He didn't have Tyson's power or the eloquence of Ali. His victories were not memorable. So why do people love him so?

As an eye injury forces Frank Bruno to retire from the ring, Jack O'Sullivan considers the secret of his enduring charm
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Frank Bruno, Britain's favourite fighter, yesterday ended a career which, although unexceptional in boxing history, gave him a world title and turned him into one of the country's most popular sportsman.

He didn't have Mike Tyson's power and Muhammad Ali's eloquence escaped him. His victories were unmemorable and his defeats were often by second- raters. Yet, through a combination of wit, charm and considerable bravery, he won the hearts of millions, even those with little time for the brutalities of the Sweet Science.

The threat of a detached retina in his right eye forced him to hang up his gloves, thwarting a planned comeback challenge to Mike Tyson."What is to be is to be," said Bruno. "I've had a good innings. I've ducked and dived." No longer will he have to pretend to be the world's most dangerous boxer. From now on he is expected to concentrate on his other activities as stand-up comic, pantomime artist, advertiser of HP Sauce and Britain's most loveable gentle giant.

The recurring injury ended a14-year professional career in which this boxer of questionable ability finally seized the WBC world heavyweight championship on points at his fourth attempt last September, an achievement the great heroes of British boxing, such as Henry Cooper, could not match.

He lost the title again six months later after his second, humiliating drubbing by Tyson. Bruno's punch was good, calculated to be equivalent to a padded 12lb sledgehammer travelling at 20mph. The trouble was that Bruno, glass-jawed and too slow around the ring, too rarely connected glove to victim.

The key to his enduring popularity has been his affability. Whereas many of his contemporaries fail to shake off an aggressive bad-man image when outside the ring, Bruno has been the cheeky, chirpy chappie, with a deep Cockney voice, apparently devoid of blood-lust and with a sense of humour that allowed him to play the part of Juliet in Comic Relief's Shakespearean folly.

Bruno's character has sanitised boxing at a time when it is becoming harder to defend. He is the model Nineties man - macho, at least in the ring, but a sentimental, sensitive gentleman out of it, loving his wife, Laura, with whom he has lived for 16 years and his three children. To women he is a sweetheart - protective, but not threatening and with an endearing hint of stupidity.

Lennox Lewis, Britain's other heavyweight to take the WBC title, looks too mean. Joe Bugner was never forgiven for ending Henry' Cooper's career. The way was left open for Bruno to take Our 'Enry's place as the nation's brave loser.

The Bruno image has required careful management, in particular by Laura Bruno, whose toughness in negotiation is said to be the flipside of Frank's easy-going manner. He always wears double-breasted suits of the sort favoured by the Duke of Windsor, never swears, and is a church-going Catholic. And he is very funny, with a well-prepared script. His one-liners were in evidence again yesterday. Did he have any plans, he was asked. "Only for the wife in the bedroom this Christmas and my kids in the front room." His catch-phrase, "Know wha' I mean, 'Arry?" - Bruno's chorus in interviews with the veteran BBC commentator Harry Carpenter - is entrenched in the language.

His acceptability to white audiences has led some to accuse him of selling out on the black community - his mother came from Jamaica, his father from Dominica. He successfully took legal action against one such allegation. Others point to an extraordinary achievement in making himself a black British hero with no enemies.

So what now for Bruno? At 34, he is rich, living in an Essex mansion surrounded by 70 acres near Brentwood. But, as he said yesterday, "the old man has to go out and earn some money". Commentating is probably out - Bruno's dozen or so one-liners would not sustain him.

But advertisers see a big future. "He would look good in a Hamlet ad," said Trevor Beattie, of TBWA. "Strength in the face of adversity, another disaster. You could have him getting knocked out for the 63rd time, but rising above it all. He is the classic British loser. We love them." Jo Tanner, of Saatchi and Saatchi, said: "He'd be great at sending himself up. I see him looking good in a ballerina's tutu. Or he could advertise the Harrods sale, talking like a posh nob."