|Reflections on Big John Tate: Boxing Interview with Ace Miller
Interview By Ken Hissner (Feb 1, 2008) Doghouse Boxing
Perseverance was something Big John Tate had plenty of. Dropping out of school in the seventh grade he fought his way out of Marion, Arkansas when he came to Knoxville, Tennessee for a tournament. He was noticed by Ace Miller who had the Knoxville team. His star fighter was Clint Jackson who came the same way with a team from Alabama several years before this. Jackson had won all kinds of tournaments since 1974. Could he have two fighters going to the Olympic trials in 1976? Tate didn’t win the AAU title in 1976. Philadelphia’s Marvin Stinson, whom he lost to three times, won it. Tate
didn’t win the Golden Gloves in 1976 because Michael Dokes, whom he lost to, won it. Tate didn’t win the Pan Am trials because he dislocated his shoulder. When the Olympic trials came around Tate was right in there again. He won the eastern regional tournament and met Dokes again in the finals. This time he was victorious and won a spot on the 1976 Olympic team as their heavyweight representative.
In Montreal he was one of eleven members on possibly the greatest team the USA has ever produced. I was able to ask some of his fellow teammates about Big John. Chuck Walker (#156) had this to share about Tate. “John was a really good friend. He talked to me a lot and he trusted me a lot. Later he became more of a literary man but at the time he had trouble reading. He’d get me to help him read his mail from home. I was proud to do it and proud to be friends with him. He was big, nice guy and I’ve never had a problem with him. He was part of the family and his passing was sad for all or us. It was the same way with him and Clint Jackson. I just wish everybody could have been there in Canastota.” Walker was referring to 2006 when the team was honored at the Hall of Fame in Canastota, New York.
Howard Davis, Jr. (#132) simply said “he was a sweet, gentle bear of a man.” Davey Armstrong (#125) said “John was very quiet.” Charles Mooney (#125) “John was a big strong young man. We almost got into a fight over what cartoons we were going to watch on television at the Olympic camp. Leon Spinks had to separate us. Can you imagine me at 119 pounds and him this big heavyweight?” Leo Randolph (#112) said of Tate “we were a close knit group. John was quiet and would go along with the flow.” The smallest member of the team Louis Curtis (#106) had this to say. “Big John was a good guy. The funny thing is he wanted to be something he wasn’t all the time. Like in basketball, he wanted to be the guard and not the center in spite of how big he was.”
When it came time to fight in the Montreal Olympics Tate got a first round bye. His opponent in the second round Andrzej Biegalski of Poland, also got a bye. Though Tate won 5-0 he received an eye injury. In the quarterfinals he met the big German Peter Hussing who had defeated Laszlo Pakozdi of Hungary 5-0 in the second round. In a close fight Tate won 3-2. His eye was almost closed per his trainer Ace Miller. “John had eyes that were more like slits. The coaches weren’t going to let him fight in the semi-finals against the Cuban, 1972 Gold medalist Teofilo Stevenson. Sarge Johnson did not want him to fight. Pat Nappi wanted him to fight. Rollie Schwartz convinced Johnson to go along with Nappi.” Miller said, “Tate fought Stevenson with one eye and was doing all right until he got caught with a right hand. The fight was over in the first round but Tate won a bronze medal.” Of course Stevenson would go onto win the Gold.
Miller continued to train Tate from his debut in 1977 through 1983. We talked at length about Tate’s professional bouts. He compiled a record of 34 wins, 23 by knockout with 3 losses, 2 by knockout. He won the WBA heavyweight title in 1979.
Ken Hissner: Tate won his first three fights by knockout with the second fight being a return trip to Montreal. In his fourth fight he won a six round decision over Walter Santemore who was 7-0. I notice he fought him twice. The second time was eleven months later in 1978. How come the two fights?
Ace Miller: Tate had him out in the sixth and last round but Santemore tackled him. He wanted to fight him again so he could knock him out. This he did in the return match in the sixth round in Orlando.
KH: In his fifth fight he fought unbeaten Eddie ‘Animal’ Lopez in Los Angeles and won a split decision in six.
