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Lynn Darling
June 18, 1984
Gerrie Coetzee is driven by a need to succeed and, as WBA heavyweight champ, haunted by his homeland of South Africa
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June 18, 1984

A Case Of Pride And Prejudice

Gerrie Coetzee is driven by a need to succeed and, as WBA heavyweight champ, haunted by his homeland of South Africa

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"Gerrie's learned a few things since he's been in the U.S., but in general, it's been too little, too late," says one Coetzee watcher. "South African fighters just can't fight; they don't know how. If someone had got Gerrie at 17 and brought him to America, it might have been a different story."

Coetzee fights in an upright style that has been compared to that of Ingemar Johansson and Cuba's three-time Olympic champion Teofilo Stevenson. Despite the McCoy-inspired development of his left, Coetzee has primarily used the over-whelming power of his straight right to gain respect from his opponents. He doesn't float like a butterfly; indeed, he is a plodder. Coetzee's right hand has been called "bionic," and he uses it to make up for his slowness and lack of finesse.

It isn't a style calculated to work well against the multifaceted and highly skilled Holmes, although at 34, Holmes's age and his occasional lack of concentration in the ring could make him vulnerable to Coetzee's right. Holmes tends to become bored when he's overconfident. In November 1981, Snipes floored him with a right that, as one witness said, "You could see coming for three days."

Not to be discounted is one quality that has pulled Coetzee through his halting path to a title: heart, the kind that can turn a square patch of canvas into a fast salute to grace under pressure.

Since Coetzee won the title, Rina has told him lie's much easier to live with. He says he now has "the security I wanted for my family." But the WBA heavyweight champion wears his crown uneasily. It makes him feel, he says, a little shy. For him, "champion" is a mystical word in which he has invested much of the romance most men leave behind in their boyhoods.

But most of all to Coetzee, the word champion means Muhammad Ali. He first heard of Ali while in the army in 1973. "The coach said, 'You're fighting in Ali's style.' Who was this guy? I pretended I knew."

Coetzee decided to find out. He spent nearly an entire month's pay for a copy of Ali's autobiography. He haunted the magazine racks and bookstores for more information about Ali. The ideas Coetzee formed then about Ali left him with an image that time hasn't tarnished, and it is to this graven image that he gives the full measure of his devotion.

Never mind that Ali is 42 now, fleshy and flawed, his eyes at times looking as though they had decided to take two different routes to the same destination. To Coetzee, Ali is still the beautiful perfection he once was, and he talks of him with admiration.

"To me he was king of the world," Coetzee says wistfully. "I started dreaming about him, reading everything I could about this magical person." Coetzee would dream about what it would have been like to fight Ali, though if he ever had he's sure he wouldn't have been at his best. "When he looks at you, he's looking through you; he would have psyched me out," says Coetzee. "But other fighters are just two hands doing their job."

He remembers his first meeting with Ali. It was the week before Ali's Sept. 29, 1977 fight with Earnie Shavers in Madison Square Garden. Coetzee, who was visiting America for the first time, had tried unsuccessfully for three days to get inside the Garden's Felt Forum to watch his idol train. On the third day, when Coetzee tried to push his way through the doors along with a crowd of others, a security guard struck him on the right shoulder and shoved him outside. Just when it seemed that Coetzee would fail in his quest to see Ali, Angelo Dundee, Ali's trainer, recognized Coetzee and brought him to the dressing room to meet the champ.

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