Bruno: 'Boxing was my life. Without it I was lonely and scared'
No British heavyweight, with the possible exception of Sir Henry Cooper, has been held in greater affection than Frank Bruno, even though he was never the British champion.
He was the cuddly bruiser but when the lights went out on his career and he ended up being sectioned (held in a psychiatric hospital) for 28 days, inevitably the popular belief was that Bruno had lost his marbles and that boxing was the main contributory factor.
But now, after the fights, the divorce, the spell on a psychiatric ward, Frank Bruno will be back this week, sharing a stage once again with his old nemesis Mike Tyson in a London hotel. And for Big Frank, the appearance will give him the time to reflect on the years, the fights, the good times and bad.
When, at the London Hilton, they do the jawing after the warring it will be a happier if somewhat less profitable re-match for the troubled ex-lords of the ring. Bruno told The Independent on Sunday last night: "I've got a lot of time for the man [Tyson]. Underneath all that crazy stuff he's done he is a nice, decent man. The fights with him counted among the toughest and hardest of my career.
"Some of the media said we weren't evenly matched, but that was just crazy. We'll be taking questions from the floor so we'll see what comes up. It'll be fun talking about our fights, though. This is just banter and jesting. We won't be getting any busted ribs or black eyes this time round, they're not paying us enough for that." This time there was no "Know what I mean", but you can be certain that when the bell goes after dinner there will be.
Bruno and Tyson are old acquaintances, not exactly mates but respecting each other with that unique camaraderie of the prize ring which sees retired, misty-eyed pugs throw their arms around each other's necks in nostalgic embrace when they meet up years after trying to belt bits off each other.
In his 46-bout career Bruno may have shipped a few punches, notably against Mike Tyson in their two painfully brief encounters, but nothing like those inflicted on many fellow tradesmen in the hardest game of all. At the event, for all his problems, Bruno will not show the slightest sign of punch-drunkenness.
Jarvis Astaire, one of the promotional figures in his career, said: "It is not a boxing thing. It's a life thing. The trouble with Frank is that he's suffering from life."
What Bruno needed was a lifeline. And it may be that after a month in a mental hospital ("You thought Linford Christie was fast. There was no way he could touch me the day I was let out," Bruno said), he found it in the beginnings of his restoration as an in-demand personality. They started inviting him to functions, to boxing dinner evenings where he was in the company of friends.
Barry McGuigan, the former world featherweight champion and president of the pugilists' trades union, the British Boxers' Association, says: "It must have been especially hard for Frank, sitting at home looking at a programme like They Think It's All Over with Audley Harrison or Amir Khan occupying a seat that once would have been his.
"His breakdown was the culmination of a number of things: his divorce, the suicide of his trainer, George Francis, which robbed him of a great source of counsel, being out of the public eye. Finally the poor guy just cracked. He's a lovely big bloke and he's obviously had a problem with self-esteem all his life."
For those closely acquainted with him it was clear that even being Big Frank Bruno was just another panto role which he played robotically alongside Sooty. He never seemed to relax, always cracking his knuckles along with his jokes.
Publicly he played the fool, but at heart he was never really cut out to be a court jester. One suspects he has been fighting demons as his chief opponentall his life, living on that forced "Heh, heh, heh" since he first pulled on a pair of boxing gloves. He has never really been able to be himself, whoever that might be, but even now, despite his traumas, he remains a national treasure.
Bruno and Tyson first met in the Catskill Mountains, New York State, when Bruno was a 20-year-old seeking sparring experience. "Mike was vulnerable but awesome," Bruno recalled. "I sympathise with him because he was advised down the wrong route and hung out with the wrong people. He was an animal in the ring, sometimes an animal outside, but his heart is good and they took advantage of him."
It was after his second loss to Tyson in 1996 that Bruno slowly derailed. He was already a prisoner of his own "Broono" phenomenon. It made him. And in a way it broke him.
He had enjoyed the fruits of his buffoonery but when the celebrity work started to dry up he found his days empty. "Boxing had been my life," he says. "It had given me purpose, discipline, status. I'd been Frank Bruno, boxer. Now I was Frank Bruno, what? I no longer had boxing or my family. I was lonely, it was confusing and scary."
Bruno and Tysonwere teenage tearaways, both have had their mental state questioned and both were deeply affected by the loss of a mentor - in Tyson's case the legendary trainer Cus D'Amato. Unlike Tyson, though, Bruno is not broke financially. Most of the £15m he earned in the ring has been banked, though his divorce has been costly. The publication of his biography clearly has been therapeutic. His tête-à-tête with Tyson surely will also help him in his comeback not as a boxer, but as a person. Talking back to happiness.
ROOTS: The youngest of six children, Bruno was born at Hammersmith Hospital in London in 1961. His parents had migrated to the UK from the Caribbean. They settled in Wandsworth and at the age of nine he began boxing, writes Franklyn Roy.
PURSES: Bruno turned professional in 1982. Despite losses, he remained a box-office draw and by 1995 earned £1m in winning the WBC world title. A year later he took £3.5m for getting into the ring with Tyson.
TROUBLES: In 2000, Bruno separated from his wife, Laura, with whom he has three children. Three years later he was sectioned under the Mental Health Act. He has recently admitted using cocaine.
