Phil Rice
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John Tate: Unlocking the Legacy

In the fall of 1979 I was a student at tiny Maryville College in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains. Knoxville was the nearest city of any size, and the only place within a hundred miles or so where we could legally buy beer on a Sunday. On the highway from Maryville, the Knoxville city line appeared at a little bridge that crossed over a small inlet of the Tennessee River. There was a little picnic area on the other side of the inlet that was a classic make-out spot. One Sunday afternoon in late October as I approached the bridge I saw a new sign just behind the official “Welcome to Knoxville” highway marker. A 4’ x 6’ piece of plywood had been painted white and nailed to two large posts. In black neatly hand-painted lettering was the greeting “Welcome to Knoxville,” just like the regular little sign, but underneath were the words, “Home of Big John Tate, Heavyweight Champion of the World.”

While I remembered Tate’s name from the Olympics, I had no idea he was even fighting professionally, much less fighting for the championship. In the days before cable or internet, news had to be sought out, at least a little bit, and at nineteen I was busy doing other things—I won’t say I was busy studying, just that I was busy being a college student. But my curiosity was piqued, and some old-fashioned research in the local library proved that sure enough, just like the sign said, Big John Tate was the heavyweight champion of the world (at least according to the World Boxing Association.)

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Seems Muhammad Ali had recently retired from boxing after regaining his title from Leon Spinks, and Tate had defeated Gerrie Coetzee of South Africa in a fight to claim the vacated championship. Larry Holmes had already gained recognition as champion by the World Boxing Council, but the Tate-Coetzee fight represented a direct link to the WBA title relinquished by Ali, thus giving the WBA title more validity in the eyes of the general public. That would change five months later.

Big John’s first defense was held in his adopted hometown of Knoxville, at the huge Stokely Athletic Center on the campus of the University of Tennessee. His opponent was Mike Weaver, a tough fighter with a chiseled physique who had given Larry Holmes all kinds of trouble in a WBC title fight before being stopped by TKO in the 12th round. Unlike Holmes, Tate had little trouble with Weaver—for the first fourteen rounds. In the fifteenth round Weaver landed a right hand to the body followed by a left hook to the chin that forever linked John Tate to a single career-defining moment. He fell flat on his face, and Mike Weaver was the new champion. Within a week of the fight, the proud welcome sign on the highway to Knoxville was unceremoniously moved across the inlet to the make-out spot, where it would live out its years barely noticed by anyone.

Tate was rushed back into the ring just three months later against Trevor Berbick, who would eventually hold the WBA title himself for eight months in 1986 before losing it to a kid named Tyson. Big John was again ahead on points before being knocked out, this time in round nine. And from that moment on he was essentially ignored by the upper echelon of boxing powerbrokers. He was considered damaged goods and no longer well-connected. The boxing journalists proceeded to treat him like a clown, like an inferior boxer who had somehow snuck past a security guard to make funny faces in the spotlight before being discovered and tossed off stage. But Tate didn’t give up. After only a few months off he started headlining club shows in Knoxville and other nearby venues, trying to get back on track. He showed up on ESPN a few times too, but always against modestly skilled journeymen instead of ranked contenders. Success, which had begun in 1976, had suddenly become a distant memory.

The 1976 Olympic boxing team is a legend unto itself, boasting five gold medalists, all of whom also had success as pros: Leo Randolph (119), Howard Davis, Jr. (132), Ray Leonard (139), Michael Spinks (165), and Leon Spinks (178). Charles Mooney won the silver at 119, and John Tate a bronze at heavyweight. Sometimes when that last stat is mentioned—if it is mentioned at all—there is a tendency to hear the word “just” inserted, as in just a bronze medal. This would be unfair in any context, but in this case there should even be an asterisk to denote special circumstances because John Tate had to box Teófilo Stevenson of Cuba in the semi-finals.

Stevenson had won the gold medal and the Val Barker Award at Munich in 1972, he took the gold at the 1974 World Championships, and he had knocked out his first two opponents before meeting Tate in the semifinals. Tate had made the U.S Olympic team as a novice with only a year and a half of ring experience. Knowing his keys to victory were limited, Tate boldly charged after his imposing foe hoping to pressure him into making a mistake, but Stevenson ended the fight in the first round with a picture-perfect right hand to the chin.

