Often attached to great fights is some type of tie-in to a larger social occurrence, event or aspect thereof, and it tends augment the overall meaning of a bout past what it would normally mean within the masochistic realm of boxing.
Joe Louis vs. Max Schmeling II will forever be conjoined with the “U.S. vs. Germany” aspect of World Wwar II; Joe Frazier vs. Muhammad Ali I to the American Civil Rights movement; Bernard Hopkins vs. Felix Trinidad to the September 11th attacks; and so forth.
A sort of greater philosophical meaning or implication isn’t necessary to slingshot a fight beyond the normal “good fight” category, but it sure helps.
In South Africa in particular, the institution of apartheid was and is a controversial topic, but not often thought of as having significant ties to boxing in just about any way. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, however, as tensions slowly simmered in the South African region, daydreams of a new “Great White Hope” led to some white fighters being positioned as pawns in a broader race war.
And Gerrie Coetzee was one of those fighters.
In 1955, Gerhardus Christian Coetzee was born in Boksburg, South Africa — a mining city not far from Johannesburg. Gerrie’s father Philip, or “Flip” as most knew him, came from a long line of boxing fanatics and participants, and he was determined to make his son a fighter when the boy was knee-high to a grasshopper.
Gerrie began boxing at the age of six, and in his teen years, Flip saw that his boy trained diligently and did roadwork religiously. When Gerrie was 13, Flip built a gym on the side of the house where the youngster trained every day, despite not having a lot of money. Later Flip would say, “Even when he was sick, I took him from his bed to the gym.”
Growing up with the elder Coetzee was a skirmish in itself for Gerrie, the oldest of four children. By the time the side yard gym was erected, Gerrie had already won his first amateur title, though Flip was constantly demanding his son’s foes be larger and larger, and not necessarily just in the ring.
As Gerrie and his mother Franie would later tell it, Flip would often escalate verbal confrontations over mundane, every day disagreements with strangers into full-on street fights, then call on Gerrie to do the fighting. And Flip would send Gerrie into the ring to fight there too, injured or not. At one point, Flip supposedly cut a cast from Gerrie’s arm after he’d broken it at a track and field event when he was 14, and made the boy fight (and win) regardless.
Flip wasn’t averse to thumping his son’s skull a few times himself, either, which had a hand in molding Gerrie into the fighter he would become. By the time Gerrie turned professional in 1974, he’d won a heap of regional titles like the Transvaal, Eastern Transvaal and Border championships, and ended up with a reported amateur record of 185-7, with three of his losses to controversial countryman, and future heavyweight contender, Kallie Knoetze.
Through his first 10 bouts, Coetzee built a record of 10-0 (5 KO), with his only really notable win coming against Jimmy Richards, a local veteran that had fought a who’s who of South African fighters. In his 11th bout in April, 1976, he scored a technical knockout of Richards in a rematch to capture the White Transvaal heavyweight strap, and then forced American journeyman Ron Stander’s corner to throw in the towel for him in the 8th, gaining a bit of international attention in the process.
Stander would protest the stoppage afterwards, though, claiming to The Omaha World Herald that his cornerman Pat O’Grady had gotten sick and couldn’t attend the fight, and was replaced by a South African who supposedly threw in the towel when he wasn’t hurt.
Coetzee won the South African heavyweight belt in August of 1976 by disqualification over Mike Schutte in what was reportedly an infamously dirty fight. In the 1st, Coetzee floored Schutte with one of the first right hands he threw, which only served to enrage the 260 pound ogre. According to South African political blogger Marvin Caldwell-Barr, “Mike started the rough stuff, but Gerrie showed he was more than willing to reciprocate. They threw everything at each other: fists, forearms, elbows and knees; and they used their heads like wrecking balls.”
In the 6th, Schutte reportedly wrestled Coetzee to the canvas and attempted to kick him in the head, which prompted a disqualification.
Before the year was out, Coetzee scored a points win over fellow prospect and former conqueror Knoetzee, then defended his belt by KO in 7 over Non-White South African champ James Mathatho. With the win over Mathatho, Gerrie became the first to ever unify the “White” and “Non-White” versions of a South African heavyweight title.
