By Lee Groves
Thirty years ago today, a single left hook from Mike Weaver rewrote history in ways that couldn’t have been fathomed at the time.
It turned Weaver from no-hope challenger to instant champion and separated John Tate not only from his senses but also from potential superfight riches.
The dramatic finish that occurred at 2:15 of the 15th round produced shock waves that continue to ripple throughout boxing history. It serves as a definitive example of how a fighter can rescue himself from a seemingly hopeless situation and achieve the ultimate dream.
On the flip side, it also serves as a cautionary tale for those who think they have a fight in his hip pocket and the sports world by the tail.
That wondrous hook changed the lives of two men in triumphant and tragic ways and the following is a look back at the event that started it all.
On March 31, 1980. boxing was a sport that enjoyed a solid place in the mainstream consciousness. ABC cleared out its entire Monday night schedule to air a championship quadruple-header emanating from three diverse sites.
The two highest profile fights of the night would take place in Landover, Md., where Sugar Ray Leonard made his first WBC welterweight title defense against Dave “Boy” Green and Las Vegas when WBC heavyweight champion Larry Holmes met the unbeaten Leroy Jones.
Leading off the four-plus hour telecast was a startling upset in Knoxville, Tenn., as perennial challenger Eddie Gregory dethroned WBA light heavyweight champion Marvin Johnson with an 11th round TKO.
But most of the 12,769 who crowded into the Stokley Athletics Center on the University of Tennessee campus that evening came to see “Big” John Tate, a native of Arkansas who was now a regional icon.
Following a successful amateur career that was capped by a bronze medal in the 1976 Olympics, Tate continued his roll into the pros as he disposed of Walter Santemore (twice), Eddie “The Animal” Lopez, Bernardo Mercado and Johnny Boudreaux to set up his first crossroads fight against Duane Bobick.
Like Tate, Bobick was a highly decorated amateur star whose Olympic dreams were derailed by Cuban legend Teofilo Stevenson, the only difference being the year (1972 vs. 1976) and the round of the knockout (round three to round one).
Despite his 48 victories (42 inside the distance), Bobick was best known for his 58-second knockout loss to Ken Norton in May 1977. Bobick had won eight straight after Kallie Knoetze stopped him in three rounds a year earlier and his experience was supposed to test Tate’s skill and composure.
What the nationwide audience instead witnessed was a blowout. Tate – usually so methodical that he was nicknamed “The Machine” – jumped on Bobick from the start and hammered him into submission after scoring two knockdowns. The ironic time – 2:15 of round one.
The spectacular showing earned Tate a spot in a four-man WBA tournament in 1979 to determine the successor for the retiring Muhammad Ali. Tate traveled to South Africa and knocked out Knoetze in eight while Gerrie Coetzee scored a stunning first round knockout of ex-champ Leon Spinks in Monte Carlo. Tate then returned to South Africa later in the year and decisioned Coetzee before 86,000 fans to win the belt.
Tate’s first challenger would be Weaver, who became the WBA’s mandatory challenger largely on his stirring but losing challenge to WBC champion Larry Holmes nine months earlier at Madison Square Garden.
Before the Holmes fight, Weaver was best known for an Adonis-like body that belied his weight of 207 ½ lb. He got his first taste of boxing when he served at Camp Lejeune between 1968 and 1971 and he turned pro in September 1972.
Overmatched early in his career, Weaver lost three of his first four fights and after 12 outings his record was a mediocre 6-6. Weaver slowly found his stride by winning eight straight fights but was knocked down a few pegs with back-to-back losses to Stan Ward and Leroy Jones.
Weaver eventually earned the notice of the WBC – and Holmes – by scoring five straight knockouts, including triumphs over Bernardo Mercado and Ward.
Still, the Holmes-Weaver match was so lightly regarded that it landed on a fledgling cable channel called HBO instead of the three broadcast networks. The title of one magazine article previewing the fight perfectly captured the mood of the populace – “Mike Who?”
Weaver ended up showing everyone who he was on June 22, 1979 as he pushed an ailing Holmes toward his physical and emotional limits. Holmes, however, once again demonstrated his giant fighting heart by knocking Weaver down with a vicious uppercut late in the 11th and pounding away at the challenger in the 12th until referee Harold Valan intervened.
If ever a loss enhanced a fighter’s standing, it was Weaver with the Holmes fight and the shot against “The Easton Assassin’s” titular counterpart was his reward. Another potential perk for the Tate-Weaver winner – especially if it was Tate – was a big-money fight with Ali, who decided that permanent retirement wasn’t yet in the cards.
