The Meteoric Rise and Fall of "Big" John Tate
By Robert Mladinich on February 13, 2020
Tate spent his teenage years picking cotton in the South and apples in upstate New York.
IBF super middleweight champion Caleb Plant is set to defend his title Saturday at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville. Only a handful of Tennessee fighters ever hit it big in boxing and Plant is the latest to shore up the state’s limited championship legacy. The first was Charles Hadley, who won the World Colored Heavyweight Championship in 1883. Memphis Pal Moore won the bantamweight title in 1918. Gorilla Jones twice held the middleweight title in the early 1930s. There was also cruiserweight champion Rickey Parkey, super lightweight champion Frankie Randall, as well as Hall-of-Famer Thomas Hearns. And, lest we forget, there was “Big” John Tate, whose brief reign and short life is an object lesson on several fronts.
When Tate won the WBA title from white South African Gerrie Coetzee before 86,000 fans, only five percent of whom were black, at the Loftus Versfeld Stadium in Pretoria in October 1979, he unwittingly became a symbolic emancipator to the millions of black people living under the tyrannical rule of apartheid in that country at the time.
After the 6’4”, 240-pound Tate won a unanimous decision over the hard-punching Coetzee, the sky seemed to be the limit. Fate intervened five months later when he was shockingly stopped by Mike Weaver with just 45 seconds left of the title fight that Tate had been winning handily.
Things went further downhill for Tate just three months after that, when he was again knocked unconscious, this time in the ninth round, by Trevor Berbick on the undercard of the epic first encounter between Sugar Ray Leonard and Roberto Duran in Montreal.
In the ensuing years Tate traded in his fame and glory for a life of petty crime, poverty, obesity, drug addiction, alcoholism and incarceration. In April 1998 he suffered a fatal stroke while driving a pickup truck in his hometown of Knoxville, Tennessee. Although the truck crashed into a utility pole, his two passengers were not seriously injured.
Six weeks before his death at the age of 43, I had encountered Tate at the Foxwoods Casino in Connecticut, where he was working the corner of a heavyweight prospect named Keith McKnight. While Tate had been very well-proportioned at his fighting weight of 240 pounds, which was considered big in the early 1980s, he was about 325 pounds when I spotted him in the dressing room prior to McKnight’s fight with Obed Sullivan.
I was surprised that no other reporters recognized him, and even more surprised when the ones that were told he was in the arena couldn’t have cared less. Big John’s life had taken such a meteoric downward spiral, it seemed like he wasn’t living at the bottom of the barrel but instead was residing beneath it.
He told me that he had been clean and sober for several months, and was looking forward to getting his life back on track. We talked about a lot of things over many hours, and he seemed thrilled to have someone willing to listen to him.
He implied that he was often misunderstood and maligned, and he wanted the world to know that beneath the great big welcoming Southern smile was a good and decent man who deserved another shot at life.
Had Tate stayed sober, and lived longer, he might have someday come to appreciate the social and sporting contributions he left this world with.
“John was absolutely idolized here in Knoxville,” said Jerry “Ace” Miller, Tate’s longtime trainer and manager, who passed away in March 2012. “Once he got involved with drugs, however, he went downhill fast. Beating Coetzee meant a lot to the people of South Africa, but it also meant a lot to the people here. John Tate was the biggest thing that ever happened here. Everybody wanted him at their house or their party every night after he won the title.”
According to Miller, the socializing resulted in Tate putting on weight and slacking off in training. It is also when he stopped listening to all of the people that had been there for him from the beginning. The first signs began immediately after the Coetzee victory.
Tate was coasting to an easy decision over Weaver when Weaver connected with a Hail Mary left hook in the final round. Tate was unconscious before he hit the canvas. An ominous hush engulfed the arena as he lay motionless for several minutes. Had Tate won, as everyone thought he would, he would have earned a $3.5 million payday against Muhammad Ali.
“That fight caused me a lot of torment,” Tate said that night in Connecticut. “It caused me nothing but trouble, and even put me in the penitentiary.”
A few years prior Tate had been jailed for 28 months for an array of offenses, one of which was beating and robbing a man of $14 at a Knoxville homeless shelter. Tate admitted to breaking the man’s jaw, but insisted he didn’t rob him.
“He just kept teasing me about the Weaver fight, all day and all night,” explained Tate. “I admit I broke the boy’s jaw, but I didn’t rob him. Make sure you write that down. That’s important for people to know. I never robbed anybody.”
