Boxing: Bruno facing a test of strength: Ken Jones on the route the British heavyweight needs to take to overcome a challenging South African tonight

Click to follow
The Independent Online
AFTER seven hard rounds against Pierre Coetzer three months ago Riddick Bowe was the one headed in the right direction. The winner on a technical knock- out, he was going on to challenge Evander Holyfield for the heavyweight championship.

This, more or less, was how most people had imagined the outcome, but nobody, certainly not Bowe, a 1-10 favourite, expected Coetzer, then the World Boxing Association's leading contender, to be such a difficult proposition. 'I couldn't believe how tough he is,' Bowe said this week when speaking about the large South African who is Frank Bruno's opponent tonight at Wembley Arena. 'He took my best shots and I felt some of his. I didn't think I was ever going to get him out of there.'

The end came for Coetzer when Bowe got in a wicked low blow. Forgetting that 'protect yourself at all times' is boxing's most crucial rule, Coetzer dropped his guard, anticipating that Mills Lane, the referee, would grant him a moment to recover. Instead, Bowe ripped in a right uppercut and followed up with powerful hooks that moved Lane to stop the contest. Coetzer, bleeding from multiple cuts and well behind on all three judges' cards, protested, but significantly not about the foul. He wanted to continue. 'That tells you how tough he is,' Bowe said.

When this was relayed to Coetzer at a press conference in Northampton a few days ago, he smiled. 'It was a good fight,' he said in the clipped accent of Pretoria. 'I could have gone on and wanted to. The cuts weren't a problem and Bowe didn't hurt me all that much. After a couple of days I was fine.'

A popular conclusion is that Mickey Duff could not have produced a better opponent at this stage of Bruno's comeback than a durable ranked heavyweight who has lost only three of 42 professional contests but carries no great reputation as a puncher. None of Coetzer's skills are overwhelming. His real ability is in absorbing punishment. Pat Putnam, of Sports Illustrated, said: 'He handled Bowe's right-handed rockets the way a cliff handles raindrops.'

It is often difficult to figure out some fighters. For example, Jose Ribalta who has troubled plenty of hard men, took Coetzer the distance in May last year and was thought to be a good test for Bruno. Instead, showing no great heart for the proceedings, he was counted out in the second round.

Something similar is remembered about Gerrie Coetzee, another South African who was Bruno's opponent six years ago in a final eliminator for the World Boxing Association championship. Much was made of the first-round knock-out that set up Bruno for an ill-fated title fight against Tim Witherspoon but in truth Coetzee made only a token appearance and retired immediately after the contest.

To be reminded of Coetzee's shortcomings irritates Bruno. 'I don't remember being told that he wasn't in very good shape,' he growled this week, 'I don't remember that at all.'

On the basis that a fighting instinct appears to be still strong in Coetzer, and Duff has managed to swing the contest as an eliminator for the International Boxing Federation championship, better things can be expected of him. 'Pierre knows that this is probably his last big chance,' Alan Toweel, the South African's trainer, said. 'He can transform his career by beating Bruno. If he loses then it's probably all over.'

It remains to be seen whether Coetzer is as determined as he was against Bowe who was suprised by his tactics. 'He fooled us,' Futch said. 'He made us alter our plan drastically.' From the films he had studied Futch expected Coetzer to be the agressor. Instead he stayed on the outside, showing a good jab and hurtful combinations. It wasn't until Coetzer began to tire in the fourth round that Bowe got to him.

There are two ways of fighting Bruno who, interestingly at around 16st 10lb, looks more rounded with less of the body-builder's bulging physique. One is to go right at him. The other is to wear him down.

Either way Coetzer, slightly taller but giving away almost two stones, runs a risk although Bruno who underwent retinal surgery before returning to the ring last year has yet to be tested. Before knocking out the hugely anonymous John Emmen in the opening round of his first contest, Bruno nervously covered up when the Dutchman launched a clumsy attack. Ribalta brought nothing but a bit of a name.

So if Coetzer lives up to his reputation for at least being durable it could be the first real test for Bruno. 'We've trained for a hard fight,' George Francis, his trainer, said. 'Nobody should sell this fella short. He's a good fighter with a good chin. And forget about the cuts.'

But how can we? The scar tissue around Coetzer's eyes show how easily they open up, and that large head is an inviting target for Bruno's stiff jab. There you have a clue to how it will probably finish.

(Photograph omitted)