Gerrie’s Wendy a champion forever
While South Africa boxing legend Gerrie Coetzee was working his way to world heavyweight championship fame, his pet Spaniel was turning out to be a money-spinner of note as highlighted in the world’s premier newspapers like the New York Times and the Washington Post.
The story of Coetzee’s pet is another chapter of intrigue that has come to light as producers finalise the script for the boxing movie Gerrie, a tale of Africa’s first world heavyweight champion.
In 1979 a large international boxing media contingent had arrived in South Africa ahead of Coetzee’s first world title tilt which was scheduled for October at Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria. He was going up against American heavyweight ‘Big John’ Tate for the vacant World Boxing Association World title.
At the time, both boxers enjoyed a fair crack of the media hype, but Coetzee’s pet Spaniel Wendy unwittingly grabbed her share of attention too. The New York Times kicked-off with a story headline ‘Richest Spaniel in South Africa’ as part of their comprehensive build-up to the title showdown.
The story says that the spaniel had an annual R7 000 sponsorship for endorsing a dog food brand named Epol. It adds that if Coetzee lifts the title, the sponsorship will be upped to R22 000.
A paragraph in the story reads: “In addition, Wendy gets R1000 worth of dog food a year.
“That’s enough chow for Wendy to have a friend in for dinner every night, which is one of the advantages of belonging to the heavyweight champion of South Africa.”
Local marketing gurus were also in on the act and the Washington Post, who was also part of the visiting boxing media contingent, was taken aback by Wendy’s appeal in newspaper advertising. Sponsors Epol, it seems, were making sure they were getting more bang for their buck with the world title fight.
An excerpt from the Washington Post’s story goes: “Tate and Coetzee have dipped into the golden till of endorsements.
“Coetzee posed with his favourite black cocker spaniel, Wendy, in a full-page ad that recommended certain dog food for a balanced canine diet.”
Coetzee is at a loss of words to explain how his love for dogs started but he recalls that at an early age canines were naturally attracted to him.
“At the age of around five years, my mother would often send me to the shop which was about 70 metres from our Boksburg home.
“Very often on the way back dogs would join me and by the time I reached home they would hang around the gate.
“It used to annoy my mother because the dogs belonged to neighbours and it looked like I had lured them to our house.
“I don’t know why it happened. It was not that I was feeding them biltong or anything of the sort.
“My parents then decided I should have a dog and that took care of the problem of the neighbours’ dogs hanging out at our home.
“Later when I was in high school the dog, an Alsatian, died and my parents gave me another one.
“By the time I started working age had caught up with the second Alsatian and again I was without a dog.
“At the place where I worked as a dental technician, a fellow was working in the laboratory, and he came to work every day with his Spaniel.
“I was so impressed because the dog was so disciplined and hardly moved from his desk.
“It was then I decided that I wanted a Spaniel.”
He decided to name the dog Wendy, which was the name of a girl that was in high school with him.
“I admired this girl but I was too shy to ask her out for a date. We never hooked up, but she always made a big impression on me, and that’s why I decided on the name Wendy.”
Since then over time, Coetzee has owned five Spaniels as he replaced one dog with another after natural causes ended their lives.
As his boxing career unfolded, Coetzee travelled to America several times and with his pet.
He had to be rather shrewd to find ways for the dog to stay with him in hotels and guest houses.
“Very often dogs were not permitted in hotels, but I always found a side entrance so that I could smuggle her to the room.
“In the case of guest houses, I always asked for ground floor accommodation and then I passed the dog through a window so that no one noticed when we entered on arrival.”
Coetzee said quarantine was always a stressful matter for him, but he took great comfort from American laws.
“In America, you are handed your dog once you’ve collected your baggage in the arrivals hall. They do not insist on quarantine so there were never problems there.
“In South Africa, dogs stay in quarantine when you arrive back from America. It was hard to be away from my pet and it’s not something you can get used to.”
South Africa has been in strict lockdown because of the Covid-19 pandemic. However, the coronavirus lockdown was eased and now the 65-year-old Coetzee can set off again on morning dog walks.
The latest version of Wendy is a four-month-old puppy that joined the Coetzee household nine weeks ago. With the daily walks, Wendy has helped to keep the spring in Coetzee’s step!