Forget Tony Tucker, forget Tony Tubbs, forget Greg Page, forget Pinklon Thomas. In fact you can forget all of the so-called ‘Lost Generation Of Heavyweights’ from the 1980s – apart from John Tate. Tate should never be forgotten, he was/is the king of squandered talent; his is the most depressing case of wasted heavyweight talent ever, bar none. Like the names listed above, and a few others, Tate, a 1976 Olympian, managed to bag a version of the world title, but how excruciating was this could-be-giant’s fall from grace.
Rewind 40 years, and a 24 year old Tate was an unbeaten, 6’4,” athletic, somewhat charismatic and very promising heavyweight contender closing in on some big, big fights. Tate was even mentioned as a possible opponent for the soon to return Muhammad Ali (thankfully this fight did not materialise; if it had, the edge of tragedy attached to Tate’s name these days would likely have been even greater, but with Ali being the victim). Instead, after picking up wins over the likes of Bernardo Mercado and Duane Bobick, Tate was granted an eliminator against Kallie Knoetze.
Tate followed his win in South Africa with a return trip to that Apartheid-gripped land, beating Gerrie Coetzee over 15-rounds to claim the vacant WBA title in October of 1979. Stardom seemed inevitable for the not yet at his peak heavy.
Instead, after suffering the kind of humiliating KO loss all fighters fear – Tate going down from one sickening in-close shot from a desperate Mike Weaver in his first title defence, the KO coming in the 15th and final round of a fight Tate had won handily until disaster struck – it was the most rapidly downward slope imaginable for Tate.
Crushed when exhausted in a fight with Trevor Berbick (Berbick no stranger to cruel fates, as he would find out to his pain in future years), Tate literally tried to run away from Berbick, his final position being that of a man hanging out of the ring, his equilibrium violently smashed to smithereens. Never again a contender, Tate had, in the short space of eight months, come close to the top and had then sunk lower than any big-name heavyweight of the modern era. But there was worse to come over the remaining years the 25 year old had left.
Tate fought on, naturally, and he won some bouts, in fact well over a dozen, but he was a bloated, faded, poorly paid non-contender. Then, in 1988, against British brawler Noel Quarless, Tate was beaten whilst weighing well over 275 pounds. And that was that for the man who once seemed to have had a real shot at greatness.
Soon falling into drugs full-time, Tate would spend time in jail, tell tails of how he “could have been the best of them all,” and then, finally, at the age of just 43, die from a stroke that led to a fatal car smash. Sad is not the word.
Somewhere out there, there is a talented film maker who will one day devote some serious time to the memory of John Tate and pay him his just due via the silver screen. Who knows, maybe this as yet unknown movie maker will even manage to make Big John look like a hero.
John Tate: 1955 to 1998. WBA heavyweight champion.