Gerrie Coetzee is a hero worshiper. His idol is Muhammad Ali, no small concession for a South African Voortrekker. Coetzee (pronounced coat-SEE-ah) has a full-size poster of Ali in his bedroom in the Transvaal, where as a teen-ager he studied to be a dental technician before deciding to make a career as a heavyweight boxer. He greatly advanced that career last Sunday night in Monaco by knocking out Leon Spinks in the first round of their scheduled 12-round bout. In that brief transaction, Coetzee floored Spinks three times, thus sending everyone back to the chemin de fer tables where they could do some losing themselves. For Spinks, the raw brawler who had stripped Ali of the championship in a 15-round decision in February of last year only to surrender it back to Coetzee's idol last September, it was only the second loss of his 10-fight pro career, but it was a most calamitous one. In the nine months since Spinks' muddled and spiritless defense had cost him his title, a new Spinks supposedly had been born. The 1979 model may be nothing more than the old Leon with his hat off. New Leon trains under the hard eye of an ex-cop named Henry Grooms. Grooms has only recently been added to the entourage of the former champion, which like geologic plates, is massive and tends to shift under stress.
Ostensibly, Grooms' job is to keep Leon out of automobiles, his frequent downfall, and teach him a reasonable facsimile of discipline and etiquette. Like where and when not to wear his sensational hats (inside as opposed to outside, for example) and when to plug in the earphones of his megawatt portable stereo, thus reducing the danger that restaurant patrons could be blasted out of their seats on his arrival.
Evidences of Spinks' conversion, if not the talk of Monte Carlo and the Riviera last week, were at least a frequent topic. Leon arrived at the appointed places hat-less, or hat in hand. He often arrived plugged in, a remote captive of his music. But always he arrived late. In matters of time, New Leon is still a confirmed procrastinator.
In the days preceding the fight Spinks seemed always to be somewhere behind Coetzee, an unbeaten but somewhat suspect fighter who had won 21 straight bouts—none, it was invariably noted, outside his homeland. However a less publicized statistic is that he also is the veteran of 192 amateur bouts, having won 180 of them by knockouts. Always Coetzee showed up promptly at press conferences and public functions. Outside a boxing ring, he is a gentle man, a white man liked by his black countrymen. Blacks have spoken out on his behalf in the Transvaal Post because he has "denounced racialism." Always Coetzee was there wherever and whenever promised; always Spinks kept the crowds waiting and fight promoter Bob Arum, the shrewd New York lawyer who rules that half of the boxing world not under Don King's suzerainty, shifting his feet and muttering under his breath.
And sure enough, on fight night there was Coetzee, first again. As far as anyone could tell, New Leon never arrived. By the time his buzzing brain came around to identifying what hit him (to wit, the 24-year-old Coetzee's right hand), the ex-champion was walking back to his dressing room alone, fighting back tears, leaving his entourage shocked and confused.
Meanwhile, Coetzee's backers, nearly as numerous as Spinks', were whooping it up with a purpose. Not only had their hero destroyed Spinks, but also, as a consequence, it seems sure Coetzee's next fight will be against John Tate for the WBA title that the 37-year-old Ali is expected to vacate. Coetzee thus would never meet his idol in the ring, but he has at least had that pleasure outside it. He made a pilgrimage to the U.S. to see Ali last year. Coetzee recalls that he "got goose-flesh" when they met, and that Ali "made me take off my shirt for a picture. He asked me to throw a left jab. He said it was good, but Rina, my wife, could do better."
Three days before the fight with Spinks, Coetzee sat with Rina in a hotel lobby in San Remo. He had just upstaged Spinks again while making an appearance with the mayor and a boys' band; Spinks showed up as everybody was leaving. Softly, almost wistfully, Coetzee said that it scared him, but "right now I do not think I can be beaten." He tapped his forehead with the forefinger of his right hand, the hand he had broken so many times that he almost called it quits a year ago. An operation fusing the carpals to the metacarpals saved his boxing career. "I have seen some things that he does." Coetzee said. "I think I can take advantage of them."
What Coetzee had seen—in films, and on television—was that Spinks could be made to lower his left hand and thus open himself to a right lead. Coetzee planned to make him do this by attacking him under the rib cage, where the 6'1½", 198½-pound Spinks appears almost frail.
As it turned out, Coetzee, who stands 6'3" and weighed in at 221¾, did not have to do any attacking. Spinks came at him "like a bull," Coetzee said afterward. The determined suddenness of the Spinks' assault drew gasps from the tiny crowd (2,000-plus) gathered in an arena that had been hastily thrown together in a parking lot, as well as from Spinks' corner, which had instructed him to feel Coetzee out for a couple of rounds.
Coetzee withstood Spinks' repeated charges, one of which practically propelled the South African through the ropes and onto the apron. When the fighters were disentangled, Coetzee made one sweeping pass at Spinks' ribs. It missed. But Spinks got the message. After that, Coetzee didn't have to send any more, or set up anything, although a telling right after a break was a postscript signalling that Coetzee meant business. Spinks never raised his left much above his waist again. In the two minutes the fight lasted two facts were established: 1) Coetzee proved handsomely that although his hand speed doesn't approach that of Ali, he is not just another boring, lumbering white hope, and 2) the surgeon who operated on his right hand was a helluva career-fixer.
Coetzee's righthands came in breathtaking succession. They were economical deliveries, unerringly to the point, arcing tightly over Spinks' lowered left. The first caught Spinks behind the left ear. It turned him terribly slack and he hit the deck. Spinks was up at the count of eight, but clearly something had been taken out of him. The Coetzee rights that followed were undisguised save for a single diversionary left. Cumulatively, those rapid-fire punches put Spinks down twice more. Later, after the three-knockdown rule had been invoked to stop the fight, Spinks would only remember the first one. "But I was beat, man, you understand that?" New Leon said, rejecting commiseration. "I got beat."
Coetzee said he was "grateful" that Spinks gave him this chance, and that it had allowed him to prove that he had deserved an opportunity to fight for an Olympic gold medal. He did not get that chance in Montreal "because of politics."
Suddenly, with that statement, Coetzee found himself in potential trouble for the first time during his Monte Carlo stay. He headed off reporters by quickly adding, "But I am too young to discuss politics." He also said he was "very surprised" that victory had come so easily. Rina, the one with the superior left jab, said she was surprised, too. "I thought Gerrie would knock him out in the sixth," she said.