The perfect finish: Mike Weaver-John Tate 40 years on
It’s 40 years since Mike Weaver produced a spectacular last-gasp 15th-round knockout over John Tate to claim the WBA heavyweight title.
In October 1979, Tate had traveled to South Africa and outpointed previously unbeaten Gerrie Coetzee over 15 rounds to win the title that had been vacated by Muhammad Ali a few months earlier.
Weaver, who was an imposing physical specimen, had won two fights since gaining deserved acclaim for giving WBC titleholder Larry Holmes a much tougher time than expected in a 12th-round stoppage loss.
For his second opportunity, the challenger was as ready as he ever could be. The Tate bout took place on March 31, 1980 in Knoxville, Tennessee.
“I trained six to eight weeks,” Weaver told The Ring. “I trained with four or five different sparring partners. All my sparring partners were about 6-foot-4, 6-foot-5. Training camp was in Beaumont, California, in the mountains, and a month before the fight I went to Las Vegas.
Although Weaver respected Tate, he wasn’t overly impressed by his opponent, who was installed as a 2-1 favorite.
“I thought he was a good fighter, but I always thought I could beat him,” Weaver said. “I told everybody I would beat Tate. He impressed me but not that much. I didn’t see anything that made me think he could beat me.”
Weaver arrived in Knoxville and kept himself to himself during the buildup.
“I am pretty sure I was public enemy No. 1, but they respected me and there was no bad treatment.” he recalled.
At the weigh in a fully clothed Weaver scaled 207½-pounds, while the reigning titleholder – and naturally bigger man – came in at a svelte 232.
“I was glad I was getting the opportunity to fight for the championship and I did what I had to do,” Weaver explained. “I was used to fighting bigger guys.”
Weaver entered the Stokley Athletics Center, where a sizable crowd of 12,769 had gathered to cheer for Tate. The fighter known as “Hercules” had a team of eight people.
“The crowd was there for him,” acknowledged Weaver. “No one was booing me, I kept to myself and kept thinking, ‘I may not get another opportunity to fight for the championship.’ He got a good reception, [they were chanting] ‘Big’ John Tate.”
As the fight began, Tate thrilled his fans by getting off to the better start.
“He was strong, very agile and he moved pretty good,” admitted Weaver. “He was outboxing me and out maneuvering me. I was tight, my manager and trainer were yelling, ‘Throw more punches.’”
As the rounds passed the 1976 Olympian was building a sizable lead on the scorecards, but to Weaver’s credit, he continued to chip away and by the championship rounds Tate was feeling the effects.
“Those bodyshots took their toll on him,” said Weaver. “I heard him groan from bodyshots. I was hurting him with shots.
“I hurt him with a left hook in the 12 round, but I couldn’t connect with any more [punches].”
Going into the 15th and final round, Tate only had to stay on his feet to retain the title.
“I knew I was behind on the scorecards. My manager told me, ‘The only way you’re winning this fight is knocking him out.’
“He was tired, more tired than I was. By the 15th round he was breathing heavy. Everybody said ‘keep moving’ but he couldn’t.”
With a minute remaining on the clock the challenger struck.
“I remember throwing a right to the body, he dropped his right hand and I threw a short left hook,” said Weaver of the knockout blow. “That was the best punch of my career. I saw an opportunity and that was it.
“I went to the corner and I was counting with the referee: 1, 2, 3 and when he got to 10 I hopped up and fell back and stayed on the mat. It was a dream come true.”
Tate, out cold, was counted out by Ernesto Magana at 2:15 of the 15th round.
The winner left the ring and went back to his dressing room where he enjoyed the moment with his team.
“I went back and saw my mother; she was a church lady, my pastor and we prayed and thanked the lord for the victory,” Weaver said. “I came home the next day and that’s when it all began. I went to Las Vegas and my assistant had set up a party. Everybody was celebrating with me.”
Tate had, according to Weaver, signed a contract to face Ali next. Talks turned to the new titleholder but, ultimately, Ali went in another direction, facing Holmes in October 1980.
Weaver made two defenses before losing the title in a highly contentious stoppage loss to Mike Dokes. A direct rematch ended in a draw. He fought on, facing the likes of Trevor Berbick, Pinklon Thomas, Bonecrusher Smith and Lennox Lewis in a storied career.
Tate was in and out of trouble after boxing and tragically passed away at the age of 43 following a car accident. The autopsy revealed that he’d succumbed to a stroke caused by a brain tumor. The former titleholder had suffered a seizure and blacked out at the wheel.
Questions and/or comments can be sent to Anson at [email protected] and you can follow him on Twitter @AnsonWainwright