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Blood on my hands

11/21/2011 - Boxing
Mike Tyson defeated Trevor Berbick to become the world's youngest heavyweight champion. AFP/Getty Images

This article appears in the Nov. 28 "One Day, One Game" issue of ESPN The Magazine.

TWENTY-FIVE YEARS AGO THIS WEEK, on Nov. 22, 1986, three men began their conspiracy to murder Trevor Berbick, the heavyweight champion of the world: Mike Tyson, Berbick's nephew Harold and me. It took us almost 20 years to get the job done.

Tyson, ascendant and terrifying, delivered the first and most famous blows on that fateful Las Vegas night, a right to the body and a left to the head. Berbick -- an awkward, defensive fighter best known for having knocked Muhammad Ali into retirement -- staggered across the ring like a man falling down a flight of invisible stairs.

Berbick survived that beating and the loss of his title only because of his almost limitless capacity for self-delusion. If Trevor Berbick was insane, and he might have been, his insanity didn't trap him; it was the kind of crazy that gave him a thousand ways out. It didn't matter what the record books showed: In the very particular universe that was Trevor Berbick's brain, he would never be anything less than the champ.

Even before the fight, he was certain poison gas was being pumped into his hotel room. He later claimed that promoter Don King told him he had to lose because the World Boxing Council wanted a dynamic American champ, not a middling Jamaican one. He also said that Angelo Dundee, his trainer, hypnotized him and that he'd been given a mysterious injection before the fight that caused him to lose his balance. "You work so hard to get to the pinnacle," he said, "and they take everything from you?"

My shot at Berbick came in February 1999, when he surfaced after years of criminal obscurity -- including doing time for rape in Florida -- to fight for the Canadian heavyweight title in Montreal. I was a rookie sportswriter at Toronto's National Post when I first met him in the ballroom of a lousy hotel. He'd just weighed in for the fight, wearing long underwear tucked into wool socks. He'd tipped the scale at 247 pounds, nearly 30 more than his fighting weight. "I just ate!" he cried.

Now I looked at Berbick the way Tyson had: In him, I saw my way to get what I most wanted in the world. Here was my path to the back page. Berbick was 44 years old, give or take, fat and insolvent; he still wore the faded blue jacket he'd had made during that brief, blissful period before his loss to Tyson. That jacket had many zippers; Michael Jackson might have worn it, except that it read WBC WORLD HEAVYWEIGHT CHAMPION across the back. We sat at a table, just the two of us. He was a dream come true. "There is a spirit in this Canadian affair that will move me to rise like an eagle," he slurred into my tape recorder. "I will move mountains. I am preserved. I am a miracle."

Incredibly, Berbick willed himself into winning that fight, defeating the 23-year-old champion. It was meaningless, really, a nothing belt contested in front of a small crowd. But I had the story that launched my career. It went big. Here was Trevor Berbick, lost and then found -- and now found too by people other than me, including probation officers in Florida, where he was wanted for parole violations.

Canadian immigration officials ultimately decided Berbick could be a mentor for young fighters and declined to deport him. But in 2002, after a failed brain scan had finally ended his boxing career, he slipped into the United States to see his American-born children. He was arrested in Miami and shipped back to Jamaica. Penniless, he lived off preaching, training and petty theft. He saw God in his apartment.

On Oct. 28, 2006, he went out for drinks with friends. After, he ended up in a remote churchyard. Harold Berbick, only 20 -- the same age Tyson was when he beat Berbick to become the youngest heavyweight champion -- approached his uncle from behind. Harold later said that Trevor had bullied him, stolen from him, thrown stones at him. Now he had chosen his own weapon, a length of pipe or a crowbar. He took a swing. Then another, and another. He did what the rest of us had failed to do.

But together, we -- all of us, everything -- had pushed Berbick into that churchyard, with his back to his nephew the murderer. Whenever people tell me sports don't matter, I think of that man lying facedown in the grass and how he got there, starting 25 years ago this week. I imagine he died still believing he was the heavyweight champion of the world. I imagine he died still believing in miracles.

Chris Jones is the back page columnist for ESPN The Magazine. Follow The Mag on Twitter, @ESPNMag, and like us on Facebook.