Gerrie Coetzee of South Africa got off a series of strong punches to the head of Michael Dokes tonight, knocking out the champion in the 10th round to win the World Boxing Association heavyweight title.

The surprising upset came on Coetzee's third bid at the title and made him the first South African ever to win a heavyweight championship.

Coetzee, 28, became champion as Dokes was counted out by referee Tony Perez after the bell had rung.

Coetzee, who had knocked Dokes down in the fifth round, hurt the defending champion badly past the midpoint of the 10th when he landed two savage rights to the head. Dokes, hurt badly, backed into the corner with Coetzee in pursuit.

Coetzee landed several head shots before Dokes was able to tie him up.

Then, after the fighters were broken up by Perez, Coetzee landed another series of head shots and put Dokes down with a left-right.

Then the bell rang as Perez announced the 10 count. But the bell could not save a knocked-down fighter unless it happens in the scheduled final round. As Perez reached 10 and signaled the fight was over, Coetzee leaped high in the air and fell to the canvas, overcome by emotion.

The time was 3:08.

Dokes, who never before had lost, sat for several minutes on his stool surrounded by his entourage as about 1,200 South Africans who made the trip here celebrated.

"I would love to fight (World Boxing Council champion) Larry Holmes, but that is up to (promoter) Don King," said Coetzee. Holmes is committed for two fights and has been indicating he will soon retire.

"I'd like to grant Dokes a rematch," said the jubilant Coetzee. "I think he took this seriously, but if he didn't, he made a mistake."

"I got careless and he capitalized on my carelessness," said Dokes, who arrived late at a postfight news conference. "Evidently he took me more seriously than I took him. He caught me and I couldn't retaliate."

Coetzee was leading on all three official cards after the ninth round and made judging academic in the 10th.

"This is my home," Dokes, who comes from nearby Akron, said before the fight. "I'll have to give a somewhat scintillating performance."

But Dokes was on the defensive too much to be scintillating. It was clear from the outset that Coetzee was the harder hitter and, on this occasion, he seemed to have more hand speed than Dokes, who was celebrated for his speed of hand and foot.

In the fifth round, Coetzee gave an indication of things to come when he dropped Dokes with a short left-right to the head.

Dokes got up quickly and took a mandatory eight count. He then exchanged several head shots for the rest of the round with Coetzee.

Coetzee, who weighed 215, two less than Dokes, was cut above the corner of his right eye in the second round, but the cut never caused him any trouble.

After the knockdown in the fifth, both men were cautious in the sixth. Then Coetzee landed several good head shots in the seventh. He also complained of being hit low early in the round, and then was warned for hitting low late in the round.

Dokes had the upper hand in the eighth when he scored with several jabs and some good blows to the body and seemed to have the edge in the ninth when both men scored with several head punches with either hand.

Then came the 10th and those two thunderous rights. They actually ended the fight several moments before Dokes hit the floor.

Coetzee, who was ranked No. 1 by the WBA, first tried to win the WBA title, which had been left vacant by Muhammad Ali's retirement, when he fought John Tate at Pretoria, South Africa, Oct. 20, 1979. He lost a unanimous 15-round decision. Then, on Oct. 25, 1980, he challenged Mike Weaver for the title at Johannesburg, South Africa, and was knocked out in the 13th round.

Coetzee, who now lives in Brigantine, N.J., with his wife and children and is seeking a U.S. residency visa, said he felt fighting away from South Africa would relieve him of pressure.

Coetzee earned $250,000 and, of course, put himself in line for some major paydays. The victory was his 29th against three losses and a draw, with 18 knockouts. Dokes, 25, who got $750,000, is 26-1-2 with 15 knockouts.

Dokes won the title when he stopped Weaver in 63 seconds on Dec. 10 and, in his only previous defense, kept it on a 15-round draw with Weaver on May 20.

In an earlier bout, Tim Witherspoon knocked down James Tillis twice and stopped him at 2:16 of the first round of a scheduled 12-rounder for the vacant North American Boxing Federation heavyweight title.

There was an upset in a 10-round heavyweight bout when Alfredo Evangelista of Spain scored a split decision over Renaldo Snipes, the World Boxing Council's fourth-ranked contender and the WBA's sixth-ranked.