Following Leon Spink’s huge upset win over Muhammad Ali in 1978, the heavyweight title belt was torn in two. The World Boxing Council stripped Spinks of their championship after he refused to obey their order to defend against Ken Norton. Larry Holmes then defeated Norton for that version of the world crown, while the rival World Boxing Association recognized Spinks. After Ali defeated “Neon” Leon in the rematch and then retired, Spinks fought South African contender Gerrie Coetzee. To the shock of many, the unknown South African demolished Spinks in one round, flooring the former champion three times with his so-called “bionic” right hand.
Ali retired and the WBA then matched Coetzee with top contender John Tate for their version of the championship. The bout took place in Pretoria, South Africa and it represented the first time a South African fought for any version of the world heavyweight title. Tate won a unanimous decision, but the contest raised eyebrows for one simple question: why was a championship fight taking place in a country universally reviled for its racist apartheid policies and its brutal treatment of its own citizens? Further, why was a black American athlete a willing participant? The answer, of course, was obvious: money.
After Tate lost his title in his first defense, suffering a shocking, one-punch KO to the unheralded Mike Weaver, Bob Arum and the WBA planned a championship showdown between Weaver and Coetzee. This time the match would take place not in Pretoria, but in Sun City, the resort town set up to attract tourist dollars in the South African “puppet state” of Bophuthatswana.
Few knew what to expect from this contest between two of the heavyweight division’s most enigmatic fighters. Coetzee had been competitive against Tate before he tired but, Spinks aside, he had yet to beat a viable top contender. Weaver had no fewer than nine losses on his record though the year previous he had surprised everyone by giving Larry Holmes a hard-fought and exciting battle in Madison Square Garden.
One thing was for certain: both could punch. Coetzee had demonstrated this in his demolition of Spinks, his surgically repaired right hand a genuine threat, while Weaver had 15 knockouts in 22 wins and had badly hurt Holmes before going on to ruin Tate with a single left hook.
And indeed it was power which decided the outcome. Weaver vs Coetzee was a rather ugly fight, but it was not wanting for action as it boasted some thrilling moments, plenty of toe-to-toe slugging, and a sudden ending. The reason for the contest’s unsightliness was simple enough: as his loss to Tate showed, Coetzee lacked the stamina to last the 15 round limit. Knowing this, the challenger’s strategy was to try and ambush Weaver and score the early KO. But when that plan failed he relied on mauling and wrestling in an effort to slow the fight and limit exchanges.
Midway through the first Coetzee brought the crowd to its feet as he unleashed a volley of powerful ‘bionic’ rights. Weaver stood up to the barrage but those at ringside noticed him blinking his eyes and wondered if he was dazed. Between rounds Weaver’s corner sprayed his eyes with water; it would later be determined that a liniment rubbed on the South African’s chest and shoulders was the culprit. Weaver kept blinking through rounds two and three while Coetzee tried in vain to finish matters with one big right hand.
For the next few rounds the two heavyweights rumbled like a pair of bull elephants, taking turns blasting each other with haymakers. There appeared to be no strategy other than Weaver’s work to the body and Coetzee’s frequent clinching and leaning, a tactic obviously meant to tire his opponent. Otherwise the two men just came together over and over again and unloaded heavy shots, both throwing and both catching.
The turning point came in a blistering eighth round. Coetzee got home a huge right that put Weaver on the ropes and the challenger unloaded with everything he had. As the crowd roared, the South African landed one right hand after another and it seemed as if any moment the champion would cave in from the onslaught. But Weaver, showing astonishing toughness and composure, withstood the attack and even landed some potent blows of his own before round’s end. A deflated Coetzee trudged wearily back to his corner. He had landed his best punches but Weaver was still firing back. Worse, he now had little left in his gas tank to see him through the rest of the match.
In the succeeding rounds Coetzee resorted to more clinching and wrestling and Weaver became increasingly frustrated. In the eleventh the champion opened the bridge of Coetzee’s nose with a right hand; in the twelfth he snapped his head back with an uppercut. All the while Coetzee kept pushing and leaning and draping himself over Weaver on the ropes. The champion complained to the referee but the tiring challenger persisted with his mauling tactics.
Exasperated, Weaver abruptly reversed the momentum and began stalking Coetzee in the thirteenth. He connected with a right hook, followed by some heavy shots to the challenger’s body, and then another right that put the South African on the run. Showing more energy than at any other point in the fight, Weaver struck with a series of stinging jabs before Coetzee attempted to stand his ground in ring center and time the champion with a right hand haymaker. But the blow never landed; instead Weaver beat him to the punch with his own thunderous right which connected flush on the South African’s chin. Down went Gerrie. He tried to rise but was still on his knees when the referee finished the count. Fittingly, a thrilling shootout between two power punchers ended with a clean, one-shot knockout.
Weaver would go on to beat James Tillis before losing his title to Michael Dokes in a highly controversial bout. Dokes would then lose to Coetzee, but in Las Vegas, not South Africa. All the while, Larry Holmes was universally recognized as the real heavyweight champ, thanks in part to his win over Weaver. But Holmes would soon vacate his WBC title to avoid a fight with Greg Page and also to make a match with Coetzee that, for various reasons, never happened. Instead Greg Page knocked out Coetzee while Tim Witherspoon became the WBC title-holder. The heavyweight title mess had begun in earnest and confusion would reign for years until along came a young man named Mike Tyson. – Michael Carbert