BoxingMuhammad Ali

Muhammad Ali’s last stand and the sad, sorry tale of Trevor Berbick’s demise

The Greatest’s last opponent saw his life unravel after a heavy beating by Mike Tyson

Just after 6am on October 28th, 2006, 84-year-old Canute Lambert arrived at the Church of God in Norwich, Jamaica to prepare for the arrival of his early-bird parishioners.

Immediately, the deacon noticed some sort of large object at the top of the steps to the entrance. From a distance, he figured it was a garbage bag discarded there by somebody the previous night. As he began his ascent, however, Lambert recognised a trail of crimson tracking beneath his feet.

Looking up, he was close enough to see what lay at the top of the church steps was not refuse but a body. “It looked like a human being,” he said later. When he bent over the corpse, even with four gaping wounds in its head, he knew immediately who it was.

Legally, I’m a spirit, I have no age

Lambert had known Trevor Berbick from the day he was born. He had watched him grow up, leave the island, become a world-famous boxer and return, only to die in a pool of blood, a $100 bill lying beside him, yards from his home.

Within hours, news of Berbick’s death was flashing up on websites and newspapers across the world. Almost every headline described the former heavyweight champion as “the last man to fight Muhammad Ali”. His calling card in history.

On December 11th, 1981, Berbick won a facile 10-round decision over a flabby Ali in a ring erected in a community baseball field in Nassau. The so-called “Drama in the Bahamas” was so shoddy and the world so disinterested in seeing a 39-year-old version of the three-time champion fight his last that moments before the first contest that night, a bell had to be stolen from a cow in a nearby field to be used to signal the rounds. The perfect metaphor for an ignominious end to the most compelling career in fistic history.

In the 40 years since, Ali’s legend grew and grew, with Berbick just one more footnote in that sprawling epic. Yet, his is a story worth telling too. For very different reasons and even if it’s not always possible to piece together a reliable narrative.

According to boxing records, he was born in Jamaica on August 1st, 1954. Others claim he’s a year older or younger. Those who first met him in Guantanamo Bay, where the Jamaican government sent him to work as part of a youth employment scheme, were convinced he was at least five years older than he claimed to be.

“Legally,” he once said, “I’m a spirit, I have no age.”

In Gitmo, he learned to box, usually spinning some variation of an origin story about having to fight truculent US marines there, often claiming to have also done clandestine work for the American secret service.

Trevor Berbick attacks during his fight against Muhammad Ali, the last of Ali’s career. Photograph: John Iacono/Sports Illustrated via Getty Images

Somehow, he gleaned enough to punch his ticket to the Montreal Olympics then stayed on in Canada to turn pro. The career profile of a journeyman fighter was altered by a shock victory over former WBC heavyweight champion John Tate, a result that earned him a shot at Larry Holmes’s title, where he went the distance in a creditable loss in April 1981.

Then came the opportunity to fight Ali, a depressing contest best summed up by an incident in the seventh round.

With 43 seconds left, Berbick stopped his latest relentless attack, looked over at referee Zach Clayton and shouted, “He’s hurt”. His eyes as much as his words betrayed how much he was hoping the referee might step in and call a halt to what was by now a one-sided pummeling. This is what Ali had been reduced to, his opponent pleading for the ref to show mercy. Were it anybody else on the receiving end, Clayton might have too. But, it was going to take a courageous ref to stop Ali’s last fight in these circumstances.

“I shall go on to win the world championship,” shouted Berbick at Ali once the decision was finally announced. “You were my superior but I’m going to do it for you man, you’ve inspired me since I was a kid.”

He made good on his promise, snatching the WBC belt from the undefeated Pinklon Thomas in March, 1986. An unlikely victory made possible by the presence of the great Eddie Futch, Joe Frazier’s one-time trainer, in his corner, and the fact his opponent didn’t take him seriously. Around the Riviera Hotel and Casino during fight week, Thomas spent hours selling audio cassettes of himself crooning an easy listening ballad called ‘Hanging on to Promises’.

Berbick’s own reign as champion was brief, ended seven months later by Mike Tyson, then boasting a record of 27 wins, including 25 by knock-out, and no losses. Before the first bell, Ali visited the young pretender in his corner and whispered in the 20-year-old’s ear, “Kick his ass for me!” As if the phenom needed further encouragement to visit destruction on any quarry. Almost five full years had passed since Berbick had defeated him in the Bahamas, but Ali obviously hadn’t forgotten.

