BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — On July 4, 1919, boxer Jack Dempsey became heavyweight champion of the world after battering Jess Willard for three rounds.
However, during one sparring session weeks before, it was Dempsey himself who took a punch.
On June 22, 1919, Dempsey was in Toledo, Ohio training to fight Willard for the title. Leading up to the fight, Dempsey trained against “Big Bill” Tate, a boxer from Montgomery whom the Los Angeles Herald called “the Black Jess Willard” due to his size, standing at 6 feet, 6 inches and weighing 230 pounds.
An article published in the Herald a couple of days later captured one moment during training when one Dempsey’s manager, Jack Kearns, told Tate to hit Dempsey with an uppercut.
“In the second round of their session Sunday the totally unprepared Dempsey was frisking around with Tate when, wowie! [Tate] started an uppercut around his knees and drove it with pile-driver force against the rim of Dempsey’s jaw,” sportswriter Frank Menke wrote in the article, titled “Dempsey shows he can take a wallop.”
What happened next?
“Oh, Dempsey wiggled a bit,” Menke wrote. “Blind fury blazed in his eyes. He leaped at Tate, but before he could deal out a ‘reward’ to [Tate], Jimmy de Forest called ‘time’ and the afternoon’s session was over.”
By that time in his career, Tate was better known as Dempsey’s sparring partner of choice, but two years prior in 1917, the Alabamian defeated Sam Langford to become World Colored Heavyweight Champion.
Tate’s win came on the heels of boxer Jack Johnson breaking the sport’s color barrier in 1908. He became heavyweight champion that year after beating white boxer Tommy Burns. However, Johnson’s win also shut out many Black fighters from competing for the title, as promoters were even more reluctant to pit white and Black fighters against each other.
Because of the segregation, Tate was relegated to boxing within his own race and sparring with Dempsey, whom he remained with for years.
Because he was not a prominent fighter on boxing’s main stage, little is known about Tate’s life in Alabama or after he left the sport in 1927, eventually dying in Chicago in 1953.
“Bill Tate never really got his shot,” said Jay Deas, trainer to former WBC Champion and Tuscaloosa native Deontay Wilder.
On Saturday, Tate will be inducted into the Alabama Boxing Hall of Fame, joining the ranks of other local boxing icons in the hall’s “Old Timer” category like Joe Louis, George Godfrey and W.G. “Bill” Irby. Others who will be inducted Saturday include boxer Frankie Randall (Birmingham); amateur Eddie Donerlson (Mobile); trainer Johnny Trawick (Dothan); and support personnel David McNeil (Meridian, Mississippi) and Reginal McGowan (Rusk, Texas).
“He was ahead of his time in terms of his agility and for a guy his size,” Deas said. “No one was really that big at the time. That’s an enormous person to be at that time, but he also had agility and speed.”
Little is known of Tate’s life outside of being born and raised in Montgomery. Even his date of birth is questionable, some believing he was born in 1893, others saying in 1896. Some reports suggest he went to what eventually became Alabama State University, although there are no definitive records.
What is known is that like many Black men and women of the day, Tate was part of the “Great Migration” out of the South, where he made his boxing home in Chicago. He had his first professional bout in 1912 against Joe Jeanette, who was formerly the World Colored Heavyweight Champion. Jeanette knocked Tate out.
“One could argue that it was the better championship of the world,” Deas said.
By 1918, Tate was sparring with Dempsey. Randy Roberts, a professor at Purdue and author of “Jack Dempsey: The Manassa Mauler,” said Dempsey likely took Tate under his wing because of the promise he showed early on.
“It’s a small world and Dempsey knew all the big fighters,” Roberts said. “They had probably fought a lot of the same people.”
Roberts said that Tate was the perfect partner for Dempsey because of his size and how much reach he had.
“If you wanted to spar and get ready for Willard, you wanted to fight against a fighter with the same characteristics,” Roberts said. “I think he was a better fighter than Jess Willard.”
However, Dempsey and Tate were more than just sparring partners. Tate and his wife Sarah worked for Dempsey as a butler and cook, respectively, in Dempsey’s home outside Hollywood following his 1919 championship win. This period was reflected in Roger Kahn’s “A Flame of Pure Fire: Jack Dempsey and the Roaring ’20s.”
“I thought to be in pictures, you had to have a butler,” Dempsey said. “The producers expected it. The actresses expected it. So I told them Tate was my butler. He was working for me, sure, but he was just as much a buddy as a butler. I always liked to have boxing people around.”
In many ways, Tate’s own career was overshadowed by his connection to Dempsey, something that made him a footnote in the many books written about the white fighter.
“Tate is one of the greatest heavyweights in the ring,” boxer Marty Farrell told the Oregonian in January 1922. “Because he preferred to stick with Dempsey, his ring work for several years did not attract attention, but that did not detract from his ability to fight. Instead of working on his own career, he played the role of the faithful sparring partner, because of his friendship with Jack.”
During his career, Tate had a 27-19-2 record. Little is known about his life after retiring from the sport in 1927. Even Deas and the hall could not find any living relatives to invite to accept the honor on his behalf. However, what is known is that for a time, he took on a second career as a respected labor organizer, in Chicago and across the country. In Rick Halpern’s “Down on the Killing Floor: Black and White Workers in Chicago’s Packinghouses, 1904-54,” Tate was described in detail as he worked with the Amalgamated Meat Cutters and Butchers Workers Union in the 1930s.
“Unlike most of the Amalgamated’s Chicago staff, Tate had earned the respect of a number of packinghouse activists and his influence was responsible for what little gains the AMC made in the yards,” Halpern wrote.
For Roberts, Tate represents many Black fighters who never got their shot at the heavyweight title due to the color of their skin.
“Being great and outstanding as a fighter didn’t matter at that time,” he said. “There was nothing you could do to make that happen.”
Deas said he hopes that Tate’s induction into the hall will bring more awareness of how he contributed to boxing.
“This is a guy that many don’t remember,” he said. “He was the real deal and he competed with the best of that era.”
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