Such was his legend that after the ‘76 Olympics there was serious talk about Stevenson making his pro debut against Muhammad Ali for the world title. He stayed on the Cuban “amateur” team instead, and won another gold medal at Moscow in 1980. Three Olympics, three gold medals. Losing to Stevenson for the bronze in 1976 was certainly no reason for Tate to hang his head in shame.

John Tate didn’t have much going for him other than his boxing abilities. Though it wasn’t part of his press package, he was a functioning illiterate, “functioning” referring to his ability to hide his deficiency. Most likely he suffered from learning disabilities that were either not officially diagnosed or simply ignored during his childhood. Either way, his career options were limited to the lowest levels of physical labor. But with boxing he had an occupation for which he was well-suited.

Unlike many “prospects,” Tate wasn’t put in particularly soft at the beginning of his pro career. His fourth fight was against Walter Santemore, who was 7-0 at the time and would go on to a long career as a tough journeyman. But Tate’s next fight is more telling: Eddie “The Animal” Lopez. Not only was Lopez an undefeated prospect with a 10-0 record, but the fight was held at the Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles—the Animal’s home turf. Tate won a majority decision and remained on track. His next fight was against Lou Esa, a powerful puncher who brought a record of 18-2-1 into the contest. Tate knocked him out in the third. His next six fights were all against experienced professionals, all of whom were trying to put their career in the fast lane by beating an undefeated Olympian, but Tate continued to come out on top.

On June 22, 1978 Big John took a 12-0 record into Madison Square Garden for a ten-rounder against 20-0 Bernardo Mercado of Columbia. He stopped Mercado in the 10th round. Five more victories followed, including a decision over tough Johnny Boudreaux in front of Boudreaux’s home crowd. Then it was Duane Bobick’s turn. Bobick, who had been knocked out by Teófilo Stevenson in the ’72 Olympics, was 48-2 with 42 Knockouts, but the two losses had seriously damaged his standing as a contender. It was a classic crossroads match-up, and Tate knocked Bobick out in the first round.

Now firmly entrenched in the top ten rankings, Tate travelled to South Africa for a date with Kallie Knoetze in a fifteen-round title-eliminator. A tough brawler with a record of 17-2 with 16 knockouts, Knoetze managed to rock Tate a few times but Big John had superior skills and ultimately more effective power. The bout ended in the eighth round with Knoetze sagging against the ropes. The victory earned Tate the opportunity to fight for Ali’s vacated title, and he defeated Gerrie Coetzee handily by decision four months later to claim the laurels. Then came the losses to Weaver and Berbick and his immediate relegation to pretender status.

But John Tate kept trying. He won ten consecutive fights in the three years following the loss to Trevor Berbick, but he was never seriously considered for another title fight. There is no denying that he had experienced two devastating knockouts of the sort that will legitimately tarnish a fighter’s ranking among the champions of the sport. Nevertheless, Tate had stood up to legitimate bombers like Lopez, Knoetze, Coetzee, and Mercado on his way to the title without tasting the canvas, and successfully absorbed more than a few shots from heavyweight punchers in his comeback attempt, too. He had earned another chance at the championship belt.

Larry Holmes dismissed him outright, saying that Tate should permanently retire because the two knockouts suggested a medical problem. But if Holmes really picked his opponents based on humanitarian concerns, he never would have fought Marvis Frazier. The real reason Holmes, a man who was as good with a dollar as he was with his fists, never gave John Tate a title shot is simply because no one ever offered the champion enough money to make it worth his while—and that’s an absolutely acceptable reason. Tate was simply not a significant draw anymore, a result caused by his reputation in the press as much as by his two losses.

If I had let boxing journalists of the day tell me what to think, then I’d be convinced that Big John Tate was a cream cheese champion, a pretender who never belonged in the title picture in the first place. But a little historical perspective tells a different story. Granted, unlike Larry Holmes, Tate never even came close to earning recognition as one of the great heavyweights of all time. But Big John was a courageous fighter who was as honorable in victory as in defeat, and he was a kind-hearted man who squeezed every ounce of available talent from his mind and body to rise to the very top of his sport. His accomplishments more than merit a huge dose of permanent respect to go with that hand-painted sign planted alongside the highway, a sign that might now read, “Welcome to Knoxville, former home to the late Big John Tate, an Honorable Champion and a Good Man.”

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Originally published by Seconds Out (2009)