Gerrie Coetzee, 67, Afrikaner Boxing Champ Who Fought Apartheid, Dies

He won the World Boxing Association title in 1983, became a symbol of racial comity and showed a surprising gentleness in public.

A black-and-white image of Gerrie Coetzee during a boxing match. He is throwing a punch with his left arm at the boxer Michael Dokes.
After losing bids for the World Boxing Association title in 1979 and 1980, Gerrie Coetzee avenged himself in 1983 by knocking out the previously undefeated Michael Dokes.Credit...Disney General Entertainment Content, via Getty Images

Gerrie Coetzee, a South African heavyweight boxing champion who rejected the epithet “great white hope” and criticized apartheid, earning the respect of Nelson Mandela, died on Jan. 12 at his home in Bloubergstrand, a suburb of Cape Town. He was 67.

The cause was lung cancer, his longtime manager, Thinus Strydom, said.

After losing bids for the World Boxing Association title in 1979 and 1980, Coetzee avenged himself in 1983, when he knocked out the previously undefeated Michael Dokes. Gerrie (pronounced herry — rhymes with “merry” — with a guttural “h”) Coetzee (pronounced coat-SEE-uh) became Africa’s first world heavyweight champion.

In that era, white South Africans could still be described by The Washington Post as a “beleaguered minority” for whom Coetzee’s attempts at boxing glory represented “a chance at a national vindication.”

Instead, Coetzee’s fame worked against apartheid. His 1979 bid for the title brought the first racially integrated crowd — 81,000 people — to Loftus Versfeld Stadium, in Pretoria.

When The New York Times canvassed people in the Black township of Soweto for their views of the fight — which pitted John Tate, an African American, against an Afrikaner — even supporters of Tate frequently praised Coetzee.

“Coetzee is a better fighter and a more principled man,” one schoolboy told The Times. “Tate is just here to collect a purse.” In contrast, he continued, “Coetzee will use the title to speak out against apartheid.”

Coetzee did exactly that at a news conference before the fight. “What really makes me happy is for Black, brown and white people to accept me as their fighter,” he said, adding, “People should be treated on merit and not on race or color.”

International sporting contests generally barred South African athletes, making Coetzee one of the nation’s few worldwide athletic stars. Both white and Black South Africans crowded around radios in the middle of the night to hear broadcasts of his fights abroad. One listener, an amateur boxer looking for distraction during an imprisonment of 27 years, was Nelson Mandela.

He sent Coetzee a letter of encouragement before the Dokes fight, and Coetzee replied by sending a videotape of his victory, Mr. Strydom said. For a photo shoot during one of several meetings, the two men faced each other in a boxing stance and smiled.

Coetzee’s independent-mindedness was not only ideological. In interviews, he countered expectations for a professional pugilist, speaking softly about boxers who had intimidated him. In the ring, he informed opponents in a matter-of-fact tone that he would knock them out. He took breaks in training to work as a technician at a friend’s dental laboratory.

When Coetzee traveled, he called home every day to check on the well-being of Wendy, a companion he always wanted at his side. Wendy was an English cocker spaniel he had bought when she was a puppy.

Coetzee’s wife “wasn’t too keen on Wendy in the bed,” he told The Times in 1982. “She was afraid of fleas or ticks, but I said, ‘Forget it — my Wendy is a clean dog.’ Now she loves Wendy as much as I do.”

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Coetzee in 1997. After he spoke out against apartheid, he earned the respect of Nelson Mandela.

Gerhardus Christian Coetzee was born on April 8, 1955, in Johannesburg. He grew up in Boksburg, a nearby mining town. His father, Philip, was a car mechanic who ran a local amateur boxing club; his mother, Meisie (Vu Vuurs) Coetzee, was a homemaker.

Gerrie was a shy boy not particularly interested in boxing, but his father paid him 50 cents a week to spar. By 13, he had won a provincial bantamweight title.

He went pro in 1974 and boxed while studying to be a dental technician at the University of the Witwatersrand. He graduated in 1976.

He rose to fame in June 1979 when he faced off against Leon Spinks, who a year earlier had fought Muhammad Ali in two high-profile bouts, winning the first and losing the second but briefly gaining the status of undisputed heavyweight champion.

In what an announcer called an “amazing upset,” Coetzee pulverized Spinks, knocking him down three times in the first round. The decisive blows came from Coetzee’s right hand, around which a mystique grew. He fractured it again and again, and a 1978 operation fused his metacarpal bones into a permanent fist, leading some to call the hand “bionic.”

In 1979, The Washington Post quoted a doctor saying Coetzee’s right hand “could punch a hole in a brick wall.”

That year, Coetzee had the chance to become World Boxing Association champion, a title that Ali had vacated by retiring. Instead, John Tate handed Coetzee his first professional defeat. In another title bout the next year, Coetzee was knocked out by Mike Weaver.

That match haunted him.

“I saw the punch coming, I saw the crowd clearly when I was down, I heard the referee counting, but my legs just would not respond to my brain,” he told The Times in 1981. For three nights he did not sleep, replaying the scene in his mind’s eye, he said.

After Dokes beat Weaver in 1983, Coetzee got a final shot at the title. In that fight he was the aggressor, driving Dokes to the ropes for much of the fight. In the fifth round, he gave Dokes the first knockdown of Dokes’s career and, in the 10th round, he used his left hand to prop Dokes up while pounding him with his right, sending him conclusively to the mat.

Crucially, Coetzee displayed new power in his left hook, which he used to set up the devastating punches of his infamous right fist.

At the pinnacle of his career, Coetzee was one of three claimants to the title of world heavyweight champion, along with Larry Holmes, the International Boxing Federation titleholder, and Pinklon Thomas, the holder of the World Boxing Council’s belt. Schism reigned until Mike Tyson became the undisputed boxing champion in 1987.

Coetzee lost his title belt to Greg Page, who knocked him out in 1984. His career in prime time ended ignominiously, with a first-round flattening by a brawny and focused Frank Bruno in 1986.

Coetzee married Rina Steyn in 1976. She survives him, as do their son, Gerhard; their daughters, Lana and Tana Coetzee; two brothers, Jansie and Flip; a sister, Gerda van Aswegen; and seven grandchildren.

Part of Coetzee’s image as a figure of racial comity came from his friendship with his sparring partner, the African American boxer Randy Stephens, and his worship of Ali. During a stint in the army, Coetzee spent most of a month’s salary on a copy of “The Greatest,” Ali’s 1975 memoir.

Coetzee and his wife were invited to his hero’s hotel room in the late 1970s. When a TV crew showed up, Ali began taunting Coetzee, crowing that he could beat him “to the moon” and suggesting that Coetzee’s wife was probably a more skilled fighter than Coetzee.

But Coetzee preferred to dwell on what happened when the crew left. “He was nice again,” he recalled to The Times, “and poured us some tea.”