Compounding the loss to Weaver was Tate getting knocked out by Berbick, where his leg twitched uncontrollably as he lay prone on the canvas.
Tate, who had turned pro in 1977 after garnering a bronze medal at the 1976 Olympic Games, fought on until 1988, eventually retiring with a record of 34-3 (23 KOs). For all intents and purposes, however, any positive arc in his career ended on the night of the Weaver debacle.
For many years afterwards the children of Knoxville who once revered him would greet him on the street. They’d say, “You’re John Tate” and then propel themselves to the ground. Tate would laugh along with the joke, but it was obvious to others that his smile hid a wounded heart.
“John was a great big, good-natured guy,” said Ian Roach, a bartender at a local university tavern at the time of Tate’s death. “There were a million Big John stories going around, but if not for the newspapers, I would have thought he was just a big, old, gentle ex-pug. About the worst thing I ever saw him do was go the wrong way on a one-way street in an old ’77 New Yorker.”
Roach said people would ridicule him in a passive-aggressive way, maybe by pointing at his ever-expanding gut and saying, “You’re the champ?”
The newspaper stories Roach referred to told a different story. They spoke of Tate, his naturally warm personality altered by drugs and alcohol, roaming the city’s underbelly at night beating and robbing drug dealers with maniacal glee. While portrayed as a one-man crime wave in the press, his record reads more like a ghetto prospector than a criminal mastermind.
Among the charges leveled against him were stealing cinder blocks from a supermarket, public intoxication, drug possession, selling cocaine, and numerous counts of probation and parole violation.
“I ain’t been no angel, but it got to where they were arresting me for spitting on the sidewalk,” said Tate, who had earned about $2 million during his career. “Being involved with drugs made me do some crazy things. I was a junkie, a powerless junkie. I’ve spent more money than most people ever make. But now I got something in my life that nobody can ever take away from me.”
Asked what that something was, he said “God” with firmness and conviction.
Not everyone agreed with that assessment at the time. Horace Kent, who ran the Volunteer State boxing organization and managed a then undefeated heavyweight named Shazzon Bradley, loved Tate as a person, but only when he wasn’t high on drugs. In the days before he died, Kent said he did not smell alcohol on Tate while he was in his gym, but his eyes were unfocused and his slur was worse than usual. According to Kent, Tate would stand on the ring apron yelling at Bradley in an “aggressive and belligerent manner.”
Around that time, Kent said people in town “just viewed him with sympathy more than anything else.”
Bradley, who campaigned as a heavyweight from 1993 to 1999 before an eye injury forced him to retire with a 21-0 (17 KOs) record, said, “Big John had an awesome heart and great survival skills, but he wanted to be the biggest and best bum ever.”
The good-natured and highly intelligent Bradley, who is a college graduate, would often tell Tate that he was not a stupid man, that he was much smarter than people gave him credit for. He’d urge him to patch up his life, but Tate would just listen and say, “I got nothing but bad knees. I can’t even be a garbage man.”
It was Kerry Phaar, a deeply spiritual man who managed Keith McKnight, who gave Tate a last shot at redemption. Tate approached him about him making a comeback when he was released from Brushy Mountain Prison at 37 years of age. During their conversation, Tate said he was due in court and would call back later. Phaar did not hear back for several years, but when they did get reacquainted the forgiving Phaar put Tate up in a small room in the rear of his gym.
“Around me he was always clean as a whistle, and he worked real well with Keith,” said Phaar. “I think he saw the potential to pull something together. He had been a derelict, we even had to buy him new clothes to come to Connecticut because his clothes smelled so bad. He was excited to get back into boxing because he tasted style in life and he wanted it back.”
Phaar said Tate had a very analytical boxing mind, and even though he could not read or write he could articulate boxing very well. He did not believe that Tate was as punchy as people thought he was, and that his lack of good communication skills had more to do with his minimal education and thick drawl than anything else.
“One on one you could have a pretty good conversation with John,” said Phaar. “He had a wisdom about things that surprised me sometimes.”
In the weeks after McKnight was stopped by Sullivan in the seventh round, Phaar saw less and less of Tate and assumed he went back to his old ways. One person who disagreed with that assessment was John Davis, who along with his wife Pilar ran an express mart in Knoxville where Tate often stocked shelves. Tate worked there until 10:00 pm on April 8, 1998, approximately five hours before his death. Davis, a former amateur boxer, had nothing but praise for Big John.
