Wednesday, April 9, 2014

The Tale of 'Big' John Tate

 By Peter Silkov

 The 1980's have become known in recent years as the era of the lost heavyweights. It was the decade that followed the golden era of the 1970’s, and while Ali, Norton, and Frazier saw their careers tail off and come to a halt with the arrival of the 1980’s, there seemed to be plenty of talented fighters to fill the void. However, as the decade unfolded, these fighters with so much talent became one by one, almost to the last man, stories of lost opportunity and wasted promise. Amongst the saddest stories to emerge from that decade is the tale of 'Big' John Tate, a fighter who seemed to have it all, but then fell from grace spectacularly and then didn't stop falling. Tate was a very successful amateur, whom, despite his size (6 feet 4 and around 220 to 230 pounds), had good mobility and skills for such a big man. He gained a bronze medal at the 1976 Montreal Olympic Games, making it to the semi-final, where he was knocked out by the legendary Cuban Teofilo Stevenson, who duly went on to win the gold medal. Despite the loss to Stevenson, (who was seen by many as unbeatable at the time) Tate had impressed at the Olympics, and turned professional in mid-1977, and immediately began an impressive climb up the heavyweight ranks. His victims on his rise were Duane Bobick, Bernardo Mercandoe, and Kallie Knoetzee. Tate showed good power, but even more impressive were his technical skills, which included a swift and punishing jab and the ability to fight on the inside. Some even compared his jab to those of Louis and Liston.

On October 20, 1979, Tate traveled to South Africa to fight the unbeaten big-punching, South African Gerrie Coetzee, for the vacant WBA World Heavyweight championship.  Both men were unbeaten, Tate being 19-0, 15 koes, while Coetzee was 22-0, 12 koes.  Coetzee was already famed for his ’Bionic’ right hand, which had been broken so badly in the past that it had been put back together with a various assortment of metal pins and clips. Prior to meeting Tate for the vacant world title, Coetzee had given an impressive display of what his ’bionic right hand’ could do, when he demolished former World Heavyweight champion Leon Spinks in the first round. 

In fighting Coetzee, a white South African in South Africa, Tate was also coming face to face with the controversial subject of apartheid. Some objected to Tate going to South Africa to tackle Coetzee, others saw it as a great opportunity for Tate to raise the hopes and dreams of the oppressed black South Africans, by beating white South Africa’s boxing idol, in his own backyard.

In front of a mostly white and hostile crowd of 86.000 at the Loftus Versfield Stadium in Pretoria, Tate overcame a slow start and weathered some big punches from Coetzee, to emerge victorious on points, after 15 rounds. Tate's victory was impressive as he both out-boxed and outlasted the favoured Coetsee. 'Big John' was on top of the world and great things were expected from him, with rumours of a possible big money unification fight with the WBC champion Larry Holmes, or even a big money fight with the returning Muhammad Ali.

Tate also wanted to inspire the youth to believe that great things could be accomplished with hard work and discipline, and took his newly won title belt around his home town of Knoxville, to show how a man who had left school in the 7th grade and who struggled to read and write, had become Heavyweight Champion of the world. 
It seemed to be just the beginning of the kind of rags to riches story that boxing thrives on.

Five months after winning his title, Tate made his first defence, against Mike Weaver. Tate went into this fight the solid favourite, but this was no easy first defence for the champion. Weaver was nicknamed ’Hercules’ because of his impressive physique, and was strong, with a heavy punch.  Although his career had began with a mixed record, Weaver had showed marked improvement following some early defeats, and the biggest illustration of his danger was displayed the previous year when he had challenged Larry Holmes for the WBC world heavyweight title, and had given Holmes one of his toughest fights, before being stopped (rather controversially) in the 12th round.
Everything started out well for the champion in the fight. 

Tate boxed brilliantly for 10 rounds, keeping the cruder Weaver on the end of his jab. Weaver, however, kept coming forward, and by the 11th round Tate was showing signs of tiredness. Over the next few rounds the two exchanged some tremendous punches, but Tate still kept the upper hand and seemed destined to win on points as the fight moved into the 15th and final round. Weaver was told by his corner, that he needed a knockout to win as he came out for the final round, and launched a tremendous attack upon Tate that drove him to the ropes, whereupon, Weaver threw one tremendous right hand that knocked Tate out cold, before he fell face first to the canvas. Tate was counted out with his face squashed into the canvas, it was one of the most violent and devastating koes ever seen.

With his title gone and having been knocked out in such a severe fashion it would perhaps have been expected that Tate would be taken a rest and time to recuperate from his defeat. Instead, his management team chose to try and get him back into circulation as quickly as they could. It was a miscalculation that was to prove devastating. Just three months after the Weaver defeat, Tate was back in the ring to face Trevor Berbick.
This was no soft touch comeback for Tate, as Berbick was a rough and tough fighter known for his good chin and physical strength, not the ideal fighter to bring in for someone recovering from a heavy knockout defeat. Berbick swarmed all over Tate from the start, attempting to tire him out with his roughhouse style and body shots. Tate held the upper hand after 6 rounds, due to his jab and more accurate punches upon the often wild Berbick, but like Weaver before him, Berbick kept coming at Tate. After the 6th, Tate began to tire and found himself being driven onto the ropes time and again. The fight was becoming a desperate battle for the defending champion

Then in the 9th round, Tate was staggered by a shot from Berbick and half turned, half staggered into the ropes. Berbick was on him in a frenzy, and landed some heavy swings, which sent Tate tumbling to the canvas. Tate was counted out in an eerily similar position as he had been when knocked out by Mike Weaver three months earlier.

Defeat in a boxing ring can often be the making of a fighter; it can also be the breaking of him, not just as a fighter, but as a man as well. Tate never recovered from his back-to-back defeats to Weaver and Berbick, either mentally or physically. Where once he had been lauded as a possible future great, now he was dismissed as damaged goods.   Although Tate made a comeback and fought several times from 1981 to 1983, his opponents were trail horses, as his management attempted to slowly rebuild him, but it was too late. Tate began to use drugs and drink, and his fights became more and more infrequent. He was winning against mediocre opposition, but he looked like a once finely tuned machine that was now irreversibly flawed. Tate did not fight at all from 1983 to 1986, a sparse comeback came to an end in 1988 when Tate traveled to England and was out pointed by British contender Noel Quarless. Tate still had his great jab, but he was overweight, slow and ponderous, and waddled to a point’s defeat as if sleep walking.

Big John' never fought again. The last decade of his life saw him fighting substance abuse and having frequent run-ins with the police. On April 9, 1998, Tate's pick up truck crashed into a telegraph pole in the early hours of the morning. Tate was found dead at the wheel. The autopsy revealed that Tate had been suffering from a brain tumour and had died of a massive stroke. It was a sad end for a man who had once had everything, and then had it all taken away.

Tate's final record was 34(23koes)-3

Copyright © 2014 The Boxing Glove, Inc. Peter Silkov Art. All Rights Reserved. Peter Silkov contributes to and

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