Trevor Berbick, a Man

By Michael Katz


Trevor Berbick, a Man

I was supposed to start this new gig on Halloween, but before you can learn exclusively that Don King patterned his hair after David Ben Gurion's - remember where you read it first - let me unmask Trevor Berbick, the former heavyweight title-holder found dead last Sunday morning with what looked like machete chops to the back of his neck. He did not cut himself shaving. Police on his home island of Jamaica have arrested a suspect in the homicide.

The body was found in a churchyard, near his home in a rural area of Kingston. He was 49, 51, 52 or 56. No one knew for sure. He used to say, "Legally, I'm a spirit - I have no age."

Details of his death are sketchy. The first guesses concerned drugs. There was talk of a family fight. And something about land. Last I heard, the 20-year-old suspect who is in custody might be the son of a woman Berbick insulted.

Almost anything would be believable. Trevor Berbick was a delight to be around at times, but he was neither a great fighter nor a great man. There was a dark underside to him. He was convicted of rape, of assault, of grand theft. There's a famous tale of him ripping off a hooker in Cleveland, which we'll get around to later. He was, however, one of the most ubiquitous characters in the game's history. He was boxing's Zelig, somehow edging his way into major events.

In his kooky way, he was also a poster boy for what makes fighters fight. You have to be a little crazy to go into that ring. Berbick was crazier than most.

"He was, outside of Ray Leonard, maybe the most articulate fighter of his time," said Marc Risman, a Vegas lawyer who represented Berbick in the Eighties. "Then there were times when you wanted to call for a straight jacket. There were no in-betweens."

Berbick was last seen alive, the Kingston police said, at a bar Saturday night. No surprise. Being found in a churchyard was no surprise, either. He actually preached for a while. Risman said "on more than one occasion, he thought he was talking to God."

The last time he spoke to Berbick, 15-16 years ago, when the former Canadian heavyweight champion was back living in Montreal after being expelled from the United States, Risman said the fighter told him "about a tree growing in the middle of his living room."

Risman said he was witness to several of Berbick's prefight meal rituals, the devouring of five or six lobsters, "shells and all."

"His wife, Nadine, would just eat one, but she'd also eat the shells," said the lawyer.

Though early in his career Berbick was knocked out in the opening round by Bernardo Mercado - one of Jose Sulaiman's favorites since his manager ran a brothel - the tough Jamaican was an upper echelon heavyweight for much of the Eighties. When he was Canadian champion - George Chuvalo used to say, "I could be dead 20 years and still come back to win that title" - Berbick was put on the undercard of the 1980 Leonard-Duran classic in Montreal that was co-promoted by rivals Don King and Bob Arum.

He was fighting John Tate, whom Arum had informed me was probably the best heavyweight since Joe Louis (Muhammad Ali? Rocky Marciano? Who they?), "maybe even better than Louis," but who was making his first start since being felled like a Redwood tree by Mike Weaver. In the ninth round, to escape the battering he was receiving, Tate turned his back and ran, with Berbick in hot pursuit. Berbick reached around and knocked Tate flat on his face, almost in Arum's lap.

King jumped up and started howling in glee. I yelled to him, "Don't tell me…." And he said, yes, he had Berbick.

Despite a record stained with the loss to Mercado, and a draw with Leroy Caldwell, a useful journeyman, Berbick was given a title shot by early in 1981 against the real heavyweight champion, Larry Holmes - who, of course, was also controlled by the promoter. Holmes, in his prime but certainly not taking Berbick too seriously, was shaken in the sixth round and struggled to score the decision. Holmes's performance was so poor, King made manager/trainer Richie Giachetti the scapegoat and fired his old Cleveland pal, bringing in Eddie Futch and Ray Arcel to train Holmes.

Later that year, Berbick went to the Bahamas for what, too late, was Muhammad Ali's last fight. This was the fight on a baseball which started without stools in the corners and a bell (they used a cow bell) and with only two pairs of gloves to be shared by all of the fighters on the card. It was promoted by local entrepreneurs. King followed Berbick, insisting that Trevor was his fighter and he had better be taken care of. The local promoters took care of him, apparently. King was beaten up by what reportedly were goons imported from Denver "how much they paying you, I'll give you more to go easy," King reportedly started his meeting with the hired help, which apparently was not too successful since he needed medical care when he reached Florida.