“I’ve known him for over 20 years and never saw him under the influence,” he said shortly after Tate’s death. “Even with all that happened, John was a well-liked ambassador with the wealthy and poor alike. I don’t think he was as frequent a drug user as has been published. It has been blown out of proportion. He was polite and social, and would give you the shirt off his back. That is how he should be remembered.”
Ian Roach has equally fond memories. He said that Tate was mostly clear-eyed when he saw him, despite hearing horrific tales of his drug abuse and nocturnal wanderings from outsiders.
“After the McKnight fight, he left his seconds license at the bar,” recalled Roach. “When he came back and I tried to give it to him, he told me to keep it as a souvenir. His clothes always smelled, and he was a bum for lack of a better word, but he was a kind man.”
Roach said that Tate even provided him sensible counsel one night when he told the former champion about being dumped by his girlfriend. Tate told him to never “worship” a woman over God.
Ironically, it was Tate’s fixation with a college-educated, cultured woman that many people believe led to his ruin. They married in 1980 after a brief courtship. Tate soon blew up to 280 pounds, so she advised that he lose weight on the Scarsdale diet, which precluded carbohydrates. Tate foolishly listened to her instead of his longtime trainers, which some believe led to his devastating knockout at the hands of Berbick.
“John had a habit of listening to everybody but the people who knew what was best for him,” said Ace Miller. “We had warned him about outside influences.”
There were other marital problems as well. Tate had a volcanic temper and could stay mad for a long time. Although there was no evidence of physical abuse, Miller said that Tate’s wife would often come to him “scared to death” after an argument with her husband. But when the marriage ended, Miller said that Tate was devastated.
“In my opinion he never stopped loving her,” said Miller. “After she left him, he couldn’t do anything. I drove by him in training camp one day, and he was sitting near a tree with his head in his hands. He would have sat there forever if he could have. Then he would stay in the house for three or four days at a time. To the day he died, I think he loved her deeply.”
Very little is known of Tate’s early life. While his actual birth date is in dispute, he was born in Arkansas in 1955. He spent his teenage years picking cotton in the South and apples in upstate New York. A born athlete, he came into boxing quite by happenstance but was a natural. When he found himself in the 1975 National Golden Gloves tournament in Knoxville, Tate asked his opponent how he learned to box. The opponent introduced Tate to Miller.
Tate returned to Knoxville a short time later, penniless but with an abundance of big dreams. The first person he called was Miller, who took him into his home. Miller’s wife and three children soon thought of the lovable Tate as part of the family.
Miller guided Tate to the Montreal Olympics, where he was stopped by the great Teofilo Stevenson but still emerged from the Games with a bronze medal. Miller had been with Tate through the best and the worst of times.
During Tate’s last prison term, he gorged himself on food. When he was released in 1993, he weighed 417 pounds. He joked with people that he knocked more people out on the prison chow line than he ever did in the ring. While he and Miller had minimal contact in the last years of Tate’s life, the rumors Miller kept hearing were blood-curdling.
Ten to 12 kids had reportedly jumped Tate in a pool hall and beat him badly in retaliation for him stealing drugs. Miller had also heard that “people were thinking of wasting him.” Miller said things sounded so bad, he was surprised that Tate lasted as long as he did on the streets.
On the last night of his life, Tate left the express mart and visited Roach at his bar. Roach served him chicken wings and French fries before admonishing him for not showing up the week before to attend a boxing show in Cherokee, North Carolina. Tate said he was sorry, flashed that gargantuan smile, and walked into the night at about 1:30 am. Two hours later, he was dead.
It’s easy to write Tate off as an anonymous heavyweight champion, but the fact is his short reign has great historical significance, especially to the millions of blacks who were living in South Africa in 1980. To them, he was as big of a hero as Joe Louis was to disenfranchised black Americans decades earlier.
I asked Tate about his travels and travails, about his highlights and low points, some of his regrets and the mistakes he made along the way. He emphatically stated that the happiest memories of all had nothing to do with anything he actually did in the ring, but were directly related to his boxing prowess and success.
As he took a heavy drag on a Kool cigarette, he said they involved him going to the Children’s Hospital in Knoxville when he was champion and seeing all of the kids that needed help.
“They all looked up to me, I was the champ,” he said. “I could have made a difference, saved some lives. Being a world champion goes a long way.”
He seemed to like the way that sounded, and he was pleased and enthusiastic about his newfound sobriety. Before we departed, he made a point of asking me not to mention in the article that he was a cigarette smoker.
“There are still a lot of kids that might look up to me,” he said. “I wouldn’t want to set a bad example.”