Honoring the life of Big John Tate

Beth KinnaneEast Knox, Our Town Stories

It started with a book about Muhammad Ali given to him by his mother. Then there was Rocky III and dancing around the house to its theme song, “Eye of the Tiger.” UT athletics were fine and all, but for a young William Winnett, the sport that sparked his imagination was, is and ever shall be boxing.

Winnett’s love of boxing combined with his career born of a college assignment made him the brainchild and driving force behind the 2022 documentary, Knoxville’s Forgotten Champion: The Story of Big John Tate. The hour-long film, which can be viewed here, details Tate’s rise from poverty in Arkansas to the WBA Heavyweight Championship through his battles with addiction and homelessness. He died at age 43 in a 1998 car wreck having suffered a stroke due to a brain tumor.

The documentary was recently featured at the Beck Cultural Exchange Center including a panel discussion. June 6 is Big John Tate Day in Knoxville, and Mayor Indya Kincannon recently dedicated an honorary street in his name, Lakeside Street behind the Golden Gloves Gym in East Knoxville where he trained.

Big John Tate wins the world heavyweight title.

Winnett was there for all of it. He is closing in on a decade with WBIR-10 as a digital storyteller, thought that wasn’t in his original life plan. The East Tennessee native spent most of his growing up years in Blount County, but spent his junior and senior years at Austin East High School.

“I graduated a proud Roadrunner,” Winnett said. He had plenty of fast-food jobs while attending Pellissippi State Community College: Subway, Baskin-Robbins, I-Hop, etc. He didn’t have a specific direction he planned to pursue. But a project for a Spanish class changed his entire life trajectory.

Winnett handled the videography on that assignment, and he was instantly hooked, saying it gave him a great sense of accomplishment.

“I’m still constantly chasing that feeling,” he said. “I look for stories that mean something to me and to others as well, knowing the work you do has an impact.”

He felt that Tate’s story had been lost in the years since his death and the troubles he encountered once his boxing career was over. Though he wasn’t around when Tate rose to the heights of the sport, he said his mother grew up during that time and had told him about Big John.

Putting the film together took four and a half months, from inception to air date. Winnett said he just wanted to show some appreciation for the late boxer and to hear his story “from the people who witnessed it first-hand.” A highlight was having a moment to hold the championship belt, which is now in the possession of Tate’s trainer Ace Miller’s family.

“It was really an out of body experience,” he said. “I thought, what have I done to deserve this?”

Though Winnett loves and follows the sport, he has never taken up the gloves himself because “the prospect of getting punched in the face is not appealing to me at all.” He said Ali is still the greatest, not just because of his accomplishments in the ring, but because he “supersedes the sport of boxing. He was transcendent.”

Not long after Ali’s death, Winnett’s girlfriend presented him with an autographed photo of the champ as a gift. Though he said he tries not to be too materialistic, if he had to name a prized possession, that would be it.

Beth Kinnane is the community news editor for KnoxTNToday.com

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