Before the fight, Berbick told a couple of Canadian reporters that he liked to relax the night before a big bout by sleeping with a young boy. Berbick won the "fight," but the next day when he appeared at a press conference, he gently refused to answer any questions until Ali also arrived. "After Ali showed up, no one wanted to ask Berbick anything," said Fast Eddie Schuyler of the Associated Press.

Berbick remained in the King orbit, though, finally getting a decision over Caldwell to qualify for the biggest stage of 1982 - the undercard of the Holmes-Gerry Cooney bout in Las Vegas. He was matched with King's new heavyweight heir-apparent, Greg Page, whom the promoter had whisked from Butch Lewis.

Berbick became the first man to beat the future WBA heavyweight champion (Page was injured in the second round but managed to go the distance). King then matched Berbick with Renaldo (Mr.) Snipes in Atlantic City. Snipes had knocked Holmes down, and almost out, in 1980 and at the last minute, Berbick decided he really didn't want the nationally televised network date. While the undercard preceded downstairs at the Sands Hotel and Casino, King was pleading with Berbick that he had to go on with the show. Finally, the exasperated promoter brought in Holmes, who assured Berbick, as a man who had fought both guys, that this was an easy fight. Berbick finally relented and went downstairs.

He was knocked down in the opening round, though he did make it to the end on his feet for another loss. In his next start, Berbick was beaten by S.T. Gordon, the ordinary former cruiserweight champion.

He was simply unreliable. He called in "sick" for one network TV date in Cleveland, but using the plane tickets King had sent him showed up with his wife, Nadine, anyway. The story, told to me by one of King's closest advisers, was one night in Cleveland Berbick picked up a hooker. The working girl put the money in her purse and afterwards, when she went to the bathroom, Berbick took it back and bolted. Nadine was kind of shocked when she answered her hotel door and there was the crazed woman outside holding a knife.

In the ring, Berbick was still a brawling, difficult opponent. In 1985, he scored decisions over two of King's other heavyweights, David Bey and Mitch Green, to qualify for a shot at Pinklon Thomas, the WBC title-holder and, in the immediate post-Larry Holmes era, the man generally regarded as the best heavyweight out there.

Risman, who had become Berbick's attorney following the failed attempt at Holmes, put the fighter together with the great trainer Eddie Futch for the Thomas fight in 1986.

Look, I know Berbick beat up Nadine in 1988 - the reason, Risman said, he left the fighter - and was convicted of raping the family babysitter in Florida in 1992. And there was the time he forged his ex-wife's signature to get a mortgage, for which he was convicted of grand theft. He did 15 months in prison. He was expelled from the States twice, from Canada once. But I'll always have a soft spot for him. I was one of the few guys on my block to bet on Berbick against Thomas.

On March 22, 1986, I was stuck in Atlanta with Greg Logan of Newsday, covering some NCAA regional hoops. I was on my way down to spring training for the New York Daily News. I wanted to be at Thomas-Berbick because I had a rooting interest. I had my buddy, Pat Putnam of Sports Illustrated, place a bet on Berbick for me. He thought I was nuts. So did Logan.

But I had been speaking to Futch about the fight and he told me he knew how to beat Thomas. He described what Pinklon did every time he was going to throw a right hand - dropping it to his chest. He instructed Berbick that every time he saw that move to throw the left hook, Thomas would have to raise his right to block it and so the challenger was facing a virtually one-armed fighter. I thought Berbick, with Futch in the corner for the first time, had a hell of a shot against the 6-1 favorite, but when I saw on the tube in a downtown Atlanta bar that Carl King was leading my man to the ring, I told Logan, "Now if I win, I'll get the decision." It was close, but Berbick deserved the victory.

He won the title, but he lost his trainer. When he told Futch he wanted to work with him again, Eddie said, "But I don't want to work with you." Risman then came up with Angelo Dundee to work Berbick's corner for his first, and only, defense, exactly eight months later, against the 20-year-old Mike Tyson.

