On this day in 1981, the Jamaican boxer Trevor Berbick beat former heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali in a unanimous 10-round decision, before a crowd of 10,000 at the Queen Elizabeth Sports Centre in Nassau, the Bahamas.
At the age of 39, Ali (born Cassius Clay) was attempting his second comeback from retirement. Crowned as the World Boxing Council (WBC) heavyweight champ in 1964 after beating Sonny Liston, he had successfully defended the title eight times before he was convicted of draft evasion in 1967, stripped of his boxing license and title and sentenced to five years in prison. Though the conviction was later overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court, Ali was inactive for two years and announced his retirement in 1970. He returned to the ring after only a short time, however, and regained his heavyweight title in 1974 after a win against George Foreman in Zaire. After losing and regaining the crown again in 1978, Ali announced his retirement for the second time. He reemerged in October 1980 to fight a championship bout against Larry Holmes, who knocked him out in the 11th round in a one-sided battle. Ali refused to accept the result, however, and pushed to set up the fight with Berbick in the Bahamas in order to prove himself.
Immensely popular with the fans, Ali put in his best performance in the middle of the Berbick fight, seeming to win the fifth and sixth rounds with his combinations and aggressive punches. From the seventh round on, however, control belonged to the 27-year-old Berbick, whose speed and power allowed him to inflict a series of damaging punches, batter Ali in the corner, land a punch to the head in the ninth, and get him on the ropes in the tenth. In the end, all three judges gave the match to Berbick.
Ali retired for good after the fight, finishing his career with an overall record of 56-5 and earning a lasting reputation as one of the 20th century’s most influential sportsmen. For his part, Berbick won the WBC heavyweight title in 1986 but was beaten in his first defense by the 20-year-old Mike Tyson. Berbick continued boxing for another 14 years but was plagued by issues in his personal life, including various arrests and a conviction for sexual assault. His boxing license was revoked in 2000 after a post-fight CAT scan found a blood clot in his brain. In October 2006, Berbick was found dead, with massive wounds to the head, in a church courtyard in his native town, Norwich, near Kingston, Jamaica. His 20-year-old nephew and a friend were charged in the killing.