South Africa has a long history of world class heavyweights but only two have grabbed a piece of what is often called “The Richest Prize in Sport,” the world heavyweight championship.
Gerrie Coetzee was the first, knocking out Michael “Dynamite” Dokes in the tenth round in 1983 to capture the WBA world title in Richfield, Ohio, USA.
Coetzee was a rugged stand up boxer with a fast jab, quick feet and booming straight right. He was plagued by hand injuries, having surgically reset the fractured bones in his right hand with steel pins. The procedure left his right fist slightly bigger than his left and like Rocky Marciano’s right, which was nicknamed “Suzie Q,” Coetzee henceforth had the “Bionic Right.”
Coetzee faced Big John Tate on front of 86 000 spectators at Loftus Versfeld in Pretoria in 1979 in a battle of undefeated young heavyweights but, with the eyes of the world watching, the occasion proved too big and Coetzee lost on points.
He got another shot the following year at the Sun City Superbowl, this time against Mike Weaver. He had Weaver hurt and in big trouble in the eighth round but could not put him away. Coetzee faded as Weaver got stronger and he was knocked out in the thirteenth round.
By the time his third title shot came around Coetzee was a big underdog, but he finally put it all together and scored a spectacular win, putting Dokes to sleep with his bionic right. His victory was named The Ring’s “Upset of the Year.”
Coetzee was inactive for just over a year and was knocked out by Greg Page in the eighth round in Sun City.
It would take almost twenty years for a South African to repeat the trick and Corrie Sanders would be that man when he scored another shocker in 2003 in Hannover, Germany, that would also be declared “Upset of the Year” by The Ring.
Sanders, a southpaw, was a very athletic big man with lightning in his fists.
No one gave the 37 year old Sanders a chance against WBO world champion, Wladimir Klitschko, who was considered the future of the division but Sanders tore up the script by dropping the giant Ukrainian twice in the first round and two more times in the second to become the new champion.
Like Coetzee before him, Sanders was also inactive for over a year. He vacated his WBO title and faced Wladimir’s elder brother, Vitali Klitschko, for the vacant WBC world title in the US. Sanders rocked Vitali in the opening round, but it was not to be, and he was grinded down to an eighth-round stoppage.
Which one was South Africa’s best heavyweight?
Both fighters’ greatest victory started to look even better over time. Michael Dokes pulled himself together and staged a solid comeback years later, re-establishing himself as a contender and giving Evander Holyfield all he could handle before getting stopped in ten rounds but it was Wladimir Klitschko who staged the greatest comeback of all. He would suffer another loss against Lamon Brewster but regained the title in 2006 and stayed champion for almost a decade, becoming the greatest heavyweight of his era.
In terms of single victories, Sanders knockout of Klitschko eclipses Coetzee’s bludgeoning of Dokes but if we look at the two heavyweights’ careers, Coetzee fought more big names of his era. Whereas Sanders had three world heavyweight champions on his record, Hasim Rahman and the Klitschko brothers, Coetzee fought no less than seven, namely Leon Spinks, John Tate, Mike Weaver, Pinklon Thomas, Michael Dokes, Greg Page and Frank Bruno and with the exception of the Bruno fight, competed very well with all of them, win, lose or draw.
In short, Corrie Sanders had the biggest victory and Gerrie Coetzee had the better overall career but who would have won had the two met in the ring?
Sanders was quicker and more explosive. No one could keep away from the straight left of “The Sniper.” What effect would it have had on Gerrie? Then again, how would Sanders have handled Gerrie Coetzee’s right, the classic reply to a southpaw? Neither was great in a war of attrition, so who would succumb first if the fight went into the later rounds?
One gets as many different opinions as the experts polled, who seem to be split down the middle when this mythical fight is debated.
We will just have to call it a draw..