A few months ago, Muhammad Ali, who claimed he didn't want to fight anymore anyway, peddled his World Boxing Association heavyweight championship for $400,000 and slipped into early retirement. Promoter Bob Arum made the payment to Ali for a reason: the champion's delay in picking an opponent for his next fight was costing the promoter a chance for some lucrative bouts in South Africa, which was impatient to have one of its white hopes, Kallie Knoetze or Gerrie Coetzee, emerge as The Great One's successor.
That was an appealing idea—if you happened to be a white South African isolated from reality. There were a few built-in problems. The largest, at 240 pounds, was, of course, John Tate, a nice fellow who operates like a bulldozer. Big John doesn't move very fast but he knocks down a lot of trees.
Tate's sledgehammer fists chased Knoetze from the title scheme with an eighth-round knockout last June in Bophuthatswana. Then last Saturday night, beneath a coal black South African sky dimpled by a single dim star, Tate dismantled Coetzee in Pretoria, winning a 15-round decision and the WBA title Ali vacated.
The nearly all-white crowd of 89,000 in Loftus Versfeld Stadium, the hallowed, velvet-turfed bastion of South African rugby, sat in silence as the verdict was announced. No one protested, not even the drunks. South Africans are hungry for a champion, but they can honestly assay a homemade hero soundly whipped, even after paying $3.2 million to watch the whipping.
October 29, 1979
In a seeming burst of generosity the officials, by their scoring, made it appear to be more of a contest than it actually was. Carlos Martinez Casas of Argentina had it 148-145 for the 24-year-old Tate; Referee Carlos Berrocal of Panama, 147-144; and Ken Morita of Japan, 147-142. Many experienced ringsiders had it more like 148-141.
No matter. If Coetzee lost, South Africa still won. Or so some South Africans would have you believe. See, they say, we are letting a black man fight a white man. We are letting black people sit with whites inside our most sacred sports temple. We have changed; we are changing. We are being misjudged.
Had the fight actually been evidence of a change? Yes, a cosmetic change. "What does it really mean," said one black fan, "if for one night I can sit next to a white man when, after the event, he can go home to wherever he wants while I must go home to Soweto?"
Soweto is a 35-square-mile ghetto, the home of some 1.5 million blacks, who live there not by choice but by law. They are not citizens. They can never own one square inch of land. White children go to school free, blacks must pay. One of the country's largest power plants is in Soweto, but most of the power goes to Johannesburg, which is 13 miles away. Fewer than 25% of the homes in Soweto have electricity. Even fewer have indoor plumbing.
The township is a malignancy neatly laid out in tidy rows of little brick houses. A few roads are paved, but most of them are dirt. At night a pall of coal smoke from cook stoves settles heavily over Soweto, symbolic of the prevailing aura of despair.
Protest in South Africa has a high price tag. Dr. Nthato Motlana, a Soweto physician who is an influential black leader, continues to ignore the laws against speaking out, and he has paid dearly. He has been in Modderbee Prison and expects it to be only a matter of time before he goes back. He is "monitored" by the police constantly.
Motlana was amused when it was suggested that the Tate-Coetzee fight indicated a small change in South Africa's attitude toward blacks. "It means nothing. Tate means nothing," he said. "I am opposed to the fight. I won't go. I doubt if many blacks will go. There is no progress being made in this country. But I hope for the future, when enough pressure is brought by some of the Western countries."
At Tate's camp, set up in posh suburban comfort 10 miles outside Johannesburg, politics were for the moment set aside: Tate's fight was only with Coetzee. He had arrived in South Africa 12 weeks before the bout, weighing 255 pounds. His advisers had brought him in early from Knoxville, Tenn. to avoid anticipated anti-South African demonstrations in the U.S. (Larry Holmes, the WBC heavyweight champion, called him a "robot" for fighting in Pretoria.)
Once in the country, Ace Miller, Tate's manager, asked for films of Coetzee's fights for study. They were promised but never delivered. Finally, after days of protest and angry words, a single film was found.
"It was a highlight film," Miller fumed. "All it showed was Coetzee knocking people down. They didn't give us crap. They pull all kinds of stuff. They want this fight so bad they can taste it."
