Only five years separate Muhammad Ali’s last fight from Mike Tyson’s first championship fight. The opponent in both bouts was Trevor Berbick. But in the ring and out, Berbick’s story in one of tragedy, frustration, legal troubles, and murder. This was a man who suffered Salieri’s frustration of a talent that was merely good, while standing in the shadow of the world’s greatest.
In 1976, the fairly inexperienced 21-year old represented his native country of Jamaica as a heavyweight boxer in the Montreal Olympics, where he made a poor showing. Turning professional while based in his adopted home of Halifax, Canada, he had improved greatly, winning his first 11 bouts. A victory over John Tate and a gallant loss against Larry Holmes contributed to his earning a shot against Muhammad Ali, who was attempting a comeback. He handed the former champ an utterly humiliating defeat. Ali later attended Berbick’s match against Tyson and whispered to the young challenger, “Get him for me.” Tyson did.
Berbick’s loss to Tyson had been his very first defense of the short-lived World Heavyweight Championship that he had won from Pinklon Thomas earlier that year. Afterwards, he unraveled. He endured arrests, convictions, and jail time for offenses ranging from assault, to rape, to theft, to forgery. He also engaged in a very public feud with former rival, Larry Holmes, whom he blamed for far-fetched personal slights. In 2000, after defeating Shane Sutcliffe, a fellow Canadian barely more than half his age, a CAT scan revealed a blood clot in Berbick’s brain. His boxing license was subsequently revoked and this forced him into retirement. He then made his living from training and, incongruously, preaching.
A few days before Halloween, 2006, Berbick’s dead body was found in a Jamaican churchyard with massive head wounds from a blunt instrument. He had been murdered with a steel pipe by his 20-year old nephew (who would later be sentenced to life in prison) with whom he had been engaged in a land dispute. He was 52.