THE FUTURE: Bruno has always had thepublic in his corner, which allowed him to build a career outside the ring. That would appear to offer a route back for him - if he can conquer his inner demons.
Tyson: 'Nobody could ever hate me as much as I hate myself'
No world heavyweight champion has ever been held in more opprobrium than Mike Tyson. Convicted rapist, ear-biter, psychopath, drug-fuelled bankrupt. In his time "Iron Mike" has been all of these things and more but now it seems the ogre with the built-in ASBO is trying to restructure his image by talking his way out of trouble.
His session with Frank Bruno this week will go a fraction of the way to paying off his mountainous debts, said to be around £20m, but also, he hopes, will demonstrate that while he still enjoys his ring sobriquet of "The Baddest Man on the Planet", at heart he does have a shred of deceny in him.
In the ring, and sometimes all-too-frequently out of it, his career has been enmeshed in savagery. It would not come as a shock to learn that he spent some of his hours in prison, first for rape then assault, beating his head against the wall.
This week Tyson arrives in London - presumably with the blessing of the immigration authorities who have twice nodded him through in recent years for fistic engagements - to take part in four after-dinner speaking engagements, for which he is believed to be receiving £30,000 apiece.
The first sees him engaging in banter with Bruno. The one-time youngest-ever world heavyweight champion told The Independent on Sunday last night: "I like connecting with people from my past. There were some people I didn't train for but I never underestimated Frank Bruno, and always prepared for fights with him. Bruno was not a person I could take lightly.
"Both those fights came at important times in my life. Frank was a great challenger, a braver and much better fighter than he was given credit for. He is a beautiful person. I wish him all the best and I'm looking forward to seeing him again.
"All that happened in my boxing careeer is behind me now. That was Mike Tyson the fighter. Now I'm more like Mike Tyson, citizen of the world".
So, is it to be Tyson the global ambassador? Since announcing his retirement he has visited several countries, exchanging playful punches with presidents and punters, hobnobbed with VIPs as the celebrity guest on a cruise and even considering, but rejecting he says, a career in porn movies.
But trouble seems always at his elbow. Only last week he was detained by police in Argentina for allegedly attacking a photographer who was taking pictures of him in a nightclub. He was released without charge. Left as a shattered shell of the fighter he once was, first by Lennox Lewis, then Danny Williams and latterly Kevin McBride, Tyson now fights to rehabilitate himself out of the ring. His speaking tour is part of that programme. But there are those who can neither forgive nor forget his past.
Yet he must know he can never return to normality. For one thing there is the appalling state of his finances. He is flat broke despite having earned around £200m. Most of his debt is to the US tax authorities. Small wonder then, that the Inland Revenue here is insisting on deducting his UK tax at source.
As someone who has followed Tyson's turbulent 20-year career I would add schizophrenic to those labels hung around his neck. Catch him on a good day and you have a charming, articulate man who will discourse deeply not only on the history of boxing but on racing pigeons and the great military leaders of history.
On his bookshelf you will find The Ultimate Encyclopaedia of Mythology alongside AJ Liebling's The Sweet Science.
Charming? Yes. Intellingent? Certainly. But dark qualities have always lurked within his skull. On a bad day, any discussion can prove dangerous, with the eye-flashing threat of bellicose behaviour. Like Bruno, he has never seemed comfortable with himself. "I hate myself so much, you can't hate me as much as I hate myself," he once said.
For a time, Tyson, like Muhammad Ali, transcended sport but once he was shown he was no invincible Colossus he lost more than titles. With them went his friends, his women and his self-respect. He was no longer the monster of popular mythology, the one-man threshing machine who made opponents sweat with fear - Bruno, it must be said, among them.
Of course he was by no means the first heavyweight champion fighter to go from rags to riches and back. It happened to his idol, Joe Louis, who never had the excuse of spending £100,000 on two white Bengal tigers and a similar amount for their trainer to be on call. "Everyone in boxing makes, but not the boxer," he once said. Yet the last time he came to Britain he forked out almost £1m on a watch. His whole life has wavered between poverty and ostentation.
That inability to control himself in and out of the ring has proved costly in every sense. His basic insecurity meant he was constantly surrounded by people beholden to him, but none remain on the payroll, doubtless because there isn't one. "I learned that most of them didn't give a fuck about me," he said. "Now I just want to be myself again."
In a way, this plaintive sentiment echoes that of the man who will be his verbal sparring partner this week. It will be an intriguing return to the spotlight for both, but especially for the main man, Tyson. The baddie is back centre ring. But at least this time he will be bending ears, not biting them, writes Michael Gerard.
ROOTS: In 1966, in the notorious Brownsville neighbourhood of Brooklyn, Mike Tyson was born. He passed in and out of juvenile detention centres, and was expelled from high school. Things looked bleak until Cus D'Amato discovered him.
PURSES: No other boxer came close to matching the profile Tyson has in the late 1980s and 1990s. And his pay cheques reflected his status as the world's most feared - boxer. Over a five-year period he earned £110m.
TROUBLES: In 1990 he lost his heavyweight crown to James "Buster" Douglas. Two years later he was found guilty of raping a Miss Black America contestant, Desiree Washington, and filed for bankruptcy two years ago.
FUTURE: Having spent about £187m on "mansions, limousines and expensive jewellery", Tyson still owes £7m to the US taxman. He'll have to do plenty more public speaking tours.Reuse content