Sometimes in a boxer’s career there comes a pivotal fight, one that turns his fortunes for the good and sends him to bigger and better things, as was the case when Irish Micky Ward’s suddenly and unexpectedly knocked out heavily favored Alfonso Sanchez with a deadly left hook to the body in 1997on HBO. And more recently, Edison Miranda’s stunning TKO of Howard Eastman which catapulted him from prospect to world title contender. But there are two edges to this knife and one cuts more deeply than the other. The following is about the later, about four fights in which the boxer’s career took a sharp detour the nature of which never led him back to the main road.
“BIG JOHN” TATE captured a bronze medal at the 1976 Montreal Olympic Games, and would go on to capture the WBA title in 1979 by defeating Gerrie Coetzee by decision in an impressive showing. Five months later, on on March 31, 1980, Big John defended his crown against Mike “Hercules” Weaver. Tate was well ahead on all cards going into the last ad 15th round and the crowd was chanting, “Big John Tate, Big John Tate, Big John Tate.” There was no way he could lose in front of his home town crowd. Then, out of nowhere, Weaver suddenly unloaded and landed a devastating hook to Tate’s chin that left him unconscious and prone for several minutes. The crowd was shocked into silence. And so was I.
Big John attempted a comeback on June 20, 1980 against an up and coming Trevor Berbick. This was on the undercard of the legendary fight between Sugar Ray Leonard and Roberto Duran. However, he was easily defeated by the muscular Berbick who chased him around the ring in bizarre fashion. For the second time in a row, he was knocked unconscious by a clubbing blow that caught him on the back of the head as he was running away from Berbick. He lay prone with his leg twitching, another indelible, albeit surreal, boxing memory. Later Big John would be ridiculed in his hometown. Although he fought until 1988 winning 14 in a row before losing his last fight in 1988, he was never again taken seriously as a challenger.
Tragically, on April 9.1998, he died of injuries sustained in a one-car automobile accident. At the time, his nickname among his hometown friends in Tennessee was “Ordinary.” The man who had once been the WBA heavyweight champion and had made millions was broke when he died at the age of 43.
SUGAR RAY SEALES, the only American fighter to win a gold medal in the 1972 Olympics, was a contender for the Middleweight title during the late 70’s and early 80’s. He won his first 22 fights before losing to Marvin Hagler on points in 1974. He then put together an unbeaten streak of six fights including a highly respectful draw with the tough Hagler. In December 1976 in England, he fought Alan Minter, a tough Brit who had garnered notable and credible victories over name opponents, in a fight that many thought would propel Sugar Ray to a title shot, but it was not to be. He was TKO’ d in the fifth by the determined and tenacious Englishman who caught Seales in a furious exchange and prevailed. More to the point, Seales would never again fight at the same level of competence and was destroyed by Hagler in one round in their fight in 1979, being dropped 3 times. In a 1980 fight with Jaime Thomas, he was thumbed in the eye, tearing his retina, and he gradually went blind even while continuing to fight. Seales retired in 1983.
Perhaps the best way to describe Sugar Ray’s detour is to describe his trilogy with the great Hagler thusly: Sugar Ray Seales won his first 21 fights until losing a close decision to Marvin Hagler in Boston in 1974. Later that same year, held Hagler to a draw that could have gone either way. Seales ten fought and lost to Minter in 1976. Hagler then scored a savage first-round kayo in their rubber match…..in 1979.
One account has Seales currently working with autistic students at Lincoln High School in Tacoma. I hope it’s true.
IRISH JERRY COONEY, as an amateur, won several international tournaments as well as the New York Golden Gloves title. His amateur record was a fine one consisting of 55 wins and only 3 losses when he turned professional. Best known for his devastating left hook to the body, he quickly ran up a string of ko wins before handily beating title challengers Jimmy Young and Ron Lyle, both by ko. By this time, he was ranked number one in the WBC and was a serious challenger to Larry Holmes’ crown.