His determination and powerful right hand were factors in elevating his status in the boxing community, but already Gerrie had begun having problems with his vaunted right — a hand he would have surgery on more than 20 times over the course of his career. It would later inspire his nickname: “The Bionic Hand.”
Another defense over Pierre Fourie by KO in the 3rd sent Gerrie into a rematch with Schutte, who’d beaten Rodney Bobick and Chuck Wepner in the meantime. Gerrie won on points handily.
Four more wins before the year was out, two by stoppage, included a KO over Johnny Boudreaux and a points win over Ibar Arrington, and brought his record to 21-0 (11 KO).
In March of 1978, it was announced that Coetzee would fight a month later against Joe Frazier, who was set to come out of retirement for the fight. By that time, Ring Magazine had Coetzee ranked #10 at heavyweight.
However, AP report days later announced that the chairman of the Transvaal Provincial Boxing Control Board rejected the application of the promotional outfit ProBoks, announcing that it “cannot recommend the fight to the relevant authorities in terms of the act and regulations under which professional boxing is controlled in South Africa,” leading to speculation that a high-profile mixed race heavyweight bout would stoke racial tensions.
Following speculation that Coetzee would be pitted against highly-ranked Ken Norton in South Africa, then Ali in Japan, Coetzee and Knoetze were signed by Bob Arum and Top Rank in February of 1979 with the intention of entering them into a WBA tournament to fill the vacancy left by Ali, who was scheduled to retire. But Coetzee was instead matched with Leon Spinks, who hadn’t fought since handing Muhammad Ali his belt back nine months earlier via decision, and Knoetze with John Tate.
And it probably wasn’t a coincidence that two of the participants were white South Africans, while the other two were black Americans.
Much of the media coverage going into the first round of the tournament operated under the assumption that both South Africans would win, and preliminary plans were already being set to schedule a bout between the two. A few weeks before Coetzee-Spinks, though, the lumbering, heavy-handed John Tate stopped Knoetze in eight, dashing the idea.
A week before Coetzee-Spinks met up in Monte Carlo, Ali sent a well-timed retirement letter to the WBA, which essentially legitimized the tournament in a sense.
Spinks’ U.S. training camp alone lasted three months, which was fairly unusual for the time. He continued to train after traveling over to Europe for the fight, though, leading to speculation about whether he’d be over-trained. But he mugged and clowned for press as Coetzee hosted open workouts in the weeks before the fight. After one such workout, Coetzee told an AP reported in San Remo, “Attacking is the tactic Spinks likes most. I will try to stop him. I know how to fight in defense too, but I think I’ll do the advancing [on fight night].”
And Leon ran smack into Coetzee’s right hand not long into Round 1, hitting the deck hard and rising on shaky legs. Again he was downed by right a few exchanges later, and then sent nearly through the ropes by a series of rights two minutes into the round, leading to a stoppage in under three minutes.
Coetzee earned just over $100,000 for the two or so minutes of work, and ever the devout Christian, he said after the bout, “I asked the Lord to help me in the fight, and I want to thank Him. I must tell the people the Lord answered my prayers.” But his focus was immediately on a duel with John Tate for the title, saying “I am now thinking of Tate. It would be another difficult engagement. I will train hard as usual and again will pray to the Lord to help me.”
At the Jersey City Armory a few days after Coetzee vs. Spinks, Ali showed up to box in exhibitions as a favor to promoter Murad Muhammad, who was a former member of his entourage. After being knocked down in jest four times against Governor Brendan Byrne and Jersey City Mayor Thomas Smith, Ali said, “I got an offer three days ago from a promoter in South Africa to fight Gerrie Coetzee anywhere I want. I turned it down.”
The supposedly $50 million offer was nearly unprecedented, though, and proved that pairing the political and racial hubbub in South Africa with world stage boxing was big business.
Ahead of Tate vs. Coetzee, Tate trained in Johannesburg and traveled with what he called his entourage of “hillbillies” — a group of friends that the local South African press referred to as “The Hillies.” Coincidentally, Coetzee often brought along a black South African cheering section of friends and fans where he went.
