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The rise and fall of John Tate

John Tate
A quarter of a century has passed since the death of former heavyweight titlist John Tate, writes Matt Christie

TODAY marks the 24-year anniversary of John Tate’s passing. A man once regarded as one the best heavyweights in the world is today all but forgotten.

Knoxville saved John Tate before it was the death of him. In 1975, when an amateur heavyweight from Memphis, he caught the eye of manager and trainer Ace Miller who told Tate that if he moved to Knoxville he’d turn him into a world heavyweight champion.

Tate won a bronze medal at the 1976 Olympics but the fanfare that greeted the professional arrival of teammates Ray Leonard, the Spinks brothers and Howard Davis Jnr was largely absent. A one-round KO loss to Teófilio Stevenson in the semi-finals perhaps not the ideal closing statement in Montreal.

At the beginning of 1979, he was unranked but impressive thrashings of Duane Bobick and Kallie Knoetzee soon followed. In October, he went to South Africa where 86,000 fans watched him outbox Gerrie Coetzee over 15 rounds to win the WBA heavyweight title that had been vacated by Muhammad Ali.

The division was looking for a new leader following the retirement of Ali, and Tate was determined to fill the void. A showdown with WBC ruler, Larry Holmes, was one of the best fights that could be made. A bout with the reportedly comebacking Ali was also being discussed by Tate’s promoter, Bob Arum.

If his rise to the top was quick, the demise was breakneck. In March 1980 he lost to the unfancied Mike Weaver, a desperate slug in the final minute of their 15-rounder sent Tate face-first and unconscious to the mat. Tate was well ahead on points at the time. It was a big upset and flipped the script for both.

“Everywhere I went, it tormented me the way I lost to him,” Tate said about being on the wrong end of a feel-good story. “I can’t forget about it. People won’t let me forget about it. It will always torment me.”

Another dramatic collapse followed when Trevor Berbick stopped him in nine. He would fight on sporadically against modest opposition until 1988, when Liverpool’s Noel Quarless edged him over 10 rounds in York Hall. Still only 33, Tate spoke of his five-year battle with cocaine addiction.
He claimed that he’d been suffering from sinus headaches “for months” in 1983. No medication worked, he said. Then a friend told him a quick snort of cocaine would do the trick. That sounds like a tall tale but it’s undisputable that the drug responsible for more nosebleeds than boxing in the Eighties soon became a fixture in Tate’s life.

“I got to wondering how it would make me feel if I didn’t have a headache,” he told the Knoxville Journal. “A month after I started taking it I bought some for myself. I was hooked.”

Between 1983 and 1988, Tate estimated that he spent around $400,000 on his habit, including a $18,000 Rolex watch that he exchanged for a pound of the drug. Tate, who could not read or write, lost control of his estate. In 1985, his wife Claudia checked him into a drug and rehabilitation centre.

His relationship with Ace Miller ended. “We were doing well, even after the losses to Weaver and Berbick, then outside influences got involved,” Ace said. “He was no longer the man I knew and seeing him like that broke my heart.”

Tate said: “When I was doing drugs it was like I was locking myself in jail. I threw away the key. All I thought about was a way to buy the stuff.”
The loss to Quarless officially ended Tate’s 34-3 (23) career. His property was auctioned in 1989 in an effort to pay his debts. He parked cars, emptied trash, worked as a bouncer and even begged for money on the streets. In the final years of his life he was in and out of prison for violating probation.

Hours before he died he was spotted outside a bar in Knoxville. “He was happy and dancing to the music on the streets,” said a friend. “He was such a kind and loveable man. He gave me a hug and said goodbye.”

At 3am on April 9, 1998, 43-year-old John Tate crashed his pickup truck into a lamppost. He had suffered from a stroke and had a brain tumour. He was pronounced dead on the scene, one mile from where he trained to win his heavyweight title.

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