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Remembering Ill-Fated Big John Tate, Tennessee’s Only World Heavyweight Champion

Arne K. Lang

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The biggest fight on this week’s docket takes place this Saturday in Nashville, Tennessee, where Caleb Plant defends his IBF world super middleweight title against Germany’s Vincent Feigenbutz. It’s a homecoming for Plant who was born in Nashville and raised in nearby Ashland City, which is no city at all but a small town on the northern bank of the Cumberland River.

Caleb Plant is potentially the best fighter ever from the Volunteer State, unless one chooses to include Thomas Hearns who was born in Tennessee near Memphis, but moved with his parents to Detroit at the age of five and would always be identified with the Motor City.

Tennessee, however, did spawn one fighter who went on to win a version of the world heavyweight title. Big John Tate was actually born across the Tennessee line in West Memphis, Arkansas, but he learned to box in Knoxville which became his permanent home.

The rise of Big John Tate reads like something forged by a Hollywood screenwriter. A fifth-grade dropout who left school without knowing how to read or write, Tate used boxing as his ticket to escape from a world of poverty and dead-end jobs, earning more than a million dollars in purse money well before he was 30 years old.

In the hands of a Hollywood screenwriter, his saga would have likely had a happy ending. But in the real world of boxing, happy endings are the exception, and the sad saga of Big John Tate stands as yet another cautionary tale.

Tate’s Svengali was Ace Miller, a reformed pool hustler turned boxing gym operator, trainer and manager. Under Miller’s tutelage, Tate had a brief but productive amateur career, defeating such notables as Michael Dokes, Greg Page and Tony Tubbs en route to a berth on the U.S. Olympic team. At the 1976 Games in Montreal, he advanced to the semis where he was knocked out by the legendary Cuban fighter Teofilo Stevenson.

Standing six-foot-four, Tate was a big heavyweight for his era, bigger than George Foreman, the ex-Olympian to whom he was often compared. He carried 240 pounds for his Oct. 20, 1979 match with Gerrie Coetzee at South Africa’s national rugby stadium in Pretoria. At stake was the WBA world heavyweight title vacated by Muhammad Ali who had announced his retirement after avenging his loss to Leon Spinks.

The battle between Tate (19-0) and Coetzee (22-0) was historic, the first integrated sporting event in the land of apartheid. The crowd, overwhelmingly white and pro-Coetzee, was enormous. Estimates ran as high as 86,000 and that presumably didn’t include the armed militia, 2,000 strong, or the 100 attack dogs deployed to provide security.

Coetzee landed the first meaningful punch of the fight, buckling Tate’s knees with a right to the jaw in the third round, but Tate gradually wore him down and won a unanimous decision.

Bob Arum, Big John’s promoter, thought it would be cool for Tate to make his first defense in his adopted hometown of Knoxville. Mike Weaver, a bodybuilder who owned a 21-9 record and had been stopped five times, was brought in as the opponent. Arum staged the fight at the basketball arena on the campus of the University of Tennessee. The match aired in prime time on ABC where it was conjoined with matches at Caesars Palace in the slot reserved in the fall for Monday Night Football.

If Arum ever gets around to finishing his memoir, the Tate-Weaver fight will occupy a prominent place in it. As Arum has related in bull sessions with reporters, he was entrusted with the trophy that the city of Knoxville had made to present to John Tate at the conclusion of the fight. It was tucked under the ring apron for safekeeping and when he went to retrieve it as the heretofore uneventful 15-round contest was entering the final minute, he heard a large roar from the crowd. Looking up, he saw Tate lying face first on the canvas, out cold. Trailing on all three cards, Mike Weaver had pulled the fight out of the fire with a short but ferocious left hook.

Tate’s heavyweight title reign was over inside of six months, a bitter pill for Arum who, in the words of Michael Katz, had touted Big John as the greatest thing to come out of Tennessee since sippin’ whiskey.

Tate was back in action in 11 weeks, fighting in the chief undercard bout of the mega-fight between Sugar Ray Leonard and Roberto Duran in Montreal, where he was matched against an up-and-comer from Halifax, Nova Scotia, Trevor Berbick. And disaster struck once again.

In round nine, with the fight up for grabs, Tate turned his back on Berbick after absorbing a punch and was hit with two rabbit punches, the second of which knocked him half-way through the ropes. His legs quivered as he was counted out and he would need assistance to navigate the stairs as he left the ring. Berbick could have been disqualified, but it went into the books as a loss by KO for Big John.