Then in 1981, he annihilated former world heavyweight champion Ken Norton by frightening knockout 54 seconds into the first round at Madison Square Garden and in front of an HBO audience. A year later, his life took a positive turn, at least financially speaking, when The Easton Assassin agreed to fight him. Cooney would get a purse of ten million dollars as the challenger, making it the richest fight in boxing history up to that time. Unfortunately the promotion of the fight took on racial overtones which, to Cooney’s credit, he tried to distance himself from. If Cooney won, he would be the first white world heavyweight champion in 23 years. Predictably, promoter Don King, always the cunning choreographer, played this up by calling him “The Great White Hope,” and the fight drew huge attention throughout the world. In fact, it was one of the biggest closed-circuit/pay-per-view productions in history, broadcast to over 150 countries.
Thusly packaged by King, Cooney finally stepped into the ring against Holmes on June 11, 1982 and lost a competitive and highly entertaining fight in which Cooney fought bravely and did nothing to disgrace himself. He lost by a technical knockout in the 13th when his handlers threw in the towel. But this would prove to be his “big detour,” for he would never be the same after this fight and his post-Holmes career would be unimpressive.
He took a year off, intending to return in late 1983, but a cut in sparring forced him to lay off for another year. In September of 1984 he finally stepped into the ring beating mediocre Phillip Brown by a knockout in 4 rounds. He fought one more time and won, but personal problems again took him away from the ring. He fought poor competition until he was ko’ d by by Michael Spinks in 1987. Despite being significantly younger than George Foreman, he was taken out in devastating fashion in 1990 ending what could have been an interesting, if not promising career had he not taken a detour from which he would never recover.
Cooney has since started the FIST Foundation, an organization which has helped retired boxers of all races find jobs. On a positive note, Jerry and Holmes have become close friends and Holmes has even helped with Cooney’s organization.
EARL HARGROVE fought Australian (by way of Uganda) John ‘The Beast” Mugabi on March 17, 1965 in Tampa. Hargrove, out of Philadelphia, came into the fight with a stellar 26 and 1 record….his first 24 fights being won by way of stoppage. Mugabi’s record was even more impressive. Right out of the professional gate, the unbeaten Beast entered the fight with 24 straight, often spectacular ko’s and had built a big reputation as a devastating puncher. This promised to be a battle between two bangers and someone was sure to go early. Maybe even a repeat of the Meza-Garza shoot out. Mugabi had beaten James “Hard Rock” Green, Frank “The Animal” Fletcher (whose nickname matched that of Mugabi’s), Curtiss Parker, and Eddie Gazo…..all by stoppage. John would enter the ring to chants of “Beast, Beast, Beast.” Hargrove’s opposition was tellingly far inferior with Greg Stephens being one of the few with a decent record. When he did step up to fight tough Mark Medal, he lost by TKO in the 5th.
But back to Tampa where the fighters finally touched gloves and the bell rang. And just like that, before I had time to light up my corona, it was over. Hargerove was dispatched by the Beast in 1.33 of the first round. Earl was exposed and it was time to take a detour.
He would finish a once promising career with a 32-6 (28-ko’s) record finally losing to Darren Maciunski in 1995, Curiously, one of his wins came against NJ middleweight Lamont Haithcoach by decisive first round ko in 1986. Haithcoach had held Buddy McGirt to a draw in 1982 and was no pushover, but this devastating loss ended his short 11-bout career. He would close with a 5 (3-ko’s)- 3- 3….suggesting that the entire sequence resulted in what one might term a “double detour.”
“A truly happy person is one who can enjoy the scenery on a detour.” Bill Williams
As a postscript to this piece, an undefeated and highly promising Mike Quarry fought Bob Foster on June 27, 1972 after having run up a string of over 30 wins. For obvious reasons, I’d just as soon not include that story here. May he rest in peace.
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