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During the mid-1970s and early 1980s, John “Big John” Tate gained notoriety as a successful amateur and professional boxer. As a member of the U.S. Olympic team at the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal, Canada, Tate won a bronze medal in the heavyweight division. In 1979, Tate defeated Gerrie Coetzee to claim the World Boxing Association (WBA) heavyweight title. The WBA is an internationally recognized professional boxing organization.
John Tate was born in West Memphis (Crittenden County) on January 29, 1955. The second of Bonnie Archer’s seven children, Tate did not know his father (Lavon Tate) and grew up in poverty. Tate struggled academically and left school in the seventh grade. Illiterate and unskilled, he toiled in a variety of menial jobs including picking cotton, loading livestock feed, and stacking lumber.
In 1972, Tate launched his amateur boxing career at the Avon Theater in West Memphis. He also competed in boxing matches in Osceola (Mississippi County) and Memphis, Tennessee. In 1975 and 1976, he won the Memphis Golden Gloves championships in the heavyweight division. He placed second at the national Golden Gloves tournament in 1975.
Seeking to elevate his skills and potential, Tate sought the tutelage of Jerry “Ace” Miller of Knoxville, Tennessee. A renowned boxing trainer and promoter, Miller guided Tate’s career for years and encouraged Tate to learn to read and write. By the spring of 1976, Tate emerged as a candidate to make the United States Olympic boxing team.
Future heavyweight champion of the world Michael Dokes, and Marvin Stinson, a formidable amateur, stood between Tate and a spot on the Olympic team roster. In July, at a final elimination bout held in Burlington, Vermont, Tate defeated Stinson. Tate joined the likes of Sugar Ray Leonard, Leon and Michael Spinks, and Howard Davis on one of the finest U.S. Olympic boxing teams ever assembled.
At the Olympic Games, Tate fought his way into the semi-final round. Assured of at least a bronze medal, he faced the defending Olympic heavyweight champion Teófilo Stevenson of Cuba. Stevenson knocked Tate out in the first round. Olympic bronze medal in hand, Tate turned professional.
Between 1977 and 1979, Tate ascended the ranks of the heavyweight division. Defeating two of the sport’s rising stars, Duane Bobick and Bernardo Mercado, Tate was poised for a shot at the world title. After Muhammad Ali unexpectedly and temporarily retired, his WBA title was vacated and a series of elimination bouts were scheduled in order to crown a new champion.
Tate secured an elimination bout against South Africa’s Kallie Knoetze. The victor would meet the winner of the Gerrie Coetzee and Leon Spinks bout. On June 2, 1979, Tate defeated Knoetze before 51,000 spectators in the tribal homeland of Mmabatho, Bophuthatswana (South Africa).
At the time, South Africa’s system of apartheid had become a political firestorm that gripped human rights advocates across the globe. Tate’s presence in South Africa drew criticism from civil rights leaders around the world, but scores of black South Africans warmly received the African-American Tate and reveled in his victory over the white Knoetze. On October 20, 1979, in Pretoria, South Africa, an unprecedented racially integrated audience of 86,000 witnessed Tate defeat Coetzee, another white South African fighter. In 1981, Tate’s name was added to the United Nations Centre Against Apartheid’s “First Register of Sports Contacts with South Africa,” a blacklist of athletes who furthered sports contacts with South Africa.
Tate returned to Knoxville with the WBA world heavyweight title. With million-dollar paydays on the horizon, and discussions of a mega-million-dollar deal to fight Muhammad Ali (who was coming out of retirement), Tate’s management team plotted a cautious course. A “tune-up” fight was scheduled. On March 31, 1980, Tate met the unheralded Mike Weaver.
Weaver’s 20-9 record paled in comparison to Tate’s 20-0. During the fight, before a partisan Knoxville crowd, Tate built a comfortable lead. In the fifteenth and final round, Weaver connected with a devastating left hook, taking Tate’s title with just forty-five seconds remaining in the bout.
Three months later, in Montreal, Tate fought the inexperienced future world champion Trevor Berbick. Berbick dealt Tate another devastating knockout defeat in the ninth round of the bout.
In Reno, Nevada, on September 24, 1980, Tate married Claudia Bradley, whom he had met in Knoxville. His professional and personal life, however, soon took a tragic turn. After a litany of injuries and battles with substance abuse, Tate’s career ended unceremoniously in 1988 with a record of 34–3.
Tate admitted to abusing cocaine during much of the 1980s, leading to a failed marriage, time in prison, and financial ruin. On April 9, 1998, Tate died from a massive stroke that he sustained during an automobile accident in Knoxville. He was survived by his only child, Vernice Tate. He is buried in Edmondson (Crittenden County).
For additional information:Chapin, Dwight. “Big John Still Fighting—This Time for U.S.” Arkansas Democrat. July 23, 1976, p. 1B.
“John Tate, 43, Killed in Crash.” New York Times. April, 10, 1998, p. 4C.
Litsky, Frank. “John Tate, 43, Troubled Heavyweight Champ.” New York Times. April 11, 1998, p. 8D.
Morgan, Eric J. “Into the Struggle: Confronting Apartheid in the United States and South Africa.” Ph.D. diss., University of Colorado at Boulder, 2009.
“Mr. and Mrs. Tate At Home.” Knoxville Journal, December 23, 1980, p. 23.
Putnam, Pat. “It Was One Giant Win for Big John.” Sports Illustrated, June 11, 1979, pp. 61–64.
“Tate Is Already a Winner in South Africa: ‘Honorary White’ Totally Different.” New York Times. October 16, 1979, p. 14S.
Vecsey, George. “John Tate: Out to Prove He Belongs in the Ring.” New York Times. February 15, 1981, p. 1S.
Paul EdwardsBoston, Massachusetts
Last Updated 4/28/2010
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