The last time Frank Bruno stepped into the boxing ring as a professional boxer, the smell of his fear drowned the combined stench of sweat, embrocation and aftershave that tends to
suffuse the ringside area at a big fight. And for once the facade of hype and stereotype - Bruno as cuddly bruiser, Bruno as pantomime dame, Bruno as comic character available for quiz shows and general banter ("Know what I mean, 'arry?") - fell away. The true nature of his calling, and the demands it made on a man of limited resources, were completely and chasteningly visible.
It was the night of March 16 1996, and Bruno was the heavyweight champion of the world. That was what it said on the fight posters, anyway. Not many of those assembled in the MGM Grand Garden fancied the Englishman's chances of defending his title. Not against Mike Tyson, anyway. And Bruno, who had so revelled in winning his title after 13 years as a professional boxer, looked the least convinced of all.
This was a long way from the mood of the night at Wembley stadium six months earlier, when he held off Oliver McCall to win the World Boxing Council belt. "It was like a Michael Jackson concert, Pavarotti, Vera Lynn and VE Day, all rolled into one," he had said of that occasion, drawing on cultural references that might not have been expected from one of his background but which perfectly illustrated his unusual position in British life.
A vociferous patriot and a convinced Thatcherite, Bruno was a citizen of the new Britain who stood for old values. As such, he became a transitional and equivocal figure, very different from other children of Caribbean immigrants who excelled in individual sports: Linford Christie, for instance, with his refusal to hide a long list of grievances, or Lennox Lewis, with his studied indifference to the world outside his own bubble. Bruno worked hard at being lovable, and it paid off. "Arise, Sir Bruno," the Sun had proclaimed the morning after he dethroned McCall. But being lovable was no use to him when he got into the ring with Tyson.
More than most athletes, a boxer needs not just a shop window of confidence but a core of genuine conviction if he is to stand a chance against an opponent who means to do him physical harm. But when Tyson challenged him for his title, in front of a crowd including several thousand fans who had travelled from Britain to support him, Bruno appeared barely capable of making the walk from his dressing room to the ring.
Tyson was on his way back to the top after serving a prison sentence for sexual assault on a teenage beauty queen. At that point in his comeback, however, he had met only cannon-fodder whose function had been to propel him back up the rankings, into a position from which he could challenge whoever held the titles that once were his. By the time he got there, Bruno was one of those men.
They had met once before, seven years earlier in the same town, when Tyson was the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world. That time Bruno's previous fight had been 15 months earlier, against Joe Bugner, a former British champion long past his expiry date. He had lost 40lbs in the weeks before the fight against Tyson, mostly through the use of diuretics. When he was knocked down after 12 seconds of the opening round, it seemed that he would become the latest fighter to be destroyed by a man who seemed, at that stage, to be a force of nature. To his credit, Bruno got up and eventually landed a left hook that made him one of only four men to launch a blow that genuinely rocked the pre-gaol Tyson. But after five rounds of increasingly devastating punishment, a combination of punches to the head and body finally put him down for the count.
When they met again, he was the champion and Tyson the challenger. But the pain of the previous fight was clearly preying on Bruno's mind as he made his way unsteadily to the ring, through a crowd that included Eddie Murphy, Steffi Graf, Jack Nicholson, Ice T, Kevin Costner, Paul Weller, Nigel Mansell, Bill Cosby and many more. Whatever Tyson's current circumstances, his reputation had spooked Bruno, whose eyes darted from side to side in the very antithesis of the sort of implacable stare normally adopted by boxers at such psychologically critical moments, notably by Tyson himself.
Predictably, Bruno took an even worse beating. Having pulled himself together and fought creditably in the first two rounds, he fell apart under Tyson's assault in the third. A left hook paralysed his legs, two similar blows brought down his hands, and from then on Tyson was able to smash his fists into the champion's face until the referee stepped between them and lifted the American's arms.
And that, thank goodness, was the end for Bruno. At the age of 34, he took off his gloves and felt the sting of an icepack for the last time. He made $6m for his final night's work, against Tyson's $30m. The difference spoke of the disparity between their fame and ability, but $6m was a good purse for a British heavyweight, a genre of whom Ring magazine once wrote, paraphrasing Dorothy Parker's remark about debutantes, that if they were all laid end to end, nobody would be in the least surprised.
