On This Day: The tragic tale of heavyweight boxing champion John Tate reaches its end

john tate
James Slater on John Tate, the talented heavyweight destined to end his life in misery

THINGS started out so promisingly for Tennessee heavyweight boxer “Big” John Tate.

Tall, athletic and possessing an impressive physique, the man who was born in Arkansas in January of 1955 (later relocating to Knoxville) began boxing as a teenager and made fast progress, with Tate defeating future champions Mike Dokes and Greg Page in amateur tournaments. Tate then boxed in the 1976 Olympics in Montreal.

The 6’4”  talent had to settle for a bronze medal, having been halted inside a round by Cuban legend and ’76 gold medal winner Teofilo Stevenson. A pro career was undertaken the following year and Tate, trained by the knowledgeable Ace Miller, made fast progress here too. Picking up good wins over the likes of the dangerous Bernardo Mercado, Duane Bobick and Kallie Knoetze, all of whom were KO’d by Tate, the 24-year-old was, in October of 1979, given a crack at the vacant WBA title.

Tate travelled to South Africa, then in the grip of Apartheid problems and, in front of 80,000 fans, outpointed Gerrie Coetzee to claim the title Muhammad Ali had relinquished through retirement. Tate returned home to Knoxville a hero. Unfortunately his glory days would prove painfully short. With talk of a big-money fight with a returning Ali in his ears, Tate agreed to first defend his title in a “keep-busy” affair with the somewhat lightly regarded Mike Weaver. What happened in Tate’s maiden defence proved to be disastrous on a number of levels.

Way ahead on points after 14-rounds, Tate was sensationally knocked cold by a Weaver left hook with just 45-seconds remaining in the fight. His hometown fans in shock, Tate was left flat on his face for way more than ten seconds. Still, at the time, the thinking was Tate was simply a victim of terribly bad luck, and one loss does not a career end. What happened in his next fight would all but end Tate’s time as anything approaching top class fighter, though.

Crushed in a manner to rival the humiliation of the Weaver defeat, Tate was sent reeling across the ring by Trevor Berbick just three months after his first pro loss. Sprawled out facedown once again, Tate was knocked out by a hard shot that caught him in the back of the head as he was literally running away from an advancing Berbick. Once again, Tate’s demise came on a big stage; his 9th round loss to Berbick playing out on the under-card of the Roberto Duran-Sugar Ray Leonard fight in Canada.

Tate boxed on, fighting regularly, sometimes against decent fighters, until 1983. But after a split with Miller, no doubt due to Tate’s frequent weight problems and his refusal to train properly, Tate drifted away; fighting off and on from 1986 to 1988. In his final bout, Tate weighed a gross 281-pounds; this fight coming against Britain’s Noel Quarless at York Hall in London. Tate, looking nothing like the charismatic young fighter who had won the title just less than a decade before, kicked the ropes in disgust when the 10-round decision went to Quarless.

Now with no career to call his own, Tate gained even more weight, ballooning to a reported 400-pounds at one point. Tate had battled a drug problem since the 1980s and by the early ’90s he had basically become a street bum, even being jailed for a short time for the crime of petty theft. One story that proves especially troubling is of how the neighbourhood kids, whenever they recognised the former champ, would run up to Tate and hurl themselves on the floor in front of him, laughing as they shouted out, “I’m John Tate!” and then pretended to be unconscious.

His money and his health now long gone, Tate died in a one-car smash on April 9th, 1998. The coroner’s report stated that Tate, who had hit a telephone poll whilst driving his pickup truck, had suffered a massive stroke and that he had been taking cocaine less than 24-hours before the crash.

Tate, who retired with a 34-3(23) record, is one of the saddest examples of wasted talent in the sport’s long list of what ifs.

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