What followed was a beating for the ages. Two minutes and 35 seconds into the second, referee Mills Lane ended Berbick’s suffering after a left hook to the temple turned his legs to rubber. Valiantly though he tried to get back up, he staggered around the ring, repeatedly falling like a drunk groping for a bar stool that remained tantalisingly out of reach. A tragi-comic denouement that would make the culmination of the fight a YouTube staple decades later

There was no shame in losing to Tyson in his prime, and, immediately afterwards, Berbick spoke graciously in defeat. However, with time, it became apparent that he lost a lot more than just a title that night. In search of a way to explain the beating he took, he headed down a very dark path, claiming antibiotics affected his equilibrium during the contest, alleging something had been put in his water at the end of the first round, and some sort of damaging gas was pumped into his hotel room as he slept the night before.

Trevor Berbick is knocked down by Mike Tyson during their heavyweight fight at Hilton Hotel in Las Vegas in November 1986. Photograph: The Ring Magazine via Getty Images

Those paranoid delusions might have been dismissed as the excuse-making of a fighter determined to convince himself he wasn’t simply outclassed except this quickly became his go-to way of explaining when things went wrong inside and outside the ring. And, unfortunately, his life and his career soon headed downhill. And fast.

“Fighting is something that I want to do now,” said Berbick before he fought John Tate back in 1980. “I don’t want to be hanging on when I’m 35.”

Two decades after he uttered those words, Berbick (officially 46, unofficially who knows?) climbed through the ropes for his last competitive bout in Vancouver. By then, his name was so tarnished, so associated in the public mind with criminality and law-breaking, that, for a time, he fought as Israel T Berbick. If the idea was to try to get away from his past, well, that was impossible because his charge sheet was too long and disturbing.

In 1990 alone, he was charged with aggravated assault after an incident with a man he suspected was having an affair with his wife, picked up for fraud after securing a mortgage by having a woman pose as his partner, and arrested in Miami for putting a gun to the neck of his former money manager, demanding she drive him to see his by-then estranged spouse.

The following year, he gatecrashed a press conference and accused Larry Holmes of causing the break-up of his marriage by using a honeytrap named “Jenny from Jacksonville”. After initially punching and kicking Berbick in front of the hotel until police intervened, Holmes later ran across the roofs of two parked cars and flung himself through the air at Berbick to deliver even more punishment. Like the end of the Tyson fight, the footage is in regular rotation on YouTube.

All of those paled next to the case where he was found guilty of sexual battery of a 26-year-old woman who babysat his kids, the victim speaking for 90 minutes from the witness stand about her ordeal at his hands. Berbick blamed the episode on a conspiracy involving Larry Holmes, Don King and the Japanese (he had just fought Nobuhiko Takada in a boxer versus wrestler bout in Tokyo). Ridiculous explanations became routine for the last two decades of his life when he also claimed God regularly visited him in his apartment.

‘’I couldn’t see his face,” said Berbick. “I’m always catching the back of the man, just his shoulders and head. Ghosts don’t operate like that. I knew it was the son of man because the same thing happened to Moses. I’m a biblical historian. I’m deep.’’

Deported to Jamaica following his release from prison, Berbick spent the last night of his life socialising in Norwich bars. On the way home, he took a short cut through the Church of God premises, using his cell phone to illuminate a path. However, it was still dark enough for two men to be lurking in the shadows, wielding a crowbar and a four-foot-long metal pipe, waiting for his arrival.

Larry Holmes lands a left jab against Trevor Berbick during their fight at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas April, 1981. Photograph: The Ring Magazine via Getty Images

“He could not see us and I use the piece of iron to lick him in his head back twice,” said 20-year-old Harold Berbick, his nephew who claimed his uncle had made threatening gestures to him in a pub earlier in the evening. “I was aiming for his neck and shoulder but it catch him in his head. He held his head with both hands and bend forward and Sheldon [nickname of the co-accused, 18-year-old Kenton Gordon] use the crow bar and hit him two times in his head also. Uncle Trevor drop to the ground and try to bawl out in a low voice.”

On December 20th, 2007, a jury took just over an hour to find Harold Berbick guilty of murder and he was sentenced to life. Gordon was convicted of manslaughter, for which he received 14 years hard labour.

“It is wrong to murder someone, justice has been served,” said Berbick’s ex-wife Nadine, who had sat through the proceedings with two of his daughters, Trisha and Nadia. “He should not have died the way he did.”

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