Soon things began to go sour in the U.S. camp. Tate peaked much too soon. On Sept. 5 he went 12 rounds, stopping all three sparring partners. "God, he's awesome," said Miller to trainer Donny Marshall. "But we've screwed up. He's ready to fight now."
They shifted gears and reduced Tate's training regimen, which in part explained the fact that at 240 he weighed 7 pounds more than he did for Knoetze. Two weeks later Tate came out of a sparring session with an injured left wrist. "It's those damn Joe Louis films," Marshall said. "I knew this would happen."
If Tate has a hero, it is Louis. Seldom does a day pass that he doesn't study at least one reel of one of the old champ's fights. Louis had a habit of posing for photographs as though throwing a left hook with a bent wrist, though he never threw it that way in the ring. A year ago Tate, in mistaken emulation of Louis, got into the habit of bending the wrist when he hooked, which puts an unnatural strain on the hand. Marshall even designed a brace to keep the wrist locked in training sessions. Tate refused to wear it. Finally, the wrist gave way. "I was scared to death," Miller said. "We had it X-rayed right away. But it was just a bad strain. We weren't going to let him fight injured." Treatment and rest took care of the tendinitis. Two days before the fight Dr. Robert Whittle, Tate's personal physician, pronounced the wrist as sound as ever.
Unworried, Tate had passed the days with his crew from Knoxville shooting pool, watching taped cowboy movies on a TV set, lolling in the sun and listening to Richard Pryor tapes or Con Hunley country and western recordings.
"He's so damn relaxed," said Whitey Webb, one of Tate's entourage. "We're all scared to death he might fall asleep at the fight while old Con's singing the national anthem."
While Tate was relaxing, Arum, who co-promoted the fight with Southern Sun hotels, was busy scheduling 10 title bouts over the next 18 months for South Africa. The country is a boxing promoter's gold mine.
For Tate-Coetzee, Southern Sun paid all expenses including the two fighters' purses: $400,000 for Tate and $300,000 for Coetzee. Arum received 40% of the live gate—after the hotel group deducted expenses—plus all television money. NBC, which telecast the fight live, paid $400,000, and another $250,000 came in from foreign TV rights. Arum's share of souvenir concessions brought him an additional $250,000. "Can you believe this?" he said. "From just the souvenir spinoffs I make a quarter of a million. That's more than I make on a whole normal promotion in the States."
In Coetzee's camp, set up in a Johannesburg firehouse, there was talk of the South African's speed, of Tate's using elbows or resorting to other equally foul tactics, and, of course, Coetzee's "bionic" vaunted right hand. Badly shattered in a fight in 1977, the bones of the hand had been fused by the ingenious insertion of eight metal pins, which were later removed. It was the hand that had knocked out Leon Spinks in Monte Carlo last June in a title elimination bout.
Said Hal Tucker, Coetzee's attorney and unofficial manager, "The other day we timed him in 50-flat for 400 meters. Now that's fast." One had to wonder if the South African was going to be in a fight or a footrace. Still, 50-flat is fast and more than a little improbable.
It was speed of both foot and hand that won the first three rounds at Pretoria for the 24-year-old Coetzee, who came in exceptionally heavy at 222. (He weighed 210 for Spinks.) Tate started slowly, which is his pattern, and in the third round took a big right hand to the head, which buckled his knees momentarily. Recovering quickly, he ripped a right of his own to Coetzee's jaw.
For Tate and his people, the South African's punch had answered the only question they were in doubt about. The bionic right was overrated. A confident Tate came out strong in the fourth round, carrying the fight to Coetzee, who suddenly had to discover if he could fight going backward. He could, but not very well.
Coetzee won the fifth round, but he was not to win another as Tate, who was beginning to work on the body, slowly wore him down. By the 10th round the fight had become so dull that only national pride was keeping the fans awake.
From that point Coetzee appeared to be confused. He looked to his corner for help. Over the last three rounds only his determination kept the fight going. Badly spent, he survived on courage.
And then, when it was over, Tate, now 20-0 as a pro since winning a bronze medal in the 1976 Olympics, mentioned something about fighting Larry Holmes. Easy does it. Give it at least a year, Big John.