In 1981 few doubted that Larry Holmes was one of the best boxers in the world, but rarely had the holder of the most coveted prize in all of pro sports, the heavyweight championship of the world, been so unpopular. For not only was it the unlucky fate of Holmes to be the dominant heavyweight immediately following the reign of the charismatic Muhammad Ali, but six months before Larry’s title defense against little-known Trevor Berbick, Holmes had battered and stopped a 38-year-old Ali in a hugely anticipated match, a fight that proved to be one of the most pitiful spectacles in all of sports history.
For ten hopelessly one-sided rounds, Holmes dominated the man they called “The Greatest” and in the process destroyed the hopes of millions who were convinced Ali could once again give them the same thrills they had experienced when he bucked the odds and defeated Sonny Liston and George Foreman. While some sympathized with the no-win situation Holmes had found himself in, his battering of “The Greatest” did nothing to endear him to the general public. The aftermath of a boxing match that we now know should never have taken place, was that while the skilled Holmes was clearly the best heavyweight on the planet, he was a champion who attracted less interest, weaker ticket sales, and much lower television ratings, than his legendary predecessor.
So while on the one hand those who had actually given Ali a chance to unseat Holmes, surprisingly many in retrospect, now gave the reigning champion his due, the fact remained that no one could get enthused about the former Ali sparring partner who had yet to prove himself a Hall of Fame talent. And so, while Larry’s shellacking of “The Greatest” had been held in a makeshift outdoor stadium at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas that accommodated almost 25000 people and saw a record live gate, Holmes vs Berbick, was held within the confines of the casino’s pavilion, with fewer than five thousand on hand.
But, in fairness, it must be remembered that this match was regarded as nothing more than a routine title defense for Holmes, the Canadian heavyweight champion a fifty-to-one underdog in Vegas when the bout was first announced. Berbick was a legitimate contender on the basis of a single win, his knockout over former WBA heavyweight champion John Tate. However, he had also been knocked out himself by unknown Colombian heavyweight Bernardo Mercado. The bottom line was, few knew who Berbick was, and even fewer viewed him as a threat to Holmes.
So it was something of a surprise when Holmes vs Berbick got off to a lively start, the muscular challenger stalking and taunting and setting a fast pace. While Holmes landed the meaningful punches, Berbick kept baiting him, dropping his hands, pointing to his chin and shouting “C’mon, baby!” At the bell to end the opening round an irritated Holmes shoved the impertinent challenger before walking back to his corner. If nothing else, it was clear that Berbick was not the least bit intimidated by the more experienced champion.
More surprising sights came in round two, with Berbick, fighting awkwardly out of a half-crouch, landing several stiff jabs to Larry’s visage before Holmes stepped in and buckled Berbick’s legs with a blistering right hand. But the challenger, to the surprise of many, was not seriously hurt and later in the round it was his turn to land a hard right that snapped Larry’s head back. But the basic pattern of the match was set: Holmes was the more effective boxer with excellent movement, quicker hands, and that stinging jab, while Berbick continually came forward, showing little respect as he looked to counter with big shots. At the end of round two, Berbick, to the delight of the crowd, again taunted Holmes.
The pace quickened in the third with some excellent exchanges, but while Berbick got in some solid body punches it was Holmes who connected with the hurtful blows, quick one-twos and snapping right hands. Round four saw Larry’s greater skill and speed allowing him to stay in command, but early in round five Berbick caught his man with a heavy right that clearly stung the champion. Holmes held on to clear his head, taking some hard body punches as he did, and for the rest of the round the challenger forced the action and landed the more telling blows.
Round six was relatively quiet with neither pugilist having a clear edge, but Berbick won round seven as he forced the action and connected with the more meaningful punches. The round also saw the most thrilling exchange of the entire fight in its final thirty seconds when Berbick pinned Larry in his own corner and the two big men dug in for a furious exchange of power shots, the challenger actually getting the better of it and landing a couple of extra blows after the bell. As the crowd roared it was clear that, against all expectations, a determined Berbick was giving Holmes a serious challenge.
Perhaps in an effort to pace himself, Berbick took his foot off the gas pedal in round eight which was, for the most part, a jabbing contest, but in the ninth Berbick went back to taunting the champion and landing hard right hands to the body. When Berbick continued to verbally mock Larry after the bell, he got a shove in the chest for his trouble. The insults appeared to inspire an angry Holmes to box with authority in round ten, the champion snapping home more jabs and then drilling Berbick with some vicious straight rights, but the challenger never buckled and never stopped firing back.
Round eleven was more of the same with the champion in control behind that withering left jab, but then Berbick rebounded in round twelve and the crowd was treated to some lively slugging between the two big men, both connecting. At this point the game challenger had exceeded all expectations, though at the same time he had won, maybe, four rounds. He needed a knockout to score a huge upset and take the title, but after a rather pedestrian round thirteen, Berbick came to life again and took round fourteen on sheer aggression as Holmes was content to coast.
The challenger came out strong to start the final stanza, bulling Holmes around the ring, letting his hands go and getting the better of it for a minute or so before the champion opened up and counterattacked. The crowd was on its feet as the two big heavyweights went toe-to-toe for the final ninety seconds of the battle, both fighters staying at close quarters and slamming home heavy shots. Again, Holmes’ punches clearly had more sting, but Berbick simply refused to cave in or stop fighting back and both were unloading bombs when the final bell tolled.
Against all expectations, Holmes vs Berbick had been an entertaining and hard-fought battle, and while genuine acrimony appeared at play during the match, the fighters exchanged gestures of respect as they waited for the official decision, which of course went to the champion.
“This just proves that you can’t take anybody lightly,” commented Larry after his toughest battle since his tremendous fifteen round war with Ken Norton in 1978. “[Berbick] gave me all I could handle.”
“Everybody thought the fight wouldn’t go more than a few rounds,” observed a smiling challenger. “But now I think the boxing world knows that Trevor Berbick is a fighter to be reckoned with.”
Berbick went on to eventually win a piece of the heavyweight championship in 1986, only to lose it in memorable fashion to Mike Tyson later that same year. Both Holmes and Berbick kept fighting long after their careers should have ended, and while they never again met in the ring, the bizarre conclusion of their 1991 altercation at a Florida hotel which saw Holmes jump from the roof of a parked car to tackle Berbick has no doubt been seen, thanks to the internet, by far more people than ever witnessed their entertaining, fifteen round battle for the heavyweight championship of the world. Which says something of import about our increasingly strange world, not to mention the sport of boxing, but I’ll be damned if I know what it is. — Robert Portis