John Tate would never again appear in a high-profile fight. He had 14 more bouts, nine in Tennessee, leading into his farewell fight in London with British journeyman Noel Quarles who was given the decision in a close 10-round fight. According to Ace Miller, John was “financially well-protected” when he returned to the civilian world because of various annuities that had been purchased for him.

If you know the history of boxing, you can guess where this story is heading. In the ensuing years, Tate battled a cocaine addiction, lost all his property to creditors, was arrested twice, once for petty theft and once for assault, and was in and out of jail on probation violations. On April 9, 1998, he died in Knoxville when he lost control of his pick-up truck on the entrance ramp to an interstate highway. The truck hit a utility pole and flipped over. The accident may have been caused by a sudden brain aneurism – Tate had been diagnosed with a brain tumor – but the autopsy revealed that he had cocaine in his system. Big John Tate, former U.S. Olympian, former world heavyweight champion, was 43 years old.

—-

Caleb Plant’s match with Vincent Feigenbutz is the biggest fight ever in Nashville and the biggest fight in Tennessee since Lennox Lewis fought Mike Tyson in Memphis in 2002. Feigenbutz, on paper, doesn’t punch hard enough to do what Mike Weaver did to John Tate, but Feigenbutz, who turned pro in 2011 at age 16, is a solid technician who may well make things a little dicey for the hometown hero. And then, when his career has finally run its course, the pressure will be on Caleb Plant to make a smooth transition into the life of an ex-boxer so that his story, unlike that of poor John Tate, is a story with a happy ending.

Check out more boxing news on video at The Boxing Channel 

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Dickens and Bolotniks Victorious in Golden Contract Finales

Arne K. Lang

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The finals of two Golden Contract tournaments played out tonight at a TV studio in an industrial park in West Yorkshire, England. The 8-man tournaments, organized by the controversial boxing management company MTK Global, were similar in structure to the World Boxing Super Series. The winner of each tournament was promised a two-year five-fight deal with a guaranteed six-figure purse in each of the five fights going forward. The fights were televised in the UK on Sky Sports and in the US on ESPN+ in association with Top Rank.

Both finales were 50/50 fights as measured by the betting odds, a rarity in this sport.

James “Jazza” Dickens, a 29-year-old Liverpudlian, won the 126-pound tournament with a 10-round unanimous decision over former British featherweight champion Ryan Walsh. It was the eighth straight win for Dickens, now 30-3 (11), who was stopped in the second round by Guillermo Rigondeaux during his days as a super bantamweight.

This was a tactical fight, heavy on head feints. It was fairly even through the first four rounds, but Dickens pulled away to win by scores of 98-93, 97-94, and 96-94. One of three fighting brothers, Walsh, 34, falls to 26-3-2. He has never been stopped.

Dickens vs. Walsh was originally scheduled for Sept. 30, but pushed back when Dickens and his trainer tested positive for COVID-19. The Golden Contract 140-pound tournament concluded on that date with Ohara Davies winning a controversial decision over Tyrone McKenna.

Light Heavyweight

The light heavyweight finale, as expected, was an entertaining scrap. Ricards Bolotniks, a late bloomer from Latvia, wore down and ultimately stopped Serge Michel whose corner tossed in the towel with seconds remaining in the 10th and final round.

Bolotniks, 30, has a pedestrian record, now 18-5-1 (8), and is rough around the edges, but he has a winning down-to-earth personality and a lot of grit. He got here with a pair of upsets, most recently over Tyson Fury’s cousin Hosea Burton who was 25-1 going in.

Bolotniks knocked Michel into the ropes in round five – it was scored a knockdown — and knocked him down in the 10th with a barrage of punches. He was too strong for Michel (11-2) who represented Germany in the 2016 Olympics.

After the fight, Bolotniks called out Anthony Yarde. A fight between he and Yarde – whose lone defeat came at the hands of Sergey Kovalev in Russia – would almost certainly provide great entertainment.

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In another fight of note, junior welterweight Harlem Eubank outpointed Daniel “Danny Darko” Egbunike to advance his record to 11-0 (6). The referee scored it 97-94 which was giving Egbunike (6-1) a shade the best of it. Eubank’s previous opponents had 212 losses between them, so this was a step-up fight for him despite Egbunike’s inexperience.

The 26-year-old Eubank is the nephew of former two-division title-holder Chris Eubank Sr. He is trained by Adam Booth who currently trains Michael Conlan, among others, and formerly trained David Haye, Andy Lee, and George Groves, among others. Egbunike, a 31-year-old Londoner who spent nearly three years in prison on drug charges, was making his first start in 13 months.

