Bruno in mood for final jab at destiny

Britain's favourite loser has his mind on higher things while McNeeley finds the party over all too soon: Harry Mullan believes the impossible might happen at Wembley on Saturday
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LAS VEGAS odds-makers rarely get it wrong, which was why I was surprised to see that they make Frank Bruno an even-money shot to dethrone the World Boxing Council heavyweight champion, Oliver McCall, at Wembley on Saturday night. That means that they are giving Bruno a better chance of winning a version of the championship than any British challenger since Bob Fitzsimmons, whose reign pre-dated Las Vegas itself. (Lennox Lewis, who enjoyed Britain's only finger-hold on the crown since then, was awarded the WBC title in a committee room and was never in the formal role of challenger.)

Given the American perception of British heavyweights as the world's fall-guys - a view based on historical precedent - it is remarkable to find them giving Bruno such a solid chance of beating one of their own, especially a competent performer like McCall. Frank, after all, has made his own contribution to the annals of failure, having lost to Tim Witherspoon for the World Boxing Association title (1986), Mike Tyson for the undisputed championship (1989) and Lennox Lewis for the WBC version (1993). He last beat a ranked contender in 1992, and since losing bravely to Lewis has scored a series of farcically fast wins over some of the least-committed heavyweights ever to step into a ring in Britain.

These are not the qualifications of a champion-in-waiting, especially when he is going up against the man who shattered Lewis's unbeaten record with a single mighty right in the second round a year ago. Yet the nagging suspicion is growing, on both sides of the Atlantic, that Bruno's time may finally have come. Before beating Lewis, McCall was best known as Tyson's first-choice sparring partner, a role which indicates an unlimited capacity to absorb punish- ment rather than a burning ambition to be the best in the world. When he got the opportunity to challenge Lewis, he approached the job with a degree of passion he may never be able to summon again. I remember looking up at him in his corner as he awaited the first bell, and he was actually weeping with nervous tension, something I have never seen in any of the many thousands of fights I have covered over the years.

Given his well-publicised history of drug abuse, he behaved and fought that night like a man who was chemically assisted, but the post-fight drugs test showed that he was functioning on nothing more than pure adrenalin, and on the realisation that the next few minutes would determine the course of the rest of his life. He could not recapture the same intensity when he made the only defence of his title, against the ancient Larry Holmes. He struggled to get past Holmes's left jab and took an unimpressive points decision over a man almost old enough to be his father.

But McCall knows his boxing history, and used it neatly to deflect criticism from the British press in a Las Vegas press conference last week. "Don't forget that your guy, Tommy Farr, made Joe Louis look bad in his first defence," he reminded us. "Farr took him the distance, too. These things happen."

The question from Bruno's perspective is whether they can happen twice, whether Lewis or Holmes is the truer yardstick of McCall's potential. Bruno has no doubts, and gives the impression that there is real conviction behind his words. "Being champion has gone to Oliver's head," he says. "He's not the same man as he was when we sparred together in 1987. He's doing crazy things, unorthodox things.

"I'm stronger than him, fitter than him, tougher and more seasoned and it's my last chance to win it. I'm desperate to win."

Yet he is careful not to ignore McCall's strengths, too. "He's a much better boxer than people give him credit for. He's a hungry-belly guy, a street guy from Chicago. He's tough, got a good jab and can move a bit."

Despite losing his three previous title bids inside the distance, Bruno is not what the trade calls a "chinny fighter". It is more that he does not know how to react when he is hit solidly - instead of taking a count he will stand propped against the ropes, his defence mechanism switched off, and soak up a pounding until the referee intervenes. That was the pattern in all three title defeats, although against Lewis he had given one of his best performances. If he can sustain that level against McCall, using his ramrod left jab to maximum effect, there is a real chance he can finally make it.

"What happened before was all experience. You never stop learning in this game," Bruno insists. "When you think you know everything, you're in trouble. The only time you stop learning is when you're in the coffin looking at the lid."