Boxing: Big Frank caught in the act

Your career's behind you. Oh no it isn't. Ten years on, Bruno the panto ringmaster recalls fighting times; From fight to light entertainment, Alan Hubbard charts a journey
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THIS time 10 years ago he was preparing to take centre stage in Las Vegas, playing opposite a Demon King named Tyson, although, like the repeat performance seven years later, it turned out to be a walk-on part for Frank Bruno.

A decade on, and Britain's favourite heavyweight ham is still treading the boards, appearing nightly at the Mayflower Theatre, Southampton, where the co-star packs a somewhat less lethal punch. "Izzy whizzy, let's get busy", exhorts that unmistakable basso profondo voice to Sooty as the circus parade begins in Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Yes, Big Frank is doing his seasonal thing, this time in the specially created role of the Ringmaster. It is his seventh panto. He's been a matinee Idle Jack and a rather robotic Robin Hood, but this one, he says, is his favourite, breaking all box-office records when it ran originally in Birmingham last year. "Nice one, eh?"

In his third year of retirement, he's been out of the telly limelight of late, but next weekend he's reunited with his erstwhile sparring partner, Harry Carpenter, summarising Mike Tyson's return against Francois Botha for the subscription channel First Digital. No doubt it will be the old biff- bang banter as before, though we certainly shouldn't expect anything too controversial. Bruno has never been in the badmouthing business and he'll continue to play his studied game of bland man's bluff. Know what we mean?

Take his fence-sitting reaction to that nasty little spat between Henry and Hamed, when Cooper poured scorn on Prince Naseem's MBE. "Personally, I wouldn't have done it, but Henry is entitled to his opinion." So what does he feel about Hamed? "He's a good fighter, very talented. I've no quibble with his award. Good luck to him. Some people say he's a bit flash but he's a great entertainer, and that's what it's about, putting bums on seats."

Bruno has done his share of that in his time. Backstage at the Mayflower, waiting to don his crimson Ringmaster's cape and topper, he perches cautiously on his dressing-room sofa. Responding ponderously, as ever, to questions with platitudinous politeness, punctuated by his trademark guffaw.

Yes, he does fancy Tyson's chances and no, he doesn't approve of his behaviour, though he won't condemn him for it. "I don't like to get involved in slagging off any boxer." He does concede, though, that Tyson's ear- munching episode against Evander Holyfield was "disgraceful".

But he reckons Tyson can still do the business. "Despite all that's gone on, he's still a good fighter, most definitely. Once he gets himself really fit we could see the old Tyson. He wasn't fit against Holyfield and that was his trouble, really, because he got frustrated. But what he did was terrible, a disgrace. I was very shocked. It was the action of a crazy, desperate man, but he's been punished, and that should be that."

Bruno even believes a fit Tyson could go on to regain the title, but like the rest of us he worries about his state of mind. "It doesn't seem to be too good at the moment. But you can never write him off, he's such a ferocious, powerful guy."

As Bruno twice discovered to his cost, more painfully on the second occasion when he lost the WBC title he had acquired six months earlier from Oliver McCall. Then, in the muted presence of his personal Barmy Army of 5,000 Brits, Bruno boxed as if he wouldn't say boo to a Mother Goose.

Any regrets? "You can't live your life wondering whether you should have done this or wishing you'd done that. It's like saying if I'd have known the right Lottery numbers I'd have won the jackpot. You can only do your best all the time and I did. I'd like to have put up a better performance, but, though it's not an excuse, I couldn't see properly after I was cut. No use crying about it now."

Unlike some old adversaries, Bruno and Tyson haven't kept in touch. Bruno says there are no hard feelings, even though Tyson once labelled him a "coconut" (meaning he was white on the inside), but people who have been in state penitentiaries shouldn't throw stones.

It's curtain up, and time for the Ringmaster to strut his stuff. The Mayflower's is a hearty, meat and potatoes panto, with the traditional look- behind-you trimmings, spiced up with the now expected modern mix of celebrity sports star, soap opera siren and Principal Boy from The Bill.

All Bruno has to do is be Frank; he acts rather like he boxed, rigidly, with predictable punchlines. The kids love him, though one mum in the audience was overheard murmuring to a friend: "I must say I went off him a bit after that business with his wife." Earlier Bruno had made it clear that all enquiries about his private life were off-limits, declining to discuss the reported marital differences of 18 months ago which led to his wife Laura seeking a restraining order in the High Court. They are still together and photographs of his three children with Santa Claus have pride of place on his dressing table. "It's all sorted now," is all he will say, adding that he doesn't believe the matter has affected his popularity.

The theatre programme, in chronicling his career, says that his ring record "to date" is 44 contests. Does this suggest he might contemplate a comeback, at 37? There are older heavyweights still in there punching. "Not if I can help it. I'm enjoying life too much. I keep peckin' along, duckin' 'n' divin', doing the odd job here and there. The tax is paid and there's petrol in the car."

So the show goes on for the Ringmaster and the greasepaint is surely getting to him. Inevitably, the clown now yearns to play Hamlet. "I'm still learning the business, treading the boards, having fun. But maybe one day I'd like to do something more serious like a West End play. Heh, heh."

Meanwhile the kids are yelling for him again. It's time to sort out Sooty.