'Boksburg Bomber’ recalls how he got first shot at world title
The recent passing of Leon Spinks, a former WBC and WBA world heavyweight champion, has brought back vivid memories of Gerrie Coetzee's lightning-fast first-round victory over the then world No 3-ranked American in June 1979 in Monte Carlo.
Spinks, 67, died in a Las Vegas hospital after a protracted battle with cancer.
The Spinks vs Coetzee bout was an eliminator for the vacant WBA heavyweight title, which had previously been held by Muhammad Ali, who had announced his retirement in 1979. Ali, however, came out of retirement in 1980 and had two more fights before his last hurrah against Trevor Berbick in the Bahamas in 1981.
The conquest in Monte Carlo meant that Coetzee, ranked No 5 then, earned a title shot at John Tate's crown at Loftus Versfeld in Pretoria (October 1979), instead of Spinks.
Coetzee was a most unlikely winner because just over a year previously, Spinks sensationally defeated Muhammad Ali at the Hilton Hotel in Las Vegas. With that split points win, Spinks relieved Ali of his World Boxing Council and World Boxing Association world heavyweight titles.
Bob Arum, the promoter of that 1978 bout, said afterwards that Ali had asked for an easy fight and just wanted to keep busy. For that reason Spinks, who by that time only had seven fights as a professional and did not have a world ranking, was chosen as an opponent.
Some betting companies would not even take wagers for the bout, saying the outcome was too obvious.
Straight after the bout, Ali asked Arum to go to Spinks' dressing room and sign a contract for a return fight.
Ali won the return fight over 15 rounds with a unanimous points decision at the Superdome, New Orleans,
Arum secured a 12-round eliminator bout for the vacant WBA heavyweight title. He had many South African business contacts and with their backing, he raised sufficient capital to contract Coetzee and Spinks.
Arum also obtained the rights for the other eliminator bout between Tate and SA's Kallie Knoetze for the vacant WBA heavyweight title. It took place in the Mmabatho Stadium in Mafikeng, South Africa, three weeks before the Monaco showdown.
Coetzee recalled this week that after he had signed the contract with Arum, he started looking at films of Spinks' previous fights.
"After many hours of looking at the films I felt good about myself and thought I had a good chance of defeating him," said Coetzee. "I knew he would be in trouble against my right (punch), and I thought the same about Larry Holmes.
"I knew neither of them could live with my right.
"I had prepared very well for the fight and had excellent sparring partners. I was physically fit and in a good condition. My mind was strong, and I was confident."
In a pre-bout interview with a boxing writer in Monte Carlo, Coetzee said: "Right now, I do not think I can be beaten."
The venue for the bout was a marquee erected in the parking lot of a Monaco hotel where both Coetzee and Spinks stayed. Just over 2000 fans watched the fight, including Coetzee's parents.
Coetzee said caravans were used as dressing rooms for the two boxers.
"They positioned our caravans right opposite each other," Coetzee recalled. "The doors of the caravans were open all the time and the camps had a clear view of what was happening.
"Rina (Coetzee's wife) became quite upset because of the way Spinks was going about his warm-up drills. She found it very intimidating. I told her not to worry because these American boxers carry on like that."
The records show Coetzee knocked down Spinks three times in the opening round. Coetzee's devastating right had done the damage in his first fight on foreign soil.
A media report revealed that Spinks cried when he left the venue and failed to avail himself for a post-bout press conference. After the bout, Coetzee told the media he was grateful that Spinks agreed to fight him.
Spinks and his handlers would not have known much about Coetzee except that he had a suspect right hand that needed an operation about 18 months before this bout.
Apart from the well-known nickname 'Boksburg Bomber', Coetzee was also dubbed 'seer handjies' [Afrikaans for sore little hands] by his long-time rival Knoetze. "It was an exciting time in my career because I had won an elimination bout to fight for a world title," said Coetzee. "I will also be grateful to Spinks for the fight.
"Spinks was an Olympic gold medallist and it is something that I also dreamt of. I think I could have made the Olympics in 1976 but South Africa could not participate.
"At least I now had a chance to become the heavyweight champion of the world, and that made me very happy."
Coetzee said he was sorry to hear about Spinks' passing.
"I was kind of sorry the guy died because, for years after we both stopped fighting, we remained in contact on Facebook," said Coetzee.
"Initially I was quite surprised when he sent me a friend request. I had a lot of respect for him and was enormously proud that we remained in touch for such a long time."
Spinks, like the great Ali, had the gift of the gab. After defeating Ali, he uttered his most famous line at the post-bout press conference as soon as he was called on to address the media: "I am not The Greatest (a reference to Ali) – I’m just the latest.''