Best I Faced: Frank Bruno
For several years, Frank Bruno’s popularity among the British establishment threatened to exceed his boxing achievements. However, on September 25, 1995, at the fourth time of asking, he finally won a version of the heavyweight championship.
Bruno was born in Hammersmith, London on November 16, 1961, and was one of five children. He came across boxing when he was nine years old when, by his own admission, he became a bit of a handful.
“Life in London was difficult, but I’ve had a good family,” Bruno told RingTV.com. “My dad was really good when I was younger, even though I could be quite difficult. He took me to the boxing gym to try give me some discipline as I was a little terror. When I got there, I knew it was what I wanted to do.
“We used to watch the [Muhammad] Ali fights and he gave me the bug for boxing. I wanted then to be world champion. I told my brother and wrote my name on a piece a paper attached to the fridge in the kitchen ‘Frank Bruno world champion!’
“I needed to channel my energy into something, otherwise I would have got into trouble and ended up in with the wrong people. I loved channeling my energy into boxing. Even now, with various boxing clubs, I encourage trying to get kids off the streets. I teach them to channel all that aggression they have in the boxing gym.”
Bruno had a brief amateur career, going 20-1, though he did become the youngest ABA winner before embarking on his professional career in 1982.
Over the first two years, Bruno showed his considerable power stopping all 21 opponents inside the distance. All but two of those wins were outside of London.
In May 1984, Bruno met James “Bonecrusher” Smith in front of 9,000 fans at the Wembley Arena. The Englishman boxed well through nine rounds and seemed on course for a decision win. However, in the 10th and final round, the American caught Bruno with a left hook that sent him reeling into the ropes. Smith followed with a barrage of punches that dropped Bruno for the count.
Bruno bounced back with four wins before stopping Anders Eklund to win the European title in four rounds. And, five months later, Bruno stunned former WBA titleholder Gerrie Coetzee, needing just 110 seconds of the opening round, for what was, to that point, a career-best victory.
It was a result that sent shockwaves through the division and it earned Bruno a title shot against recently minted WBA titlist Tim Witherspoon in the summer of 1986. The bout headlined at Wembley Stadium in front of 40,000 passionate fans.
The fight was close until the more experienced Witherspoon countered Bruno in the 11th, visibly hurting the challenger. The American unloaded with Bruno trapped in the corner, forcing the proud Brit’s corner to throw the towel in.
Again, the heavy-handed Bruno rebounded. This time he stopped former title challenger James Tillis before setting up a meeting with former Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier opponent Joe Bugner.
The two met at White Hart Lane, home of soccer team Tottenham Hotspur, in the fall of 1987. Bruno dominated the veteran before securing a stoppage in the eighth round.
That win set up a fight with undisputed heavyweight champion Mike Tyson. The two had been scheduled to face off on four occasions in 1988 – meaning Bruno was inactive for 16 months. The oft-postponed bout finally arrived on February 25, 1989.
A near 10,000 crowd attended the Hilton Hotel in Las Vegas. Tyson, a 7½-1 favorite, dropped Bruno before being shaken up himself in a wild first round. As the bout progressed, however, a below par Tyson slowly began to break Bruno down. He finished the job in the fifth, forcing referee Richard Steele to stop the fight following a fierce assault.
Bruno took some time out from the sport, during which time he was awarded the highly prestigious MBE. But boxing was in his blood, it’s what he yearned to do and after 21 months out, he was back.
The ultra-popular Londoner won four bouts, all inside the distance. Pretty soon he would procure a third opportunity, this time against fellow Brit, and WBC heavyweight titleholder, Lennox Lewis, at the National Stadium in Cardiff, Wales, in October 1993.
It was the first time two British fighters had contested a heavyweight title and over 25,000 turned fans were in attendance. Bruno started well, using his underrated skills to keep Lewis, the 4-1 pre-fight favorite, at bay.
Several writers had Bruno ahead by the halfway point. However, Lewis connected with a big left hook in the seventh and although Bruno managed to stay on his feet, he was unable to regain his senses. The challenger was rescued by referee Mickey Vann.
While most would have expected Bruno to walk away, he would not give in. His persistence was rewarded when he was given a shot at Oliver McCall, who had shockingly upset Lewis one year earlier. The date was September 2, 1995.
For long stretches of the fight, Bruno kept McCall honest at the end of his jab. The challenger mixed in right hands for good measure, but he never got greedy against the iron chinned American. Late on, McCall shook Bruno but this time the Englishman reached the finish line.
There has arguably never been a more popular British winner than Bruno claimed the title that night.
“[It was] Like having your first orgasm [Laughs],” Bruno said in a way only he can. “Nothing has quite beat it since. All those years of training, sparring, road running in the snow and rain. The aches and pains, getting hurt. It was all worth it just to get that belt.”
