The NFL’s Chicago Bears were still on fire after dominating the Super Bowl in January. Top Gun and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off were box office hits and in June, Larry Bird was named the Most Valuable Player after bringing Boston yet another NBA title. And President Reagan had just returned home after a historic October summit in Reykjavik, Iceland, with Soviet Premier Gorbachev.
The year was 1986. Lurking in the shadows and ready to break out onto the big stage was a young, hungry lion named Mike Tyson.
Tyson (27-0, 25 KOs) was determined to make history by becoming the youngest Heavyweight champion in the history of the sport. Before passing away in November 1985, Tyson was mentored by the legendary Cus D’Amato. Ironically, it was D’Amato who trained the man whose record Tyson was trying to break, former two-time Heavyweight champion and Hall of Famer, Floyd Patterson.
Tyson, who turned professional in March of 1985, had reeled off 28 straight victories. He brutalized his opponents with incredible punching power and unbelievable hand speed for a man his size. His co-managers, Jim Jacobs and Bill Cayton, prepared video cassettes and mailed them to all of the top boxing writers across the country. That strategy, coupled with Tyson’s skills and ferocious punching power, soon got the attention of many in and outside of the boxing world.
A young Tyson, guided by D’Amato, also became a boxing historian, watching and learning about the legendary fighters of days gone by. Iron Mike then adopted the black trunks, no socks, and no robe look emulating one of his heroes, Jack Dempsey. He was increasingly creating an ominous aura.
Though undefeated, many writers were not impressed at the level of competition he had faced. Was he really this good? Would his chin hold up once truly tested? Although he had fought and beaten men like Jesse Fergeson, Mitch Green, James Tillis and Jose Ribalta, what would happen when he climbs in with a big, strong, experienced and battle-tested heavyweight?
We would soon get our answer.
On November 22, 1986, Tyson would meet WBC World Heavyweight Champion Trevor Berbick in a bout billed as “Judgment Day.” Tyson was presented with the opportunity to make history and to put to bed those unanswered questions. Many saw Tyson as the savior of a who’s who of retreads in the Heavyweight ranks. As Barry Tompkins explained, “Everybody that I’ve talked to involving this fight says this is the Tyson fight. Tyson this, Tyson that. But Trevor Berbick is the champion and no one is talking about him.”
The 32-year-old Berbick (31-4-1, 23 KOs) was indeed battle tested. Winning the title in March from Pinklon Thomas, he had faced a slew of recognizable names and some of the greatest to ever lace on a pair of gloves. He had been in with fighters like Renaldo Snipes and Greg Page as well as legends like Larry Holmes and Muhammad Ali. He was the last man to face, and beat, Ali. He gave Holmes all he wanted and became the first challenger to go the distance in losing a unanimous 15-round decision.
Berbick also had a legend in his corner, Angelo Dundee.
As fight night approached, Tyson was a steady 3-1 favorite. The Las Vegas Hilton would play host as the fight would air live on HBO. This was as much an event as it was a fight with identifiable faces like Tony Danza, Eddie Murphy and Sylvester Stallone all sitting ringside. The boxing community was also represented with Hector Camacho, Thomas Hearns, Larry Holmes, Michael Spinks and Muhammad Ali all in attendance.
Fans and celebrities sitting ringside settled in as Tyson made his way to the ring from his dressing room. Wearing all black, he had a towel with a hole cut in the middle draped around his neck. The No. 1 contender, Tyson was led by trainer Kevin Rooney who was also a D’Amato disciple and a former fighter.
Next came the champion. Tradition in boxing holds that the champion chooses his colors and the challenger must pick something opposite of the titleholder. Given Tyson’s already trademarked black trunks and black shoes, Berbick initiated a bit of a mental game by choosing to wear black himself. Dressed in black trunks, black shoes, high black socks pulled up to his knees and a hooded robe, Berbick was later described by Merchant as being outfitted “in bizarre black haberdashery.” Tompkins agreed, simply saying he looked like “the wicked witch of the west.”
