know," says Flip's wife Franie, "you were a little bit mad." She's
a tall, fleshy woman, with ruddy cheeks and tired eyes. She says that her sons
Gerrie, Philip Jr., 23, and Jansie, 21, and her daughter, Gerda, who is 26, had
to make their own way as they were growing up. "We didn't always have
money, it wasn't a good time for us. What little bit my children had, they
worked for. And Gerrie worked, he listened. But he was a blooming problem.
Stubborn, willful. He had such willpower. When he was one year old, the doctor
said, 'You must control this kid or he'll control you.' "
Coetzee won his
first amateur title when he was 12 and first knocked out an opponent when he
was 13. Gerrie was big for his age, but Flip looked for opponents who were
bigger and older still. Gerrie fought every other week, sometimes three nights
in a row, collecting titles as he went: Eastern Transvaal, Transvaal,
Franie says that
although Gerrie put his heart into his boxing, it wasn't always enough. Flip,
she says, "doesn't give much rope." When Gerrie was 14, she remembers,
he broke his left arm high-jumping a few days before a match. That weekend,
Flip took the cast off the boy's arm, put the gloves on him and made him get
into the ring. "That was his punishment, and mine," she says.
Flip has his own
story to tell, of the time his son had taken a bad spill from his bicycle and
his hands were raw and bleeding. Flip sneaked him past the doctor at the ring
and got his gloves on before anyone—even the referee—could notice his injuries,
and then Flip watched him fight—and win.
with a harsh pride the litany of the sacrifices he demanded of his son. He
himself grew up tough and poor, smarting from his poverty with an Afrikaner's
highly developed sense of injury. Fighting for survival is the only way he
knows. If the path he chose for his son seems difficult, he points to the
results: Gerrie won 185 of 192 amateur fights, most by knockouts. The trophies
are there, at Flip's house, to prove it.
that Flip "had a hot temper, a bad temper. Sometimes I think the older he
gets, the worse it is." Back then, the elder Coetzee would get into
arguments at a stoplight or in a cafe. Sometimes the provocation would be as
slight as someone bumping into him, but instead of walking away or accepting an
apology, Flip would start something and then send his son in to do his fighting
"I knew if I
didn't get into it, I'd get it at home," Gerrie says. "That made me
hard, that really made me into a fighter. A lot of people had said I was soft,
that I didn't belong in the ring. That's because I try to keep my own business
to myself. But when a guy who's 30 years old is bumping your head against the
wall, it can give you the fighter's instinct. I knew then I had it in
That isn't the
way Flip recalls it, but then a boxer's biography often seems to consist of
shifting pieces of apocrypha, the offered anecdotes remembered differently by
the various players. Flip has no recollection of his son's experience outside
the ring. "I always told him not to fight in the street," he said.
"Still now, I don't like it."
father," says Gerrie as he drives down the road, "isn't a sympathetic
man." Coetzee offers as evidence his 1977 fight against Mike Schutte to
retain the South African championship, a bloody brawl that substituted savagery
for any pretense to science.
Gerrie said to his father in the corner at the end of the third round,
"both of my hands are broken."