A little less than two months before the fight, the American Coordinating Committee for Equality in Sport and Society announced its intention to protest NBC’s decision to cover the bout from Pretoria, South Africa in light of the ongoing unrest. Said Arum via the AP in New York, “This fight does not depend on TV money. We have sold the fight to Southern Sun Hotel in South Africa and they are working to make a profit. And we still would have the television to the rest of the world.” And regarding a potential NBC cancellation, Arum said, “Quite frankly it would be a terrible precedent and a terrible censorship. The way to handle [a protest against South African apartheid] is not to isolate them but to have a dialogue.”
Two weeks before the fight, Coetzee’s manager Hal Tucker kicked out a pair of publicists appointed by Arum on the charge that Top Rank was so pro-Tate in the promotion that it proved detrimental to Coetzee’s camp. Further, during a pre-fight medical check of both fighters, Tate ripped the WBA belt from Coetzee’s hands and heckled him relentlessly before Coetzee walked silently to a corner with his head hung low.
But the bout and coverage moved forward as scheduled, and in late October, over 85,000 integrated (though mostly white) fans packed into the Loftus Versfeld Stadium, which generally served as a rugby stadium.
Coetzee started relatively quickly, pressuring Tate as the larger man was more content to box and circle from the outside, perhaps in an attempt to conserve his energy. Gerrie caught Tate with his right hand in the 3rd, wobbling the former migrant worker, but failing to put him down. And he continued bulling Tate backwards in an attempt to catch him on the ropes until the 7th and 8th rounds, where Tate opened up with shots upstairs and down, landing the cleaner punches and doing damage. When Coetzee got close, Tate either tied him up or pushed him backwards, basically coasting to a comfortable unanimous decision win through the later rounds.
A dejected Coetzee said following the bout, “Maybe the Lord just didn’t want me to be champion. I don’t know … I’m feeling bad. I really wanted to be the next world champion. I just didn’t make it.”
He took six months off before coming back to Johannesburg to face Mike Koranicki in April of 1980. Before the bout, Koranicki’s trainer Bob Mekita delivered some unintentional comedy to AP reporters in South Africa after a training session, saying, “We have found eight major flaws in Coetzee. One of them will be fully exploited, the other seven will be used as decoys.” Coetzee stopped Koranicki after throwing six punches total, though only three needed to connect to stop the American: a left-right-left combination.
Some legal trouble came in the form of Coetzee punching a newspaper photographer outside of a courthouse in July, but before long he was slated to tangle with the man who had ensured John Tate’s title reign remained brief, Mike Weaver.
Born in Gatesville, Texas in 1951, Michael Dwayne Weaver moved to Compton, Calif. as a child, in the midst of what is now known as the “Second Great Migration” — a potent social movement in itself, whereby millions of black Americans essentially fled racism and harsh treatment in the South, usually eventually settling either North or West. Compton in particular was a common destination due to the wealth of labor jobs nearby.
Mike Weaver and siblings added up to 11 children total, including triplets Floyd, Lloyd and Troy, his three brothers that took after their father Ordain, who boxed for a time himself.
When Mike was 17, he joined the U.S. Marine Corps and served in Vietnam. But before he ended his service in 1971, Weaver accidentally wound up on the Marine Corps boxing team. According to Mike, he knocked out with one punch a man he would later learn was the heavyweight champion of the Corps at the time. It apparently inspired him to train more seriously and add bulk to his frame that eventually earned him the nickname “Hercules,” and he would turn professional in September, 1972.
In his pro debut, he was stopped in the 3rd by future California State heavyweight champion Howard Smith at the Olympic Auditorium in L.A., and he rematched Smith a month later, losing a 5 round points verdict.
He regrouped to decision his third opponent Carlos Lopez before being halted by unknown Fresno heavyweight Billy Ryan in February of 1973. But he strung together three victories by knockout after that, including one over Tongan Tony Pulu and another over Lyn Martin in his first and only fight at the Forum in Inglewood.
But in December of ’73, he was overwhelmed in two by pseudo-contender Larry Frazier.
