FORMER WBA heavyweight belt-holder Gerrie Coetzee died last Thursday, aged 67, a week after being diagnosed with lung cancer.
The ‘Boksburg Bomber’ was many things: a ‘world’ champion who said he threw his final serious fight, an anti-racist who claimed to adore the black boxers he promoted but also threatened them, a sly wheeler-dealer adept at playing the village idiot, a softly-spoken man with a high voice who could behave like a thug.
Gerrie’s finest moment came in Richfield, Minnesota on September 23 1983, when he got down to 215lbs and flattened Michael Dokes in the 10th to win the WBA title.
That was the highpoint of a career that promised more than it delivered. Gerrie came from a large, working class family, some of whom had ‘no-good’ reputations. He carried this within him but often rose above it, qualifying as a dental mechanic and excelling as a 6’3 ½ amateur champion with an 81-inch reach.
When he turned professional in 1974 they put this 19-year-old in with a former national champion Chris Roos whom he easily outpointed. Within two years he’d won the South African title and had beaten his premier local rivals, Mike Schutte in a foul-filled brawl, and Kallie Knoetze. But his right hand kept breaking and had to be reconstructed with metal plates, prompting the ‘man with the bionic right’ moniker.
He was 21-0 when he knocked out Leon Spinks in one round in Monaco in 1979, dropping him three times in two minutes. This set up his first shot at the ‘world’ title of the WBA (which was defying the sporting boycott of South Africa). Coetzee, a lazy trainer, ran out of steam and was outpointed over 15 rounds by John Tate. A year on he got his second shot against Mike Weaver and seemed on his way to victory until, utterly exhausted, he was knocked out in the 13th.
Gerrie was dispatched to the United States and outboxed Renaldo Snipes, dropping him twice, only to emerge as a split decision loser. A draw with Pinklon Thomas set him up for the Dokes shot.
He was due for a title unification against the real world champion, Larry Holmes, but the fight was cancelled when the financial backing evaporated. Instead, after 15 months’ inactivity, he defended against Greg Page at Sun City. Depression, a bout of venereal disease and renewed hand troubles undermined his confidence. Later he told me: “Everything went wrong and I wasn’t in the best shape. Before the fight I had a stiff brandy and coke because I sensed this was the end of my reign.”
Gerrie’s corner ignored the bell to start round two and Page landed two punches while he was still on the stool. After the bell ended round six Page took another free shot, dropping him. Then in round eight the timekeeper forgot his job and Coetzee was knocked out at three minutes and 50 seconds of the round.
He returned to outpoint James “Quick” Tillis and was offered an eliminator against Frank Bruno but broke his hand in training. He later told me and others that he threw the fight, getting a family member to bet on a first-round loss that transpired in March 1986. As his one-time protégé Frans Botha recalled: “He was very proud of it. He said he was laughing in the changing room afterward. He thought it a big joke.”
Coetzee reinvented himself as a promoter of black boxers, who trusted him because of his opposition to apartheid. One was Dingaan Thobela, who told me that when he refused to renew their contract on the eve of his first WBA lightweight title defence, Gerrie “threatened to beat me up” and when he still refused, the heavyweight assaulted him. Botha also said Coetzee threatened and then attacked him “and we had a helluva fight, which left Gerrie lying there, covered in blood.”
In 1992 when I was boxing correspondent for the Sunday Times Gerrie phoned me. “I’ll buy you a new car in return for favours. You must agree to write a story about my boxers every week but don’t mention it to anyone.” I refused, reported it to my editor, but it took two more bribery rebuffs before he got the message.
He made a brief comeback at 38, and again at 42, but after three wins an overweight Coetzee was knocked out by the former middleweight Iran Barkley in 1997.
At the time of his death a film of his life was in production in South Africa.
Gerrie Coetzee, born April 8 1955, died January 12 2023. He is survived by his wife, Rina, one son, two daughters and seven grandchildren.
BEST OF COETZEE
Rating Gerrie’s five finest professional outings
1. vs MICHAEL DOKES
The bookmakers, who installed the then-unbeaten Dokes as a 5/1 favourite, clearly did not know about the WBA belt-holder’s burgeoning cocaine habit. Regardless, when Coetzee knocked Dokes out in the 10th round, in September 1983, it was regarded as a sizeable upset at the time. Coetzee, fighting 10 miles away from Dokes’ hometown of Akron, was in pristine shape and very much in the mood. Even a focused and clean Dokes would have struggled with Coetzee on this form.
2. vs LEON SPINKS
In a roundabout way, Gerrie Coetzee is responsible for Muhammad Ali’s victory over Leon Spinks losing a lot of the lustre when the South African flattened Spinks in his first bout after that famous rematch. Spinks, eager to impress, came out swinging while Coetzee tucked up and waited for his chance to return fire. He didn’t have to wait long. A discombobulating right hand dropped Spinks for the first of three knockdowns. The time of the June 1979 stoppage was a mere 2-03.
3. vs PINKLON THOMAS
That Gerrie held a peak Thomas to a 10-round draw in 1983 is perhaps the most flattering reflection of Coetzee’s ability. It is, however, another nod to his tendency to fade at the business end of contests. Coetzee looked to have built a solid lead during the first five rounds, only for Thomas to come on strong and snatch a draw – a fair result – down the stretch of their rousing 10-rounder. Coetzee wasn’t helped by a deep cut opening, the result of a Thomas right hand, above his left eye in the eighth.
4. vs RENALDO SNIPES
The ring was showered with popcorn, ice cubes and whatever the fans could lay their hands on inside the New Westcenter Town Hall in Tarrytown, NY, when Snipes was declared the split decision winner after 10 rounds. Coetzee scored knockdowns in round one and four, and had Snipes hanging on in the last. American network NBC later stated that their switchboard was jammed as a consequence of viewers calling in to complain about the verdict. If the judges had applied New York’s rule, to be used at the officials’ discretion, of giving extra points for knockdowns, Coetzee would have won.
5. vs KALLIE KNOETZE
Though Coetzee’s last meaningful win was over a still useful James Tillis in 1985, an early victory over Kallie Knoetze is arguably more impressive. While on the way up, and two fights after pummelling Ron Stander to defeat in eight, Coetzee won a tough 10-round decision over future contender, Knoetze in October 1976. The pair had split six bouts, winning three each, while amateurs and Coetzee edged their lone meeting in the pro ranks. It triggered an 11-fight win streak for Knoetze which included wins over Duane Bobick and Richard Dunn.