Futch, Dundee, Albert Einstein and the entire population of MENSA would not have helped Berbick that night. Dennis Rappaport and Bob Arum tried. They wanted Berbick to scrap his WBC belt and fight Gerry Cooney, who had been languishing in retirement again. At one point, I believe, Berbick was hidden under an assumed name at Caesars Palace in Vegas so the deal with Arum and Cooney could be reached. King found him, of course.

Risman was the promoter's ally in this. He knew that the money for a Tyson fight was real - $2.1 million, plus "manager" Carl King agreed to take less of a cut than usual. Risman figured as soon as the WBC, which usually did King's bidding, stripped Berbick of the belt, there would be less money for a Cooney fight.

The Tyson knockout of Berbick was one of the most spectacular in history - a right to the body, a missed right uppercut, but then the definitive left hook that put Berbick down three times from a single punch. It was over in the second round.

No one knew that both contestants would eventually be convicted of rape. Boxing makes strange bedfellows.

Pinklon Thomas, it turned out, was to be the last major fighter Berbick would ever defeat (I can't count an old and overweight Iran Barkley). In 1988, he would lose to Carl Williams, the following year to Buster Douglas. Yet, like Zelig, he still had a way of commandeering the stage.

In 1991, three years after he was knocked out by Tyson, Larry Holmes began another comeback attempt - one that would see him upset Ray Mercer and lose close decisions in title fights to Evander Holyfield and Oliver McCall (and, by the way, happy 47th birthday Friday, Larry). Holmes started modestly enough, against Tim (Doc) Anderson - whom he stopped in the first round in Hollywood, Fla. But the national press, who had gathered there, soon had a much bigger story.

At the post-fight press conference, Berbick stood in the back of the room, heckling Holmes, demanding a rematch. Holmes, eventually tired of Berbick's lip, turned on his former opponent and ripped into him. It shut up Berbick, until Holmes left the room. Then Berbick shouted after him about "Jenny from Jacksonville." Holmes had gone, but his wife, Diane, was still there to listen to Berbick rant about her husband's alleged mistress. When word reached Holmes upstairs in his hotel room, he dashed downstairs and chased Berbick outside.

Rematch? Hell, he was running for his life. In front of the hotel, there was a long line of cars. Holmes jumped up and ran across the tops before diving down and grabbing Berbick in a wrestling hold. When Berbick finally broke free, he ran out onto the abutting highway, preferring to risk a speeding car than Holmes's ire.

Doc Anderson, meanwhile, went on to greater infamy. He's doing time in Florida for the fatal shooting of his former promoter, Rick (Elvis) Parker. Doc, who once won a decision against the faded Jimmy Young, had upset one of Parker's meal tickets, ex-Jet football player Mark Gastineau, in 1991. He claimed Parker wanted him to take a dive in the rematch later that year, but when he refused, was poisoned before the bout, which he lost. He once told an Orlando reporter he started shooting Parker from the legs and worked his way up the body.

The car-top tussle was Berbick's last time in the boxing spotlight. Because of his legal problems, his name would appear in papers now and then. Just like now.

He was nuts and he did a lot of bad things. But there was something almost teddy-bear-like about him. Let him rest in peace.

PENTHOUSE: Yes, everywhere I go, I take the luggage. As a longtime St. Louis Cardinal fan, I must put in my favorite middleweight, 160-pound David Eckstein, who in one improbable World Series game, knocked down two Detroit Tiger outfielders.

OUTHOUSE: The IBFelons for somehow mandating Ray Austin to fight for its heavyweight title, the one Wladimir Klitschko defends soon against Calvin Brock. The felons made Sultan Ibramigov and Austin fight an "eliminator" which wound up as a draw, and then said these two undeserving fellows do it again. The Russian, however, has indicated he will opt for the WBOgus belt being defended this weekend by Sergei Liahkovich against Shannon Briggs. Instead of making Austin then meet the next available contender, as the felons' own championship committee chief had indicated earlier, Austin - who just happens to be promoted by Don King - will be allowed to go straight to a title shot. That is, unless all the next contenders, starting with Chris Byrd, Lamon Brewster and including Hasim Rahman, don't sue.


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