The first time Bruno had lost to Tyson, hundreds turned up to greet him at Heathrow airport. The second time, an appointment in Harley Street was a more urgent priority. He was told that if he boxed again, he would be risking a detached retina and the sight of one eye. Sensibly, he took the advice.
Of all athletes, boxers may be among the least adequately prepared for retirement. In a rackety trade largely run by conmen, few thoughts are paid to life beyond the next payday. Sir Henry Cooper, now 69 years old, paid tribute yesterday to his own manager, who had taken steps to ensure that the man who knocked down Muhammad Ali (or Cassius Clay, as he then was) would have an adequate supply of work in the media and in commercial endorsements to fill the vacuum left by the loss of the structure of a prizefighter's daily life when he stepped down in 1971. But there was still an echo of an old sadness in Cooper's voice as he recalled the sudden loss of the spartan routines that had underpinned his existence.
Bruno was never the happy simpleton that he liked to appear, and his retirement has been studded with unhappiness. Lurid newspaper stories about his troubled marriage were followed by divorce from his wife, Laura, who took their three children with her and left him alone in the Essex mansion bought with the substantial proceeds from his 45 professional fights. His own closest associate, the wise and experienced trainer George Francis, died 18 months ago at the age of 74, robbing him of a source of counsel.
In recent months Frank Warren, his former promoter, urged him to seek help for his depression, and for a while he checked into the Priory clinic in Chelmsford, not far from his home. The sort of sniggering that customarily greets the appearance of soap stars at the gates of a rehab centre is hardly appropriate to the plight of a lay preacher's son who grew up in the backstreets of Wandsworth, was sent to a school for wayward boys at 13 after thumping a teacher, and turned himself, through application and ambition rather than innate talent, into a champion boxer and a much loved national figure.
The desperation of his plight became apparent recently when he announced that he had applied for a licence to return to the ring, at the age of 42, with the intention of fighting Audley Harrison, the Olympic super-heavyweight champion. The sometime pantomime dame looked at a man whose professional career has been a pantomime of its own, and thought wistfully of his own 197 days as heavyweight champion of the world. The fighter in Frank Bruno stirred one last, vain time.
Punch drunk: boxing's casualties
Frank Bruno's hospitalisation is shocking and sad, but nothing compared to witnessing a heavyweight champion burst into tears in a boxing ring in Las Vegas in front of a capacity crowd, camera crews and lights.
It was February 7 1997, and I was reporting on Lennox Lewis and Oliver McCall fighting for the vacant WBC heavyweight title. It should have been a biggie. Instead, over the course of five rounds, what happened was the total emotional disintegration of a man who had, in his previous encounter with Lewis at Wembley Arena, knocked him out with a single punch in the first round. Zoned out, McCall stood there, an unforgettable sight with his fists hanging, tears streaming down his face. It said everything, but mostly that he just couldn't do this any more. Later it turned out McCall had been having problems with crack addiction.
Part of our gory fascination with such cases is the element of man bites dog. Boxers are hard men, trained to the limits of endurance and exhaustion to fight, to stare possible death in the face and outfox it. But they are people, too, often from complicated and troublesome backgrounds. There is a peculiar vulnerability behind the brawn.
Mike Tyson's numerous high-profile falls from grace and seeming sanity have been well-documented but there are other fighters who are less "Hollywood" but equally low on hope. Take the Puerto Rican Wilfred Benitez, now in his mid-40s, who won the world light welterweight title at 17 and was triple world champion at different weights by 22. Acclaimed as a supremely gifted fighter, who saw off the likes of Roberto Duran and Sugar Ray Leonard in his heyday, he now resides in a psychiatric hospital in Puerto Rico. Then there's Jimmy Page, a WBA world welterweight champion who was jailed in the US three years ago for multiple bank robberies. On a similar note, Paul Weir, former world WBO light flyweight and straw weight champion from Glasgow, is about to be sentenced for selling cannabis. And Riddick Bowe, former world heavyweight champion is now in prison after he abducted his ex-wife following a nervous collapse
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