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Avila Perspective, Chap. 116: Three Days of the Condor

David A. Avila

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Every year it happens.

Some of the best fights are made at the end of the year.

Three consecutive days of high-level prizefighting begin in Los Angeles, move to London and return to Dallas, Texas. I tagged it Three Days of the Condor in honor of the great spy movie of the 70s starring Robert Redford.

Here’s what is coming:

New York welterweight prospect Brian Ceballo (11-0, 6 KOs) meets Utah’s Larry Gomez (10-1, 8 KOs) 10 rounds on Thursday Dec. 3, at the Wild Card Gym parking lot in Hollywood, California. NBC SN will televise the Ring City Fight card beginning at 6 p.m. Pacific Coast Time.

It was supposed to be Brandon Adams versus Serhii Bohachuk in a super welterweight clash that had fans salivating who are familiar with the two. But the Ukrainian fighter who trains in Southern California fell ill with the coronavirus. Now Adams fights late replacement Sanny Duversonne in an eight-round bout. Poor Bohachuk.

“It is with regret that I have to announce that I’ve contracted the COVID virus and have to withdraw from the fight on Dec. 3,” Bohachuck said. “I want to thank Ring City and NBC Sports for the opportunity, and I look forward to fighting Adams in the future. I’m feeling fine and look forward to resuming my training as soon as I’m cleared.”

Ceballo (pictured) and Gomez are now the true main event and both have not fought in over a year. That should make it even. This also makes the second boxing card for the Ring City fight group. Two weeks ago, Ring City opened with a doozy of a boxing card. This should equal their opener in terms of even matchups.

British Action

Early Friday morning a boxing card features WBO super middleweight titlist Billy Joe Saunders (29-0, 14 KOs) defending against veteran contender Martin Murray (39-5-1, 17 KOs) at London, England. DAZN will stream the Matchroom fight card beginning at 11 a.m. PT.

Saunders is a chatty sort who loves to discombobulate opponents in a variety of ways. Whether attacking their physical appearance or lack of skills, he is not shy about voicing his opinion.

But he does have respect for Murray.

“He’s challenged for the world title four times. He should have been world champion in two of those fights. I’ve promised him a chance,” said Saunders who is making his second defense of the WBO title and is a former middleweight world titlist.

The left-handed Saunders has long sought a match with Saul “Canelo” Alvarez who has held super welterweight, middleweight, super middleweight and light heavyweight world titles.

“The Canelo fight fell through in May,” said Saunders. “On Friday we’ll rock and roll.”

Murray is anxious for what could be his final world title shot.

“He’s not fought the opposition I’ve had,” said Murray who lost to Gennady Golovkin, Sergio Martinez and Felix Sturm. “If I’d had fought the people he’s fought, I’d have a world title. I’ve done it the hard way.”

PPV Welterweight Showdown

Errol Spence Jr. returns and the world will see if the championship caliber fighter still carries all of his weaponry.

He will be tested.

Spence (26-0, 21 K0s) returns to the prize ring after one year following a horrific automobile crash. He meets former two-division world champ Danny “Swift” Garcia (36-2, 21 KOs) on Saturday Dec. 5, at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. The PBC card will be televised on FOX pay-per-view.

Back in September 2019, the speedy Spence lit up the boxing ring at Los Angeles in an electrifying battle with Shawn Porter. He barely emerged victorious and then allegedly celebrated in Texas by going more than 100 mph in a Ferrari 488 Spyder and flipping the expensive car end over end. The horrific crash was captured on video and despite the ugliness of the accident, Spence did not suffer any broken bones. But there was internal damage.

Just how severe were his injuries?

This marks the first time back in the prize ring and Garcia is a very rugged test. All Philadelphia fighters are tough, and he just might be the toughest of them all.

Garcia has only two losses in his career and both were very close decision defeats: First, against Shawn Porter and second against Keith Thurman. The counter-puncher has never been stopped or dropped and packs a wallop.

“He’s not much of a volume puncher so it will be more tactical. It probably won’t be like the Shawn Porter fight, an all-out brawl/fight. I think this will be more tactical, and pinpoint type of fight between me and him,” Spence told Brian Custer on The Last Stand Podcast.

This will be a true test for Spence who has mentioned many times desiring a match with Manny Pacquiao and WBO titlist Terence Crawford.

