A Frank Assessment : Tate Bids to Break Into the Limelight With Title Defense Against Michael Nunn

Times Staff Writer

So you consider yourself a boxing fan, do you? OK, let's find out.

Name this fighter:

He's a gold-medal winner who went on to capture a world title as a pro.

Sugar Ray Leonard, you say? Guess again.

He's unbeaten and has never been knocked off his feet.

Mike Tyson? Wrong again.

He's the man some boxing experts figure will be the next fighter to unify the middleweight title.

Thomas Hearns? Nope.

The subject under discussion is Frank Tate.

But don't feel bad. Mention of his name usually draws a blank stare from half the people who hear it, and a you-mean-John-Tate response from many others.

No, former heavyweight John Tate is no relation to Frank, the reigning International Boxing Federation middleweight champion and the owner of a 23-0 record, including 13 knockouts.

While Frank Tate's list of opponents, which includes the likes of Mike Pucciarelli, Carl Orville and Ronnie Warrior, is not going to blow you away, Tate did beat Michael Olajide, once the rising middleweight star in the East, on a 15-round decision last October to claim the IBF title.

And Tate is defending his crown against another unbeaten fighter, Michael Nunn (30-0, 20 knockouts) of North Hollywood, tonight in a 15-round match at Caesars Palace.

But win or lose, Tate could probably walk into the casino here 15 minutes after the fight and not be recognized.

So what's the problem?

For one thing, the public fixation, defeats and retirements notwithstanding, remains on Leonard, Hearns and Marvelous Marvin Hagler. They are still the true middleweight champs, crowned or uncrowned, in the minds of many.

For another, Tate lacks charisma. You've heard that said of boxers before, but when have you heard of a fighter's handlers sitting around exchanging helpless looks when asked for stories about him? That happened the other day when a reporter went in search of tales of Frank Tate.

"He's just a very nice man," said Stan Hoffman, his promoter.

"He's not colorful," admitted Josephine Abercrombie, the founder and co-owner, along with Hoffman, of the Houston Boxing Assn., which owns the promotional rights to Tate. "Frank is not cocky. He doesn't show off in public. He's not that way. No way is he going to be that way.

"He's a real gentleman. I remember he was with someone who was cussing like a sailor one time. As I was walking by them, Frank told the other guy, 'You can't talk like that. Mrs. Abercrombie is coming. You can't say those words.' Frank is very protective of me."

Where to look then for color? In Tate's past, perhaps?

No such luck. His story, while impressive, is not atypical in boxing.

Tate grew up in Detroit, where he soon found himself growing tight with the wrong group of friends.

"I was hanging around a crowd," he said, speaking in low, soft tones, "who were tearing people's cars up and busting windows. Stuff like that. I couldn't see myself doing things like that. I didn't want to take a road where I'd wind up either in juvenile hall or dead. I didn't want that."

So instead, he took the road to Martin's Gym. That didn't prove to be an easy course, either. Not at first.

Tate lost his first five fights. And cried like a baby after each one.

Which isn't unusual when you consider he was a baby at the time. Relatively speaking. Tate's first fight came at the age of 12.

He stuck with it, though, and soon the tears could be found only in the eyes of opponents.

Before he turned pro, Tate amassed an amateur mark of 125-15, was a National Golden Gloves champion and went all the way to the 1984 Olympics, where he won the gold medal in the light middleweight class.

After three years at Martin's Gym, Tate switched to Detroit's most famous breeding ground for fighters, the Kronk Gym, where he became a sparring partner of his hero, Thomas Hearns.

But when it came time to turn pro after the '84 Games, Tate came south to Texas to sign with the HBA.

"Frank just didn't want to be a small fish in a big pond," said Bob Spagnola, his manager.

Instead, Tate learned to swim on his own, eventually surpassing even Hearns, who no longer holds a middleweight title following his upset defeat at the hands of Iran Barkley last month.

Still, Tate is not satisfied. He's getting $400,000 for tonight's fight, but figures the real big-money bouts and the chance to unify the middleweight division are just around the corner, just beyond the unbeaten Nunn, who'll pocket $100,000. The fact that Nunn is favored by some oddsmakers and has gained a reputation in the West as perhaps the next rising middleweight superstar can only to work to Tate's advantage, Tate figures.

This fight climaxes nearly a year of campaigning by Nunn's handlers to get a fight with the IBF champ. The match became a reality only after Nunn was named the No. 1 contender by the IBF. That organization ordered Tate to sign with Nunn or risk losing his title.

"He's been calling my name all this time," Tate said of Nunn. "Now he's got a chance to prove himself."

But even if he beats Nunn, even if he should become the big fish in the big pond, Tate says he would still be perfectly happy living in relative obscurity.

"I want to be a champion, but I don't necessarily want to be on top of the world like a Mike Tyson," Tate said. "Everything he does in life, everyone knows about. Who needs that?"

Spagnola remembered one trip Tate made back home to Detroit. He returned horrified.

"I saw all those drug dealers in town," Tate told his manager, "and they were each driving a Mercedes Benz. I don't want any of that. I want a Volvo."

Who said there were no great Frank Tate stories?

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