John Tate: One Punch Changed Everything
Going into the 15th round of his first defence of his WBA world heavyweight title against Mike Weaver in 1980, Big John Tate only had to stay standing to win. Ahead on points, Tate looked secure, tantalisingly close to what lay ahead. Weaver with an ordinary-looking record of 21-9 seemingly obliging in his expected role.
Muhammad Ali was on the verge of returning to the ring, ending the retirement he announced after beating Leon Spinks in 1978. Another fight, more miles on the body that would hurt more in the years to come.
Tate was the supposed opponent, millions of dollars on the table, a few minutes away from a potential life-changing fight. That version of Ali, Tate would surely have beaten, as would most half-decent heavyweights, a fight to change everything, it never came.
In the very last minute of the fight with Weaver, everything changed. Forty-five seconds away from the once in a lifetime fight, one left hook landed with devastating consequences and Tate fell unconscious first face to the canvas. In many ways, he never recovered.
In the dressing room after the fight, Tate didn’t remember a thing, totally unaware of what had just happened. Tate started to cry, the scars of the cruellest of sports visible to anyone in the solace of that lonely room of heartache and shattered dreams. Few sports takes away so violently.
Fighting in front of his hometown fans in Knoxville, it was supposed to be the starter before the main course, a living legend in his sights. Unbeaten in twenty fights, Tate was being heavily promoted by Bob Arum, looking for a heavyweight to fill the void left by Ali. A new American star, the WBC champion Larry Holmes wasn’t connecting with or convincing the masses, Arum felt Tate would.
But one punch changed everything, it not only took away a defining fight with a purse to match, in many ways, it effectively finished Tate as a viable heavyweight contender. A lucky punch some would say, it wasn’t, there is no such thing. The John Tate story didn’t end that night in 1980, but in reality, it had already run its course. There were more chapters to write, there always is, but the book could have been closed right there.
There was talk of a quick return, a return to the throne, a heavyweight champion once again. A month later Tate was back in the gym, it looked far too soon considering the manner of his defeat to Weaver, and so it would prove.
The journey had started in the cotton fields, the man strength required for his future formed in that hard labour environment. Tate, a high school dropout who couldn’t read or write as he left the school gates for the last time. Boxing was his way out of a life of poverty, a sport that gives hope to so many.
A more than respectable amateur record including wins over future world heavyweight champions Michael Dokes, Greg Page and Tony Tubbs before he found himself on the American team for the 1976 Montreal Olympics. The legendary Cuban Teofilo Stevenson ended his run at the semi-final stage, Stevenson did the same to many fighters, maybe boxing’s greatest what if.
Under the watchful eye of Jerry ‘Ace’ Miller, a one-time pool hustler, Tate turned professional in 1977 and slowly worked his way up the rankings. A big stoppage win over Duane Bobick convinced many, Tate was on the brink of something which looked unlikely in those troubled early years.
The WBA heavyweight championship of the world was vacant following the retirement of Muhammad Ali, Tate now had his moment. At a time of apartheid in South Africa, Gerrie Coetzee and Tate would fight for the vacant belt in South Africa in 1979, in the national rugby stadium in Pretoria. Around 80,000 fans flocked to see a new champion crowned. Security was high as racial tensions couldn’t be hidden, a country in sporting isolation. A fight with many political undertones.
Tate was hurt early, the warning signs of what would come next, but stayed upright to prevail by decision. Tate, who left school without the basic skills which should have been his right, was now the heavyweight champion of the world. Arum sensed he had the heir apparent to a living legend.
But that was the peak for Tate, the win over Coetzee promised plenty, after a tough climb to the summit, the fall was brutal.
After the shocking defeat to Weaver, Tate felt he could quickly get back what Weaver had taken away. The mental scars of that defeat never went away.
Just 11 weeks removed from the Weaver defeat, Tate returned on the Sugar Ray Leonard Roberto Duran undercard in Montreal. Trevor Berbick ended any lingering hopes of a return to the top of the mountain. Tate came out for the 9th round with nothing left, in many different ways. Tate suffered his second consecutive stoppage defeat, face down once more, the jury had reached their verdict on his future.
Arum left, the career of the American heavyweight hope was practically over. From 1981 through to 1988, Tate kept winning, the performances didn’t inspire in places that hardly motivated a fighter on the comeback trail, his weight ballooned, treading water clinging on to an impossible dream.
Unlike many of that lost generation of heavyweights, Tate looked the part, but even that disappeared in his twilight years. In 1988 Tate somehow landed in Britain to fight the British heavyweight Noel Quarless. Tate weighed 281 pounds, all ambition had long since left his body. Quarless outpointed Tate, a sad end to a career which at one time promised so much. A resume of 34-3 fails to tell the potential Tate once had.
In 1994 Tate had three unsanctioned fights, the Welshman David Pearce knocked him out in the third of those fights. Pearce had his own reasons for being there in California. Another sad story, boxing has many such tales.
The life and career of John Tate like many heavyweights of that time of wasted potential, the lost generation of heavyweights, ended predictably. A life ended the way it started.
The money earned went and quickly, addicted to cocaine, time spent in prison for theft and assault, odd jobs to survive, mowing lawns a far cry from life as the heavyweight champion of the world, Tate had a steep and rapid descent.
The end to his life came in 1998 in tragic circumstances, a truck he was driving crashed into a telegraph pole and flipped over, and Tate was killed instantly. Tate had a massive stroke at the wheel, he had recently been diagnosed with a brain tumour. Cocaine was found in his system, another tale of the strongest being unable to defeat or resist the temptations of the street. The never-ending darkness of an addict, others witness and remember their lives for them.
Tate was just 43, a familiar story, a life ended tragically and prematurely when he should have been enjoying the fruits of his labour.