by knockout), 11 losses and one draw: Berbick was not an accidental boxer. He fought as a professional from 1976 until 2000 (when his licence was revoked after a brain scan revealed a blood clot). He stood his ground for fifteen rounds with Larry Holmes (who said he was “strong and confident and could take a punch”); and he beat solid contenders like John Tate, Greg Page and Pinklon Thomas to win the WBC heavyweight title.

But he’s still considered “the other guy”.

Berbick’s reputation suffers because he was a relative outsider, an erratic whose eccentricities prompted people to question his sanity. Boxing records show his age as 52 when he died, but sources variously list it as 49, 51, or 56. His response to the discrepancy — “I’m a spirit. I have no age” — may well have been subversive humour, but many took it as evidence of something else.

Consider what Don King told the New York Times about his encounter with Berbick in the summer of 1985:

“Every morning at 6.30 a.m. there’d be a knock on my hotel door,” King said, “and here would come Trevor Berbick, carrying a Bible and a cross.

‘While everybody may be your enemy, the Lord is on your side,’ he’d tell me. I’d be sleepy and half groggy while he’d preach. Two, three weeks in a row, he’d be there first thing in the morning, reading the 91st psalm.”

Gerry Cooney’s manager, Dennis Rappaport, told the Times about his negotiations with Berbick over a fight with Cooney. Berbick, he said, began their conversation by demanding a huge advance:

“I need money, a $100,000 deposit.”

“What?”

“I got a message from God. He said to ask you, and you’d give it to me.”

“When did you talk to God?”

“About 20 minutes ago.”

“Trevor, He changed his mind. He spoke to me about five minutes ago and said not to give you $20.”

Berbick’s self-designation as the Fighting Preacher bemused people; his occasional non sequiturs bewildered them.

His fight with Ali, the “Drama in Bahama”, brought Berbick wide attention and his first big purse, but it also helped alienate him. After all, no man who fights a superhero — especially an ailing, ageing one — can escape the designation of Villain. Berbick beat Ali, but lost the match.

Berbick never got over his loss to Tyson five years later, and spoke of it for the rest of his life, insisting that he was cheated out of a win. His life rapidly declined, and he gained notoriety as a boxer who now fought outside the ring.

Despite Berbick’s troubles, he began to mentor a younger generation of boxers in his home country. He hoped to be an example and inspiration, not simply the boxer who fought the champion.