Former South African heavyweight champion Gerrie Coatzee has died aged 67

Africa’s first world heavyweight champion has died.

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

Coatzee, then unbeaten, narrowly lost to John Tate in South Africa in 1979 in a 15-round bout for the WBA title vacated by Muhammad Ali. And he was stopped in 13 rounds the following year by then-WBA champion Mike Weaver, again in Coatzee’s home country.

Finally, Coatzee (33-6-1, 21 KOs) won the same strap when he knocked out previously undefeated 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, again in South Africa.

The soft-spoken Coatzee, who was white, fought in his country during the apartheid era. He was critical of the system, which earned him the admiration of leader Nelson Mandela. The Times reported that Mandela, then a political prisoner, sent Coatzee a letter of encouragement ahead of the Dokes fight. Afterwards, Coatzee sent a videotape of the fight to Mandela.

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

“What makes me really happy is that blacks, browns and whites accept me as their fighter,” he said before the fight. He added: “People should be treated on merit and not on race or color.”

A student interviewed by the Times was asked about the two fighters.

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

Coatzee promoted fights for a time, including a stint in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley.

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