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COMMISSIONER’S CORNER: Tell Dillian Whyte About Big John Tate

Randy Gordon

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It was March 31, 1980. I was ringside at the Stokely Events Center in Knoxville, Tennessee, covering the WBA light heavyweight championship of the world, followed by the WBA heavyweight championship of the world. 

I was there in my capacity as Editor of The Ring Magazine. Sitting next to me at ringside was Ring’s publisher, Bert Randolph Sugar.

An hour earlier, Marvin Johnson had lost his WBA light heavyweight title to Eddie Gregory, who, moments after winning the title, became Eddie Mustafa Muhammad.  

Now, 14 rounds had been contested between the undefeated WBA heavyweight champion John Tate and the powerful top contender, Mike “Hercules” Weaver.

The bell for Round 15 was moments away.  WBA heavyweight Champion Tate, 20-0, was three minutes away from making his first successful title defense.  A win here would most likely move Tate into a title defense against Muhammad Ali in the summer.

“How do you have it scored,” Sugar asked me.

“Tate, big!” I replied.  “I’ve got it 135-131 for Tate. Weaver needs a knockout to win.”

John Tate had things in order, until Mike Weaver dropped an anvil on his head late, on March 31, 1980.

As Round 15 started, the capacity crowd of slightly under 13,000 roared its approval and appreciation of their own, known to the locals as “Big John.”

Tate responded to their cheers, abandoning the brilliant boxing which had built him the lead he took into the 15th and final round. Although he had slowed from the fast-pace of the fight and from many of the thunderous body shots he had gotten tagged with, Tate went for the knockout. His power looked gone, and so did his hand speed.

“What is he doing?” Sugar said aloud. I wondered the same thing.  

As the clock moved to the bout’s final 60 seconds, Tate backed to the ropes. Weaver saw the opening he had been looking for. He pulled the trigger on a powerful left hook.  It exploded off the right side of Tate’s jaw.  He crashed face down on the canvas, spread-eagle, unconscious, as referee Ernesto Magana counted “10” over his undefeated record, over his short title reign—and most likely, over his career.

Because of a friendship with Tate’s manager/trainer, Jerry “Ace” Miller, I was the lone member of the media allowed into Tate’s dressing room following the fight.  The room, which had around 15 people in there, was silent.  The only sound which could be heard was the sobs of Tate, who sat on a bridge chair in the corner of the room, his big hands covering his face.

I looked at Miller. He, too, was crying. I put an arm across his shoulders.

He wasn’t crying because of the loss. He was crying because of the question he had just been asked by Tate.

“After we walked into the dressing room,” Miller said to me, “Tate asked me, ‘Did I win, Ace? What happened out there? Did I win?  Why is everyone so quiet in here. What happened?’ I told him he was knocked out. He didn’t remember a thing. He sat down and started to cry. My heart is breaking for him.”

Then, Miller, who loved Tate like a son, said to me, “I am going to bring him back fast.  I will put him right back in against a contender.  He was winning the fight.  One lucky shot got him. Weaver got lucky tonight and he knows it.  I am going to bring John back and he’s going to become the third man, after Floyd Patterson and Muhammad Ali (up until then) to regain the heavyweight title.”

Little did he realize how far off he was!

                                                                                            ***

Late last year, before the clock ushered in the “Year of the Pandemic,” Matchroom Boxing announced a terrific heavyweight bout.  Finally, there would be a meaningful heavyweight fight that didn’t involve Anthony Joshua, Tyson Fury or Deontay Wilder.  The announced match was between former Olympic and pro champion, Alexander Povetkin, and perennial contender Dillian Whyte.

The fight was supposed to take place in the spring.  However, with the pandemic in its early stages, the fight was rescheduled for two months later.  A continuation of the pandemic moved the bout to August 22, on the grounds of the Matchroom Estate in Essex, England.  This time, the fight took place.

The 32-year-old Whyte brought a 27-1 (18 KOs) record into the fight. His only loss had come in December 2015, when he was stopped in the seventh round by Anthony Joshua. Povetkin, 11 days shy of his 41st birthday, came in with a record of 35-2-1, including 25 knockouts. His two losses had come against Anthony Joshua by seventh-round stoppage (2018) and by unanimous decision to Wladimir Klitschko (2013). The draw on his record came in an uninspired effort against Michael Hunter (2019).

