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A Boxing Memory: Gerrie Coetzee

Coetzee's life and career unfolded in the era of apartheid in South Africa, and he was part of a generation of heavyweights that is often overlooked


Gerrie Coetzee's recent passing in early 2023 at the age of 67 due to lung cancer serves as a poignant reminder of how often past and sometimes forgotten fighters are overlooked, particularly when they retire. Coetzee's life and career unfolded in the unforgiving era of apartheid in South Africa, and he was part of a generation of heavyweights that is often underappreciated.

During the 1980s, politics and other external factors drained the discipline and ambition of many heavyweight contenders, making it a forgettable era for the division. Coetzee, a vocal critic of apartheid, faced numerous challenges in his career, including a right hand injury that required multiple surgeries. Despite these setbacks, he became the WBA heavyweight champion of the world.

Coetzee's reign as champion was abruptly interrupted by controversial circumstances in 1984 when he faced Greg Page. Page knocked Coetzee out, but the round had gone over by nearly a minute, and earlier in the fight, Page had landed punches after the bell. Complaints were made about the result, but the expected reversal never materialized, denying Coetzee a chance to reclaim his title.

After the loss to Page, Coetzee's career dwindled, and he even admitted to not giving his full effort in a fight against Frank Bruno in 1986. He eventually retired, but several comebacks in the 1990s, driven more by a sense of fun than ambition, extended his career into his forties. He fought until 1997, culminating in a loss to Iran Barkley.

Before fading into relative obscurity, Coetzee was one of the better fighters of the 1980s heavyweight landscape. Born in Johannesburg in 1955, he started as an amateur boxer and had 192 amateur fights with 185 wins before turning professional in 1974. His high-level professional career began impressively, including a one-round victory over former undisputed heavyweight champion Leon Spinks.

Coetzee had two previous attempts at winning the heavyweight title before his memorable victory over Michael Dokes in 1983. His win over Spinks earned him a shot against John Tate, although Tate won in a controversial fight in Pretoria, South Africa. The fight was seen as breaking a sporting boycott and a significant event in the era's political landscape.

After the Tate fight, Coetzee continued his career, including a tough loss to Mike Weaver in 1980. Despite several close calls and near-miss opportunities, his victory over Dokes was a career-defining moment. Coetzee became the WBA heavyweight champion, making him South Africa's first-ever heavyweight champion.

Coetzee faced the challenge of not wanting to be a symbol of apartheid but rather the people's champion. He promoted black fighters and even faced legal issues for training a black fighter in defiance of apartheid laws. Despite the challenges and prejudices of his time, Coetzee remained committed to making a positive impact on the sport of boxing and his country.

In recognition of his contributions to boxing and nation-building through sport, Coetzee was awarded The Order of Ikhamanga in Bronze by South Africa's post-apartheid government in 2003. His story serves as a testament to the power of determination and resilience in the face of adversity.

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