It still rates as one of the supreme moments in the history of SA sport; the night
Gerrie Coetzee became heavyweight boxing champion of the world.
Boxing’s heavyweight championship has always been considered to be the richest
prize in sport. And Coetzee once held at least a portion of that prize. It must be remembered, too, that when the Boksburg Bomber won the WBA title, there was only one other recognized heavyweight champion – Larry Holmes, who held the WBC title.
Coetzee stunned the boxing world when, on September 23, 1983 in Cleveland, Ohio, he knocked out Michael Dokes in the tenth round. That made him the first white heavyweight champion since Ingemar Johansson in 1959 and the first South African to win a world heavyweight title. It remains one of the greatest performances by any SA sportsman.
The first world heavyweight championship contest in which gloves were worn was held on September 7, 1892, when James J Corbett knocked out John L Sullivan in 21 rounds. For many of those who followed him, the heavyweight crown did not bring fame and fortune. Primo Carnera was cheated out of his winnings by gangsters; Joe Louis had trouble with the taxman and became addicted to drugs; Ezzard
Charles ended up in a wheelchair; Sonny Liston died in mysterious circumstances and Mike Tyson was convicted for rape and declared bankrupt. And “The Greatest,” Muhammad Ali, probably carried on for too long and now has serious health problems.
It must be said that, despite his stunning victory over Dokes, Coetzee was not considered to be the best heavyweight in the world. That honour belonged to the unbeaten Holmes, the WBC champion.
The American had won his belt in June 1978 and had already defended it 15 times
when Coetzee rose to fame. Coetzee’s reign as WBA champion did not last long. Only 14 months after winning the belt, he was knocked out by Greg Page. They met at Sun City on December 1, 1984, in a bout filled with controversy.
Born on April 8, 1955, in Witfield, Boksburg, Coetzee was the oldest of four children. His father, Flip, an amateur trainer, “bribed” the reluctant Gerrie to put on gloves and get into the ring. It cost him 50c a time. The youngster later began to enjoy the sport and at the age of 13, he won the Eastern Transvaal bantamweight title. He went on to win the senior amateur heavyweight championship in 1973 when he stopped Kallie Knoetze in the final.
After an estimated 192 amateur fights, he turned professional at the age of 19. On September 14, 1974, Coetzee beat former SA heavyweight champion Chris Roos on points over four rounds and on August 16, 1976, he won the SA heavyweight title from Mike Schutte on a sixthround disqualification. This was his 13th professional fight and it proved an unlucky one as he injured his right hand, which was to give him trouble for the rest of his career. In October the same year Coetzee met his old amateur rival Knoetze.
He went into the fight against medical advice but espite
a pulled back muscle, he won a disputed 10-round points decision.
He then became “supreme” SA heavyweight champion when he knocked out
black champion James Mathatho on November 27, 1976.
After an easy three-round stoppage of Pierre Fourie, and in a rematch with Schutte, Coetzee won his 17th pro fight in a row, but paid a heavy price when he shattered bones in both hands. He told his corner in the second round that he had pain in his left hand and in the third felt his right hand going. Showing tremendous courage, he continued to punish Schutte to win on points over 12 rounds. At the end of the fight his gloves had to be cut off his swollen hands.
A Johannesburg surgeon performed a complex operation on his right hand in April 1977 and at the same time operated on the left. After a six-month layoff, Coetzee returned to the ring on October 30, 1977, to stop American Tom Prater in four. He then knocked out another American, Johnny Boudreaux, in six rounds in December.
After a lacklustre win over Randy Stephens in May 1978 Coetzee needed another
operation on his right hand. It was reported that Coetzee had taken a pain killer
that was to blame for his poor performance. However, Coetzee denied that a tranquilliser had anything to do with his performance. The Transvaal Boxing Board of Control was upset about Coetzee’s performance and because he tried to use a plastic splint for his right hand.
It was reported that Coetzee, previously a dental technician, had made a thin protector from plastic cut from a milk bottle. Curtis Cokes, who trained Stephens, saw the splint being taped on to Coetzee’s hand and objected. The Transvaal Boxing Board then held an enquiry and announced that Coetzee, his manager, Hal Tucker, and co-manager Jock Lewin, as well as trainer Flip Coetzee were all suspended for six months. No reasons were given but after an appeal, the suspension was reduced to three months.
In December 1978 Coetzee returned to action with a clear-cut win over tough American Dale Ibar Arrington and his next fight, in June 1979, was against former
world champion Leon Spinks, who had beaten Muhammad Ali. They met in Monte Carlo and after a stunning 123-second knockout Coetzee was back in the international spotlight.
On October 20, 1979, a crowd of more than 77 000 at Loftus Versfeld in Pretoria
saw Coetzee go through 15 dull rounds in losing to American John Tate for the vacant WBA heavyweight belt.
Coetzee needed only 100 seconds to return to contention when, in April 1980, he
knocked out Mike Koranicki of the US to set up a match with Mike Weaver for the WBA heavyweight title at Sun City on October 25. Weaver had won the WBA belt with a sensational 15th-round knockout over John Tate seven months earlier.
Against Weaver, Coetzee boxed well in the early rounds. In the eighth, he had
Weaver dazed against the ropes but he failed to land the pay-off punch. Coetzee
began to fade and in the 13th round Weaver landed a right hook that dumped him on the canvas.
Coetzee made it to his feet but was in no condition to continue and
referee Jesus Celis of Venezuela completed the count.
In March 1981, Coetzee scored a lacklustre points win over George Chaplin. He then lost a disputed ten-round decision to Renaldo Snipes in New York and stopped another American, Leroy Caldwell, in five in Johannesburg.
