CAPE TOWN, South Africa (AP) — Gerrie Coetzee, a former South African boxer and WBA heavyweight champion who defied some of his country’s racist laws during the height of apartheid in the 1970s and 1980s and won popularity with Nelson Mandela and both Black and white fans, has died. He was 67.
Coetzee died on Thursday in Cape Town just over a week after being diagnosed with lung cancer, his former manager, Thinus Strydom, said Friday.
Coetzee, who was white, was the first African boxer to win a world heavyweight title. He knocked out American rival Michael Dokes in the 10th round in Richfield, Ohio, in 1983 to win the WBA belt, a big upset that was celebrated throughout South Africa despite it being fragmented at the time by the apartheid laws of racial segregation.
Coetzee’s victory also made him the first white boxer to win a world heavyweight title in more than 20 years but he made clear after the fight against Dokes how much he disliked being labeled “the great white hope.”
“I feel I am fighting for everybody, Black and white,” Coetzee said. “What makes me happy is for Black, brown and white people to accept me as their fighter.”
They did in South Africa and Coetzee was awarded The Order of Ikhamanga in Bronze in 2003 by South Africa’s democratically-elected post-apartheid government for his boxing success and for his contribution to “nation-building through sport.”
The government said millions of Black South Africans rooted for Coetzee during his career, “thereby confounding the false logic of apartheid.”
Coetzee said one of his most treasured moments came when Mandela, a big boxing fan, asked to meet him in the early 1990s. Mandela, who would become South Africa’s first democratically-elected president in 1994, had just been released from prison after 27 years for fighting against apartheid.
“It was overwhelming because the country was preparing for democracy and Mr. Mandela was leading the way,” Coetzee said. “It was a surreal moment and he awarded me a medal. I was surprised to hear that he had listened to radio commentaries of a few of my fights while he was in prison.”
At a later meeting with Mandela, Coetzee wanted to give the Nobel Peace Prize winner a gift in return and chose a medal that he had previously been awarded by the apartheid government. Mandela didn’t even flinch when he learned where the medal came from, Coetzee said, and graciously accepted the gift.
“It didn’t seem to bother Mr. Mandela … He saw it as a gift from me and I was grateful for that,” Coetzee said.
Coetzee finally won the heavyweight title on his third attempt after losing to John Tate in 1979 in a fight for the WBA belt made vacant by Muhammad Ali’s retirement. Coetzee also lost a second WBA title shot when he challenged Mike Weaver in 1980 and was stopped in the 13th round.
Coetzee had stopped former undisputed heavyweight champion Leon Spinks in the first round in Monaco in 1979 in his first fight outside South Africa, making the world aware of his ability. But it took him another four years to win a title.
Coetzee’s victory over Dokes for the WBA title came at a price. He broke his right hand earlier in the fight but still managed to knock out Dokes with a series of rights, his manager said. He needed surgery soon after.
Coetzee had persistent injury problems with that potent right hand and it was operated on numerous times throughout his career, leading South African heavyweight rival Kallie Knoetze to give Coetzee the nickname “Sore Little Hands.” Coetzee was also sometimes called “The Bionic Hand.”
His main nickname, though, was the “Boksburg Bomber” in reference to his working-class home town near Johannesburg. Coetzee’s first professional fight was in 1974, and he often fought against Black fighters in South Africa in front of racially-mixed crowds. He appointed a South African man of Indian heritage to be his media spokesman, which also angered the apartheid government.
In the 1980s, Coetzee agreed to train a young Black fighter and invited him to stay with him in his home in defiance of strict apartheid laws at the time that outlawed Blacks living in the same neighborhoods as whites. Police searched Coetzee’s home and issued him with a court summons because of it. Coetzee said he ignored the summons and legally adopted the boy, whose parents had died.
Coetzee fought 40 times, with 33 wins (21 by knockout), six losses and a draw.