The sudden and surprising end to Gregory-Johnson set the stage for what was to follow, only no one could have known it at the time.
Going in, the conventional wisdom was that the 25-year-old Tate – a perfectly proportioned 6-4, 232-pounder – would use his three-inch height and two-and-a-half inch reach advantages to break down the plodding and phlegmatic challenger over the long haul. Though Tate had scored 16 knockouts in 20 previous wins, he wasn’t regarded as a one-shot artist.
On the other hand, the 21-9 (13 KO) Weaver was armed with knockout drops, especially in his left hook. Unlike Tate, Weaver had major problems in terms of output. He usually started slowly and didn’t speed up much after that but somewhere along the way he managed to slip in a big one or two and turn the tide for good.
With the crowd loudly chanting “Big John Tate,” their hero sprinted out of the gate. He used his bulk to force Weaver backward and his quicker hands to repeatedly bounce punches off the challenger’s face.
A hard right cross-left jab jolted Weaver midway through round two but most of the time Tate kept Weaver at bay with long, stabbing and accurate jabs. Weaver sneaked in an occasional hook, but most of the time he either whiffed or found himself entangled in Tate’s long arms.
The crowd roared in the third as Tate cut loose with combinations whose speed belied his massive size. Tate again tasted Weaver’s vaunted hook, but did little more than blink for a brief moment before resuming his assault.
Tate continued to pound away energetically in the fourth, and ABC’s Keith Jackson marveled at how a man of Tate’s size could maintain such a hard pace.
The blows, though numerous, had no discernable effect on Weaver. The challenger kept plugging away whenever he could and he even managed to open a small cut around Tate’s right eye.
Between rounds four and five Tate’s trainer Ace Miller urged his man to pace himself, and his charge dutifully obeyed by circling and firing long-range punches. That alone was enough to win the round because Weaver could not pull himself out of his offensive rut.
Tate returned to the attack in round six as an early right stunned the laid-back Californian. The defending champion was feeling so confident that he broke out into a modified Walcott shoulder shuffle.
Meanwhile, Weaver was showing little of the nerve and verve that powered his challenge against Holmes but he was getting in his fair share of jabs. Those did little to counteract Tate’s steady work, and midway through the seventh Tate amplified his growing points lead by pummeling Weaver along the ropes. The punches didn’t hurt Weaver in the classic sense but they did hurt his cause in a big way.
Weaver had to know he was trailing badly on the scorecards but the attitude he projected suggested he wasn’t overly concerned. A right uppercut jolted Weaver’s head in the eighth and Tate’s precise relentlessness carried the ninth as the crowd revved another chorus of “Big John Tate” chants.
Jackson reported in the 10th that Weaver’s corner was growing more frustrated with their man’s effort.
“You’re fighting for the heavyweight championship if the world and you’re not throwing any punches,” Jackson quoted the corner as saying. “You’ve got no chance to win the fight if you don’t go out and throw some punches.”
But it was Tate who was throwing the punches in the 10th. He pushed Weaver toward the ropes and belabored him with a two-fisted assault that brought back little response. Tate was doing whatever he pleased and Weaver did little to stop him from doing so.
“As you can see, Weaver didn’t go there to fight, he just went there to try to survive,” Holmes told Howard Cosell from his dressing room between rounds 10 and 11. “I think the people viewing this know who the real champion is. Larry Holmes is the world’s champion, the baddest guy in the whole world. And when I destroy Leroy Jones tonight they won’t have anything to say. I’m a fighting champ and I’ll destroy all of them. Tate does not impress me.”
He impressed everyone else with his array of skills, if not his punching power. Tate dominated the 11th with more long-range boxing and between rounds Weaver’s corner again implored their man to throw more punches. They - along with many other observers - couldn’t fathom how a fighter competing for a piece of boxing’s greatest prize could appear so listless and devoid of passion.
Weaver finally broke through the wall of Tate’s dominance in the 12th. Moments after Tate landed a short right to the chin a minute into the round, Weaver connected with an arcing hook that sent Tate reeling into the ropes. With the crowd suddenly jolted from their complacency it took Tate several long seconds to slap on a saving clinch.
Weaver swung for the fences and missed wildly as Tate propped himself on the ropes, grabbing at every opportunity in order to clear his buzzing head. The crowd’s chants now had a imploring, nervous tone and between rounds Miller tried to prick Tate’s pride by ordering him to “act like a G** ***n champion.”
