A joker gets serious

profile Frank Bruno
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The Independent Online
FRANK SINATRA croons on into his 80s, his voice like his hair, long gone. Frank Bruno, at 33, has made almost as many comebacks as Ol' Blue Eyes but is in rather better shape. Like Sinatra, Bruno can still pack them in: his return to the ring against the Puerto Rican Rodolfo Marin at Shepton Mallet next Saturday sold out its 5,000 capacity a fortnight ago.

There is, oddly, a link between the two Franks. Sinatra's last British appearance was promoted by Frank Warren at his ill-starred London Arena, and it is Warren who stages Bruno's return to action. It will be the first time in his 41 fights that Bruno has boxed without the involvement of Mickey Duff, who promoted and match-made for him while Bruno was under the management of Duff's partner, Terry Lawless. When Bruno became self- managed after his split with Lawless, he did a three-fight promotional deal with Duff, which he decided not to renew after a scheduled match with former World Boxing Organisation champion Ray Mercer in Hong Kong last October was cancelled at the weigh-in.

The cancellation was not Duff's fault, of course, but Bruno felt it was time for a change. "I'd been with Mickey and Jarvis [Astaire] from the start and I'd been loyal to them," he told me from his training camp in Tenerife last week. "There was no bad feeling between us: it was just that they had nothing constructive to offer me, which Frank could because of his links with King and ITV and everything."

Warren is uniquely well-placed to deliver on his promises to Bruno as the big man searches for an unprecedented (for a British fighter) fourth opportunity to claim a share of the world title. Warren is closely involved with the ubiquitous Don King, a man with more tentacles than a tankful of octopuses. King either manages or has promotional agreements with virtually all the leading heavyweight contenders for any of the available world titles.

He has supplied Bruno's opponent on Saturday, and we may be sure that on this occasion King's loyalty will be with Bruno rather than with his own competent but unspectacular, and therefore unprofitable, client. There is a lot of money to be made from matching Bruno with King's World Boxing Council champion Oliver McCall, a fight which would become a live possibility for a summer open-air date if both can stay undefeated in the meantime. Warren is adamant that Bruno has the beating of McCall. "Styles make fights, and McCall is exactly right for Frank - even Lennox Lewis has said so," Warren enthused. "If ever there was a fight Bruno could win, this is it."

Can this Frank Warren, I wonder, be in any way related to the Frank Warren who was quoted, after Bruno announced his intention to carry on boxing following his defeat by Lennox Lewis in October 1993, as saying: "Whoever advises Bruno is not doing a very good job. He should pack it in right now. This is not just bad for him, it's bad for boxing." Politics, it seems, is not the only world in which a week is a long time.

Bruno shares Warren's new-found optimism, but in his case the certainty is not mere chest-thumping, pre-fight hype. He sparred with the champion in the days when McCall was happy to earn a few dollars as a hired hand and is convinced he learned enough to handle him. "I had a beautiful time with McCall - very nice sparring," he recalls. "We did about 12 rounds, but then he caught me with a thumb in the eye and I couldn't see properly for the rest of the week. He's very rugged. I wasn't surprised when he beat Lewis, but I fancy my chances against him. I'd be too strong for him."

There is something rather touching about Bruno's limitless self-belief as he trudges on in pursuit of boxing's Holy Grail, the heavyweight championship. He has tried and failed three times: against Tim Witherspoon for the WBA version in 1986, against Mike Tyson for the undisputed title in 1989, and against Lewis for the World Boxing Council version four years later. Lesser men might have been discouraged by three failures, but Bruno regards them as merely part of the learning process. "I'm much more seasoned now than I was in those days," he says. "I'm more determined, and stronger mentally and physically. If I'd been stopped quickly, or been battered from the first round to the last in any of my title fights, it would have been different but I fought well in them all and I was beating Lewis until he caught me with that left hook to the temple in the seventh.

"It's never been hard for me to keep my enthusiasm going, because I love boxing so much. When you have a dream in your heart, it keeps you going and helps get you over the bad times."

The Lewis match in Cardiff was a bitter-sweet experience for Bruno. He boxed so well in the first six rounds that, even in defeat, he had the satisfaction of proving wrong the critics who said he shouldn't have been there in the first place. But that pleasure was marred by Lewis's reportedly calling him an "Uncle Tom", as hurtful an insult as one black man can give another.

Bruno issued a writ and although the case was settled before it got to court the resentment still burns with a fury which sits uncomfortably with Bruno's public image as the gentle, cuddly giant. "I hate the man," he says. "I can't wait to fight him again. I'm proud of who I am. I'm proud of being black, but I'm not a militant - I just want to set an example to the kids on the streets where I came from. I don't want to be called a sell-out because I haven't sold out."

The Hammersmith-born Bruno is qualified to talk about the kids on the streets. His life was turned around when as an "unmanageable" 11-year- old, he was sent to a GLC-run boarding school at Oak Hall in Sussex. He had already dabbled in boxing at schools level, but the sport was not on the ILEA approved curriculum at Oak Hall. Instead, he responded to the disciplines of organised sports like basketball, athletics, and football (he played for Sussex Schools) until eventually an enlightened headmaster, recognising where his real talent lay, gave him permission to join a local boxing club. Frank flourished, becoming the youngest winner of the Amateur Boxing Association heavyweight title and, under the guidance of the Duff- Astaire-Lawless-Mike Barrett quartet, which at that time monopolised big-time professional boxing in Britain, he was soon on the way to his first world title attempt.

Gradually, mainly through a series of knockabout interviews with the BBC's Harry Carpenter, the public persona of Bruno The Lovable Buffoon emerged. The image is misleading, but calculated. "I know it can't last forever," he explains. "I have to look at capturing a different market for when I retire. All this `Know what I mean, `Arry' is part of that. Deep down, I'm a serious person, but if I act serious then people think I'm soft.

"I don't know if I'll go into the entertainment business when I'm finished boxing, though. Sometimes you have to sell yourself in a nasty way to get ahead in that business, and I don't want to sell my soul to get there. I want to be able to keep my dignity."

Authentic or manufactured, the image has been successful enough to make Bruno, in Warren's words, "the most popular sportsman in Britain, which is why this show has sold out. We've got 5,000 capacity there and could have sold twice that."

Bruno's interests are carefully guarded by his wife Laura, who stops short of a managerial title but acknowledges that she has "considerable input" into her husband's decisions. "We've been together for 17 years," Bruno says, "and I'm blessed to have her. She's very understanding, very supportive, even though, like any wife, she'd probably be happier if I wasn't getting hit. I don't make any decisions without going through her - she's my backbone."

The couple have two daughers, Nicola, 12, and Rachael, eight, and a third child is expected next month. Together, the Brunos make a formidable team. "Bruno is the only truly self-managed professional fighter. I've dealt with," Warren said. "He and Laura knew what they wanted, I knew what I wanted, we sat down together and eventually we got there."

Laura's formidable negotiating skills drew an awed tribute from an agent of my acquaintance, who sought to book Frank for an after-dinner engagement. "She was tough to deal with, very hard and extremely aware of what the market would stand. But then that's her job, and she's very good at it.

"I have to say that Bruno gave full value for money, too: he stayed right to the end of the evening, shook hands with everybody in the room, and posed for any number of photos. He's expensive, but you get what you pay for."