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."
June 10, 1979
"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 2½ 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."
It is winter in southern Africa, but the day of the fight broke bright and warm, with scattered clouds in a dazzling blue sky, and the fans poured in by air and by gleaming Mercedes and dusty buses and jammed vans until nearly 51,000 crammed the stadium. It could hold no more. The gate was $750,000. So much for the $250,000 loss.
Tate came into the canopied ring first, fresh from a good night's sleep and ready to earn the $350,000 he had been guaranteed. Grinning, he circled the ring holding up two small American flags. A moment later Knoetze, who was paid $250,000, came in scowling. He is a powerful 6'1½" 226-pounder. Approaching Tate, he snatched one of the flags, ripped it from its stick and threw it down.
Tate ignored the insult, but little Donny Marshall, his No. 1 trainer, darted forward, picked up the flag, dusted it off and put it in his pocket.
Then, during the singing of the U.S. national anthem, Tate, his eyes hard and flat, stared across at Knoetze and said, "I'm gonna kick your butt."
The flag incident was the last of Knoetze's acts of calculated villainy, all of them orchestrated to stir interest in the fight. Knoetze had first gained notoriety in Miami Beach last January, where he defeated one Bill Sharkey, when his role in a shooting incident during a riot in Pretoria two years ago was widely publicized. Knoetze, then a policeman, had shot a black youth in the leg. Knoetze maintains he was justified in doing so because, he says, the boy was taking part in a riot and had hit him with a stone. Although he was cleared of that charge, in a subsequent incident he was fined for tampering with witnesses in another case of alleged police brutality, and he quit the police force. Knoetze's U.S. visa was revoked, an action now under appeal, and last week he said that he was tired of it all.
Knoetze had devoted the days leading up to the fight to sniping at Tate in the daily papers, calling him "baby fat," among other things. But he insisted, "I don't see Tate as black. I see him only as a man I have to fight. And when it's all over, I will shake his hand."
But there would be a fight to settle first. "Take it easy, Big John," Judge Hill, another trainer, warned Tate. Hill has been with the No. 3 WBA contender since his early amateur days. "Don't get all fired up. Don't forget the battle plan."
"I haven't forgotten," said Tate. "I just want to let him know how it's going to end."
The fight began slowly, with Tate circling the ring, ducking Knoetze's wild lunges and throwing hardly a punch. Knoetze is ferocious, but he is clumsy and wild, and Tate's plan was to let the South African exhaust himself firing futile shots. All three officials, referee Isidor Rodriguez of Venezuela and judges Jay Edson of the U.S. and Stan Christodolou of South Africa, gave the first round to Knoetze.
"Rodriguez may be the most important man in the ring," said Gil Clancy, who was part of the CBS crew covering the fight for a delayed telecast in the U.S. "Knoetze is a brawler, and he'll do anything to win, which is the way it should be. But Rodriguez must really control him."
In the second round, Tate opened up a little, scoring with his jab, landing an occasional right hand and ducking Knoetze's lunges. At the bell Tate looked at the South African and laughed.
Then Tate got into serious trouble. He began Round 3 with a smashing right counter to Knoetze's left eye, raising a mouse. But Tate has a bad habit of crossing his feet when moving backward. Now he did so and Knoetze capitalized with a solid hook to the head. As Tate staggered back, seemingly hurt, Knoetze charged in, swinging mightily, if hitting little. After throwing one looping right that missed Tate by a foot, he almost went sailing out of the ring.
Momentarily spent, Knoetze paused to try to catch his breath, and Tate asked him, "Are you through?" Angered, Knoetze launched another wild but ineffective assault. When he stopped this time, Tate stepped in close, fired a hook to the head, buried his right hand in Knoetze's stomach and fired another short, wicked hook to the head. At the bell, Knoetze was hanging on.
"Right then I knew it was over for Knoetze," Edson said later.
It was, indeed. Flagging badly, his strength spent, Knoetze took a fierce beating the next four rounds. He was cut under both eyes and his nose was bleeding. "I was in no hurry," Tate said. "I knew I had him, but I wanted to be sure. I wanted to be sure he didn't have any stuff left."
In the eighth, Tate went after his man without mercy. Knoetze tried to grab and hold, but each time Tate would push him off and bludgeon him some more. Near the end of the round, Tate spun Knoetze around and into the ropes with a crashing overhand right. For a moment Knoetze hung there, facing the crowd, a great grin on his bloody face. Literally, he had been knocked silly.
A moment later, just eight seconds from the bell, as Knoetze floundered about the ring with his hands at his sides, Rodriguez rushed in and stopped the fight.
A half hour afterward, Knoetze, his face battered and raw, came to the small white trailer that was Tate's dressing quarters. The first man the South African went to was Jay Handelsman, a self-proclaimed hillbilly who grew up in New York and is Tate's cook and masseur. Handelsman had suffered a slight diabetes attack after the fight.
"Are you O.K.?" Knoetze asked.
"Are you sure? Is there anything I can get you, do for you?"
"No, I'm fine."
After another moment with Handelsman, Knoetze went to each member of the Hillies, shaking hands, forcing small talk between puffed lips. Then he went to Tate.
"Your body shots are killers," he said. "I'm so sore I can't walk."
Tate smiled at him. "You hit pretty good yourself. You want a rematch? You can have one."
Knoetze winced. "No, I don't want any part of you anymore," he said. Then he left.
"Well," said Tate, "I never imagined he was as bad as he was made out to be."
And with that, the bunch of hillbillies headed back for the hills.