It was supposed to be John Tate’s night.
Fighting before his hometown fans in Knoxville, Tennessee, recently crowned WBA heavyweight champion “Big John” Tate was making his first defense. And it was supposed to be a relatively easy and straightforward one, a fight that would lead the unbeaten 25 year old into something much bigger – a fight with the one and only Muhammad Ali.
All Tate had to do to secure the fight with Ali (who had decided earlier in 1980 that his retirement should end, that he could shock the world once more and become a four-time heavyweight king), was beat heavy underdog Mike Weaver. Weaver had a most impressive physique but his record was less pretty. At an average-looking 21-9, Weaver didn’t convince too many fans when he said, again and again, that he would knock Tate out. New champ Tate was spotless at 20-0. The odds said Weaver would lose for a tenth time.
The odds were wrong.
Tate, young, charismatic and talented, had Bob Arum excited, the sage promoter sensing true stardom, even greatness in his latest heavyweight. Having beaten Gerrie Coetzee in Apartheid South Africa, before an enormous 80,000 crowd, to pick up the WBA title Ali had vacated with his (short-lived) retirement, Tate was on his way. Now, five months later, it was defense number-one. Tate, Arum and many other people felt it would be the first of many.
But Weaver was no chump. Anyone who had seen his gutsy effort against Larry Holmes – for most THE heavyweight champion – knew as much. Weaver had been a massive underdog that night the year before, too. But, in a stirring effort, the man dubbed “Hercules” pushed Holmes to the brink, a near-exhausted “Easton Assassin” managing to turn the fight around with a brutal uppercut in round-11, the TKO coming in the 12th.
Perhaps Tate never saw the Holmes-Weaver fight, or if he did maybe he wasn’t paying too much attention. Tate wanted to put on a show in front of his hometown fans (Weaver later said Tate’s desire to do so made him fight more aggressively, thus putting himself in danger) and he had that huge fight with living legend Ali to look forward to.
The Weaver-Tate fight got off to a lively start and almost everything was going swimmingly for Tate. Weaver did manage to land some shots, buzzing Tate along the way, in round 12, but it was Tate in control in a big way on the score-cards. Weaver was trailing badly, by five points on one card, and Tate had almost crossed the finish line that would lead him to grander things.
But then it happened.
Weaver, having been yelled at by his corner after the 14th round – “don’t bother coming back to this corner if you don’t knock him out now!” or words to that effect – came out for the final round with sheer determination in his heart. And shockingly, with just :45 seconds of the fight remaining, Weaver uncorked a perfect short left hook to the head. Tate fell, landing face-first on the mat, a grimace on his face. It was over. The referee could have counted to a hundred. The crowd was stunned. Weaver was overcome with sheer joy.
THE heavyweight KO of the 1980s, Weaver KO15 Tate has a special place in the minds of fight fans. It wasn’t just the fact that the underdog won, it was the sad downward spiral Tate experienced as a result of the crushing, heartbreaking loss. Another humiliating KO came just three months later, as Tate was smashed by Trevor Berbick. Tate never recovered. He was a bloated 300-plus pound faded fighter a few years later. Then, having got into drugs in a big way, both taking them and selling them, Tate met a premature end; dying at the young age of 43 in 1998.
By this time, Weaver was still fighting.
Weaver wound up enjoying a longer reign as champ than Tate had had; successfully defending his belt twice before being controversially beaten by Michael Dokes in 1982. It was, though, the evening of March 31, 1980 that gave Weaver his most memorable moment. It was a memorable moment for Weaver himself, and for all those fans who watched the stunning ending of all title fight endings unfold before their very eyes.