Mike Tyson became the youngest heavyweight champion 35 years ago today. He had just turned 20-years-old just 145 days before beating Trevor Berbick for the WBC heavyweight title. He had fulfilled his and D’Amato’s bold predictions of him becoming the youngest world heavyweight champion and would only continue amassing a celebrity status in the next few years after this win over Berbick.
Alfonzo Ratliff – September 9th, 1986
Rather than gloss over Tyson’s bout against former cruiserweight champion Alfonzo Ratliff, I think it’s pertinent to provide some additional details. Ratliff’s weight ranged from 189
1/2 lbs to 199 lbs for his first 23 fights before suddenly weighing in at 203 lbs for his fight against Stanley Ross on July 19th, 1986. The 201 pounds he weighed for this bout against Tyson was the fifth-heaviest he fought at professionally, maxing out at 204
1/2 lbs in his last fight in 1989. He fought nine times at cruiserweight between his professional debut in 1980 and most of 1984 before going on a brief three-fight spell at cruiserweight from December ’84 until September ’85, where he won the WBC cruiserweight title in June ’85 but lost it in September of that year. He fought at cruiserweight for three consecutive fights following his December 5th, 1981 TKO loss to Tim Witherspoon but bounced back with two victories at heavyweight following his second loss to Pinklon Thomas in 1983 before going on that brief spell as cruiserweight champion. Ratliff retired with a 25-9 record two years and nine months later but came into this fight with a 21-3 record, and according to the on-screen graphics, was ranked No. 20 by the WBC. Tyson, meanwhile, was still ranked No. 2 by the WBC and No. 1 by the WBA.
Tyson spent the first minute of round one chasing Ratliff around the ring with his jab, trying to nail him with left hooks on the chin as he got inside. Ratliff was unwilling to allow Tyson to get close and maneuvered around the ring like no man before him, choosing to jab and remain active on his feet rather than clinch. Tyson wasn’t landing much as he chased Ratliff around, but he was applying pressure and expertly swaying his head around to dodge Ratliff’s punches. Eventually, the patient approach paid off, as Tyson caught Ratliff near the ropes and cut off the angle to his left, forcing Ratliff to try and escape back to his right. Tyson expertly pivoted to clip Ratliff with a right uppercut on the chin and pin him against the ropes Ratliff had just tried to run to, forcing Ratliff to clinch. Tyson seemed to have Ratliff’s timing down, as he backed him across the ring and towards the ropes with jabs after the referee breakage and then caught him on the jaw with a wide left hook as Ratliff tried escaping to his right.
Ratliff fell back against the ropes and took a straight right to the temple before falling forward on all fours to the canvas. However, the referee ruled it a slippage since Ratliff was primarily trying to continue moving down the ropes and get around Tyson, who moved in closer to deliver that straight right. From the referee’s angle, he could have thought Ratliff tripped over Tyson’s left leg as Tyson stepped in or just slipped, losing his footing while Ratliff was trying to maneuver around Tyson. The British announcer hilariously says, “There was a slip, but he also tripped over a left hook, I thought,” and between chuckles, I found myself agreeing with his assessment. Ratliff ran for the remaining minute-and-a-half of the round, preferring to keep his distance and clinch whenever Tyson got inside. While Tyson showcased good head movement by slipping Ratliff’s jabs, he also didn’t have to exert much effort in that department, as Ratliff was pretty inactive this round. Tyson was complacent to stalk Ratliff around the ring and pressure him with his jab, taking a facile 10-9 lead on my scorecard as the first round ended.
Round 2 began with the two boxers meeting in the center of the ring, only for Ratliff to cede the center and circle Tyson. Tyson jabbed away before hesitating and allowing Ratliff to throw an overhand left that Tyson ducked and used to establish an inside position. However, Ratliff quickly clinched and continued finding his range against the shorter Tyson, attempting to beat him to the punch with straights as Tyson jabbed and swayed his way inside. Ratliff did clip a Tyson swaying to his right with a left uppercut at the 29-second mark and then tried landing a straight right as the two reset from Ratliff’s range. However, Tyson caught his straight right on his left glove and delivered a short straight in response that landed on Ratliff’s chin and pushed him back a little.
