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
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
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
"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.