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 professional sports, the heavyweight championship of the world, been so unpopular. For not only was it the unlucky fate of Holmes to be the next dominant heavyweight following the reign of perhaps the most popular champion in boxing history, Muhammad Ali, but six months before his title defense against one Trevor Berbick, Holmes had battered and stopped a 38-year-old Ali, the hugely anticipated match turning out to be one of the most pitiful and wretched 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 and dreams of millions who were convinced Ali could triumph one last time and give them the same kind of thrills they experienced when he bucked the odds and defeated Sonny Liston and George Foreman. 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, at the same time he remained a champion who attracted far less interest, not to mention far weaker ticket sales and television ratings, than his legendary predecessor.
So while on the one hand those scribes and pundits who had actually given Ali a chance to unseat Holmes, surprisingly many in retrospect, now had to give the reigning champion his due ahead of his next title defense, the simple fact was relatively few fight fans could get enthused about the former Ali sparring partner who no one yet regarded as a Hall of Fame talent. 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’ next defense, against Trevor Berbick, while also staged at Caesars, was held within the confines of the casino’s pavilion with fewer than 5000 paying to be there.
But, in fairness, it must be remembered that the match was regarded as nothing more than a routine outing for Holmes, the Canadian heavyweight champion a 50-to-1 underdog in Vegas when the bout was announced. He was a legitimate contender on the basis of a single win, his knockout over former WBA heavyweight champion John Tate. However, Berbick had also been knocked out himself in one round by unknown Colombian heavyweight Bernardo Mercado. The bottom line was, few knew who Berbick was and even fewer viewed him as a serious threat to Holmes.
So it was something of a surprise when Holmes vs Berbick got off to a lively start as the muscular challenger stalked and taunted Larry and set 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!” and 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 and undefeated 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 back Larry’s head. But the basic pattern of the match was set: Holmes was the better, more effective boxer with excellent movement, quicker hands and that stinging jab, while Berbick continually came forward, showing the champion little respect as he looked to land his own jabs and 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 more than a few heavy body punches it was Holmes who connected with the hurtful blows, quick one-twos and snapping right hands. Round four was similar with Larry’s greater overall 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 round seven saw Berbick forcing the action and connecting with the more solid punches. Perhaps the most thrilling exchange of the fight took place in the final thirty seconds of the round as Berbick pinned Holmes in his own corner and the two big men dug in and engaged in a furious exchange of power shots, the challenger actually getting the better of it and landing two shots 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 in which the Canadian held his own before Holmes landed some sharp blows near its end to take it. In the ninth Berbick went back to taunting the champion and got in some heavy right hands to the body before Holmes came back with some rights of his own. When Berbick continued to verbally mock Larry after the bell, he got a shove in the chest for his trouble, but whatever insults were uttered may have succeeded in getting under the champion’s skin because a seemingly angry Holmes boxed with authority in round ten, snapping home more jabs and then drilling Berbick with some vicious right hands, 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 with shots. At this point the game challenger had exceeded all expectations, though at the same time he had won perhaps 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 men were throwing 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