On Sunday, Jan. 14, the Minnesota Vikings advanced to the NFL championship game with a 29-24 triumph over the New Orleans Saints. Minnesota was dead in the water, or so it seemed, when New Orleans kicked a field goal with 29 ticks left on the clock to go up by a point, but the Vikings pulled it out with a 61-yard TD pass-and-run as time expired. The stunning denouement – the first walk-off TD in the history of the NFL playoffs – conjured up memories of other astonishing turnabouts in football and other sports.
Boxing, which Larry Merchant called the “Theater of the Unexpected,” has produced an inordinate number. For this reporter, the Minnesota Miracle conjured up Mike Weaver.
On March 3, 1980, Weaver won the WBA heavyweight title, upending incumbent John Tate in Tate’s adopted hometown of Knoxville, Tennessee. Weaver was a big underdog and the manner in which he won heightened the surprise factor. Heading into the 15th stanza, he trailed on the scorecards by 3, 3, and 5 points and there was no indication that something dramatic was about to unfold in what had been a largely uneventful fight. But Weaver snatched victory from the jaws of defeat, knocking out Tate in the final minute of the final round.
Big John Tate was a member of the star-studded 1976 U.S. Olympic team. In the semis he had the misfortune of being pitted against Cuba’s legendary Teofilo Stevenson who stopped him in the opening round. He rebounded with 19 straight wins at the pro level which earned him a shot against South Africa’s Gerrie Coetzee for the WBA belt vacated by Muhammad Ali.
To say that Coetzee had the home field advantage would be a great understatement. Their match played out before a crowd of 80,000-plus at South Africa’s national rugby stadium in Pretoria. The match was historic – it was the first integrated sporting event at this venue – but there were only a smattering of blacks in the audience to root on their “homey.” Big John hushed the great multitude, winning a clear-cut 15-round decision.
The situation was reversed when Tate made his first defense against Weaver. The bout was held at the basketball arena at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.
Mike Weaver, an ex-Marine, grew up with 11 siblings in Pomona, California. He had a bodybuilder’s physique, earning him the nickname Hercules. As a pro, he lost three of his first four fights and was 21-9 overall with 5 TKOby heading into his match with Tate. This would be his second stab at the heavyweight title. Nine months earlier, he was stopped in the 12th round by WBC title-holder Larry Holmes.
It was impossible to pick against John Tate. He was undefeated (20-0) and would have the crowd in his corner. Standing 6-foot-4, he was three inches taller than Weaver and would have a 24-pound weight advantage. But the ex-Marine spoiled the party. A barrage of blows capped by a vicious left hook smashed Tate to the canvas where he lay motionless for three minutes.
Bob Arum, the bout’s promoter, had stashed a trophy under the ring to present to John Tate after the fight. Midway through the final round, Arum left his front row seat and ducked under the canvas to retrieve it. As he was grasping it, he heard a thud. Something similar occurred in the sports books of Las Vegas late Sunday afternoon as bettors left their seats to queue up in line to collect their presumptive winnings.
A pleasant, soft-spoken man who eschewed the limelight, Mike Weaver’s title reign was short-lived. After two successful defenses, he ran into Michael Dokes who stopped him in 63 seconds in the big shed in the back lot of Caesars Palace. It was a premature stoppage. Weaver, a slow starter, had his back to the ropes but was in no imminent danger. Shouts of “fix, fix” showered the ring for a good 20 minutes after the match was halted. Referee Joey Curtis, a Las Vegas building contractor, had his license revoked and his impetuosity became all the more confounding when Weaver and Dokes fought to a 15-round draw in their rematch.
Weaver got one more crack at the heavyweight title. In 1985, he was stopped in eight rounds by Pinklon Thomas who had come through the revolving door to wrest the WBC belt from Tim Witherspoon. He retired in 2000 with a record of 41-18-1 after being stopped in six rounds by old acquaintance Larry Holmes in a freak fight between two old geezers in Biloxi, Mississippi.
John Tate lost his next fight to Trevor Berbick but then ran off a string of 14 straight wins against tepid opposition before losing a hair-thin decision to journeyman Noel Quarless at London’s venerable York Hall. For this match, Tate was grossly overweight. It proved to be his final fight.
In retirement, Big John, a fifth-grade dropout, battled a cocaine addiction and served stints in prison for petty larceny and assault. He died in Knoxville in 1998 at age forty-three when the pickup truck he was driving crashed into a utility pole. An autopsy revealed a massive brain tumor.
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Other examples abound. If Nat Fleischer were still around, his pick for the fight most evocative of the Vikings bombshell would be the 1909 clash in a New York City horse barn between slugger Stanley Ketchel and crafty veteran Philadelphia Jack O’Brien, a bout scheduled for 10 rounds.
Ketchel, the Michigan Assassin, absorbed a bad beating before pulling the fight out of the fire with a big finish. His final punch, delivered four seconds before the final bell, knocked O’Brien cold. This was back in the days of newspaper decisions and most of the scribes gave the nod to Ketchel. They reasoned that it didn’t seem quite right to award the decision to a man who was unconscious when the final bell sounded.
Rocky Marciano’s 13th-round KO of defending heavyweight champion Jersey Joe Walcott had a Minnesota Miracle flavor. Marciano was trailing by 2, 3, and 4 points on the scorecards when he caught Walcott with a thundering right cross, a frightful punch that felled Jersey Joe as if he had been shot.
Argentine middleweight Jorge Castro was being badly outclassed and was on the verge of being knocked out when he miraculously turned the tide in his 1994 contest with undefeated John David Jackson. That storyline played out again in 2005 when Diego Corrales came back from the brink to stop Jose Luis Castillo in a see-saw fight that most ringside reporters hailed as the most thrilling they had ever seen.
More miracle finishes? The list is long. What’s your favorite?
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