Tyson expertly kept Ratliff’s back to the ropes and shadowed him back-and-forth across the corner of the ring where Tyson’s corner was, pouncing in with jabs to force Ratliff to stay on the move. After 20 seconds of this, Tyson finally had Ratliff squarely against the ropes; he slipped Ratliff’s jab, threw a jab out in response, and then ducked and shifted his body in a way that allowed his follow-up, high-arching left hook to land clean on Ratliff’s temple. Ratliff tried catching Tyson with a right uppercut but missed and stumbled over to the canvas with his back on the bottom rope upon receiving Tyson’s left hook to his temple. He made it to one knee by the referee’s count of five, stood up shortly after the count of nine, and was pushed against the ropes, and had his guard battered by Tyson’s wild swinging after he was allowed to continue boxing. He clinched to stay alive, but after the referee breakage, Tyson continued to jab away and push him back against a set of ropes.
Ratliff held his arms out to push or potentially grab Tyson, but all this did was open him up for a right uppercut by Tyson. He missed as Ratliff was quick to turn his head, but Tyson’s quick follow-up right hook found the mark clean on Ratliff’s jaw; staggering the taller man as he slumped against the ropes and lazily held his arms out to desperately block or push Tyson away as he pounced on him. Ratliff was clearly dazed, but the referee was content to let him fight it out, and Tyson threw three jabs, a straight right, a left hook, another jab, a right hook, a left uppercut to the body that landed, and a left hook to Ratliff’s jaw that staggered him. Not all those punches found their mark, most noticeably the straight right and the first pair of left and right hooks, but the last few hurt an already stunned Ratliff. Ratliff began stumbling over, but Tyson quickly snapped off a right hook to the temple of the hunched over Ratliff, and this sent him to the canvas on all fours. The referee didn’t even begin a count, declaring an end to the bout at the one-minute and 41-second mark, and while Ratliff looked dejected by the stoppage, it’s hard to argue against the call. Mike Tyson was now 27-0, with 25 of them coming by way of KO/TKO, 15 of them in the first round, and looking to become the youngest heavyweight champion ever in his very next fight.
Trevor Berbick – November 22nd, 1986
Finally, the moment everyone’s been eagerly awaiting. Tyson’s coronation as the youngest heavyweight champion of all time happened, as stated above, 35 years ago today, and was the expected outcome by the general public; Berbick was a 3-1 underdog1 by fight night. Berbick, in his first defense as WBC heavyweight champion, had a 31-4-1 record, while Tyson entered the ring finally ranked No. 1 by both the WBC and WBA. However, things were rather hectic for both fighters up to and including the day of the fight, with Berbick changing camp from trainer Eddie Futch, who trained Berbick for his title-winning effort against Pinklon Thomas, to Angelo Dundee. Four days before the fight, he appeared in court to contest a breach of contract suit2 filed by Thomas Prendergast, a Texas promoter, who claimed Berbick skipped a contracted 1982 match against Tony Pera. Three days before the fight, Berbick finally received respiratory medication for his asthma approved by the Nevada State Athletic Commission3 after visiting four doctors over the issue during training. Additionally, two days before the fight, Berbick appeared in court as the Las Vegas District Court granted Prendergast a writ of attachment for $495,000 of Berbick’s $2.1-million purse4 from his bout with Tyson; contingent on a tentatively scheduled hearing the following year.
However, Tyson had his share of difficulties, later stating in his 2013 autobiography, Undisputed Truth, that he discovered he had gotten gonorrhea the day before the fight5 and had to receive an antibiotic shot from a doctor. Since this was a title fight, the champion was allowed to choose the color of their trunks, so Dundee had Berbick choose black to throw Tyson off and force him to change the color of his trunks. Tyson instead paid the Nevada State Athletic Commission’s $5,000 fine and entered the ring wearing his customary black trunks. Muhammad Ali was in attendance and received a special introduction before the fight, asking Tyson to “kick his ass for me” afterward, something Tyson had promised and wanted to do since Ali retired after his fight with Berbick almost five years prior6. If Berbick’s trash talk, Dundee’s mind games, and the late Cus D’Amato’s predictions of Tyson becoming the youngest heavyweight champion weren’t enough to consume Tyson with malicious energy, Ali’s request certainly did.
