The 1976 U.S. boxing team was one of the finest in Olympic history, producing Sugar Ray Leonard, Michael and Leon Spinks, Howard Davis Jr, and Leo Randolph, among others.
One of the others was heavyweight John Tate, a promising fighter who came home with a bronze, having run into the legendary Cuban buzzsaw Teofilo Stevenson in the semifinal round. There was no shame in losing to Stevenson, one of the great amateurs of all time and one of the great “what ifs” in pro boxing history, never defecting from Cuba for the money, and there were certainly enough people who would have paid him quite a lot of it.
Tate wound up turning pro in May 1977, fighting on a card in St. Louis along with the hometown Spinks boys, and by 1979, Tate was starting to really make his mark. He beat fellow former Olympian Duane Bobick via first round TKO in February of that year, followed by trips to South Africa and wins over Kallie Knoetze and Gerrie Coetzee in June and October.
The latter, a fight attended by a reported 86,000 people, netted Tate the vacant WBA heavyweight title, which had been vacated by Muhammad Ali.
At 6’4” with an 80-inch reach, plus power and skills, Tate looked poised at age 25 to become a star in the 1980s. He lined up a title defense in his hometown of Knoxville, Tenn., for Mar. 31, 1980, against unheralded challenger Mike Weaver.
Tate came in with a record of 20-0 (15 KO), while Weaver was just 21-9 (14 KO), having started his career with back-to-back losses in 1972, and going 6-6 in his first 12 fights. He did challenge Larry Holmes for the WBC title in 1979, a matchup only really notable because it aired on HBO after the networks passed on it, seeing it as a mismatch. Weaver did have his moments, but was stopped in the 12th round.
Weaver, then, was brought in as a guy against whom Tate could take a victory lap at home in Tennessee. Tate had his way for the first 10 rounds of the fight, but Weaver hung in there and started to turn things around just a bit.
In the 15th and final round, he landed a vicious left hook, knocking Tate out cold and taking the WBA title in a huge upset.
Weaver could go on to make successful defenses against Coetzee and James Tillis, then had two controversial fights with Michael Dokes in 1982-83, losing the WBA belt in the first one via very questionable first round stoppage. He’d bounce back enough to challenge Pinklon Thomas for the WBC belt in 1985, losing in the final world title fight he’d ever have. But Weaver kept fighting into the 1990s, and was an early victim of Lennox Lewis, along with an opponent again for Larry Holmes in a 2000 fight, the last of Weaver’s career.
Tate’s career never really recovered. He was knocked out in nine by Trevor Berbick three months later, and from there fought only at lower levels into 1988. His weight became a major issue over the years, and in his final bouts he was weighing 274 to 293 pounds, and had two bouts where his weight wasn’t even recorded in Bristol, Tenn. He had a drug problem in the 1980s, served time in prison, and was rumored to have gotten up to 400 pounds in his post-fighting days. He died in a single-car accident in 1998.