Going into the fight, Povetkin was 1-1-1 in his last three fights. A 12-round unanimous decision victory over Hughie Fury sandwiched the loss to Joshua and the draw to Hunter. For Povetkin, this would most likely have been his final big fight had he lost.

Whyte was the favorite. He was also the mandatory challenger to the WBC title. He was guaranteed a shot in 2021 against the winner of December’s planned Tyson Fury-Deontay Wilder fight.

For three rounds, the fight was competitive, with both men giving and taking.  Whyte, however, looked to be well on his way to victory.  

In the fourth round, Whyte all-but-secured himself a title shot as he dropped Povetkin twice. Both times were with lefts. The first came early in the round, while the second knockdown came with just 20 seconds remaining.  Povetkin arose immediately on both occasions. After a mandatory eight-count following the second knockdown, referee Mark Lyson waved both fighters together. After Whyte missed with a right and a follow-up left hook, the bell rang. There was no time for Whyte to apply the coup de grace.  

Not having the time to finish Povetkin in the fourth round was no big deal, Whyte figured. He’d finish Povetkin in the fifth. But this is boxing. It just takes one punch. One punch is all Povetkin needed.

After Whyte fell short with a few jabs, then missed with a right, he walked right into Povetkin’s wheelhouse—in firing range. He was probably thinking, “I’ll get Povetkin out of here this round, and then my next fight will be for the world title.”

Whatever he was thinking, it certainly wasn’t about the bomb of a left uppercut he was about to be hit with. He fell backward, unconscious from the moment he was hit.  He crashed to the floor, backwards.  As he fell, the back of his head struck the bottom strand of ropes. His 6’3” body came to rest on its back, exactly opposite of John Tate, who wound up face down.   

From his neck up, Whyte was under the ropes, unconscious on the ring apron. The rest of his body remained on the floor, motionless.  

Referee Lyson immediately rushed to him, pushed Povetkin away and waved the fight off. With the quick aid of an official wearing both a mask and a protective plastic shield, Whyte was turned onto his left side. The ring then filled with personnel, though it’s unclear who they represented. Were they members of the British Boxing Board of Control (BBBofC)?  Were they from Whyte’s camp? Were they ringside physicians? Were they paramedics?

Whoever they were, they did the wrong thing in the handling of Whyte.  

First, they sat him up, and he slumped, like a giant rag doll, against the ropes. Within 30 seconds after being KTFO’d, Whyte was assisted to his feet and seated on a stool. That was the wrong thing to do.  A KO’d fighter should remain on the floor as his vital signs are checked:  His pulse.  His breathing.  His heart rate. 

Then, medics look into his eyes with an ophthalmoscope to check for signs of a possible concussion.  Then, after these tests, when medics have done all their preliminary tests—and only then—will the fighter be assisted to a seated position.

Following that, should the fighter not be showing signs of dizziness, he will be assisted onto a stool. Doctors may then begin performing other tests on the fighter. They’ll ask him questions, such as his name and does he know where he’s at. Then they’ll check his eyes again.

“Follow the light,” or “follow my finger,” they’ll instruct him.  After they are satisfied, and only after they are satisfied, will they allow him to stand up. With assistance. 

When a fighter is knocked out, as Whyte was, there is no reason to lift them to his feet. Let him regain the senses from. They are on the canvas for a reason, the reason being that they were just separated from those senses.

Commish thinks it’d be better if Whyte rested more, after being knocked out so viciously by Povetkin, rather than going into a quick rematch. (Photo by Mark Robinson for Matchroom)

After being wrongly sat on a stool, a crowd of officials stood around Whyte.  Thirty seconds after being knocked unconscious, he was sat on a stool. One minute after sitting on the stool, he was helped to his feet.  Have you ever seen a drunk staggering down the street, or merely leaning against a wall? That’s what Whyte looked like when he was assisted to his feet.  

A doctor/friend of mine, who was watching the fight on DAZN, called me up at that moment.

