Trevor Cramer

By Trevor Cramer

Senior sports sub-editor

Gerrie Coetzee: ‘He was the benchmark in the heavyweight division’

South Africa's first heavyweight champion, the man with the 'bionic hand', passed away in Cape Town on Thursday.

Gerrie Coetzee – 8 April 1955-12 January 2023

Gerrie Coetzee, who lost his battle with lung cancer in Cape Town on Thursday aged 67, was the darling of South African boxing in the 1980s during a post-Muhammad Ali era.

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He raised South African boxing to a whole new level in an era where the country was beginning to feel the pinch of sporting isolation and his legacy will forever be etched in SA boxing enthusiasts’ minds.

He was the first South African fighter to win the world heavyweight title – the reputable World Boxing Association (WBA) version – when he sensationally knocked out Michael Dokes in the 10th round in Richfield, Ohio, in September 1983, in what was labelled back then as the “Upset of the Year”.

Fondly dubbed “The Boksburg Bomber” by boxing fans, he was involved in two high-profile world title shots in South Africa and the then independent homeland of Bophuthatswana, against John Tate (1979) and Mike Weaver (1980), before later coming back to stop Dokes.

The Coetzee-Tate fight, co-promoted by Bob Arum and the Southern Sun hotel group, in October 79’, for the WBA title vacated by Ali, made local boxing history at the time as 80,000 spectators packed into Loftus Versveld in Pretoria.

Coetzee started strongly but much to the crowd’s disappointment after all the hype surrounding the bout, he was eventually out-pointed by Tate over 15 rounds.

He suffered a similar fate against Weaver in a fistic feast at Sun City, but on that occasion, he was stopped in the 13th round.

In a period where South Africa was frowned upon for its Apartheid policies, it was also the first time black South Africans were allowed into Loftus as spectators in an unsegregated environment.

There was constantly talk of a money-spinning reunion with the legendary linear champion Larry Holmes, but the attempt fell through.

Coetzee made an unsuccessful defence of his WBA title in 1984 when he was stopped by Greg Page at Sun City.

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‘Bionic hand’

He was constantly plagued by a problematic right hand, which he broke in an earlier career confrontation with fellow South African heavyweight Mike Schutte, but his so-called “bionic hand” never stopped him from continuing his storied career, despite several surgeries.

Former South African world heavyweight contender Kallie Knoetze once even nicknamed Coetzee “Seer Handjies” (Sore Little Hands) in an Afrikaans newspaper report.

Gerrie Coetzee Dricus du Plessis
The ‘Boksburg Bomber’ Gerrie Coetzee and UFC fighter Dricus du Plessis during the press conference promoting the film Against all Odds about Coetzee’s life, in Cape Town in January last year. Picture: Ashley Vlotman/Gallo Images

Promoter Rodney Berman was extensively involved behind the scenes in the staging of the Loftus showpiece in 79’.

“Gerrie set the benchmark in the heavyweight division,” said Berman. “He showed a resilience beyond compare and never accepted defeat or threw in the towel. He pulled off the impossible. His perseverance was admirable. He walked the miles and always did the business.”

Coetzee, who made a brief comeback in the 90’s before hanging up his gloves, is survived by his wife Rina, children Lana and Gerald, a sister, and a brother.

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