One interesting bout on the same pay-per-view card pits Josesito Lopez (37-8) versus Francisco Santana (25-8-1) in a 10-round welterweight mash-up. This fight is not for the squeamish. Both these guys are bruisers and have fought the best. It’s amazing that the two California fighters have not faced each other before. They have fought everyone else. Now its Lopez against Santana.

It will be brutal while it lasts.

Macho film

Showtime debuts its sports documentary on “Macho: The Hector Camacho Story” on Friday night December 4, at 9 p.m. ET/PT.

If you love boxing don’t miss this important film on Camacho, one of the most scintillating boxers of the 1980s and 1990s. His presence in the boxing scene now seems to be overlooked by the great welterweights and Mike Tyson who dominated the boxing landscape.

Camacho was the lone prizefighter in the lower weight classes who could match their allure. The Puerto Rican fighter from Spanish Harlem fought and beat Roberto Duran and Sugar Ray Leonard. How many fighters can claim that?

It’s a very well-made documentary that delves into the flamboyant fighter’s life.

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Boxing Promoter Michelle “Raging Babe” Rosado Pulls No Punches

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Michelle Rosado, the founder and CEO of Raging Babe Promotions, made her promotional debut on Feb. 8, 2019 with a show at South Philly’s intimate 2300 Arena. The show drew an SRO crowd, a testament to Rosado’s tireless work ethic, but ended on a sour note when local fan favorite Christian Carto – potentially the next big thing on the Philadelphia boxing scene – stepped up in class and was brutally knocked out by Mexican veteran Victor Ruiz. A protégé of Hall of Fame boxing promoter J Russell Peltz (pictured on the left), Rosado recently appeared on the “Last Stand Podcast with Brian Custer” to share her thoughts on some of the major issues in boxing. Here are excerpts from that interview compliments of publicist Keisha Williams.

ROSADO ON WHY CLUB SHOWS ARE IMPORTANT TO THE SPORT

“Club shows are where you are building those prospects, that’s where you’re developing those fighters you see the top promoters are pulling these opponents from. We’re developing these guys from the ground up, we’re almost like a farm system. Most of these guys you see on TV fighting for millions of dollars, and becoming world champions, a lot of them started at the club level.”

ROSADO ON STATE OF WOMEN’S BOXING

“Women’s boxing needs a platform, there’s nowhere for these girls to fight, they deserve some fairness in our sport. I’m not trying to say they deserve to be paid the same as Canelo, but they shouldn’t be paid 5 thousand dollars to defend their titles either, so in 2021

I’m going to get more involved in women’s boxing and try and be a voice for them because they deserve better and a platform.”

ROSADO ON HOW DIFFICULT IT IS BEING IT IS BEING A FEMALE PROMOTER IN BOXING

“I’ve been called every racial slur you can think of, I’ve had tickets thrown in my face, I’ve had my house vandalized, I’ve had a brick thrown threw my back window of my car. I’ve been called every kind of groupie you can imagine. She’s slept with everybody in the business and every fighter. I’ve earned my stripes, I’ve worked hard, no handouts, it’s just been all hard work and I’ve had to learn to turn the cheek. Most people know nine years in that I’m a hustler. You’ll never find a fighter that says she stole from me, she didn’t pay me, she lied to me, you’ll never find a fighter that says that!”

RAGING BABE ON FEMALE BOXING PROMOTERS

“Yes we have a lot more women in boxing, yes it still a little more difficult for us, but we’re there you hear us roaring. Behind every big promoter, he’s got a woman either as his right hand man or running the operation. And I mean all of them!”

ROSADO ON HER ULTIMATE GOAL

“I want to continue to promote good fights, I want to make Philadelphia the legendary fight town that it once was, I want to develop those guys from the ground up, I want old school and new school boxing fans to come to my shows and fall in love with boxing again, and them become interested in the bigger boxing world again because we’re losing that old school boxing fan. I want to uphold the reputation of real fights, real fighters, real fans that’s my passion.”

ROSADO’S TOP 5 POUND FOR POUND LIST

  1. Terence Crawford
  2. Canelo Alvarez
  3. Errol Spence Jr.
  4. Naoya Inoue
  5. Teofimo Lopez

Rosado on who’s boxing next big star and the best fighter out of Philly right now

“Boxing’s next big star is Tank….We got a lot of really good fighters in Philly, but Jaron “Boots” Ennis is that dude!”

The full in-depth interview is now available on YouTube (Last Stand Podcast with Brian Custer) and all major podcast platforms (Apple Podcast, Google Podcast, Spotify, etc.)

Check out more boxing news on video at the Boxing Channel 

To comment on this story in the Fight Forum CLICK HERE

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