Bruno exits as a winner

Harry Mullan says the nation's hero gave far more than anyone could expect
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The Independent Online
Sixteen years ago, Frank Bruno's future was in the balance as he lay in a darkened Bogot hotel room, a frightened 18-year-old a long way from home, waiting to learn whether the eye operation he had just undergone would enable him to meet the British Boxing Board of Control standards for a professional licence.

How ironic that it was also an eye problem which brought the curtain down on an odyssey which saw him become the highest earning boxer in British history. No more cheap hotel rooms for him: the announcement came in a well-paid interview in the millionaire's home Bruno now owns in an affluent Essex village.

Bruno's sporting life, culminating in the World Boxing Council title he won from Oliver McCall a year ago tomorrow, was a triumph for determination and self-belief over the limitations of a lack of natural athleticism and the instinctive gifts which separated masters like Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Robinson from the herd.

He was the embodiment of the honest tryer and the good loser, which is why the British public took him so much to heart and also, perhaps, why a sizeable section of them turned on him when his effort in defence of his title against Mike Tyson in March left so much to be desired. But that was a harsh judgement on a man who never gave less than whatever was in him. Better fighters have frozen when faced with a Tyson.

His limitations were always apparent, despite the best efforts of a tabloid press hungry to acclaim a genuine British heavyweight contender. Too many of the ringside press chose to ignore the flaws, which the pedestrianJumbo Cummings exposed so dramatically when he almost knocked Bruno out in the first round of an early fight at the Albert Hall. Bonecrusher Smith seemed to have consigned Bruno to the also-rans when he flattened him in the 10th at Wembley, but the promotional genius of Mickey Duff manoeuvred Bruno back to challenge Tim Witherspoon for the World Boxing Association title at Wembley in 1986.

Witherspoon approached the engagement with less than Spartan dedication and was way behind on points before Bruno's stamina deficiency let him down. That was to be the pattern of Bruno's career: he was not a "chinny" boxer, it was merely that his body belonged on a bodybuilder rather than a fighter. Contrast his physique with the almost unmuscled torso of the young Ali, and the point is made.

The same shortcoming let him down against Lennox Lewis in the first all- British pairing this century to involve a version of the world heavyweight title. Bruno dominated the first six rounds, only to come apart when Lewis upped the pace. There was no such explanation for his other world-title defeat, against Tyson in 1989. Tyson was simply too good, although Bruno at least had the satisfaction of rocking him in the opening round. He was so surprised by his success that he did not follow it up, and will regret it for the rest of his days. Buster Douglas toppled Tyson in his next defence: with a little more self-belief, it could have been Bruno who scored the biggest upset in boxing history.

He will be remembered with as much affection as respect: a man who made more of limited resources than anyone was entitled to expect. His is an inspiring story and - with a little prompting from his eye surgeon - it has a happy ending.

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