Nathaniel Gates’ career as a boxer was brief and mostly average.
The Sarasota native went 17-15 with three draws in his 35 fights as a professional and only two wins came by a knockout. He’s afraid of flying, so he left the Southeast for only three of those fights.
And his claim to fame is probably going 10 rounds against Mike Quarry, who once fought for a world championship. The light-heavyweight, of course, never sniffed a chance to fight Muhammad Ali.
Instead, Gates shares an even more rare tie to Ali than the 47 men who fought him or the five who beat him. Ali refereed one match during his career, a bout in Tampa between two no-names: Lonnie Robbins and a 23-year-old Nat Gates.
“I felt just about as good as anybody ever felt,” Gates said.
Ali had a tortured history with Tampa. Shortly after he refused to be drafted into the United States Armed Forces, he was stripped of the heavyweight title and blacklisted by venues. Ali and Joe Frazier tried to bring the first of their three bouts to the city, but the Tampa Stadium authority rejected the overture. In August of 1973, he finally made the trip up from Miami to Tampa to stand on the canvas at Curtis Hixon Hall.
Gates, who now helps China Smith coach boxers in Bradenton and Sarasota, remembers finding out about his match’s guest referee while he was in his gym, a little less than a week before the Aug. 2 fight. With only one professional fight under his belt, though, Gates was more concerned about his opponent. When Robbins was announced as the opponent, the reaction was more about how hard Robbins hit than the referee who would oversee the whole thing.
That changed when Gates and Robbins finally got into the ring. Robbins was announced first to a modest cheer. Then Gates, drawing a bigger pop from the crowd. The two went to shake hands and were reminded they needed to wait for the referee. Gates walked to his corner and the crowd exploded.
“I’ve heard people talking about, ‘They almost blew the roof off the place,’” Gates said. “That’s the first time in my life I ever heard people scream that loud.”
A Sarasota native, Gates assumed the hometown crowd was cheering him on, so he turned and lifted his fists to roof when he caught a glimpse of a hulking figure walking through the tunnel and out to the ring. Gates quickly dropped his arms, hoping no one noticed.
“I put my hands down real quick,” Gates said. “I wanted to put them in my pockets.”
Ali refereeing a bout between two no-name fighters never made much sense to Gates, who was paid $75 for the bout. The explanation he was given was that the fight would only be so eventful — there was no risk of a fighter falling out of the ring. Ali would get a smooth six rounds to officiate.
The match was the only one Ali refereed in his storied career, and Gates won in a unanimous decision.
The fight, Gates remembers, went back and forth. Robbins knocked Gates down in the first round. Gates knocked Robbins down in the second. Ali took his job seriously during rounds, while entertaining and interacting with the crowd in between. He shadowboxed with people sitting in the front rows and before the fifth or sixth round he ripped off his shirt and officiated the last couple rounds topless. Ali’s one crack as a referee was, in many ways, an apt encapsulation of his character. He was serious and playful. He was arrogant and generous.
During one of the middle rounds, Robbins landed a particularly fierce blow beneath Gates’ left eye, opening up a pretty serious gash. As his cutman tended to wound between rounds, Ali approached him and touched his leg.
“If that cut gets any worse, I’m going to have to stop the fight,” Gates remembers Ali telling him. “I’m sorry.”
“He didn’t stop the fight—I wanted to fight—thank God of that, but he seemed to be concerned about people,” Gates said Saturday. “I think he had to be a nice person.”
Less than 24 hours after Ali died Friday in Phoenix, the main thing about the former champion that stood out to Gates was that, as brash a trash talker as he was, Ali never cursed.
Usually Ali had more infectiously quotable sayings and rhymes. He was a consummate wordsmith with unmatched charisma, particularly among athletes. He didn’t need to use profanities as a crutch. With all the criticisms that chased him throughout his career, it would have been human for him to crumble a bit under pressure and lash out. Instead, he remained well-mannered and respectful behind a haughty exterior.
“He’s one of the few world champions who was a professional fighter,” Gates said, “and not just a fighter getting paid a lot of money.”