Brooding Bruno still confident

Ken Jones in Las Vegas on the phoney war ahead of tomorrow night's World Boxing Council heavyweight showdown
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The Independent Online
One thing about reporting the activities of prizefighters, upon which all fellow toilers of long experience are in agreement, is that it used to be easier.

Where boxing champions went along happily with the old idea of being observed closely in preparation for important contests and were at ease in conversation with writers, they now appear to resent even obligatory attendance at routine press conferences.

Some of us older guys may have been spoiled by prolonged exposure to Muhammad Ali, who thrived on attention, but it can be imagined how those of past generations would have reacted in attendance at an event staged to quicken the sale of tomorrow's World Boxing Council heavyweight championship bout between Frank Bruno and Mike Tyson to cable television subscribers.

Predictably, it turned out to be little more than an opportunity for Don King to employ a combination of big talk and veracity illustrative of his promotional genius. In covering fully his long and colourful career, King was on his feet more than 45 minutes. The initial contributions of Tyson and Bruno were over in seconds. Tyson, who is the shortest-priced challenger in heavyweight history, declared himself "fit and ferocious". Bruno said, "I'm ready." Some illumination!

Proceedings were enlivened when King drew from Bruno reaction to a truth he finds irritating personally, that of being paid, as champion, a lot less than the challenger. The disparity is considerable, $6m (pounds 4m) for Bruno, $30m for Tyson. "I'm happy to be here, happy to have become champion, but not with what I'm getting," Bruno said.

Unfortunately, Bruno seems to have lost sight of the unchallengable fact that he is a manufactured champion who rose to the status of national hero partly as a result of the impetus given to his career by British newspapers. You could go as far as to say that his forgetfulness is annoying.

One day this week, Bruno cancelled the appointment a much respected veteran American correspondent had made with him. This was done at the last minute and without the courtesy of explanation. "When you get stiffed by Bruno, I guess it's time to think about quitting," the American said sarcastically.

A common view of British heavyweights over here relates to the prone position, the idea that British fight writers had better not reach to retrieve a fallen pencil when one of their own is in the ring for fear of missing the contest.

Something similar once cropped up in a column written by Jim Murray of the Los Angeles Times, who has a reputation for devastating one-liners. His stock-in-trade, they are frequently amusing and have been for many years, but this does not put him above being taken to task.

To announce that it is acceptable in our country for a fighter to quit on his stool was unforgiveable. On a golf course the day after publication, I reminded Murray that it was not the case in 1940. Last week he wrote that Bruno has been on more canvasses than Rembrandt.

Unfortunately, Bruno does not help to dispel these notions. Instead of charming the American press as he did before a loss to Tyson seven years ago, he puts up almost as many barriers as the reclusive Tyson. That Bruno's wife, Laura, who has a lot of say in negotiations, is threatening to sue an executive of Showtime television for suggesting hindrances in promotion may give you some idea of how things are proceeding. Showtime guarantee most of the money.

Bruno's associates argue that he is being more co-operative than Tyson but both men behaved childishly last week when failing to meet the appointed time of a news conference in Los Angeles.

To paraphrase A J Liebling, who wrote boxing better than anyone, the sport is never short of howlers after antiquity. However, the attitude of fighters has altered greatly. The period when things began to change coincided with the explosion in telecommunications that released a flood of money.

In thinking the purse to be a slight, Bruno fails to realise that American interest centres on Tyson's resurrection, his attempt to again unify the heavyweight championship. That is what the American television audience, projected at around two million homes, each at $40, is buying. When this is put to Bruno, he fidgets. "It will be different after Saturday," he said. "I am going to keep the title. It's my belt and I will be taking it home. I'm fighting for dignity, pride, the Queen, the money, the history books."

There is also respect. In Bruno's mind, being warmly received by folk generally does not compensate for the slights he imagines. Like his accommodation. "The champion is supposed to be on the top floor here, like Tom Jones, Mike Tyson and Don King," he added. Bruno is not billeted on the top floor, neither is he attracting much support in the casino betting caverns.

When the long odds against him were quoted, Bruno did not display any interest. "Money is too hard to get for me to have any interest in gambling," he said. "I leave that to the mugs of this world. I've taken some shit in my career, people taking the piss, saying that I'm wooden, chinny, that sort of thing as though I'm some kind of dumbo. But even when people told me to quit after the Lennox Lewis fight [his worried mother among them] I felt that I could still become a world champion. I haven't got this far without a lot of effort and I'm confident of beating Tyson."

When Wednesday's news conference finally broke up and wagers over the length of King's oration were being settled, Bruno and Tyson went through the customary charade of staring each other down. Tyson looked mean, Bruno implacable.

Someone close to where I was sitting rushed forward in anticipation. "They look as though as they are going to fight right now," he said. Only for money, my friend, only for money.