“Commish, are you watching DAZN?” he asked.

“I am,” I replied.

“What in the world are they doing?  Why have they allowed Whyte to stand up so fast?” the doctor inquired.  “Do they have any idea what they are doing over there?”

Good question.

The very next day, it was announced that Whyte had a rematch clause with Povetkin. It was a rematch clause he wanted to put into effect.

                                                                                          ***

At the end of April, 1980, less than one month after he’d been knocked unconscious with a devastating left hook, John Tate was back in the gym, training. Sparring.  Six days a week. Sometimes, there were two-a-day workouts.  Ace Miller was on the phone with promoters constantly, looking to arrange Tate’s comeback fight.  

“I promised John we’d get him back fast, and I intended to keep that promise,” Miller once told me.  “John pleaded with me to make it happen. I had to. I just had to. He was devastated by the knockout loss to Weaver, and wanted to redeem himself against a contender. And it had to be right away. I just had to make a big fight for John happen.”

And he did.

Eighty-one days after being KTFO’d by Mike Weaver, Ace Miller delivered on the promise he made to his fighter about bringing him back quickly…about getting him a big fight…on a major fight card.

There was no more major card than the one that took place June 20, 1980, when Sugar Ray Leonard defended his welterweight title against Roberto Duran.  It took place in Montreal’s Olympic Stadium.   

The co-featured fight that night was a heavyweight bout. One of the participants was 25-year-old Jamaican Trevor Berbick, who took a 14-1-1 record into the fight.  In the opposite corner was “Big” John Tate. No longer a champion and no longer undefeated, that “1” on the right side of his record stood out larger than the “20” on the left side.

“This is the first step on our way back to the title,” Ace Miller told me in the dressing room an hour before the fight.  As he talked, Tate, his hands taped and already in his boxing attire of white trunks with red trim and matching, high top boxing shoes, glided around the locker room shadow-boxing.  At the weigh-in that morning, he had scaled 232½ pounds, just one-half pound more than he weighed 81 days earlier against Mike Weaver.  It would be the lightest he would ever weigh again.  

Although the early rounds were competitive, the faster, more-accurate Berbick was too much for Tate as the scheduled 10-rounder wore on. It was obvious that Tate’s weight—along with the heat and intense humidity (a downpour had ended shortly before the start of this fight)—had sapped Tate of all his energy.  

When he returned to his corner after the eighth round, he looked finished.  His facial expression and his overall body language showed he had nothing left.

“Hold him!” Ace Miller implored as the bell was ringing to start the ninth round.  He knew there was nothing left in his fighter’s big body. Miller and Tate both knew it. Trevor Berbick knew it, too.

At the bell, he went right after Tate.  A sharp right to the head hurt Tate, whose back was to the ropes. Tate cringed. And winced. His body listed—like a sinking ship—to the right. Summoning his last bit of energy, Tate ran away from Berbick. Berbick ran after him like two big kids playing a game of “tag.”

“What in the world is Tate doing?” Bert Sugar shouted.

“Trying to survive!” I thought.

With Tate in “flight mode,” Berbick ran after him to finish it.  He didn’t need to land any punches. From the right hand he had taken moments earlier, to the exhaustive pace of the fight in the heat and humidity, Tate was already finished.  

(Editor note: The round started late, too. For whatever reason, an extra 16 or more seconds elapsed during the break period, but the extra time didn’t help Tate find a hidden source of energy.)

In a scene eerily reminiscent to the scene of 81 days earlier, Tate collapsed—face down—close to the ropes on the opposite side of the ring from where he had just taken Berbick’s right. He remained motionless as the referee counted him out.

As I did on March 31, I went to Tate’s dressing room.  Tate looked quite sad. But crying uncontrollably? No.

However, Miller was a different story.  Last time he cried after being asked, “Did I win?” by Tate in the dressing room. This time, it was Miller who was overcome by emotion.  He sat at the foot of his locker and cried.  I walked over to him and placed a hand on his shoulder.  I didn’t say anything.  I didn’t have to. What could I say? I just wanted him to know I was there. He reached over and placed a hand on top of mine. He then leaned forward, covered his face with his hands and he cried. It was a loud, painful cry.