This bout was only Tyson’s third fight outside the New York/New Jersey area, but it was his second consecutive fight in Las Vegas, Nevada, after beating Alfonzo Ratliff two months prior. Las Vegas became Tyson’s new favorite place to fight, as he fought in Las Vegas 14 more times before he retired in 2005, while he only fought in either New York or New Jersey only five more times, with all of them taking place in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Anyways, that should cover the pre-fight details sufficiently enough, so let’s see how both boxers performed on the fight billed as “Judgment Day.”
Berbick tried to stand toe-to-toe with Tyson at the opening bell, despite having the reach and height advantage. He was pretty flat-footed, pushing his jab out as Tyson stepped in and clipped him on the temple with a right hook. Berbick shoved Tyson away but resumed standing flat-footed in front of him and responded to Tyson’s quick swarm of jabs and hooks by pushing Tyson away again. Tyson landed a solid left hook that backed Berbick up, who then proceeded to step forward, throwing jabs at Tyson. Well within range due to Berbick’s bravado, Tyson stayed inside, moving his head around, dodging jabs, and clipping Berbick with two of his own. Berbick slid back to evade two more alternating hooks from Tyson, and the two circled each other. Berbick, still choosing to fight in close with Tyson, landed a jab to Tyson’s forehead but then had his straight right swatted down by Tyson, who then swatted Berbick’s arm away to land another jab.
Berbick tried to sidestep a Tyson right hook but got clipped on the forehead; the punch went by so quick it appeared as if it didn’t land, but the sound was loud enough to get a reaction from the audience. Berbick, enraged, began swinging wildly after a ducking Tyson failed to connect on a follow-up left hook, swarming the challenger, jumping across his back as he was ducking down, and even momentarily holding the back of his head as he threw a punch. The two clinched up and walked around the ring before Berbick shoved Tyson away as referee Mills Lane came to break it up. Berbick landed some punches during the wild skirmish and some short punches inside during the clinch, but all Berbick did when Tyson stepped to him after the clinch breakage was push Tyson towards the ropes. Tyson stepped to Berbick again and threw a 1-4-3 combination, landing the jab through Berbick’s guard, battering Berbick’s guard with his right hook, and landing the left hook on Berbick’s temple as he shoved Tyson away. Berbick twice more pushed Tyson closer to a set of ropes as Tyson tried approaching with his jab before Berbick stepped forward with a right uppercut and grabbed Tyson right after. Berbick landed some more short punches from inside before Lane broke the clinch, where Tyson then landed a solid right hook on the temple behind Berbick’s ear.
Berbick once again pushed Tyson away but then chose to back up toward the center of the ring rather than try and keep Tyson near the ropes. Tyson evaded Berbick’s jab and battered away at his guard with alternating hooks before the two reset. Berbick taunted, motioning for Tyson to approach him with both gloves, and then grabbed Tyson once more as the two got inside. The clinch lasted for roughly seven seconds before Lane broke it up and reset the two. Yet again, Berbick chose to let Tyson close inside, and Tyson pounced with a left hook that clipped Berbick, but rather than use the ring space to his advantage, Berbick stayed within Tyson’s range to block two jabs before getting hit with alternating right and left hooks.
Berbick again shoved Tyson but still stood in front of him as he ducked a left hook, shoved and circled Tyson to position the challenger toward the ropes, and then got in close with him. The two spent nearly the first thirty seconds of the final minute of the round shoulder-to-shoulder inside, walking around the ring and throwing the occasional short punch. Tyson tried to at least angle himself to throw a significant inside combination, that being a quick 6-3 combination that Berbick mostly blocked; otherwise, Lane could have broken this up sooner. Berbick backed away as Tyson approached, but as Tyson threw a jab and then waited, Berbick stepped forward with a lead hook; Tyson ducked it and clipped Berbick on the face with a left hook as Berbick slipped and nearly lost his balance. Tyson landed another jab, and as Berbick lazily stepped back and pushed out a jab in response, Tyson fired a straight right that landed on Berbick’s jaw as he turned his head. Tyson pounced with a wide left hook on the staggering Berbick that landed on his face as Tyson then hit Berbick in the temple with a wide-arching right hook and sent him staggering across the ring with a follow-up compact left hook to the jaw. Berbick spent the next 15 seconds covering up and getting clipped with hooks from both hands by Tyson around the ring before clinching him for the final five seconds to survive the round. I nearly want to score it 10-8 as one judge did, but I’ll be civil and score it 10-9 in Tyson’s favor.
