The lapse of memory was deadly. As Riddick Bowe's left fist landed well below the legal boundary, Pierre Coetzer, the WBA's top heavyweight contender, forgot boxing's cardinal rule: Protect yourself at all times. Glancing toward referee Mills Lane, Coetzer lowered his leather mittens. He expected to be granted a moment to recover. Instead, as Jack Dempsey had done to a similarly careless Jack Sharkey 65 years earlier, Bowe, the WBA's No. 2 contender, whacked Coetzer in the head.
The free shot, a crackling right upper-cut, caught the 6'4" Coetzer solidly on his lantern jaw and drove his 215 pounds up and to the right. In an instant a left hook-right hand combination from Bowe flung Coetzer against the ropes. Four more unanswered punches moved Lane to stop the fight with a single second remaining in Round 7.
Bleeding and battered and well behind on all three judges' cards, Coetzer protested, but mildly, and not even about the foul. "I thought [Lane] might let the fight go longer," he said.
The weird ending notwithstanding, last Saturday night's bout at the Mirage Hotel in Las Vegas was heavyweight boxing the way it's supposed to be: two giants in an honest fistfight, neither asking nor giving quarter, a classic contest of heart and chin, with the heavyweight champion waiting to take on the victor. On Nov. 13 Evander Holyfield—a beleaguered champion after three successful but uninspired defenses against aged, flabby and/or forlorn challengers—will fight Bowe, the undefeated 6'5" brawler from Brooklyn, in a real fight.
It gets even better. Earlier on Saturday Razor Ruddock, the WBC's No. 1 challenger, finally signed to meet Lennox Lewis, the WBC's No. 3 contender (Bowe is ranked second by the WBC), on Oct. 31 in London. The winner of that bout will fight the Holyfield-Bowe winner, and the king of the hill will be the guy who truly belongs there. No longer will we wonder.
What's more, Ruddock's signing ends the WBC's threat to strip Holyfield of his title and turn the heavyweight division once again into a comic dance of Eeny, Meeny, Miney and Mo. "It wasn't easy, but it's done," said a relieved Dan Duva, the promoter who hammered out the complex heavyweight championship trifecta. "Nobody is going to give anybody the title. Nobody is going to give anybody a title fight. Everything will be earned where it should be—in the ring."
When Mike Tyson, the former heavyweight champion now imprisoned in Indiana, was prowling the perimeter as the leading contender for Holyfield's title, the other top fighters resembled a chorus line from a convalescent home: They were all lined up neatly in a row, but nothing was moving. Fearing that a defeat would knock them out of a multimillion-dollar title shot, none of these contenders was willing to fight any of the others. As a result their recent opponents looked as if they had been drawn from a bowling league in Peoria. John L. Sullivan was fighting tougher guys in burlesque houses when he was offering $1,000 to anyone in the audience who could last four rounds with him.
The logjam began to clear when Tyson was locked up last March. The cable people—HBO, TVKO and Showtime-helped matters when they decreed that there would be no more million-dollar paydays for 10-cent fights. To prove the point, HBO paid Bowe only $180,000 and Coetzer a mere $100,000 for last Saturday's fight. If these two had fought a year ago, both their purses would probably have been in seven figures. "We are not happy with what we are being paid," said Bowe's manager, Rock Newman, who has guided his man to a 31-0 record. Still, Newman took the fight. No one was offering more.
The problem the cable folks had was Coetzer, an unknown from Pretoria, South Africa, who had put together a 39-2 record by beating up on such eminently forgettable opponents as Dan Murphy and Carlton West. "Coetzer belongs in the Top 10," said Newman with a diplomat's flair. "But moving him to Number One must have taken some quintessential politicians."
Somehow the WBA had decided that even though Coetzer had never faced a Top 10 opponent, he was the organization's leading challenger. Still, if the WBA selects its contenders on toughness and heart alone, then it got this one right.
Coctzer's oft-bloodied face may be covered with parchment, but the rest is pure granite. He resembles Lurch with a Keystone Kops mustache and an Alan Ladd haircut, but he fights with the heart of a warrior. He has some modest skills, but his real talent is absorbing punishment.
From the films he had studied, Eddie Futch, Bowe's 80-year-old trainer, expected Coetzer to go right at Bowe. Instead Coetzer stayed outside, where he showed a good jab and excellent combinations. Bowe, a 10-to-l favorite, was forced to be the aggressor. "He fooled us," Futch said after the fight. "He made us alter our plan drastically."
Coetzer set a strong pace early on, but after three rounds he began to tire. "Go right after him," Futch ordered Bowe. "Keep the pressure on. Don't let him recuperate."
Coetzer's face began to disintegrate. Bowe's varied and quick arsenal ripped cuts over Coetzer's right eye and over and under his left. By the end of the sixth round, he was also cut on his nose and cheek, and the rest of his face looked as if it had taken a broadside of buckshot. He was fading badly.
In Round 6 Bowe had walloped Coetzer on his protective cup, after which Lane stopped the proceedings for a minute and a half to allow Coetzer to recover. The low blow in Round 7 was less devastating, and Lane let the action continue. "I saw it," Lane said later, "but that is not the punch that hurt him."
The crusher was the right uppercut. Even granite crumbles if it's blasted enough. Lane is a district-court judge in Reno, and he knows when a man belongs in protective custody. Coetzer surely did.
No one was more relieved at the outcome than Holyfield, who feared that if Coetzer won, a Holyfield-Coetzer bout would be the same kind of public relations disaster that the champion's recent fight with Larry Holmes had turned out to be. Holyfield had not wanted to fight the 42-year-old former champion but was trapped when Holmes upset Ray Mercer in February. Expecting Mercer to win, Holyfield had agreed to meet the winner of that bout.
Now Holyfield had agreed to face the Bowe-Coetzer winner. Consequently, no one rooted harder for the big fellow from Brooklyn than Holyfield. He fears no man; he wants to fight the best. Perhaps he should be forgiven for boxing only up to the level of his opposition. It must be difficult for a fighter like Holyfield to motivate himself to pound on fat old men like Holmes and George Foreman.
But now, once more, there is the sound of drums and marching feet in the heavyweight division. It's wonderful.
The end was near when a Bowe right uppercut rocked Coetzer.
Coetzer's postfight visage was evidence of his ability to absorb terrible punishment.