Years later in his book, “Tyson, the Undisputed Truth”, Tyson recalled having to pay a five thousand dollar fine for wearing black.
With both competitors in the ring, Chuck Hull began the introduction of the referee, Mills Lane, and then the fighters. Merchant, Tompkins, and Sugar Ray Leonard sat ringside to call the evening’s action.
The bell sounded and we were underway. The height difference was immediately apparent. Berbick, at nearly 6’3” tall, had a good three inches on Tyson who measured 5’11”. To put it mildly, it didn’t matter. Tyson was the aggressor from the outset and stalked the champion by attacking him in a controlled, measured style.
Nearly every punch the challenger threw landed with a resounding thud, echoing at ringside as if he were hitting a drum. Berbick moved backward almost out of sheer necessity, trying frivolously to hold his ground. He was determined to bang with Tyson and prove he could take his best shots.
With 30 seconds to go in the first round, Tyson stepped in and landed a right, left, right, left combination. Tompkins called the action, “Another good right hand, and a left behind it and Berbick is rocked! Berbick in trouble here! Berbick in trouble here just trying to get through the round. He’s hurt, no question!”
Tyson bombarded the champion with bombs from all possible angles and continued to swarm him until the bell sounded to mercifully end the round for the champion. As Tyson turned to walk to his corner, his face was that of a stone cold assassin. Berbick glared back at Tyson and mustered what appeared to be a kiss as he walked back to his corner.
As the second round got underway, Tyson immediately blitzed Berbick. Tompkins talked fast to keep up as the challenger was again imposing his will through brute force and dazzling hand speed, “There’s another big shot by Tyson, Berbick in a heap of trouble, down he goes!” He would also conclude, “Tyson’s punches even sound different than most Heavyweights.” The crowd at the Las Vegas Hilton was on its feet.
Like a champion, Berbick rose. Clearly, his facial expression had changed under the shock and awe assault he was under. The young lion jumped all over his wounded opponent, launching hooks to the head and the body. As Berbick held on for dear life, Leonard weighed in on the action, “The punches are coming in such a succession that Berbick can’t deal with them.”
With 30 seconds remaining in the round, the wrecking ball landed and the building came crashing down. As Berbick stood on the inside, Tyson threw and landed his trademark right hook to the body, right uppercut to the head. As the champion staggered back, Tyson unloaded a vicious left hook that landed high on the head. Tompkins called the action, “That was right to the body and an uppercut to the head and Berbick is down!”
Indeed, Berbick crashed to the deck like a condemned building being permanently torn down. His eyes glazed, he tried to rise to his feet only to fall back into the ropes. Trying desperately to steady himself, he again tried to rise and again crashed to the canvas. After two failed attempts to rise, the gutty champion then tried for a third time. The result was the same with the exception of a humane Mills Lane clutching the now former champion and preventing him from going down yet again.
Tompkins called the history making moment, “That’s all! It’s over! And we have a new era in boxing!”
As Berbick was helped to his corner to be examined by ringside physicians, Tyson had his hand held high by Lane as Hull addressed those watching at home and the 8,800 in attendance witnessing the action in person. “Ladies and gentleman. Referee Mills Lane stops the bout at two minutes, thirty-five seconds of the second round. The winner, by a TKO and youngest and new WBC Heavyweight champion of the world, Michael Tyson!”
At twenty years, four months and twenty-two days, Tyson had surpassed Patterson as the youngest Heavyweight champion in history. After the fight, being interviewed by Merchant, Tyson summed up what the victory meant to him. “I was coming to destroy and win the Heavyweight championship of the world which I’ve done. I’d like to dedicate my fight to my great guardian Cus D’Amato. I’m sure he’s up there and he’s looking down and he’s talking to all of the great fighters and he’s saying his boy did it.”