Boxing: Bruno shows style and guile to hit at myths: A British favourite prepares for a moment of Truth in Birmingham tomorrow. Paul Hayward reports

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THE COUNTRY always treated him as part child, part warrior, but these days he is less the national boxing emissary than a curiosity on the fringe, an Eighties media saga gone a bit stale. Can Frank Bruno escape the fame dump? Much will depend on whether Carl 'The Truth' Williams is vertical or horizontal at the end of his working day tomorrow.

Bruno versus The Truth. It has a nice ring for those who consistently disparage Bruno's prowess as a fighter. The conventional wisdom is that his second phase as a heavyweight will end the way of the first: with Bruno in the danger zone, besieged by a faster, more natural puncher like Tyson. It may not happen tomorrow at the NEC, they say, but it will happen soon. And it will hurt.

It was easy to believe otherwise this week in Bruno's tented gym at Springs Hydro near Ashby-de-la-Zouch. First you had the visual evidence of his Olympian physique; then the repeated assertion that this is a very different Frank Bruno to the one who capitulated to Mike Tyson's savage assault in February, 1989.

'I'm much looser, stronger, more positive and more mature,' Bruno said as his trainer, George Francis, maintained the paternal stare that he had employed through an hour and a half of sweat-spraying exercise.

The watchfulness during the interview was unnecessary. One myth about Bruno that can be confidently dispatched is that he is an innocent in the realm of self-projection. This emerged irrefutably when somebody asked him what would happen after the Williams fight. 'I'll do my know-what-I-mean- 'arry speech and then think about it,' Bruno said, confirming the suspicion that even if Harry Carpenter treats him like a big fighting bear, Bruno is more than capable of parodying himself and the ghastly racial stereotypes he knows to be so prevalent.

For some in the black boxing community and beyond, Bruno's antics with Carpenter represent a form of Uncle Tommery, a willingness to play a role for the sake of a public image that undermines his race in the interests of profit.

Their disdain is more valid when applied to manipulative interviewers who wait for him to trip over his sentences or emit cute catchphrases, because Bruno, you suspect, has a keen sense of when he is being spoken down to and can caricature himself with a wit that Eddie Murphy would envy. 'Does one know what one means?', he said, toying with an interviewer from Central Television.

So much for the Bruno of HP sauce ads, of pantos and MBEs. The one who grew up in public. In a tent billowing to the sound of House music, the veins in Bruno's arms and legs are beginning to resemble subcutaneous kettle leads as the tempo of his work-out increases. There are five of us watching, including Francis. Nobody speaks. Homage is being paid to Bruno's extraordinary fitness while, in the health club across the lawn, chubby executives are sweating off lunches, grunting away their greed.

Another issue presents itself. Does it help him, all that statuesque solidity? No, say those acquainted with American methods. Yes, says Bruno. 'In America you see these flabby guys, but I like to look after myself. You've only got one life, you've only got one body,' he said.

And how he does look after it. Francis concurs with the view that Bruno is probably the most muscled heavyweight ever to climb through the ropes. 'He's certainly the most dedicated I've seen, and I've been in boxing for 45 years,' Francis said as Bruno shadow boxes in one of those intensely private gym rituals. Even though Francis told him it was an unnecessarily long retreat, Bruno has been away from home training for the Williams fight for six weeks, 'meditating and concentrating on boxing', he said, sounding like Chris Eubank.

Bruno should win tomorrow. Williams is a better boxer than the three he has fought thus far in his comeback, so an authoratitive win will enable his cornermen to push Bruno off the periphery of the heavyweight division and towards a lucrative title fight with Lennox Lewis, whose presence has reduced Bruno's public profile while illuminating his deficiencies as a fighter. 'He's not a bad fighter, but he's not a great one either because he hasn't fought anybody,' Bruno said of Lewis. 'In some ways he's helped me because the pressure's on him now, not me.'

That Bruno has made changes is beyond dispute. In his last fight with Pierre Coetzer, he employed many of the abrasive tactics he used to eschew and was a stone heavier than in the honed-down, pre-retirement period. 'When I asked George (Francis) to be my trainer,' Bruno said, 'he said he would do it on condition I became more serious, look meaner. I should have done it a long time ago instead of being a gentleman. With the weight, I was 16st 3lb a year ago because I was trying to be lean to the bone. George said I should eat a little more, and I feel a lot better for it because there's more power, more stamina in there.'

Extra bulk and a scrappier style alone, though, will not satisfy the purists. Even if he no longer commiserates with beaten opponents in their dressing-rooms, and even if he breaks the rules in combat, Bruno, they say, will never have the quickness of hand and ease of movement to unravel the best fighters.

As evidence, they cite a comment made by Riddick Bowe's veteran trainer, Eddie Futch, on the general subject of heavyweights. 'The most important factor,' Futch said, 'is hand speed. All the best heavyweights had it. Joe Louis, Ali, Frazier and, of course, Tyson. Power is fine. Speed is critical.'

Now is the time for Bruno to prove he has acquired that 'critical' speed. He may be right when he says he has a better chance now of winning a title than 'when Tyson was around', and he certainly sounds credible when he argues that he is a looser, less rigid figure in the ring than when he was knocking out tubby bit-part players to construct a false superman aura. 'It ain't the money,' Bruno says when you ask him why he bothers at the age of 31. 'I've got to keep going because I've got an urge in my body to box.'

Then the story turns surreal. Bruno talked about the aftermath of the Tyson fight, retirement, boredom, the bear cage of his pantomime career. 'I didn't know what to do,' he said. 'I was confused, but then I met a man called Jimmy Savile. I went on a job with him to Broadmoor. I met Peter Sutcliffe (the Yorkshire Ripper) and one of the Krays. We went back to Jimmy Savile's house and he said: 'What do you want to be remembered for?' I said: 'Boxing. I'm training for two hours a day and I don't know what for'. So I decided to come back into boxing.

'I'm in it,' Bruno said, 'to secure my dream,' while the bikes and weight machines and sparring ring stand in mute testimony to his labours in this deserted tent. May he at least wake up this healthy.

(Photograph omitted)