A few weeks ago Larry Holmes, who owns half of the heavyweight championship, was paid something like $2.5 million for beating up an old man in a parking lot in Las Vegas. At the time, it seemed that one would have to go a long way to find a more outrè place to stage a prizefight. Well, last Saturday Mike Weaver, who owns the other half of the title, did. He earned about the same amount of money for punching out a dental technician on the site of an ancient tribal burial ground in a volcanic crater in a flag-of-convenience republic in South Africa called Bophuthatswana.
Besides the loot, Weaver got to keep the WBA crown that had once belonged to Muhammad Ali, the man battered by Holmes in Vegas. Between the reigns of Ali and Weaver there had been John Tate, but last March 31 he was separated from both his senses and his title by Weaver in Knoxville, Tenn. Far behind on points in the 15th and final round, Weaver had won by means of a whistling left hook with but 45 seconds remaining. At the time he'd said he was just a slow starter. Everyone else said he was lucky. But no one will say the 6'1", 210-pound Weaver was lucky this time, having had Gerrie Coetzee's 226½ pounds draped over him for much of a graceless battle before the South African was counted out at 1:49 of the 13th round.
It was Coetzee's 25th pro fight, his second for a world title, and never before had he been off his feet, much less out. And this time when the end came Weaver was leading on all three official cards. He had earned that edge with his fists. In an effort to make sure the fight would be judged by no other criteria, CBS, which telecast it from the budding gambling resort called Sun City, had delivered a stern warning. In a 1½-hour meeting with WBA President Rodrigo Sanchez, Mort Sharnik, the network's boxing overseer, had said CBS would stand for nothing less than an honest verdict. In the past some WBA officials have left a lot to be desired.
For his part, Weaver said he didn't care how the officials' arithmetic came out—"just as long as the referee can count to 10." In the past the 28-year-old former Marine had always trained as an afterthought, if he thought of training at all. But for his first title defense he had put in five weeks at high altitude in Lake Tahoe, where he sparred 220 rounds. At 5,000-foot-high Sun City, in the final four weeks before the bout, he had worked another 180 rounds and had run six miles daily on a golf course—until the day he spotted a band of toothy baboons that had climbed the eight-foot-high elephant fence that separates the southern perimeter of the resort area from a 150-square-mile game preserve. After that, Weaver did his running on the roads.
November 3, 1980
Until 18 months ago there had been no roads to run. Sun City-to-be was then a barren area ringed by the brown Pilansberg Mountains. Enter Southern Sun Hotels, run by the South African entrepreneur Sol Kerzner, in full partnership with the three-year-old Bophuthatswana government. Now the Pilarni tribesmen who had been laid to rest in the crater of the extinct volcano sleep beneath a blend of Las Vegas, Pebble Beach and Forest Hills architecture. But full civilization will not be realized until December, when craps tables will be delivered.
But pleasure exacts a price. For desecrating the burial ground, Kerzner was told by Simon Lieschi, a resident witch doctor, that he must drink the blood of an ox in order to remove the curse he had incurred. There is, however, the suspicion that Kerzner may have found a more palatable exorcism. When he isn't witch doctoring, Lieschi now moon-lights as a security guard in Sun City.
As part of its promotional plan, Sun City put up $2.5 million and erected a temporary 18,000-seat arena. Weaver was paid $2.2 million plus 40% of the TV money negotiated by promoter Bob Arum. As the No. 1-ranked challenger, Coetzee was paid only $150,000, but he said the money was secondary. It was the title he coveted.
And there were moments in the bout when it appeared that Coetzee, whose only defeat had been at the hands of Tate last year, would appropriate Weaver's crown. The burly South African had stunned ex-WBA heavyweight champion Leon Spinks and a young Ohio fighter, Mike Koranicki, with first-round knockouts after his loss to Tate, and he came out smoking against Weaver.
Firing big right hands at the slow-moving champion, Coetzee easily won the first two rounds. He was helped by the fact that Weaver was partially blinded by the liniment someone had rubbed onto Coetzee's chest and broad shoulders. Between rounds, Weaver's cornermen, manager Don Manuel and trainers Ray Barnes and Johnny Tocco, worked frantically to cleanse the champion's eyes.
When Coetzee realized he wasn't going to get to the champion quickly, he phased into Plan 2: throw a few no-harm jabs, followed by a more serious right and then wrestle Weaver into the ropes. The referee, Jesus Celis, a Venezuelan, proved to be totally incapable of controlling the fight and performed in general as though he were working a pro wrestling match. Weaver, in fact, seemed to be the only man in the ring who understood that this was a boxing bout, and he began to score steadily with both powerful hands. At this, Coetzee's grab-and-hold tactics became more desperate.
The turning point came in disguise, when Coetzee exploded a savage right hand against Weaver's jaw midway through the eighth round. Few men could have stood up under such a blow. But Weaver weathered it, and as Coetzee went back to his corner, he had the look of a man who had fired his biggest cannons and had left the enemy unscathed. Certainly nothing in the ninth round, in which Coetzee seemed content to let Weaver regain his senses, dispelled that impression.
The 10th round was uneventful, but in the 11th a short right hand, crisp and cutting, opened the bridge of Coetzee's nose. Twice in apparent panic the challenger wrestled Weaver to the ropes and crushed the champion backward, nearly sending him into the crowd.
In the following round, the same bullish tactic had Weaver snorting in anger until Celis finally got around to hauling Coetzee off. Suddenly a right uppercut by the champion snapped Coetzee's head back. The South African countered with another hug and another grab at the ropes.
During the one-minute rest period between rounds, Manuel ordered the champion to throw more right hands. "He's wide open, tear his damn head off," said the manager. Weaver responded, "Yeah, I'm sick of his grabbing."
Banging away from the start of the 13th, Weaver snapped Coetzee's head back again with a right and dug a hook deep into the tired body looming in front of him. Now stalking his confused foe, Weaver missed with a sweeping right hook, ignored one harmless jab, fired a straight left and followed in a flash with a smashing right hook to the head. Coetzee collapsed. He ended up on his back, his head thumping against the canvas. Slowly the South African rolled over. The silence of the crowd was chilling. At last Coetzee lurched upright, but too late. Celis signaled that he had failed to beat the count.
Celis' only other positive contribution was to have Weaver ahead at that point 117-113. Panamanian judge Amadeo Cedano had the champion on top by just two points, while Ove Ovesson of Denmark had Weaver in front by but one, which made one wonder what fight they were scoring.
Later Weaver said Coetzee had talked to him throughout the fight. "He kept yelling, 'I'm going to knock you out. I'm not tired.' I told him he'd already thrown his best shots and I was still there. Then he kept saying he wasn't hurt. I just laughed and asked him why he was staggering. All he wanted to do was talk and hug." Coetzee might have been wiser to order up an ox-blood cocktail.