Former WBA heavyweight champ Gerrie Coetzee dies at age 67
Gerrie Coetzee, the former WBA heavyweight titleholder from South Africa, died on Thursday at the age of 67. Lana Coetzee, the daughter of “The Boksburg Bomber” told South African outlet IOL Sport that he had died from “an aggressive form of cancer” that they’d only discovered the previous week.
Coetzee, who first put on boxing gloves at age 7 after his father bribed him with 50 cents to try sparring at a local gym, compiled a professional record of 33-6-1 (21 knockouts) during a career that ran from 1974 to 1997.
The 6’4” fighter rose to prominence amid the height of Apartheid and its accompanying boycotts, which complicated his attempts to break out into the international heavyweight scene. Despite racial tensions at the time, Coetzee was a vocal opponent of the segregation policies, telling The Washington Post in 1979 that “people should be treated on merit and not on race or color.”
“I feel I am fighting for everybody, black and white,” Coetzee said. “What really makes me happy is for black, brown and white people to accept me as their fighter.”
After defeating all domestic challengers, earned international recognition in 1979, knocking out Leon Spinks in one round, in what was supposed to be Spinks’ bounce back fight after losing the heavyweight championship to Muhammad Ali.
The win earned Coetzee his first shot at the WBA heavyweight title. He faced “Big” John Tate in his next bout in front of 86,000 fans at Pretoria’s Loftus Versfeld Stadium, which was desegregated prior to the bout after calls of a boycott from civil rights leaders. Tate won the fight by unanimous decision. Coetzee received another shot at the belt the following year against Tate conqueror Mike Weaver, but lost by 13th round knockout.
After losing a split decision to Renaldo Snipes in 1981, Coetzee went on a 5-fight unbeaten streak, which included a draw against Pinklon Thomas, before finally winning the WBA title with a tenth round knockout of Michael Dokes. About 1,200 South Africans made the trip to Ohio with Coetzee for the fight, which was named “Upset of the Year” of 1983 by The Ring.
Coetzee defended his title back home in South Africa the following year, losing by eighth round knockout to Greg Page. Coetzee was knocked out by a left hook, though the ending was controversial after sports writers noted that the knockout round was nearly four minutes long.
Coetzee would never again fight for a world title, being knocked out in one round by Frank Bruno in Wembley Arena in the United Kingdom in 1986. Coetzee wouldn’t fight again until 1993, when, after relocating to Newport Beach, Calif., he returned to the ring to knock out Dave Fiddler in Sacramento. Coetzee fought again that year, then took off another three-plus years, winning again before being stopped in ten rounds by former middleweight champion Iran Barkley, who had ballooned up to 229 pounds for the bout. The Barkley fight would be his last as a professional.
A movie on the life and career of Coetzee titled “Against All Odds” had been in production prior to his death, but will now have to be released posthumously.
Coetzee leaves behind a wife, Rina, three children and seven grandchildren.
Ryan Songalia has written for ESPN, the New York Daily News, Rappler and The Guardian, and is part of the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism Class of 2020. He can be reached at [email protected].