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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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It is late on a January afternoon in a tumbledown section of Johannesburg, and the word is out that Gerrie Coetzee is on his way. A small knot of black men stands around an old delivery truck, waiting for him to break the boredom, and when he pulls up to the curb they greet him with a cheer. "Gerrie the King!" they shout in their Tswana language. "Gerrie the King!"

Coetzee signs a few autographs and ducks into the cool darkness of a small room in the Yeoville Boys Club, where heavy bags and barbells surround a ring painted blue and white. It's a small gym, where young boxers starting their pro careers come to work out in the evenings, straight from jobs as garage mechanics and delivery boys. Coetzee himself trained there briefly in 1982 for his fight with Scott LeDoux.

"It feels funny being in a gym again," Coetzee says.

"It won't for long," says his trainer, Willie Locke.

Young men with unscarred bodies and undimmed hopes wave a diffident hello to Coetzee before they climb between the ropes and begin to shadowbox. Soon the ring contains half a dozen of them, dancing lightly on elastic legs, jabbing the air, their faces reflecting their intensity as they fight opponents only they can see.

Coetzee looks at them and then at the posters papering the wall, the brightly tinted placards commemorating local heroes and legendary champions, and says, "It was funny—all my life I wanted to hear those words, 'The new heavyweight champion.' In my dreams, I would always hear them say it: 'And the new heavyweight champion is....' And then it really happened, and I heard nothing at all." He pauses for a moment. "But then I'll step in the ring again and the bell will sound for the first time, and once again, there will be no champion."

These days, Coetzee is poised between worlds, having recently left the fractious familiarity of South Africa for the vast anonymity and abundance of America. Poised, too, between the wide-eyed contender he once was and the WBA heavyweight champion he became on Sept. 23, 1983 when he dethroned Michael Dokes with a 10th-round knockout in Richfield, Ohio.

This latest in the line of Great White Hopes is a strange combination of parts: a shrewd businessman; a naive hero-worshiper; a national hero in South Africa who appears to relish the obscurity in which he travels in America; and a tightrope walker trying to stay atop the demands of pride and prejudice on two continents.

"I want to be the people's champ," Coetzee says. "I want to get rid of this rubbish of black champion, white champion. We're all human, praying to the same Lord, going to the same place if we're good. When I fight Larry Holmes, I'll be fighting Larry Holmes, not a white or a black. I'd hate it for people to call me a Hitler kind of person, fighting for his race. I'm proud of being a white person. If I were black, I would be proud of that, too. It's a pity that it has to be this way."

But because it is this way, of course, Coetzee's fight with Holmes, the International Boxing Federation champ whom everyone—including Coetzee—recognizes as the true heavyweight champ, is going to be the biggest money bout of the year—if it ever gets off the ground.

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