In 1982 he beat Fossie Schmidt, Scott Le Doux and Stan Ward but failed to impress. In January 1983 he fought a to a majority draw with future WBC heavyweight champion Pinklon Thomas.
At the time Coetzee was considered an enigma, an extremely talented fighter who
had two cracks at the world heavyweight title and failed on each occasion.
Unbeaten Michael Dokes, from Akron, Ohio, won the WBA heavyweight belt when
he stopped Weaver in the first round in May 1983. It was a controversial ending when referee Joey Curtis suddenly called the fight off after 63 seconds. The 4 700 spectators chanted “Bull…!” and “Fix! Fix! Fix”. In a return match six months later, Dokes retained the belt with a 15-round draw.
Facing what many felt was an impossible task, Coetzee, then 28, took a third crack
at the WBA title when he challenged Dokes in Cleveland on September 23, 1983. Many observers felt the 26-year-old Dokes was better prepared, faster and bigger than Coetzee. Dokes, knowing the implications of a black American world champion losing to a white South African, had prepared better than ever before.
Coetzee, a 5-to-1 underdog, stunned the boxing world when he knocked out Dokes
with two seconds remaining in the tenth round at the Richfield Coliseum in Richfield, Ohio.
Coetzee, the aggressor throughout, dropped Dokes with a right hook in the fifth
round and remained in control. He appeared to tire in the tenth before landing a
crashing right to the side of Dokes’s head to score a sensational win.
It was reported that Coetzee earned $250 000 and Dokes $750 000. However, before Coetzee’s triumph he had to negotiate a minefield of controversy. His relationship with promoter Don King led to accusations that King was building up a monopoly and exploited fighters. The New York Village Voice newspaper alleged that King was rigging the WBA ratings and paying boxers less than stipulated in their contracts. The New York Times said Coetzee’s American helper, Jackie McCoy, had screaming runins with Flip Coetzee.
The controversy over television rights was settled only when the SABC agreed to pay R75 000 to show the fight in South Africa. There were also reports that Dokes had denied rumours that he used cocaine.
Protracted negotiations took place for Coetzee to fight Larry Holmes, the WBC champion, in a unification match in Las Vegas on July 8, 1984. The plans were abandoned because of contractual problems.
The short reign ends
Coetzee’s reign as WBA champion was short. Amid more controversy, he lost to Greg Page in his first defence on December 1, 1984 at Sun City. Ticket prices for the fight were at an alltime high for South Africa – a minimum of R100, and R450 for ringside seats.
Page, rated No 6 by the WBA, arrived in Johannesburg eight days earlier than
scheduled to prevent efforts by the US antiapartheid lobby to block his visit. Coetzee was the overwhelming favourite. Most critics predicted a win inside the distance and Coetzee was the betting favourite at 10 to 1.
However, the champion was knocked out in a sensational finish in the eighth round. A major row erupted over the duration of the last round. The pay-off punches from Page came at a time when his manager, Janks Morton, was shouting to the timekeeper that the round was over.
Coetzee had been down for the first time after the bell in the sixth round when Page caught him with a right that saw him sink to his knees.
In the seventh round, a barrage of punches put the South African down for the
mandatory eight count. Towards the end of the eighth, Coetzee was beginning to outbox the challenger.
Then Page landed a left hook to the jaw that left Coetzee flat on his back – 3 minute 50 seconds after the start of the round.
The Coetzee camp claimed that the knockout was illegal and appealed to the WBA to have the result nullified. However, the appeal was turned down. Despite the
controversy, Page was a worthy winner.
After a break of nine months, Coetzee, then 30, returned. He weighed 105, 6 kg
and failed to impress in scoring a 10-rounds unanimous points decision over unranked American James Tillis.
Next up was a WBA heavyweight title final eliminator against Britain’s 24-year-old
Frank Bruno in London. It ended in disaster for Coezee who was knocked out after 1 minute 50 seconds of the opening round. Boxing News editor Harry Mullan wrote:”Coetzee was a big disappointment. He looked podgy, tense, and apprehensive, and made no attempt to fight back when Bruno hurt him. It was hard to believe that this was the same man who, in three of his last four fights, had faced men who were or became world heavyweight champion”. It was an inglorious end to a distinguished career.
Soon afterwards Coetzee announced his retirement. He became a promoter and
moved to America with his family. In August 1993, he decided to make a comeback and knocked out Dave Fiddler in two rounds. In October the same year, he stopped West Turner in the fifth when Turner was badly cut on the forehead.
Once again, Coetzee retired. But then he decided to have another go. On January 10, 1997, he met journeyman Dan Kosmicki in Hollywood and won by way of a third-round knockout.
The sad part of boxing is when fighters go on too long. This was also the case when Coetzee, at the age of 42, had one more fight. He took on former triple world champion Iran Barkley on June 8, 1997 for
the synthetic World Boxing Board heavyweight belt.
Boxing World magazine wrote: “Gerrie Coetzee, the former WBA heavyweight
champion, has decided to hang up his gloves after his knockout defeat at the
hands of Iran Barkley in the 10th round in Hollywood. Coetzee had little choice. The
California State Athletic Commission suspended Coetzee indefinitely and strongly
recommended that he retire from the ring”.
Few imagined that an overblown light heavyweight such as Barkley would have the beating of Coetzee, but the South African’s feared punching power was gone. Coetzee did drop Barkley with a right hook in the second round but by the eighth both were exhausted. Barkley hurt Coetzee with a left hook in the tenth and jarred him with a right but referee Robert Byrd stepped in and stopped the fight before Coetzee was seriously hurt.
Coetzee finished his career with a record of 33-6-1 (21) and subsequently returned to South Africa to settle on what used to be called the East Rand, his old stamping ground