“My man about to be the heavyweight champion of the world!”
I’m sure my prep school classmates up in Massachusetts were tired of me saying it. But each time I did, I became more excited. Riding that bus back to New York for Thanksgiving break a few days after the fight took place on November 22nd, 1986 was like being caged up. I needed to get back to Brooklyn, back to the block, back around the way to experience this in all of its glory.
“Iron” Mike Tyson, then merely 20 years old, had defeated the heavyweight champion Trevor Berbick for the belt that Saturday night. The joy and euphoria, at least for a sports junkie and NYC native like me was hard to describe.
You have to understand that the city I grew up in, with nary a hipster in sight in the neighborhoods that I ran through, was a fight town. Before going away to boarding school, I sharpened my knuckle game in a sweaty gym with no windows buried beneath a parking garage that was known as the Starrett City Boxing Association.
Our trainer would pack us in his musty car to go watch Mark Breland, who was soon headed toward an Olympic Gold Medal in ’84 prior to becoming the WBA welterweight champion of the world, train at the Bed-Stuy Boxing Association..
Breland was our hometown pugilistic pride and joy, at a time where the welterweight and middleweight divisions, with the Four Kings – Roberto Duran, Sugar Ray Leonard, Thomas Hearns and Marvin Hagler – ruled the boxing universe.
But there’s something entirely more inebriating when talking about the heavyweight belt, and thinking that the baddest man on the planet, as that titleholder was unofficially known, walked the same streets as you, got sandwiches from the same bodegas, jumped the same subway turnstiles.
And the rumors that we were hearing about this teenage phenom that had been knocking out grown men since the age of 12 in Brownsville street fights were too much to ignore. Almost a year prior to the Berbick fight, I checked my mailbox on a frigid winter day in the student center at Milton Academy and stared transfixed at the cover photo.
It was the kid from around my way that I’d been hearing about, “Bad Ass Mike From Brownsville”. He was just three years older than me. While I was fighting to get minutes as a sophomore on the junior varsity basketball squad, Mike was on the SI cover, with the headline, “Kid Dynamite. Mike Tyson: The Next Great Heavyweight. And He’s Only 19.”
Maaaan, listen. I can’t tell you how pronounced the bop in my step was after reading that article. I taped that picture on my dorm room wall, above the typewriter on my desk, (go ahead and say something slick about my typewriter!), and would stare at it for motivation.
So by the time the Berbick fight came around, I’d read everything there was available on Tyson, how he’d knocked out practically every opponent with punches that were akin to Mules kicks. He walked into the ring 27-0, with 25 of those wins coming by knockout.
Some didn’t think he was seasoned enough to become champion, and the buzz around the fight was surreal. The Heavyweight division had been on life support since the decline of Muhammad Ali. Don’t get it twisted, Larry Holmes was a remarkable, phenomenal, technically proficient pugilistic scientist, but he was about as charismatic as Dave Boyle in Mystic River.
Tyson brought the fright back into the fight game that had been sorely lacking since Ali disposed of the frightening menace that was Sonny Liston. The next to bring that fear back into the ring was George Foreman, before he became the cuddly grandpa, with 157 children that were all named George and Georgina, that sold his ubiquitous, eponymous grills. But Ali got rid of him too.
After Holmes, whose career and skills are criminally underappreciated, Don King basically owned the heavyweight title, as no one really considers former belt-holders like Michael Dokes, Gerrie Coatzee, Michael Spinks, Tim Witherspoon and any of the others at the time legit.
The division was stagnant, wacker than Ja Rule‘s Blood in my Eye album.
And along came Tyson, coming into the ring like the fighters from a bygone era, adorned simply in black shorts and boxing shoes. He wasn’t wearing some pretty robe and dancing before the fight. He was staring at you as if you’d stolen his grandma’s rent money, and he was about to pull it out of your ass with a rusty screwdriver.
Against Berbick, in the fight that was billed as Judgment Day, Tyson proved to be the judge, jury, bailiff and the star prosecution witness. My goodness, did he testify in the ring that night, opening up a new door to heavyweight boxing history.
Berbick was the 32-year-old champ, built like a brick house, but Tyson chopped through him like Johnny announcing his arrival in The Shining. Before the end of the first round, Mike peppered him with a four-punch combo that sent Berbick stepping across the ring like Ralph Macchio doing the Salsa on Dancing with the Stars. But he managed to stay on his feet.
Until the start of round two that is, when Berbick went down faster than Danny Larusso at the beach getting smacked around by Cobra Kai Johnny. He should have stayed down instead of valiantly getting back up, because he was then victimized by a body shot and left to the head combo that, after a short pause that allowed the full depth of Tyson’s power to register, knocked him down not once, not twice, but three times!
The entire fight lasted less than six minutes. Afterwards, Tyson described his strategy as “…throwing hydrogen bombs.”
Brooklyn had its heavyweight champ, he was being talked about in the same breath as Jack Johnson, Joe Louis, Ali, Liston, Jack Dempsey and all of the all-time greats, and I was on cloud nine.
We all know what happened from there, that his vicious reign, which was pregnant with the possibility of living up to his enormous promise, was fleeting, turbulent and evaporative. He later became a cautionary tale of unfulfilled promise, but that’s a larger discussion for another day.
Today, November 22nd, thirty years ago, he gave boxing a re-birth. We’re still waiting to see something like it again.
It felt good to walk the Brooklyn streets in the aftermath of that fight, before hopping back on the bus to return to school after the holiday break.
(Photo Credit: Getty Images)
“Ya’ll know my man’s the champ right?”
And by then, everyone was on the bandwagon. A few years later, I’d see Mike in clubs like Nell’s, or wheeling around the old neighborhood streets, or bump into him buying candy at the corner bodega. His life would fall apart, he would resurrect it, be we could never stop staring at him through the good and the bad.
This day makes me smile, because Mike was from where I’m from. And to see what he did made me feel like, “I might be able to do somethin’ out here.”
Ayo, Mike, thanks for ’86 and for that brief time that you wore the crown. You’ll always be Brooklyn’s champ.
And despite how it ended, no one can take away the fact that you were the youngest to ever do it.