8. June 20, 1980 – Trevor Berbick KO 9 John Tate, Olympic Stadium
The only fight card ever staged at Olympic Stadium proved to be a memorable night on more than a few levels. The appetizers on this five-fight card included a 10-round draw between Fernand Marcotte and Eddie Melo, Roger Leonard's 10-round split decision over veteran Clyde Gray and Gaetan Hart's 10th round TKO over Cleveland Denny, which tragically resulted in Denny's death 16 days later.
The night's co-feature between Tate and Berbick was a classic crossroads fight. Berbick, a native of Jamaica who moved to Canada after losing to eventual silver medalist Mircea Simon in the 1976 Olympics, was now the Canadian heavyweight champion and was hoping to achieve a huge leap in class. His first step-up fight resulted in his only loss to date, a first round KO by Bernardo Mercado in April 1979 that spawned a carefully crafted four-fight win streak entering the Tate fight.
As steep as Berbick's mountain appeared to be, Tate's was even more so. At the beginning of 1980 Tate, then the WBA champion, was in line for a multi-million dollar fight against the comebacking Muhammad Ali. All he had to do was to beat Mike Weaver before his home fans in Knoxville and for 14 rounds he did just that. Boxing fluidly and punching accurately, Tate built a monstrous lead on the scorecards and seemed fated to earn a workmanlike, if not overly impressive, decision victory.
The deeply religious Weaver silently recited the 23rd Psalm between rounds and his faith was rewarded beyond all measure. A digging right to the body set up a gorgeously compact hook that separated Tate from his championship – and his consciousness. Tate's inert body fell face-first on the canvas and didn't move until long after referee Ernesto Magana completed his 10 count with just 45 seconds left in the fight.
A fighter normally would take a long break after such a shattering defeat but Tate and his brain trust opted to get right back on the horse in the hopes of quickly regaining some of what was lost against Weaver. Sure, the Ali fight was gone, but perhaps a win over Berbick would position him for the winner of October's title fights involving WBC champ Larry Holmes and Ali or Weaver's mandatory against Gerrie Coetzee.
Weighing a trim 232½, just a half-pound more than against Weaver, Tate began the fight on the move while the crab-like Berbick waded in behind jabs and winged half-speed body punches. The underdog showed no respect or fear and proved that to Tate by landing a solid right an instant after tasting one. By the round's midway point the cat-and-mouse game had moved into point-blank range where Tate's straighter punches landed with more regularity and force than Berbick's looping ones.
Berbick's sneaky rights and constant aggression shaded rounds two and three while Tate's body punching and long-range sharpshooting took the fourth and fifth. The sixth was the fight's best round as Tate took the opening minute with sharper boxing, Berbick the next with a right that caused Tate to sag into the ropes and Tate in the final moments after a right uppercut sent Berbick reeling. Tate, now sporting a small cut under the left eye, won a somewhat quieter seventh with neater boxing.
The eighth proved a turning point as the chiseled Berbick imposed his superior upper body strength and landed hammering punches that visibly moved Tate. A right uppercut-left hook combo in the closing seconds drove Tate backward and signaled to many that an upset might be brewing.
The body language between rounds was telling. For the first time in the fight a gesturing Berbick was off his stool well before the 10-second warning while a tiring Tate struggled to catch his breath. Once the ninth round bell sounded, a pumped-up Berbick charged out of the corner, pushed Tate toward the ropes and lowered the boom. A right to the temple caused the initial damage while two more rights to the ear prompted Tate to turn away and run toward ring center with Berbick in hot pursuit. As Tate continued to stumble forward Berbick curled a left to Tate's ear and grazed a right to the neck that left the former champ flat on his face at the ring apron.
Tate's brain commanded him to rise but the muscles could only wiggle minimally. Just 22 seconds into the ninth round Tate's career was left in shambles while Berbick cemented himself as a title contender before one of the year's largest audiences — the live crowd of 46,317 and the millions more viewing the event on closed-circuit. This fight is just another example of how a single fight, and a single moment, can instantly transform reputations and career paths.