Not surprisingly, Bruno picks his long-awaited world title victory as his proudest moment in boxing, “Winning my belt, it’s all I ever dreamed of.”
Almost immediately, Bruno was mandated to defend his title against his old rival, Tyson. They met in Las Vegas and this time Tyson tore through the Londoner in three rounds to regain his old title.
Bruno is well placed to talk about what it was like to be face-to-face with a prime Tyson.
“It’s like meeting anyone else,” he said. “I’m there to do my job. I never had him on a pedestal. I knew he was tough, but when you got the bug to fight, a challenge is always welcomed.
“Mike and I spent quite a lot of time together in training camps so I knew him before I fought him. In the ring, he was just another boxer who wanted to beat me and in turn I wanted to beat him.”
Shortly after the Tyson rematch in March 1996, with his legacy complete, Bruno decided to retire. He did so with a record of (40-5, 38 knockouts).
Bruno has since been diagnosed as Bipolar and has had some issues, although thankfully he now appears to be in a good place.
“Life is really good now,” he said. “I keep busy ducking and diving here and there. I go to the gym most days and enjoy relaxing at the health club. I’m taking it easy and staying focused on looking after myself.
“When I got over my illness in 2012, my agent, Dave Davies, said to me I should talk and open up about my mental health experiences. It was the best thing I could have done. Thousands of people have told me that me talking about the subject has helped them, either as a sufferer or a carer. Banks and large businesses use me to talk to employees. Medical organizations use me to talk to their staff and their management teams. Various government departments have asked me to talk about the faults in the mental health system.
“I still get booked to talk about my boxing career and I am humbled that people still want to come and see me all over Europe, when it’s over 20 years since I retired. I would love to go to America to entertain the boxing audiences over there. We have a lot of American boxers come over to the UK and tell their stories and I think I could do the same in the States.
“I’m in a really good place now and I feel I can talk openly and honestly about my journey of mental ill-health. It’s been a difficult one but I want to show others there is light at the end of the tunnel and that no matter who you are, you can get through it.”
Bruno, now 55 years old, still lives in London. He is divorced and has four children. He recently started ‘The Frank Bruno Foundation’ which helps those with mental health issues, through non-contact boxing. He is the President of The President’s Sporting Club, which supports young people with disabilities, Grand Order of Water Rats, Time to Change, MIND and he supports various charities.
The hugely popular Bruno, who has been described as a “National Treasure” regularly tours the U.K. and shares his experiences as a speaker on the after dinner circuit.
Much of his life story since retiring will be in his new book “Let me be Frank” it is available on October 14. For a signed copy or signed memorabilia please go to www.frankbruno.co.uk
Bruno graciously took time to speak to RingTV.com about the best he faced in 10 key categories.
Lennox Lewis: Lewis had the best jab. He was very accurate. He caught me when I wasn’t expecting it. He had a sharp jab. He had a good variation of punches but you could tell he definitely worked on his jab because it hurt when he made contact.
Tim Witherspoon: He was very good at reading me. He was quite technical and difficult to catch with a clean punch. He was a bob and weaver. I remember I tried to land him one and he would block it by either slipping or ducking and weaving out the way and then catch me with a counterpunch.
Mike Tyson: Tyson had the fastest hands. He was a good all-rounder and brilliant attacker. He was able to multi-task by reading my moves and punch at the same time as well as dodge. His punches came very quick given his size. He was definitely an animal in the ring, he knew what he wanted and went for it. Massive determination to win.
James Tillis: Tillis moved around in the ring quickly and could counterpunch. He could slip in and out. He was fast on his feet which made it harder for me to land one on him cleanly. A bit of a dancer.
Oliver McCall: He never got put down or knocked out as far as I know. I hit him with a few and he stayed up; a tough guy. I just could not understand how he took some of my punches without a minor flinch.
Witherspoon: Witherspoon sparred with some great legends of boxing like Muhammed Ali and Larry Holmes and this gave him a wealth of experience. He would have to be the smartest fighter I fought.
Pierre Coetzer: Coetzer stands out in my mind as one of the strongest. When I fought him, I can remember thinking this isn’t easy. This guy is strong. He was super-fit and used to train with the South African Army. When he landed a punch, it hurt more than most.
James “Bonecrusher” Smith: Smith had a hard punch and he was strong. This was one of my hardest fights. I was quite young at the time and he was a lot older. I lost this fight outright but it gave me a lot of experience. I learned a lot from his punches and tried to use his style later on in my boxing.
Witherspoon: Tim Witherspoon was definitely a good all-rounder and a lot better than people give him credit for.
Tyson: Tyson had it all; the hunger to win the belts, to fight, to move and determination to take anybody down that crossed him at his peak. He knew the quicker he could get rid of his opponent the less chance he would get caught and he was determined to get rid of his opponents quickly.
Dave Davies and Melanie Sambells helped co-ordinate and make this feature possible. THE RING appreciates their assistance.
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