This was essentially the calling card of his early career: win one, lose two; win two, lose one. Mike Weaver couldn’t stay consistent with his performances or conditioning.
After snagging a points win at the Olympic, Weaver settled in San Diego for the next few months and fought three times at the San Diego Coliseum. The first bout was against Rodney Bobick, younger brother of Olympic silver medalist Duane — though perhaps most famous for being one of Muhammad Ali’s sparring partners ahead of the “Thrilla in Manila” — where Weaver battled to a unanimous decision loss.
He would then take on former Midwestern Golden Gloves champion Orville Qualls, knocking his man out in two rounds and ending his career, as Qualls would never fight after that.
Next up was Duane Bobick, who, according to AP reports, had a rough fight with Weaver despite dropping him in the 2nd and cutting him over his left eye in the 7th, where the bout was stopped in favor of the elder Bobick. Later Duane would say, “I could’ve used a rest after the Weaver fight” in reference to the tough win.
A month later, Weaver was in Hawaii scoring a points win over Mani Vaka before putting together seven more wins in a row. Among them was a televised 10 round majority decision over Bill Sharkey at the Beacon Theater in New York on April Fool’s Day in 1977. The bout was part of Hank Schwartz and Don Elbaum’s “World Television Boxing Championships,” which was basically what Don King used as his model for the disastrous “U.S. Boxing Championships” series he sold to ABC.
In January, 1978, Mike dropped a 12 round unanimous decision to Stan Ward for the aforementioned California State heavyweight belt in a bout where he was outweighed by 40 lbs. Following a seven-month layoff, he lost another 12 round decision to a much larger guy in Leroy Jones, and this time for the NABF heavyweight belt that had been vacated by George Foreman.
While rattling off five straight wins by either KO or TKO over the next seven months, Weaver bashed Colombian amateur standout Bernardo Mercado in the 5th to take the Nevada State heavyweight belt, and he avenged his loss to Ward, picking up the newly-created USBA heavyweight trinket in the process.
June of 1979 brought Weaver his biggest opportunity with a shot at undefeated WBC heavyweight titlst Larry Holmes on ABC. Weaver came into the bout with a 19-8 (13 KO) record and wasn’t considered much of a threat, but offered up a career-best performance in pressuring and pushing Holmes en route to being TKO’d against the ropes in the 12th round by an exhausted Larry Holmes.
After the bout, Holmes said, holding up his WBC belt, “It’s only worth $150 but that boy wanted it and he tried to kill me for it. Mike Weaver proved a lot of you wrong like I did two years ago. He knocked the hell out of me in the first round and I still hear the bells ringing. I couldn’t see for the next two rounds. That’s when I told him ‘I’m gonna kill you for this belt.'”
And Weaver said, “I’m not ashamed of my loss. I lost to the champion. I’d like to fight the winner of the Holmes-[Earnie] Shavers fight.”
A 4th round KO over Harry Terrell in September led to a televised defense of his USBA title over Scott LeDoux in November. Weaver opted to wriggle away from the free-swinging LeDoux rather than meet him punch-for-punch as he would often do otherwise — a tactic that surprisingly paid off in LeDoux’s home state of Minnesota as Scott’s chin was split open in the 1st and his nose badly cut in th 5th. Weaver took a wide decision, and according to the Springfield Union, “…as the match progressed, the tiring LeDoux hit nothing but air with more and more of his roundhouse punches.”
Meanwhile Olympic bronze medalist Tate had beaten popular South African heavyweights Kallie Knoetze and Coetzee on his way to picking up the WBA heavyweight belt that Ali had vacated. The plan seemed to be either to finagle the WBA title into the hands of a South African so that attorney/budding promoter Bob Arum and boxing historian Jim Jacobs could orchestrate a lucrative showdown with Ali, or to have a controversial South African figure who could sell tickets defending the title in the vacuum of power left by Ali. And Tate ended that plan — temporarily, at least.
Weaver’s minor title defense against LeDoux earned him another title shot, and this time against a far less formidable opponent in Tate, but with a potential shot against Ali on the line. In fact, Ali showed up to sit ringside and watch the bout at the Stokley Athletics Center in Knoxville, Tennessee.