Tate felt his manager’s pain. We all did.  It was perhaps the most emotional scene I have ever witnessed in a fighter’s locker room.

I walked over to Tate. He was still sitting by himself, chin down, staring at the floor.

“I’m sorry, John,” I said.  He nodded slowly, looked at me and forced a smile.  

“I’ll be back,” he said. “It ain’t over.”

He didn’t want it to be over. But deep inside, he knew it was.

                                                                                            ***

Five months later, I called Ace Miller to say “Happy Thanksgiving” and find out how things were with Big John.

“He just came back to the gym,” said Miller.  “First time since the Berbick fight.  He wanted to come back sooner, but I told him to rest, that his body had been through a lot.  I should have told him to rest after the Weaver fight.  But he wanted to come right back.  I should not have listened to him.”

Then he added, “He’s got work to do.  He’s almost 300 pounds.  I won’t let him fight anywehere near that weight.  We’ll take a few months to work off the weight, then bring him back.”

He was quick to add, “Slowly, this time.”

Tate’s return came three months later, at the Civic Coliseum in Knoxville.  In front of him was light-hitting opponent Harvey Steichen, who brought a 14-9 record into the fight, with eight knockouts. All of those knockouts came against opponents with losing records.  Steichen was as safe as an opponent could be.

Weighing a career-heavy 242½ pounds, Tate won a 10-round unanimous decision.  He looked slow.  He looked tentative.  His timing was off.  It was something else, however, which concerned Miller.

“John was gunshy,” Miller told me the day after the fight.  “He has never been gunshy.  He flinched and pulled away every time Steichen moved his hands.  Maybe he needs more work in the gym, some more sparring, some more fights.  He’s young.  He’s only 26. I want Big John back again, the way he was before the Weaver fight.”

That Big John never appeared again, no matter what Ace Miller did.

Tate had three more fights in 1981, and won them each one by knockout, two of them in the first round.  But those were against men with limited skills.

Tate fought three more times in 1982 and three more times in 1983.  Although he won all of the bouts, his heart wasn’t there.  It didn’t surprise Miller when, after his final victory of 1983—a second-round stoppage of rock-jawed Marty Capasso—that Tate told Miller, my heart isn’t in boxing any longer.  

“I need time away from boxing,” he said.

Tate took off the time he needed.  He’d occasionally hang around the gym, but it was just to talk to Miller and the young fighters who worked out in Miller’s gym, and nothing else.  His weight ballooned to over 300 pounds.  

In early 1986, Tate called Miller and said he wanted to come back.  Miller was ecstatic.  Yes, Tate was heavy, but he was only 31. Miller still believed he could get Big John back into world-class status again.

In April 1986, Tate faced 10-1-1 Steve Eisenbarth.  Although he weighed a career-heavy 274 pounds, Tate caught Eisenbarth in the opening moments of the fight, and knocked him out in the first round.

While the fight was quick and apparently easy for Tate, he told Miller afterwards, “I just wasn’t feeling it in there,” and took off the rest of the year.  There were months at a time when Tate stayed away from the gym.  Miller didn’t push him. He realized that what is lost, is lost forever, and cannot be gotten back—especially in boxing.

When Tate returned to the gym in the summer of 1987, he was heavier than ever.

“He might have been close to 400 pounds,” Miller told me. But he also said, “I owe it to him to give him everything I have in that gym, and to protect him as best as I can.”

Miller brought Tate back in November 1987 against Calvin Jones, a debuting 25-year-old.  The bout was a four-rounder, a beginning for Jones and a restart for Tate. Weighing 293 pounds, Tate looked slow and plodding as he won a majority decision  .

Tate fought again in December and again in January, winning both fights.  Both opponents had losing records and provided little opposition to the 300-pound former heavyweight champion.

Incredibly, Tate’s victory in January against the 4-18-1 Wes Smith upped his record—since coming back after the loss to Berbick eight years earlier—to 14-0.  Yet, those closest to Tate knew Tate’s career ended, not against Berbick, but against Mike Weaver.

