John Tate was born today in 1955 and as such would be celebrating his 65th birthday. If he had lived. But Tate, a naturally gifted heavyweight who was at one point groomed and seemingly set for stardom, never got even half-way through his life. Instead, one of the most tragic figures from this beloved sport, “Big John” died at the young age of just 43; this after the former Olympian had suffered more than his fair share of humiliation in the ring.
Very possibly the uncrowned king of “The Lost Generation Of Heavyweights” who hit highs and then agonizing lows throughout the 1980s, Tate suffered more than most.
But at one time, how much the 24 year old Tate had to offer. He was an unbeaten, 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. Instead, after picking up wins over the likes of Bernardo Mercado (a good and dangerous heavy) 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 defense, 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. 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 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. Maybe.
John Tate: 1955 to 1998. WBA heavyweight champion. He would have been 65 today. Fans should remember to remember him. Also, this is a vivid case of how some fighters are NEVER the same after suffering defeat for the first time. Could there be a modern day John Tate out there now, slowly edging his way towards an invisible but unavoidable precipice?
Let’s hope not.