The long and extraordinary career of Frank Bruno is surely now finally over after Lennox Lewis, who for most of six rounds had given an alarmingly off-key performance, finished Bruno in spiteful fashion in the seventh round of their World Boxing Council heavyweight title fight outdoors at Cardiff's National Stadium in the early hours of yesterday morning.
Perhaps chilled by a cold night wind or even unnerved by the shrieking, near-hysterical tension of the occasion, Lewis found that his timing was off from the start and that what he thought would be easy instead became fraught with danger. Bruno, by contrast, fought with an angry intensity that had not before been witnessed in him. Emotion is supposed to be the enemy of a fighter in the ring but in Bruno's case it was a friend.
When referee Mickey Vann dived in to save the swaying Bruno, Lewis was behind on one judge's card and even on the two others. In truth, despite the scoring, the idea of Bruno winning was not compelling, although it suggested itself at moments in the fight to a degree that had never been expected.
The Lewis camp blamed their man's fitful concentration on a late decision by television executives to move the start of the fight forward, leaving Lewis less than warmed up. But Bruno would have been ready for his do-or-die effort had they moved it forward by a day, so keen was he to get at Lewis, a man whose easy rise has tormented Bruno by putting big Frank's gallant failures into perspective.
The sense of imminent redemption, from his critics in the media and perhaps from his own unease with his moulded image, was palpable in Bruno's wild eyes as he entered the ring, steam rising from his massive torso, which has never been a natural boxer's body. Redemption proved out of reach. But neither did Lewis come out of it well. He was too casual, took shots he should not have and, once in the third, was stunned by a Bruno right-hander.
Maybe this experience will do Lewis some good. The serenity of his image is fine, and arrogance is necessary in a champion. There is no doubt that Lewis did his training but the suspicion is that he regarded Bruno's challenge with a contempt that others would have punished more severely.
It had become more than a fight and it left a bitter aftertaste. For Bruno, because he had put his past on the line and tried to disprove it. For Lewis, because he knows he was a disappointment. And also for the the respective families of the boxers, who have known each other for some years, but for whom relations cannot be the same again. Such was graphically illustrated at the post-fight press conference when Laura, Bruno's wife, who had been consoled in the ring by Lewis's mother Violet, emerged tearfully and bitterly to say that at least Frank was British.
It was the fourth time that ringsiders had seen Bruno stranded on the ropes, his senses disconnected but with that strange reaction of his when hurt, which makes him not go down, but, instead, to stand bolt upright and helpless, as if some electrical short-circuit has taken place. But there should be no doubt that the final salvo from Lewis was terrible indeed for Bruno, and a worse beating in the end than those administered by Bonecrusher Smith, Witherspoon and even Tyson, when the referee stepped in sooner.
Lewis seemed to be aware of his own uncharacteristic jitters after the third round, when he dropped his hands and Bruno fired a right to the top of his head. Lewis was hurt but not as much as the crowd may have supposed when, a moment later, he stumbled over his own feet and into the ropes. In fact, his senses were intact and he avoided Bruno's follow-up easily. But after that he was cautious. Rather than commit himself to trying to take Bruno out, he waited to draw his sting once the fuel needed to service Bruno's bulging biceps started to become depleted.
The first signs of that came in the sixth when Bruno slowed down noticeably and his left eye began to shut tight. Lewis was himself hampered by this stage by a laceration next to his left eyebrow and in the corner at the end of the round he asked anxiously, 'Am I cut? Am I cut?'. But it was over quickly in the seventh. The Lewis plan had always been to catch Bruno with the left hook. All night Lewis had been throwing spectacular but largely ineffective long rights but they gradually lured Bruno into a false sense of security about Lewis's other side.
The hook, when it came, caught Frank flush and immediately immobilised him. The hard blows rained in and the fight seemed over when Vann stepped in. But it was only to warn Lewis for use of the heel of the glove and Lewis was waved back into the fray. Bruno was a helpless, one-eyed target on the ropes. Lewis cupped Bruno's head almost gently with his left, measuring him, and smashed in right hands and wrenching uppercuts. It was like some scene from a Western, only it was real. When Vann finally ended it, Bruno turned his back on the celebrations in the Lewis camp and faced us with a confused, unseeing stare.
They led Bruno from the ring and as the television and press cameras hissed in a small gangway by the dressing-rooms, they put dark glasses on him. Bruno attempted a one-liner but his heart was not in it. Lewis appeared in wraparound shades but there was no show of mutual affection. The hype had gone too far for that. The backers were relieved and though there will be some counting of money today it will not be that much by heavyweight standards and now that it is over all the protagonists may even wonder why it had to take place at all.
At the back of the press room stood Michael Bruno, the loser's elder brother, who assumed the role of head of the family when Bruno's father died. By now Bruno sat mute next to Lewis's trainer and manager, who were answering questions about Bowe, Morrison and Tyson. Dates and figures were being demanded. 'Lennox Lewis will be a great champion but he still has a lot to learn,' Michael Bruno said softly under his breath. 'But I suppose that will be it for Frank and I'm glad.'
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