wanted to see him, to be in the same room that he was," Coetzee says now.
"When he walked in, in his white dressing gown, what a feeling! You
couldn't believe it was real. I was shaking. My wife and I would stay up late
at night after that, talking about him."
when he was in Las Vegas for the Holmes-Marvis Frazier fight, Coetzee saw Ali
again, this time in a darkened bedroom in the Dunes Hotel, which is where the
champ chose to receive him. Coetzee disappeared into the shadows and crouched
at the foot of the bed, while Ali propped himself up on the pillows.
They talked about
how Coetzee would do against Holmes. Ali predicted that Gerrie would beat
Holmes, and gave him advice on how to fight the champion and how to hype the
fight. He told Gerrie how he should look Holmes in the eye and say, "I'm
gonna beat you, nigger!" and let the press go bananas.
worried that he would run out of things to say to Ali; they wound up talking
for about an hour. When Coetzee emerged, his eyes were shining: He had asked
Ali to work his corner. "Ali said we could whip this guy together,"
Gerrie said. "He said I should tell the press that he was considering it. I
feel as if I've been born with a golden spoon in my mouth; I couldn't fight
this guy, but I want him to be in my corner. Holmes gave Ali a hiding, but
together we will whip Holmes!"
left, walking through the din of the slot machines and back across the street
to Caesars Palace, where he was staying. He stopped to buy an icecream cone.
"You know," he said, "if I were a woman, I'd be in love with
Coetzee's relationship with the press and public, and with his own celebrity,
is a cantankerous one. Early in Coetzee's career, it was the other South
African heavyweight, Kallie Knoetze, who assiduously curried the press's favor,
who got most of the attention, while Coetzee and his family developed a
Geiger-counter-like sensitivity to public criticism. South African matchmaker
and boxing writer Reg Haswell can recall afternoons at the racetrack when
Franie Coetzee sought him out and gave him a good tongue-lashing for an
ill-received column. Even now Coetzee will haul out an offending item and read
it aloud with mounting indignation.
that he can't win for losing: He translates from Afrikaans a newspaper column
chiding him for answering a question about whether he will ever lose a fight by
saying that even the great Ali lost. "Why couldn't he have compared himself
to the undefeated Marciano instead?" the writer demanded to know.
retaliated to this perceived lack of support and understanding by refusing to
attend the annual banquet at which the South African sportswriters were to
present him with their Sportsman of the Year Award for 1983. In the small world
of South Africa, such gestures can have seismic repercussions, and the press
reacted as angrily as a jilted prom queen. Complicating matters, Coetzee's
statements in the U.S. denouncing apartheid had already lowered his stock among
But at the boxing
match this past January at an outdoor tennis stadium in Johannesburg, the
undercard bouts were punctuated by shouts of "We want Gerrie!" A steady
stream of small boys and girls made their way to Coetzee's seat to get his
autograph, and when he was introduced from ringside as the honored guest, he
got a standing ovation.
Coetzee puts such
public admiration at a distance, claiming that many South Africans have no idea
what being a heavyweight champion means. "I think a lot of them have it
confused with professional wrestling," he says. "It's a terrible
feeling being a celebrity. The people, the having to put up a pose."