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Knoxville's Forgotten Champion: Big John Tate

Knoxville is a city built on sports from the Vols to Olympians to Hall-of-Famers. One world champion, however, has been lost to time. This is his story.

William Winnett, Elizabeth Sims

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Published: 12:57 PM EST February 17, 2022
Updated: 11:55 AM EST February 23, 2022

“In this corner, from Knoxville, Tennessee, Big John Tate!”

On October 20, 1979, in front of a nearly all-white crowd of over 80,000 in segregated Pretoria, South Africa, a 24-year-old Black man from Knoxville named John Tate found himself in a boxing ring preparing to battle for the Heavyweight Championship of the World. The same title that was recently vacated by the greatest of all time, Muhammad Ali. 

His opponent: undefeated South African hometown hero, Gerrie Coetzee. 

Tate was a long way from his home in East Tennessee, and an even longer time removed from the cotton fields of Arkansas where, as a teenager, he labored under a system built on oppression.