Gerrie Coatzee, former heavyweight champ from South Africa, dies at 67

Africa’s first heavyweight world champion has died.

Gerrie Coatzee, a South African who won a major belt on his third try in 1983 and was a critic of apartheid, succumbed to lung cancer on Jan. 12 at his home near Cape Town, according to the New York Times. He was 67.

Coatzee, unbeaten at the time, lost a close decision to John Tate in a 15-round fight for the WBA title – which Muhammad Ali had vacated – in 1979 in South Africa. And he was stopped by then-WBA champ Mike Weaver in 13 rounds the following year, again in Coatzee’s native country.

Finally, Coatzee (33-6-1, 21 KOs) won the same strap when he knocked out previously unbeaten Michael Dokes in 13 rounds at Richfield Coliseum, near Cleveland. He lost his belt to Greg Page by a third-round knockout in his first defense, in 1984, once again in South Africa.

The soft-spoken Coatzee, who was white, fought during the apartheid era in his country. He was critical of the system, which earned the admiration of leader Nelson Mandela. The Times reported that Mandela, a political prisoner at the time, sent Coatzee a letter of encouragement before the Dokes fight. Afterward, Coatzee sent a video tape of the fight to Mandela.

The fight against the African-American Tate took place in front of the first integrated crowd – 81,000 strong – at Loftus Versfeld Stadium in the capital of Pretoria, the Times reported.

“What really makes me happy is for Black, brown and white people to accept me as their fighter,” he said before the fight. He added, “People should be treated on merit and not on race or color.”

One schoolboy interviewed by the Times was asked about the two fighters.

“Coetzee is a better fighter and a more principled man,” he said. “Tate is just here to collect a purse. … Coetzee will use the title to speak out against apartheid.”

Coatzee went on to promote fights for a time, including a stint in the San Fernando Valley area of Los Angeles.

Story originally appeared on Boxing Junkie