How Mike Tyson became the youngest world heavyweight champion ever

A ferocious raw puncher honed by a legendary trainer who took him from a street scrapper in Brooklyn to the most feared man on the planet: How Mike Tyson became the youngest ever heavyweight champion at 20 – a record he still holds 34 years later

  • Mike Tyson became WBC heavyweight champion aged 20 in 1986
  • His knockout of Trevor Berbick was his 26th in 28th professional fights
  • Tyson was trained by the legendary Cus D’Amato, who was his legal guardian
  • D’Amato died just over a year before Tyson won his first world title 

Now aged 53, Mike Tyson is best known by modern audiences for his controversial quotes, eccentric behaviour and movie appearances.

His prowess in the ring will forever be tarnished by his conviction for rape in 1992, and to a lesser extent his disgraceful biting off of a chunk of Evander Holyfield’s ear in the ring in 1997, before his career fizzled out with a string of defeats in the early 2000s.

But long before any of that, ‘Iron’ Mike Tyson took the world by storm as he punched his way to a world heavyweight title aged just 20 – the youngest fighter to do so in a record that still stands to this day.

Mike Tyson (left) lands a punch on Jose Ribalta in Atlantic City in August 1986

November 22, 1986. Jamaican-Canadian fighter Trevor Berbick – who defeated an ageing Muhammad Ali in 1981 – faces Tyson at the Las Vegas Hilton in the first defence of his WBC title won in March of that year. 

The fight was billed as ‘Judgment Day’, the night when we would find out if the most exciting heavyweight prospect since Ali had what it took to win a world title. He did – and with the frightening ease that had marked his career to that date. Tyson won via TKO in the second round, Berbick failing to get up from his second knockdown. 

The manner of the victory would have come as no surprise to anyone who had been following Tyson’s career. This was his 28th fight and victory in just 20 months as a professional fighter, and the 26th that had come via knockout. The first 16 of those knockouts had come in the first round, so the beleaguered Berbick had actually fared better than most.  

Tyson goes on the attack against Trevor Berbick on his way to winning the WBC title

Berbick lays on the canvas after Tyson clinches a second-round TKO victory in Las Vegas

Tyson’s reputation as a brutal knockout specialist was forged away from the cameras in a pre-internet era, with his first televised bout not coming until February 1986 as he took on journeyman Jesse Ferguson in New York – and live on ABC.

The victory was relatively tame by Tyson’s standards – breaking Ferguson’s nose in the fifth round before the fight was stopped in the sixth – but his next ABC appearance would see him announce himself with a bang. 

Taking on Marvis Frazier, a former world title challenger and his toughest opponent to date on paper, Tyson steamed in from the first bell, knocking out Frazier after just 38 seconds in America’s first live showing of his scary power.  

As brief as the fight was, footage clearly demonstrates the ‘peek-a-boo’ style that Tyson used. The style was developed by his trainer and mentor Cus D’Amato, who had died in November 1985 from pneumonia aged 77.

Though D’Amato would not live to see Tyson become world champion, it was his nurturing that had guided the young heavyweight to the cusp of glory.

The pair first met when Tyson was ’12 or 13′, after being introduced by former boxer and trainer Bobby Stewart, a juvenile counsellor who had seen Tyson’s potential. 

Growing up in deprived areas around Brooklyn, New York, Tyson never met his biological father, who was from Jamaica, and the man he knew as his father left his mother and her three children around the time he was born. 

Tyson had already been arrested 38 times by the age of 13, and was regularly getting into fights at school – where he would drop out – and on the streets. He began to rise through the junior and amateur ranks in his teens with D’Amato, who had been training fighters since the 1930s, honing Tyson’s natural ability at his Catskill Boxing Club in New York.

When Tyson’s mother died aged 16, D’Amato – who had become a father figure for the troubled youngster – became his legal guardian.  

Tyson was trained and mentored by Cus D’Amato – speaking here in 1980

Using the peek-a-boo style – with his hands in front of face, elbows tucked in and counter-punching from a crouching position – Tyson would win gold at the 1981 and 1982 junior Olympics.

He was also trained at Catskill by D’Amato’s protege Kevin Rooney, who would take over his training full-time when D’Amato died, and occasionally by Teddy Atlas – now a well-known boxing commentator and pundit. 

Remarkably, when Tyson became the youngest ever heavyweight world champion, he broke a record held since 1956 by Floyd Patterson – also trained by D’Amato.

With such a mentor gone then, it is no wonder that Tyson has attributed many of his problems later in life to the death of D’Amato. While Rooney was a brilliant trainer, he could not replace what D’Amato did for Tyson outside of the ring.   

The crowd watch on as a teenage Tyson faces Sammy Scaff in New York in December 1985

Tyson says he developed his ferocious ability through D’Amato telling him to ‘punch with bad intentions’ and ‘through your opponent, not at him’, and admits he was ‘petrified’ of the Italian-American – something which he could not say of anyone else in the world.   

Writing in his 2017 book Iron Ambition: My Life with Cus D’Amato, Tyson explained: ‘I was petrified when I was alone with him… (and) I knew I could get embarrassed in front of everyone if I spoke out of line. So I learned rather fast not to say anything while he was taking unless he invited me to.’

He added: ‘When he was happy, talking, laughing with the press, I knew that at any moment s*** could happen… people see the public celebrations of my sensational knockouts but they don’t hear Cus talking to me alone after the fight! … I soon learned to walk on eggshells when I was around Cus.’

Tyson would add the WBA title in his next bout after beating Berbick in March 1987, before becoming IBF champion later that year.

He became the undisputed world champion in 1988, adding The Ring and the lineal titles to his collection after knocking out Michael Spinks in the first round.

Tyson would remain undisputed champion for two years before his shock defeat by Buster Douglas in February 1990.

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