When Gerrie Coetzee won the world heavyweight boxing championship in the late 1980s, not only did he etch his name into the history books, he also united the country during the dark days of apartheid.
Arguably the most celebrated heavyweight boxer in South Africa, Coetzee succumbed to cancer this week in Cape Town. He was 67. He had retired many years ago from the sport that he adored so much.
The fighter, aptly nicknamed “Boksburg Bomber”, will be remembered for doing the unthinkable in the ring by winning the WBA heavyweight belt in 1983. He knocked out the much-fancied American Michael Dokes in the 10th round of their title fight in Richmond, Ohio.
In doing so, Coetzee, a true Afrikaner seun who was referred to as the “great white hope”, etched his name into the global boxing annals by becoming the first African fighter to win a world heavyweight title.
Most of the title-holders of that era were predominantly from the US, with no Africans given a ghost of a chance to claim those diadems.
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But the big right hook of the man who was born in Boksburg, east of Johannesburg, did the trick by sending Dokes crashing to the canvas on the night that was to become South African boxing’s biggest moment.
With the country then still under apartheid racial segregation, Coetzee’s win over Dokes gave local boxing fans a renewed sense of patriotism, as he was revered as being the Messiah who had brought hope to a fragmented society.
So, Coetzee was simply the new sheriff in town in the local boxing fraternity and across the world.
He was also dubbed the man with the bionic hand because he had broken his right hand before his knockout victory over Dokes.
He defied some of the country’s racist laws at the height of apartheid in the late 1970s and 1980s. This obviously gained him popularity among both black and white fans.
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That also earned him the respect of former president Nelson Mandela as the unifier of the country’s boxing fraternity.
What was also remarkable about Coetzee’s exciting boxing career was that he won the heavyweight crown on his third attempt.
This came after he had lost to another American, Big John Tate, in 1979 in a WBA title fight that was in the offing following Muhammad Ali’s retirement.
Weaver stopped him in the 13th round. He later disposed of former undisputed champion Leon Spinks before he went on to surrender his belt to Greg Page in 1984.
But Coetzee’s career continued to flourish as he made a name for himself inside the square ring, despite losing the title. Trained by his dad Flip and Willie Locke, Coetzee fought a record 40 professional fights.
When his fighting days were over, Coetzee went on to plough back into local professional boxing as a promoter.
There is no doubt his death will leave a void in the sport of fisticuffs.