Curiously, Weaver allowed Tate to escape in the 13th by refusing to press his advantage. He simply followed the backpedaling champion around the ring and enabled Tate to re-establish his equilibrium.
As if his mathematical hole wasn’t deep enough, Weaver applied another shovelful in the 14th by losing a point for a low blow. Still, Weaver had one of his better rounds as he wobbled Tate with a hook in the final 23 seconds that had the champion sagging into the ropes.
Going into the last round, Weaver trailed 138-133, 137-134 and 136-133. The deeply religious Weaver silently recited the 23rd Psalm as he sat in his corner for the last time, for he knew that only a miracle could spare him the 10th – and perhaps most disappointing – loss of his pro career.
His corner, however, added another source of motivation, this much closer to home: “Your mama’s watching. Let’s go to work.”
Tate knew all he had to do was stay upright to retain his title. The combination of his heavy work rate and Weaver’s late-round damage had taken a toll on his stamina and he spent the first portion of the round clutching and grabbing whenever he got the chance. But for the first time in the fight, Weaver showed genuine urgency as well as a sustained attack.
With less than a minute to go, Weaver bulled the bigger but wearier man toward the ropes near the champion’s corner. Tate tried to shoulder Weaver away, but was met with a return shove that caused him to bounce into the strands.
It was here that Weaver was about to earn his spot in heavyweight championship lore.
Weaver made the most of the ropes’ boomerang effect as he first dug a right to the pit of Tate’s stomach, then uncorked a gorgeous short left hook that exploded off the side of the champion’s face.
Upon impact Tate’s body was transported to a semi-conscious purgatory as his torso swayed to the left and his arms awkwardly splayed sideward.
Weaver finished the job with a final head snapping right to Tate’s dangerously exposed chin. Tate’s magnificently sculpted 232-pound body pitched forward and slammed the ground like a leaden log and showed just as much life as referee Magana tolled his superfluous count.
“Tate goes down on his face!” Jackson shouted. “Weaver hit him with a left hook and Tate’s down! He’s just beginning to move… the fight is over! Weaver’s knocked him out in the 15th round!”
The shock and amazement at this turn of events jolted the collective consciousness; what had looked to be a routine title-retaining decision victory for Tate had suddenly turned into an ending for the history books.
For Weaver, this incredible turnabout would be a touchstone moment and his ticket to boxing immortality. Unfortunately for the man nicknamed “Hercules,” his reign was marked by a pair of one-year layoffs triggered by outside-the-ring machinations that culminated in a highly controversial 63-second stoppage loss to Michael Dokes.
Despite all the messiness that followed, the purity of Weaver’s title-winning triumph remains untouched. He fought on for 20 more years, challenging twice more for the title before retiring at age 49 following a sixth round TKO to a 51-year-old Holmes.
For Tate, the Weaver loss triggered a long and precipitous fall from grace. He became a punch line for comedians and commentators alike, especially after Tate suffered a second consecutive KO loss to the unheralded Trevor Berbick less than three months later.
One particularly low point came in the May 1981 issue of Ring when an infamous poll not only named Tate the “worst” heavyweight champion of all time, his photo graced the cover. To be fair, the photo was used to tout George Vecsey’s feature story entitled “What ever happened to Big John Tate?” but wound up serving a dual purpose.
Tate built up a 10-fight win streak between February 1981 and August 1983 but he never again got close to challenging for a title. He retired for three years before staging a five-fight comeback from April 1986 to March 1988, but because he fought as high as 293 pounds it didn’t serve much purpose. A 10 round loss to Noel Quarless ended Tate’s career for good.
A 43-year-old Tate died from injuries sustained in a one-car accident in April 1988 that saw him suffer a stroke while driving and crash into a utility pole. His demise sparked a series of rhetorical questions because the start of his downfall was so easily ascertained.
What would Tate’s life have been like had he made it to the final bell against Weaver? Would he have fought Ali? Would Ali, in turn, have been spared from the beating he would suffer against Holmes had he lost to Tate? Or would Ali have suffered the same fate in a unification fight with Holmes had he beaten Tate?
If Tate beat Ali, what impact would that have had on his confidence, his standard of living or how he is perceived in history? Would he still be alive today?
There are similar “what-if” scenarios for Weaver.
Would a lopsided loss to Tate have prevented Weaver from getting a third title opportunity? Would he have been willing to take the long road back to another title shot and would he have emerged unscathed? How would Weaver be remembered had he lost a lopsided decision – or would he even be remembered at all?
The fates of boxing are cruel and kind at the same time and the events of March 31, 1980 show just how true that is.