On March 30, 1988, one day shy of the eighth anniversary of his loss to Weaver, Tate traveled to London to face Liverpool’s 16-9 Noel Quarless. After 10 lethargic rounds, Quarless won a decision.

Both Tate and Miller cried in the dressing room. They knew then, what they really knew eight years earlier against Mike Weaver: That on that fateful night in Knoxville, the career of John Tate (click here for final record) really ended. His comeback, 81 days later, was only icing on the finish.

                                                                                                  ***

Within a day after the fight, Dillian Whyte announced that he and Alexander Povetkin has signed a rematch clause.  Whyte said he would hold Povetkin to the contract.  He said he wanted the rematch to happen as soon as possible. Matchroom Boxing’s Eddie Hearn then announced the rematch date:  November 21.

What???

That’s 91 days after being KTFO’d.  Ninety-one days after being blasted into unconsciousness. Ninety-one days after being separated from his senses.

In most of the stronger-regulated U.S. jurisdictions, knockouts, such as the one suffered by Whyte, are met with 120-day medical suspensions.  Those suspensions say “Medically suspended, no contact, 120 days. Must be medically cleared before resuming contact.” Those suspensions make it quite clear about what the fighter can—and cannot—do.  In the case of Dillian Whyte, he will be back in the ring 91 days after being KTFO’d.

While 91 days is way too fast to return to the ring in competition, keep in mind the Povetkin-Whyte bout did not end on a referee’s blunder, on a highly-premature stoppage.  Whyte wasn’t dropped and jumped right up, only to have the referee wave the fight over.  The left uppercut which landed flush on his chin sent him to another solar system!

Do you think Whyte, in order to protect his brain, will be skipping sparring for this fight?  Is he only doing roadwork, mitt work and calisthenics?  Of course not!  To be ready for Povetkin on November 21, he needs sparring—a lot of sparring!

I am not the only one who feels this way.

“To put it (the rematch) on in November is crazy, said Hall-of-Fame promoter Frank Warren.  “They (the promoters of the rematch) should be caring about Whyte’s health, not about an immediate rematch.”

Heavyweight contender Michael Hunter also believes November rematch is too short a time period since Whyte’s devastating knockout loss.

“In this sport, we’ve got to let wounds heal,” said Hunter.  “There will always be a lingering doubt because he got knocked out.”

The fact is, this is more titles and money than it is about health.

Back on Sunday, September 4, 1989, Mike Tyson was heavyweight champion of the world.  He was scheduled to defend his title against Frank Bruno in England on October 22.  At 11:20 a.m. on that September morning, Tyson was pulling away from the home of his adopted mom, Camille Ewald in Catskill, N.Y., where Tyson was training for the Bruno fight.  At the end of the driveway, his BMW skidded on wet pavement, struck a tree and careened into a patch of shrubs. Tyson was knocked unconscious. An ambulance took him to Manhattan’s Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center, where he underwent a battery of MRI’s and CT scans.

Tyson explained the crash in his book “Undisputed Truth.”

Promoter Don King was asked if the Tyson-Bruno fight was still on.

“Of course it is,” said King. “Mike will be fine. The fight is still going to happen.”

That is, until I, as Chairman of the New York State Athletic Commission, chimed in.

“The fight should be postponed,” I said, when asked by a New York Times reporter if I thought the fight should still take place. 

“Why? Tyson wasn’t knocked out in a fight or in a sparring session,” questioned the reporter.

“It’s simple,” I replied. “Tyson was knocked out. A knockout is a knockout is a knockout, whether it’s by a steering wheel, the impact of a crash or by a boxing glove!”

The BBBofC heard me. They agreed. They refused to allow the fight to go on as scheduled.

To say the least, Don King was not very happy with me.

Boxing is a rough business, and an even rougher sport. Fighters can die in the ring. Fighters have died in the ring.

One fight, one punch, can ruin a fighter.

Big John Tate found that out the hard way.

It’s not too late to learn from our mistakes.

 

–Randy Gordon is the former head of the NY State Athletic Commission. He currently hosts a boxing show on SiriusXM, with Gerry Cooney. For more stories from the Commish, click here, to purchase his book, “Glove Affair: My Life-Long Journey in the World of Professional Boxing.”

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