The toughest fight for Gerrie Coetzee has always been against self-doubt. And so, for a single frantic moment at the end of the 10th round last Friday night in the Richfield Coliseum outside Cleveland, Coetzee, blood streaming from a nasty slash over his right eye, panicked. With only two seconds remaining in the round, Coetzee's fragile right hand had sent WBA heavyweight champion Michael Dokes crashing heavily to the floor. "It's broken again," Coetzee thought as a searing pain exploded in the hand that has undergone 15 operations to repair boxing-induced injuries. "Please, God, don't let him get up," Coetzee prayed fervently. Then the bell rang, draining the 5-1 underdog from Boksburg, South Africa of the only self-confidence he has carried into any of his three WBA title fights.
"That frightening moment will be frozen in my mind forever," the 215-pound Coetzee would say later. There was Dokes, stretched out on his left side, with his right arm thrust upward as he grasped the middle strand of the ropes in the last seconds of his 9½-month reign as champion. Coetzee refused to believe it. Trouble was, he couldn't remember whether—under the WBA rules—a fighter could be saved by the bell. Confused and desperate, he turned to Referee Tony Perez, who was across the ring picking up the count from the timekeeper.
Only when Perez rushed to the downed Dokes, who could not muster the will to rise, and began tolling off the final five numbers, hitting 10 at 3:08 of the round, did Coetzee realize that he had won the prize he'd been pursuing since Oct. 20, 1979. That was the day he'd lost a 15-round decision to then-champion John Tate in Pretoria, South Africa. And he'd lost again on Oct. 25, 1980, when he'd been knocked out in the 13th round by Mike Weaver, Tate's successor, in Sun City, Bophuthatswana.
"We won it by two seconds," said Peter Venison, Coetzee's manager, as he studied the judges' highly curious scoring through the first nine rounds. "With his hand broken, or with him thinking it was broken, Gerrie never could have won any of the last five rounds. He would have thrown the right hand, but he would have made sure he didn't hit Dokes with it. If Dokes had got up...."
In a fight dominated by Coetzee in all but the third and fourth rounds, when he was regrouping after being sliced diagonally from the outer corner of his eye upward to the middle of his eyebrow by a second-round Dokes hook, the most accurate of the judges, Guy Jutras of Canada, had Dokes behind by only three points going into the 10th. The other two must have worn blindfolds: Samuel Conde of Puerto Rico had Coetzee ahead only 87-85; Fernando Viso of Venezuela had him in front by a single point.
No matter. A few days earlier Coetzee had casually dismissed any need for judges, and with a confidence he introduced like a newly found friend, he'd spoken of finding himself as a fighter at the age of 28 in the tough and gritty gyms of America, GIVE US YOUR TIRED, YOUR HUNGRY, YOUR UNCONFIDENT.
After his losses to Tate and Weaver, Coetzee said he'd realized that "if I stayed in South Africa, I would never be anything more than the heavyweight champion of South Africa. I had to find out if I could be more than that." So last year he took his family—wife Rina and their two children, Lana, now three, and Gerald, 18 months—to Brigantine, N.J. "It was Cedric who convinced me to do it," Coetzee said of his South African promoter, Cedric Kushner. "My family needed a future, things I could never give them in South Africa."
He began his American campaign in September 1982 by knocking out Stan Ward in two rounds; four months later, plagued by yet another break in his right hand, he fought a draw with Pinklon Thomas. After the fight, 28 stitches were needed to close a cut over his left eye. Then it was back to South Africa for another operation on his right hand.
Says Coetzee: "Before I fought Thomas I knew there was something wrong with the hand. They took pictures and said it was an old fracture. But the pain was there. I can't lie to myself. When I got a problem, I can't convince myself I feel good. They had to drag me into the ring; I knew something was wrong. It was like when I fought Tate. I'd just got lucky with Leon Spinks and knocked him out in June of 1979 in one round. And I mean lucky. Off of that, I got the Tate fight. I thought they were trying to get me killed. I told them, 'Hey, I'm just a little white fighter and you're throwing me in with the best in the world.' Then I got in the ring, saw this big guy and thought, 'Hey, there's no way I can win.' "
He came off the loss to Tate to score a one-round knockout of journeyman Mike Koranicki—and then he fought Weaver. "There are only two heavyweights in South Africa, and here they're telling me that one of those two, me, is one of the three or four best in the world," Coetzee says. "I don't give myself a one-percent chance. The more they tell me I can knock him out, the more I think they are trying to brainwash me. I got eyes. And I had only two sparring partners, and one of them I lose right away because I hurt his ribs. Then I have to take it easy on the other one or I won't have any."
Following the last operation on his right hand, almost eight months ago, Coetzee returned to the U.S. in search of an American trainer. In South Africa, competent boxing trainers are rarer than black voters. Angelo Dundee and Emanuel Steward were both approached; both were too busy. "Then I decided to kill two birds with one stone," said Kushner, who was also looking for a cut man.
The stone turned out to be Jackie McCoy, the Los Angeles longshoreman who managed and trained former welterweight champion Carlos Palomino. McCoy said he would have no problem working in concert with Willie Locke, the handler Coetzee had brought with him from South Africa, and Coetzee moved temporarily to Huntington Beach, Calif., where McCoy worked on developing Coetzee's left hand, which had fallen into disuse because he had been concentrating on his so-called bionic right.
