Since the advent of Muhammad Ali, heavyweight fights have taken on the postures of grand opera and, as in opera, the plot (or the fight itself) is sacrificed for orchestration. In this dubious tradition the John Tate-Gerrie Coetzee World Boxing Association (WBA) heavyweight championship, which highlights two untested spear carriers, could be billed as the Götterdämmerung of hype.
The conductor of the production is matchmaker Bob Arum, the majordomo of Top Rank Inc. productions. To appreciate Arum’s genius for gleaning gold, one must first appreciate his problems. Arum was the promoter for Ali and, when the champ retired,
Arum was without a star in his heavyweight firmament. In the promotion game, to be the purveyor for the heavyweight king is to primp in reflected glory. So with Ali’s abdication, Arum was momentarily in the shade, eclipsed by Don King, who was the promoter for the World Boxing Council (WBC) and universally accepted champ Larry Holmes. Arum and King are not a mutual admiration society. It’s nothing personal, it’s deeper than that—it’s money.
True, Arum still held ex-champ Leon Spinks’s contract, but that is akin to being cruise director on the Titanic. Arum’s hope was big John Tate, but that was the hope of the future. There was no way Arum was about to feed Tate into the hands of those competing for the crown in the WBC. A Lyle, Norton or Shavers perhaps later on, but not
after 19 wins over opponents who are not even household names in their own households.
What to do, what to do? Well, demonstrating uncanny pluck, Arum decided to throw a mad party and call it the WBA elimination series. When one is indulging in farragoes of that sort, the first priority is to find a site that will indulge you. Arum found his in South Africa, that troubled paradise which defines itself in colors—gold, white and black. The country which is threatened on its borders and ostracized by most of the world for its apartheid policies was delighted to host an affair that had links to the outside. The Southern Sun Hotels chain financed the entire project from
purse money to travel and expense accounts for sundry groupies. Arum’s sole responsibility was to get the fighters into the ring. Southern Sun would sink or swim at the live gate while Arum, for providing the combatants, was given exclusive world rights to TV and film plus 10 fights to promote over the next year and a half.
The next step was to incorporate two South African fighters into the proceedings to whip up frenzy in the homeland and to make Sol Kerzner, the president of Southern Sun, seem like the brightest thing to come out of the South African soil since the first nugget was plucked. So producer Arum, with a shaky show in hand, reduced South Africa to Philadelphia.
When Arum was pilloried for staging a fight in an apartheid country, one excluded from most international sport, he donned the mantle of a contemporary Lincoln, harshly denouncing segregation and demanding and getting integrated facilities at Loftus Versfeld Stadium for the night of the fight and for time immemorial. As his majesty grew, he also demanded that all sports facilities in the country be desegregated— and the government acquiesced. You began to get the feeling he wouldn’t be happy till he was shot in a theatre.
And the tournament worked out beyond his gaudiest dreams. In the first match-ups, John Tate met Kallie Knoetze, the bona fide villain in this piece, in Mmabatho Bophuthatswana. Knoetze, a former policeman who has shot and crippled a black youth, was KOed in the eighth round by Tate and, for the moment, the complexion of the Lord was up for grabs. But joy of all joys occurred in Monte Carlo. The white, liberal-thinking South African Gerrie Coetzee, whose idol and friend is Muhammad Ali, dispatched Leon Spinks in the first round. Arum not only had an attractive black-white confrontation for the championship but he momentarily freed himself of the scintillating companionship of Spinks. Even in jaded Monte Carlo, that was regarded as a hot roll.
Coetzee was victorious over 22 opponents (including Spinks). Thus, between them, both fighters had a total of 41 victories, or what Sugar Ray Robinson used to achieve in a languid summer. Coetzee’s list of opponents carried obscurity to the depths usually reserved for deep-cover agents in the RCMP. Indeed, both men’s credentials are so modest that the fight took on a biblical significance. Not the bandied test of white versus black supremacy, but that the meek may indeed inherit the earth.
In such a hermetically sealed country, no one seemed to realize that Larry Holmes existed and that the WBC, and a vast number of countries, don’t recog-
nize South African fighters. But to most South Africans, the fight was steeped in deeper implications than the premier rating in Ring magazine. A Coetzee victory would vindicate a way of life, erase societal snubs, chastise detractors and once again place South Africa in the treasured company of the world community. The blacks were less hallucinatory since suffering, if nothing else, produces realists. A Tate victory would be a wonderful symbolic victory, but no one believed the walls of the hated policeenforced ghetto of Soweto would tumble in the morning and, besides, the blacks in that society are inundated with cosmetic triumphs.
So on the eve of the fight, as 81,000 made their way to Pretoria, to an arena in the grip of awesome security, the true burden fell on Gerrie Coetzee. Not since Ahab has a man been haunted by such an alabaster behemoth.
The opening ceremonies gave promise of Armageddon. Besides the national flags, the promotor unfurled “shilling” banners. The whole setting was a couple of colors behind a gas station opening.
When the bell sounded the cataclysmic expectation of the crowd was stilled. The fighters, studies in apprehension, cautiously circled. This was no mere sizing-up period, but a four-round pas de deux in timidity. You could hear the fighters’ shoes ominously scraping the canvas as in a B-movie. The tedium placated the once-expectant crowd. If Tate and Coetzee were proving any ting, it was that integration wasn’t volatile, but boring.
Yet you began to sense that Tate had a plan. There was a method to his stoicism. Coetzee hit Tate with a right in the third round that buckled him, and
Tate seemed to think that was acceptable. By the fifth, though he was trailing in rounds, he began to exude a workmanlike confidence. After refusing to exploit his reach advantage earlier, Tate now began to jab effectively. In the seventh and eighth his right began to score to the body. Coetzee’s mouth began to open, and the earlier taunts he had snarled at Tate were now breaths he dearly wished he could bring back. The rest of the evening was an academic dismantling.
The body bruised, the legs started to go, and the head was now there to be taken. Tate, like a ponderous oil derek, pumped away, draining Coetzee of his remaining reserves, and carried the final eight rounds in scoring a unamious decision.
In the end, it was a pedestrian evening, instead of the genetic gore promised. Indeed if one thought of Louis, Ali, Dempsey and Marciano, Tate and Coetzee evoked not pigmentation but pygmies.
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