The bout was part of an ABC quadruple header also featuring Holmes vs. Leroy Jones, Ray Leonard vs. Davey Green and Marvin Johnson vs. Eddie Gregory — a card that required rival promoters Arum and King to meet each other halfway, which didn’t happen a ton.
A 2-1 favorite, Tate built up an early lead before a back and forth battle ensued in the middle rounds, but on the scorecards Tate was well ahead going into the later part of the fight. Weaver was able to maneuver his way into the fight with some tenacity and good body work, pushing Tate around the ring between being clinched. In the 15th and final round, Weaver moved forward on Tate as if he knew what the consequence would be if he didn’t, and he landed a short, sickening left hook that stiffened Tate against the ropes, followed by an unnecessary right hand as Tate fell, completely limp.
Arum, who promoted the match up, was apparently disinterested in matching the quasi-retired Ali with Weaver, and Ali continued to talk about fighting in either South America or South Africa for a “Southern Hemisphere heavyweight title.” Weaver waited, however, until being matched against WBA-ranked Coetzee in South Africa.
In the early 1970’s, Ali had resurrected the term “Great White Hope” for a few opponents, perhaps most notably Jerry Quarry, likely because there hadn’t been a white heavyweight champion since 1960, when Ingemar Johansson was toppled by the man he’d beaten for the title, Floyd Patterson.
As for South Africa, apartheid was a respiring, palpable ideology. Aside from natives and dark-skinned peoples being stripped of their voting, land-owning and traveling rights, legislation in the 1940s even limited black folks in their pursuit of jobs. By the early 1980s, social and political turmoil morphed into violence and terrorism, dividing ethnic groups along color-based lines, both figurative and geographical.
In 1979, Knoetze was denied a visitor’s visa following his only fight on U.S. soil against Bill Sharkey for charges of intimidating black South African witnesses to a crime, ending his American tour. But stars aligned when Muhammad Ali essentially sold his WBA belt to Bob Arum for $400,000, and wealthy hotel magnate Sol Kerzner built the Sun City Resort in one of the designated “homelands” for native peoples, Bophuthatswana.
Names like Duane and Rodney Bobick and Chuck Wepner had already been lured over to South Africa for fights, but the convergence of events represented a clear pursuit of putting South African boxing on the map. And Weaver vs. Coetzee served as its inaugural main event at the Superbowl Arena at the Sun City Resort — a sort of “Las Vegas of South Africa,” where the legality of gambling, escorting and other vices was hazy at best.
Reportedly an avid gambler, Weaver said he’d lost $1,000 in a Lake Tahoe casino before he flew to Johannesburg, and reformed his ways for it. He said to AP press, “I reckon I have earned half a million dollars so far and that’s not nearly enough. When you think of Muhammad Ali, it’s not much more than a few cents.”
The narrative of the bout, however, was of course the racial aspect of it, as well as the location of the venue.
From a UPI report from South Africa via the Marietta Journal, “Gerrie Coetzee is on what amounts to a crusade for white South Africans in an attempt to wrest the World Boxing Association heavyweight title from Mike Weaver … Coetzee is not only fighting for himself — he also carries on his shoulders the hopes of white South Africans.”
Both fighters declined to get involved though, opting to simply stick to boxing talk, and both vowing a win inside the distance.
Weaver, a few days ahead of the bout, told the UPI, “It won’t worry me much because he has a cause. I have a cause too — Mike Weaver. Coetzee is my worry, not the people.”
A few years after the fight, Coetzee said to Sports Illustrated, “I want to be the people’s champ. I want to get rid of this rubbish of black champion, white champion. We’re all human, praying to the same Lord, going to the same place if we’re good… I’d hate it for people to call me a Hitler kind of person, fighting for his race. I’m proud of being a white person. If I were black, I’d be proud of that, too. It’s a pity that it has to be this way.”
Arum, who helped negotiate for an 18,000-seat temporary arena to be built as part of the bout agreement, said to the UPI, “The first man to get in a good punch is going to end up the winner. These guys are dead even.”