I first met Frank Bruno in 1984 when I interviewed him for Isis, the Oxford University magazine. I was obsessed with boxing, and Bruno, at 22, was its British star. The previous year, at my own interview to get into Oxford, I had been so intimidated by my surroundings that I had fled the college, booked into a cheap hotel and watched Bruno knock out one of his earliest victims, a hapless Paraguayan named Gilberto Acuna.
I can honestly say that watching Bruno gave me the solace to go back to that college. I had come from abroad, from a school that did not send people to Oxford. There I had spent my time collecting newspaper articles, and snatching World Service bulletins, about this sensation from Wandsworth who might, finally, become the first British world heavyweight champion of the 20th century.
It seemed incredible that now I was in the Royal Oak gym in Canning Town, talking to Terry Lawless, Bruno's manager, and watching Bruno train. Bruno didn't really want to do the interview. He gave me only about five minutes; I was honoured he gave me that long. I got the Isis photographer to take a picture of us. For years I kept it by my desk - me leaning forward eagerly, Bruno sitting back wearing a black-and-white check sports jacket, shirt and tie, a young, black ex-delinquent in the clothes of a middle-aged white businessman.
I began haunting other boxing pubs, such as the Thomas A' Becket on the Old Kent Road. Everything was Bruno, Bruno, Bruno. The attitude of the cognoscenti shocked me. Most seemed against him. "What's he done anyway?" I put it down to envy.
In 1986, when he fought Tim Witherspoon of Philadelphia for the world title, outdoors at Wembley, I was there when the trouble broke out. I almost got arrested. Witherspoon, the hooded victor, was smuggled from the ring like a child-killer. On the way back we sang "Broon-ohoh!" out of the car window. I was there when he made a defiant appearance back at the Royal Oak, dressed in a banker's pinstripe suit. The crowds were so thick he could hardly make it to the door.
I was trying to become a boxing writer. I wondered what it was like, being him. I left a message at the Royal Oak and to my amazement he rang back. He answered in platitudes and one-liners. He always did. He was an enigma. But he'd rung back.
I did become a boxing writer and developed a knowing tone, and the critic's blind spot of forgetting that the person he is criticising has feelings.
I remembered what the cognoscenti had said - that he was limited, that he lacked confidence when he wasn't on top, that he couldn't take a shot. I forgot that he was very strong, would be a handful for anyone, could really punch and was brave.
You see, a hysteria surrounded Bruno, that makes Henmania look like child's play. The hype and pressure from his promoters were immense, perhaps unprecedented. But if you didn't conform, unless you were of untouchable seniority, you didn't get the pass. They wouldn't admit it, but I saw some sportswriters begin hating Bruno, for what the people behind him were cajoling them to do.
I saw the first Tyson fight on a closed-circuit screen at Wembley. Knowingly I'd bet on Tyson for a first-round knockout. When it was Bruno who rocked Tyson in the first, I was on my seat. I wanted him to win.
I decided to write a book on Bruno, and was commissioned. It was never published. I was drawn to the financial deal that attended his progress. For reasons of libel, I can't go into them. I tried to get in touch with Bruno, but he responded with lawyers' letters. At a Boxing Writers' Dinner, he came angrily looking for me.
I spoke to his friends from the early days, when Bruno was an amateur at the Sir Philip Game club in Croydon. He was being "looked after" by Al Hamilton, a journalist from the Caribbean Times, known for his trademark hat.
Bruno met his future wife Laura rollerskating in Battersea Park. He had been expelled from school, and hung around with some other amateur fighters: Tony Adams from Brixton, Keith Bristol, a light-heavy with the gift of the gab, and Lloyd Honeyghan, the future world welterweight champion. They were something of a team. With Laura now in tow, they went on trips, sometimes to Margate. Life was a hustle: boxing, and trying to find money. Sometimes they worked club doors together. Life was all ahead of them.
In 1978 Bruno hit it big, winning the national amateur heavyweight title over a touted Welshman named Rudi Pika. Al Hamilton's plan was to sign Bruno to an Essex businessman, Bert McCarthy, something of a mentor to the current dominant promoter, Frank Warren. There was a scare over Bruno's eyesight. Then, at the last minute, he switched to Terry Lawless and his promotional associate, Mickey Duff, perhaps the most influential post-war British boxing figure.
McCarthy said Bruno continued contacting him for up to a decade afterwards, almost like a lost son. Hamilton was cut out, claiming that Bruno had been told to jettison all black links. He later took Lawless to court - unsuccessfully - alleging that a verbal agreement had been reneged on. In evidence Bruno called Hamilton a "harbour shark" but the judge, while finding against Hamilton, described Bruno's testimony as unreliable.
This, to me, is the start of the deep confusion that beset Frank Bruno. He went on to win and lose a version of the world heavyweight title, lose to Mike Tyson again, and be divorced by Laura.
He ended up being promoted by Warren, to whom he made six frantic calls as he was being sectioned. At the time, Bruno was trying to reinvent himself as a DJ, embracing the black club culture that he had once eschewed. According to Warren, he spent large sums on a new and much younger group of hangers-on.
It is difficult remaining an enigma by speaking lines you don't believe, but I believe Bruno thought he could pull it off: that he could handle all these men who are drawn to the honeypot of a world heavyweight contender, and control them to his own advantage. He couldn't, because they knew he was playing them at their game, and because they were far more invulnerable than he.
The last time I met him was at the MGM Casino in Las Vegas five years ago. He threatened to knock my block off for something I'd written. He was probably right. But when you are an intelligent man like Bruno, you tend to be haunted by the old, innocent days. The fact is they've gone: Tony Adams has disappeared; Keith Bristol is serving a stretch for armed robbery; Lloyd Honeyghan is back hustling down the Old Kent Road as a manager. The Royal Oak has closed down.
I don't believe Frank Bruno is mad. In this almost Shakespearean tragedy, there are solaces. He is back on the front pages. He will make money again from this. People, including myself, have realised that without him there would have been no Brunomania, and that it did mean something to us.
And finally there is the knowledge that he is lucky, that there are men of a similar age, both black and white, who are also wailing against the loss of former lives, and who don't have the luxury of being looked after, but are on the street, or perhaps in a room somewhere, the difference being that outside it there is ... nothing.Reuse content