Rage, Grief And An STD: The Story Behind Mike Tyson’s Most Incredible Knockout
Even for 'Iron' Mike Tyson, knocking an opponent down three times with one punch was a remarkable act.
"I just wanted to decimate him," said Tyson of the fight, 33 years ago today, that saw him crowned boxing's youngest-ever world heavyweight champion aged 20. "People said I was fighting tomato cans - easy fights. I wanted to really hurt him."
Mission accomplished. His opponent, Jamaican WBC title-holder Trevor Berbick, probably knew he was in for a rough night from Tyson's menacing glare as he entered the ring. There was more than just fight-night focus behind it. Tyson later admitted that he had contracted the sexually transmitted disease gonorrhea in the buildup but "I was too embarrassed to go to a doctor at the time, so I just had to endure the pain."
Soon it was Berbick's turn to endure pain. Tyson's reputation preceded him. His management hit upon the idea of sending video cassettes of a teenage Tyson's early stoppages to sportswriters and TV personalities across the USA.
Soon, these highlights - visceral, bludgeoning footage of blunt-force trauma - were everywhere. Tyson had essentially gone viral (in a non-STD sense) in a pre-internet age. In 1986, the heavyweight belts were split between underachieving or unexciting boxers and fans were desperate to see this brash young slugger from the harsh streets of Brownsville, Brooklyn, clean up the division.
Berbick was first up. The 32-year-old, a 3-1 underdog at the Las Vegas Hilton, had tried to land a psychological blow by choosing plain black trunks for the fight. As champion, he had first choice of attire, with the challenger supposed to wear a different colour. Berbick picked black because part of Tyson's appeal was his old-school look. No glitzy robe or frilled shorts, he entered the ring draped in a plain white towel with black shorts and boots.
If the idea had been to unsettle Tyson, it failed. Tyson ate a $5,000 fine and wore his black trunks anyway.
Incredibly, this fight in November was Tyson's 13th of the year - another sign of the old-school approach his handlers were taking, keeping the red-hot prospect active. His overall record was an imposing 27-0 (25 knockouts).
Having Tyson stay busy also helped distract him from an intense grief. His mentor, Cus D'Amato, had died 12 months earlier aged 77. The Italian-American was more than just a trainer - he had become Tyson's legal guardian, adopting him after the death of Tyson's mother in 1982. Tyson had lived with D'Amato and his wife in Catskill, New York.
In a sense, D'Amato was using Tyson - he saw the boxer's astonishing power and build and realised he could shape him into the perfect champion. But he has also been a stabilising presence in Tyson's chaotic young life, spent in and out of juvenile detention.
Berbick was most famous for defeating Muhammad Ali in Ali's last professional fight. But even that decision win over a faded 39-year-old worked against him here. Ali attended the Berbick-Tyson fight and - as if any more fuel needed to be added to the fire - gave Tyson a pre-fight pep talk.
"I can remember Ali coming to me, after he was introduced in the ring," recalled Tyson. "He came and said: 'Get him for me.'" Tyson idolised Ali and his resolve hardened. "I was angry and looking for revenge." It certainly looked that way as Tyson, who had prowled the ring during the introductions, stared bullets at Berbick as they came together for the final instructions.
Berbick was either intimidated by Tyson or got his pre-fight tactics disastrously wrong. His best punch was a stiff jab - a handy weapon for a 6ft 2in heavyweight facing a boxer whose official height of just over 5ft 11in always appeared a very optimistic figure (not that anyone chose to correct him).
Yet Berbick met Tyson head-on. It made for a thrilling first minute as Berbick briefly gave as good as got, but it proved a terrible strategy. Tyson, crouching and bobbing in the style taught by D'Amato, was soon punishing Berbick with compact, brutal hooks from either hand. The champion, upright and awkward, was flailing about as an electric crowd - with Eddie Murphy and Sylvester Stallone at ringside - roared its approval.
Somehow, Berbick made it through the first round on his feet and - showing considerable bravado - jutted his chin out to Tyson before retreating to his corner and a bollocking from trainer Angelo Dundee. Tyson didn't need the invite to target Berbick's chin.
The bombardment continued in the second round until Berbick crashed to the canvas. He got up quickly and gamely fought on until an eye-catching finishing sequence. With 30 seconds to go in the round, Tyson narrowly missed an uppercut that might have beheaded Trevor, before a chopping left hook to the temple caused a dazzling delayed reaction.
Berbick fell flat on his back, tried to rise fast, but his rubbery legs failed him and he careered into the ropes. A second attempt to get up saw him stumble across the ring and fall for a third time - his knee-high socks making the sequence look even more bizarre.
When he finally regained his feet, Lane waved the fight off, grabbing Berbick to prevent him tumbling down again. Tyson opened his arms and shrugged to trainer Kevin Rooney, greeted manager Jim Jacobs with a kiss on the lips, while promoter Don King cracked a grin wider than the Las Vegas strip.
At the post-fight press conference, a bare-chested Tyson delivered quotes as fearsome as his shots in the ring. "I was throwing hydrogen bombs," he said. "Every punch was with murderous intention."
Tyson would rapidly unify the heavyweight title, picking up all of the belts before demolishing linear champion Michael Spinks in just 91 seconds in 1988. He was still two days shy of his 22nd birthday, yet a line from HBO analyst Larry Merchant on the night of the Berbick destruction proved prescient.
"The only person who can beat Mike Tyson is Mike Tyson himself," said Merchant. When a poorly prepared Tyson lost to 42-1 underdog Buster Douglas in 1990, that proved exactly the case. Stripped him of his aura of invincibility, Tyson was never the same afterwards but for several fights - including against Berbick - he was an irresistible force and the most spectacular heavyweight to ever lace gloves.
Topics: Mike Tyson