"I always had a left hand, but I never used it with the right," Coetzee said before fighting Dokes. "After I broke my right hand the first time, in 1978, I was knocking everybody out with left hooks. At first, the break was a blessing because I had to do more with my left. But then I overworked it and hurt my shoulder. An operation made that O.K., but by then I'd knocked out Spinks in one round and I went back to being right-hand crazy. Now Jackie has shown me a real nice hook, and he has me working with two hands. Dokes thinks I only have one hand. He'll learn."
Coming in at 217—six pounds lighter than in his May rematch victory over Weaver—the 25-year-old Dokes's primary battle plan was to circle to his right, to Coetzee's left, to keep away from the fabled right hand. That was fine with Coetzee, who wanted to introduce Dokes to his revamped left hand. In the first round, Coetzee banged a hard right to the body and then whacked Dokes with a hard left hook to the head. Dokes, who was undefeated at 26-0-2 compared with Coetzee's 28-3-1, wasn't hurt, but he knew he would be if he didn't somehow neutralize this unexpected firepower from a new quarter.
There was little deception to Coetzee's attack; he moved toward his target with tiny shuffling steps, his body fully erect in the classic European style, seeking out flaws in Dokes's defense. In the second round Coetzee caught Dokes with a hard smash to the head; an expression of enlightenment brightened Coetzee's somber face. Later he would say, "I saw how it hurt him, and I knew the fight was mine." But late in that round, Dokes cut Coetzee over the eye, and the challenger took the next two rounds off to reassess his chances.
By the fifth round, McCoy had closed the cut enough to restore Coetzee's confidence, and Coetzee ended his brief sabbatical with a very short right hand that dropped Dokes, who was more embarrassed than hurt. The right had caught Dokes as he was trying to pull away from a lunging left hook, which Coetzee was using often and well enough to keep the champ off balance.
From the sixth through the ninth rounds, Dokes seemed to be waiting for Coetzee to live up to the major criticism of his boxing talents: that he has the stamina of a half-miler trying to run a marathon. "It may have been true once that I tired in the late rounds," Coetzee said, "but it wasn't because I didn't have the stamina. It was because of the way I had to train in South Africa. Over here I was able to spar with 11 good heavyweights. In South Africa you don't have 11 heavyweights, much less 11 good ones. Here, some days, I sparred 15 or 16 rounds. And I took a stress test with a doctor in Los Angeles. When I had finished, he told me that only two or three percent of the people in the whole world had the stamina that I have."
Still, his father, Flip, had given Coetzee less than a 30% chance against Dokes. "When I heard that, I couldn't believe it," McCoy said. Later, the senior Coetzee dropped his estimate to 2%.
Coetzee shrugged and said, "My father has always been a very negative person. I guess that's where I get my pessimism. Once, when I fought Mike Schutte very early in my career, he told me that I was too young and that Schutte would destroy me. I won in 12 rounds. Then, when I signed for this fight, he told me it would never come off. And, when it did, he gave me very little chance."
In the 10th, Coetzee made a believer of even his father. Midway through the round, he hooked Dokes hard to the ear, missed with a savage right and then caught him solidly with a left uppercut, moving him back into a corner. Three times Dokes tried desperately to tie up Coetzee, but each time Coetzee bulled his way free to get off at least one more punch.
As Dokes attempted to duck away, Coetzee banged a right off the back of his head and then brought him back into range with a backhand sweep of his left. Dokes fell back into the same corner. A jab sailed over Dokes's right shoulder, and then a right cross slammed into the side of his head. As the champion's eyes rolled up, Coetzee stepped back. He had felt the pain of the hand giving way.
"But I thought," he would say later, "to hell with the pain. I've got him going; I've got to hit him again." Stepping in, he crashed a right to the chin, which sent Dokes toppling semiconscious to the floor. Two seconds later the bell rang, and Coetzee's heart plunged into his stomach. He had done everything right, except to read the rule book.
The fight's aftermath was bittersweet for the Coetzee family. Seventeen hours later Rina, who had attended the fight, gave birth by cesarian section to their third child, a seven-pound, 12-ounce daughter, Tana. And Dr. Jock Lewin, a South African physician, determined that Coetzee had refractured his right hand between the index and middle fingers.
Meanwhile, the reaction in South Africa, where the fight was televised starting at 4:22 a.m. Saturday, was hysterical. Newspapers rushed out extra editions with six-inch-high headlines. There was jubilation in both the white and black sections of segregated Johannesburg. Government leaders, including President Marais Viljoen, Prime Minister Peter Willem Botha and Foreign Minister Roelof F. Botha, sent congratulatory telegrams.
"I must thank the American people, especially the black people, for being so good to me wherever I went," Coetzee said after the fight. "They accepted me as a sportsman." But would he defend his title back in South Africa?
"I want to defend my title where I won it," he said. "I want to be a people's champion, and I want to be a champion America can be proud of."
If Don King, who holds options on Coetzee's fights for as long as he holds the title, has any say, South Africa is out of the question. But a black-white championship confrontation may not be.
"In that case," said WBC heavyweight champion Larry Holmes Saturday from his home in Easton, Pa., "they might think about giving me a call about a unification fight. All they have to do is get the WBC and WBA to agree. I always said I wouldn't fight him in South Africa, but I never said I wouldn't fight him here. Not if the money is right. I've always said that there is only one real heavyweight champion. I wouldn't mind at all another chance to prove it."