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It was one giant win for Big John
Pat Putnam
June 11, 1979
John Tate walloped Kallie Knoetze in Bophuthatswana and dreamed of a title
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June 11, 1979

It Was One Giant Win For Big John

John Tate walloped Kallie Knoetze in Bophuthatswana and dreamed of a title

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While a portly Muhammad Ali paraded through Europe on a farewell tour last week, Big John Tate of the U.S. and Kallie Knoetze of South Africa got into the bidding for succession to the WBA heavyweight title. Knoetze found himself out of the running at 2:52 of the eighth round last Saturday in Mmabatho, Bophuthatswana. He was nearly insensate and incapable of defending himself when the referee signaled the 6'4", 233-pound Tate to cease firing.

The one-sided victory, the undefeated Tate's 19th straight as a pro, moved him one step closer to a fight for the championship that Ali has decided to surrender in a month or so. Tate's next opponent will emerge June 24 at Monte Carlo when ex-champ Leon Spinks meets Gerrie Coetzee, also a South African, in another "elimination" bout.

"Either one, it don't really matter," said Tate, the 1976 Olympic bronze medalist. "Right now, all I want to do is get on a plane and get home to the peace and quiet of Knoxville. Back to the beautiful hills of Tennessee. I'm going to take my hillbilly crew and go home."

Tate's Hillies, as the semi-hysterical South African sports press called the entourage of 14, all Golden Gloves people from the Knoxville area, had become South African folk heroes. Tate also won the hearts of most Africans he met, particularly the blacks. Returning one morning after a five-mile run in Joubert Park in Johannesburg, where both fighters trained, Tate walked slowly through a throng of office workers, conscious of the admiring glances. Greetings were returned with a smile and a wave. As he neared the Landdrost Hotel, where his group was quartered on the 17th floor, a pretty young woman said, "Intaba enkule e tafeni." Tate asked the doorman for a translation. "That's Zulu," said the doorman, a Zulu himself. "It means you are a big mountain on the plain."

"Well, what do you know!" Tate said, playfully thumping his 42-inch chest.

At other times Tate was too embarrassed to enjoy the adulation. He accepted being a big mountain; he rejected attempts to make him more. In Zulu, dare means god. They called Tate that. The southern Sothos called him ntate unamasende, the father of all, with the courage of a lion. Tate rejected both.

"Look," he said, "I wish they would quit that. I'm not bothered by carrying the black man's burden here. That's not heavy. But I wish they'd stop calling me god. I'm not god; I'm from God."

Bophuthatswana, which is more or less pronounced bo-phoo-ta-tswa-nah and called Bophutha-whatsisname by many South Africans, consists of a patchwork of seven separate territories with a total area of some 15,000 square miles within the boundaries of South Africa. It was created by that country in 1977 as a so-called tribal homeland—part of a grand design for keeping the races separate—and is inhabited by 2� million blacks, who have lost their South African citizenship in return for "independence" and citizenship in a country recognized only by South Africa and the homeland of Transkei.

But consider this twist. South Africa's Southern Sun hotel chain has built one hotel in Mmabatho and soon will put up another, a $27 million, 900-bed luxury complex with a gambling casino larger than that at Las Vegas' Caesars Palace—and just a two-hour drive from Johannesburg. By next year the dice will be rolling and the wheels spinning in Mmabatho, and South Africans are expected to cross the border created by apartheid in large numbers and with large amounts of money to risk at the tables. Bophuthatswana President Lucas Mangope regards this with amused cynicism. South African ideologists who gave him a country of bits and pieces may now find themselves enriching that country by means of their gambling losses. If so, blacks may have gained by trading South African citizenship for a "homeland."

The Tate-Knoetze bout was staged in Mmabatho's 40,000-seat soccer stadium—an erector-set creation of iron-pipe scaffolding and wooden benches—and it drew a bigger crowd than the country's independence rites. Southern Sun Chairman Sol Kerzner had paid U.S. promoter Bob Arum a reported $675,000 for rights to the fight, allowing that, "We expect to lose $250,000, but it will be worth it to put the place on the map."

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