Returning to the
cool darkness of his brown-toned living room, Coetzee watches with amusement as
Lana tries to catch a small white butterfly that hovers just beyond her grasp.
A lithe shadow appears: It's 18-year-old Benny Kaars, a black boxer whom
Coetzee hopes to launch on a pro career in America. Coetzee watches his protégé
with the veteran's understanding of youth and untried dreams.
They go back,
Coetzee and Kaars, to that October day in 1980 when Coetzee returned to
Boksburg after he was KO'd by WBA heavyweight champ Mike Weaver, his body
broken and his hopes of ever winning a title dissolving in doubt. A thin little
14-year-old kid sat on his lawn and offered him consolation. "Don't
worry," Kaars told Coetzee. "I'll fight Weaver for you and I'll beat
him. All you have to do is show me how."
registered amazed admiration at the boy's cheek and then disappeared into the
house for a couple of days to let the healing begin. When he came back out, the
boy was still there.
listened to the Coetzee-Weaver fight on an old radio in a store in his hometown
of Lamakkers, 300 miles away. He was with a group of men and boys who were all
looking down the same dead-end street. He listened to some of them cheer for
Coetzee and others cheer for Weaver, and when it was over, he calculated the
odds. "I wasn't going forward in school, and I didn't like the factory,
and, you know, you do what you can do," Kaars says. "I like boxing.
Well, not actually boxing. I like fighting. But fighting you don't get paid
The next day
Kaars ran away from home, headed for Boksburg and waited on Coetzee's lawn,
figuring the worst that could happen was that the boxer would send him away.
Almost four years later, their relationship continues. If at times Coetzee
seems naive, considering the unruly world in which he lives, he reveals his own
experience and maturity when he listens with a wry smile to the unbridled
ambition and raw illusions of the younger man.
"I want to be
a professional fighter," Kaars says, "but not just a professional
fighter, a world champion. I feel like a champion." Fighting as a
lightweight, Kaars has won all but two of his 18 amateur fights, and last year
he was runner-up in his weight class in the South African championship. Now
he's burning to turn pro. "I see the others taking out their ladies in
their big cars, and I can't take out my lady," he says to explain his
impatience. "They go to restaurants and I can't go. But one day I'll be a
champion, and they'll come to me. I'll have my own house, that's the most
important thing. And my own car, a Pontiac, like the one in [the television
series] Knight Rider, and then, a Cadillac."
Kaars is so lost
in these raw illusions that he doesn't notice the smile on his benefactor's
face. "Benny's so anxious to be a professional fighter that he went and
asked someone else to turn him pro," says Coetzee. "Benny doesn't know
I know this, but I know it. What happened, Benny?"
search the carpet anxiously for the answer to this question. Finally he mumbles
something about being followed around the local gym by a man who promised to
make him a champion if Benny would sign with him. "I told him you said that
I was too young to be a pro, but he said he'd make a plan for me and make me a
"And what did
you say?" Coetzee asks.
"I told him
to make a plan, just to keep him off my back," Kaars says, embarrassed.