AM: This was a tough fight.
KH: In his thirteenth fight he fought Bernardo Mercado (20-0) who was a contender, from Columbia, South America.
AM: He stopped him in the second round in Madison Square Garden.
KH: In August of 1978 he fought Johnny Boudreaux (21-4-1) in Houston.
AM: Boudreaux was from Houston. It was a tough fight and Tate won a split decision in ten. (Boudreaux would never fight again.)
KH: In February of 1979 he was matched with 1972 Olympian Duane Bobick.
AM: We actually tried to get Leon Spinks. When it didn’t work out we took Bobick. His record was 48-2.
KH: I saw that fight on television. He stopped Bobick in the first round. He had won all of his eighteen fights and was put into a four man elimination match for the vacant WBA title. It was June of 1979.
AM: Tate was matched with Kallie Knoetze (17-2) while Spinks fought Gerrie Coetzee (21-0). Both fighters were from South Africa where the fights were being held.
KH: Coetzee stopped Spinks in the first and Tate stopped Knoetze in eight.
AM: We knew Coetzee was known to have that ‘bionic’ fist. He had an operation on his hand and was knocking people out.
KH: I understand 86,000 attended the Tate-Coetzee match.
AM: It was held in Loftus Versveld Stadium, Pretoria. Tate won a fifteen round decision. The crowd went silent when the decision was announced. We had no problems. We stayed for three days after the fight and the people treated us fine.
KH: Five months later you were defending the title in Knoxville against Mike Weaver (21-9). Why such a tough first opponent?
AM: I didn’t want that fight. We were supposed to fight Ron Lyle but he took a fight with Lynn Ball and got knocked out. I knew Weaver had a real good left hook. We were more or less forced into that fight. Tate was sick for 15 days in the beginning of March. The fight was scheduled for March 31st.
KH: Tate was well ahead on all three scorecards going into the last round.
AM: He got hit low in the fourteenth round and the referee Ernesto Magana already had warned Weaver eight times for low blows. The ref did give Tate a brief chance to recover. I knew Tate was finished with that low blow.
KH: Tate got stopped in the last round with a left hook.
AM: The referee took Tate’s left hand off the back of Weaver’s neck leaving him wide open. Weaver reacted instantly knocking Tate out with forty seconds left.
KH: Why did you come back just three months later to fight Trevor Berbick (14-1-1)? He was exhausted after the Weaver fight.
AM: Tate needed the money and wanted to return to the top too quick. We all made a hasty decision and a wrong one with Berbick.
KH: Tate was back in Montreal where Berbick, though born in Jamaica, was living and had represented Canada in the amateurs.
AM: He was stopped in the ninth round. The doctor said he needed six months to before fighting again. We kept him off for nine months.
KH: I thought I heard the ring announcers say Tate would have to be operated on and holes put into his skull to relieve the pressure, after that fight.
AM: That was Randy Gordon and Sal Marchanio saying that. They didn’t know what they were talking about. Tate did take off for eight months. Tate was very upset with those two and refused to give them an interview later when he was on an ESPN show. They got the producer to go to Tate and he told him in so many words he was not doing any interview with those two people and didn’t.
KH: He won his next ten fights over ordinary opponents covering a thirty month period from 1981 through 1983.
AM: That was my last fight with Tate. He kept hurting his hand canceling fights. It would be almost three years before he fought again in 1986.
KH: Ace, I appreciate you taking the time to talk to me about Tate. Are you working with any other heavyweights now?
AM: I’m working with Alonzo Butler who is 26-0-1. It was my pleasure.
Tate would come back in November of 1987 and win a majority four round decision over Calvin Jones (0-1). His weight was up to 293 compared to the 240 when he won the title.
A first round knockout and a four round decision win and he was off to London against Noel Quarless (16-9) in March of 1988. Tate would lose a ten round decision ending his career.
On April 9, 1998, Tate died of injuries sustained following a one-car automobile accident. It was determined that he suffered a massive stroke, caused by a brain tumor, while driving. The pick-up truck crashed into a utility pole. Two other passengers were not seriously injured. Tate was 43.
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