Round 2 saw Tyson walk up to Berbick, and after only being met with a weak push, snapped out a right hook that cracked him on the jaw. Berbick put his guard up and started backing up as Tyson gave chase, swinging six alternating hooks, connecting on four of them, and putting Berbick down on the canvas 11 seconds into the round. Tyson threw a seventh one that would have landed if Berbick hadn’t already fallen; regardless, Berbick was up by the count of three and insisted on continuing to fight after receiving the mandatory standing eight cont. Berbick tried hitting Tyson with a lead hook, but it was blocked, and Berbick took another left hook to the temple for his effort. Berbick circled the challenger, took a right hook to his guard, and quickly tied Tyson up to prevent further damage.
The following minute and 45 seconds devolved into something resembling one of Tyson’s earliest bouts, with Berbick content to cover up and clinch as Tyson got close, only throwing short punches from inside for the rest of the round. Tyson, meanwhile, continually stalked Berbick around the ring, poking at him with his jab, moving his head around, and repeatedly clipping him with hooks as he stepped in. The final 34 seconds of the above minute and 45-second sequence consisted of Berbick and Tyson standing shoulder-to-shoulder once more, with Tyson being the aggressor and looking for a knockout punch while Berbick held on for dear life. Tyson landed a left hook on Berbick’s body and then stepped back to land a right uppercut in close but missed as Berbick swayed back to dodge it. However, Tyson’s follow-up short, compact left hook found its mark on Berbick’s temple, and a second later, Berbick fell flat on his back. He tried spinning himself around to face Tyson as he got to his feet, but as Berbick rose, his legs began buckling under him, and he stumbled back down into the bottom set of nearby ropes. He tried standing again but tumbled over onto his back in the center of the ring and then clumsily staggered to his feet towards a nearby neutral corner and nearly fell over again as he began staggering forward into Lane. Lane wrapped his arms around the loopy Berbick to help him stay upright and declared a stop to the contest at the two-minute and 35-second mark of round two, and Mike Tyson had just become the youngest heavyweight champion in history; a record that still stands to this day.
Mike Tyson had quite the busy and successful 1986, didn’t he? After beginning the year unranked, he gradually worked his way up the ranks behind Jimmy Jacobs and Bill Cayton’s carefully enacted plan cooked up by Cus D’Amato to become the youngest heavyweight champion ever by the year’s end. Sometime before fighting Trevor Berbick for the WBC heavyweight championship, likely when Tyson fought Alfonzo Ratliff, Tyson agreed to have his likeness used7 for Nintendo’s upcoming boxing game that became Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!! The video game was released on October 18th the following year and was a massive success, and is still the highest-selling boxing video game of all time. Tyson didn’t limit his commercial viability to just video games, appearing in commercials and raking in endorsement deals as he became one of the most recognized sports figures of the era.
Still, he had work to be done. Now that he had become the WBC heavyweight champion, he still had to win the WBA and IBF heavyweight championships to win HBO’s series and unify the titles. With trusted men in his corner and on his managerial team, Tyson’s career seemed to be brimming with potential, and a long reign as heavyweight champion appeared to be a foregone conclusion. However, with Don King helping promote his fights, he slowly started getting more in Tyson’s ear and manipulating him, leading to Tyson’s eventual downfall. For now, though, the explosive young champion could celebrate his historic achievement; I’m sure he made Cus proud.
- Ottawa Citizen – 11/21/1986 – Berbick predicts KO victory, Tyson adopts code of silence
- Orlando Sentinel – 11/20/1986 – BERBICK FIGHTS TO KEEP PURSE BEFORE BELL TOLLS
- The New York Times – 1/21/1988 – View From the Canvas: Losers Rate Tyson
- Sports Illustrated – 12/1/1986 – GETTING A BELT OUT OF LIFE
- Tyson, Mike & Sloman, Larry. Undisputed Truth. Penguin, 2013
- YouTube/djvlad – 12/1/2020 – Mike Tyson: I Tried to Kill Trevor Berbick in the Ring as Revenge for Hurting Ali (Part 4)
- The Comeback – 7/11/2017 – Nintendo paid Mike Tyson just $50,000 for ‘Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out’