By Arne K. Lang
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.
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