The Coetzee-Tate championship fight tonight was the result of maneuvering by two professional promoters who foresaw the money-making possibilities of matching a black American against a white South Africa.
American Bob Arum of Top Rank Promotions and Sol Kerzener, a 44-year-old South African who talks with a New Jersey longshoreman's accent that he doesn't know how he got, and heads South Africa's largest hotel chain, struck a marriage of convenience that will bring both notoriety and a lot of money. Both men tripped from the mundane occupations of government lawyer (Arum) and chartered accountant (Kerzner) into the light fantastic of self-made promotions.
But is what they have sold South Africa any better for this country's withered international sports contacts than the innocuous tonic of the legendary traveling medicine man? Will it help bring South Africa back into the fold of international sports?
It will "benefit internally, but not externally . . . " Arum said. "It's no coincidence that shortly after the announcement of the fight, and the integration of Loftus Versfeld Stadium (scene of the fight), the government began articulating a policy to repeal the ban against interracial marriage and the recognition of black labor unions.
"Without the fight, these policies would have been harder for these people to accept," he said. "The fight created the climate for change.
It's no accident that the original thaw in the U.S.-China situation was brought about by sending in a Ping-Pong team."
It's unlikely the South African cabinet will alter government policies because of the fight staged by Arum. In that regard, the bespectacled American seems to have been slightly carried away.
Arum believes the fight will pave the way for more international sports contacts only if South Africans integrate their other sports as they have boxing.
"Boxing is as nondiscriminatory and integrated here as it is in the rest of the world," Arum said.
Professionally, South Africa boxing has come a long way to be almost fully biracial, but its amateur boxing setup is still organized along racial lines.
On the subject of opposition to the fight in the U.S. Arum claimed that the "political overtones" of the bout, had "largely been defused" because "the dissident position was a position the American public could not accept -- that South Africa should not be given an opportunity to fight for the world title."
The fact that the fight went on "leaves Jesse Jackson where he belongs -- with Yasser Arafat," Arum said. Jackson led a campaign to have the fight canceled and to stop NBC from broadcasting it live.
Arum and Kerzner have an arrangement to sponsor 10 other title fights in Southern Africa -- either in this country or in the homeland of Bophuthatswana that Pretoria made into an "independent" black state as part of its apartheid policy.
Doesn't staging the fights in Bophuthatswana lend that state, and, implicitly, the internationally condemned apartheid policy, credibility?
"Bophuthatswana being an independent state has got nothing whatsoever to do with the fights," Arum said. "They're just to get the people to come and gamble (at the casinos in Bophuthatswana built by Kerzner), like we do in Las Vegas.
"I couldn't care less whether Bophuthatswana is an independent nation or not. If the fight is bad, people won't tune in, and if it's good, they will. (I prefer to) let the United Nations fool around and determine whether these people (in Bophuthatswana) are puppets or not. As long as I can do business and put on a fight, politics, frankly, bores me."
He is certainly doing business these days. He declined to say how much his NBC contract is worth. He got a percentage of the gate money left over after expenses, as well as cuts from endorsements of the fighters and souvenirs sold at the fight. He pointed out he had to bear the substantial" expense of getting Ali to resign early in order to give this fight the glamor he wanted it to have.
And if things go well, Arum will make more money.
"He is going to give Americans, including (Muhammad) Ali, something distasteful -- a South African world champion; to right that wrong, Arum will make money out of it," said one close observer of the fight.
Kerzner has pooh-poohed speculation that South African government money went into arranging or paying for this fight.
"That's rubbish" he commented. His hotel chain, Southern Suns, guaranteed the costs of the title fight, which he estimated will be close to $2 million, and which he hoped the gate will more than pay for.
Meanwhile, Arum is coaxing WBC title holder Larry Holmes from afar, calling him a "shot fighter" whose "reflexes are gone." Even if Holmes initially holds out fighting the winner of last night's bout, Arum believes money eventually will turn him around.
"It's a matter of how much money Holmes will want to get to give up his title," Arum said with a nonchalant tone that belied his pointed remark.
If the market for Holmes is just filled with stumblebums then Holmes will take a large sum of money to give up the title with Tate or Coetzee.
"I'm fairly convinced that these two guys can beat any heavyweight in the world," he said. Both had contracts with Arum for their first three title defenses, depending on who won.
But if all goes awry, Arum said he has other interests. He worked as a young lawyer in the Justice Department under Robert Kennedy and "those were the best years of my life. Maybe I'll do it again someday."