Bruno's confidence gains support

WORLD HEAVYWEIGHT CHAMPIONSHIP: British title holder ready to exploit any decline in past master's powers
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The Independent Online

reports from Las Vegas

Leaving the stage after weighing in for the defence of his World Boxing Council heavyweight championship against Mike Tyson tonight in Las Vegas, towering above the odds-on challenger, Frank Bruno paused to acknowledge the support of a large British contingent.

In response to the shouts of a raucous bunch who been behaving boorishly in the manner of inebriated football supporters, booing Tyson's appearance on the scales, Bruno raised his right forefinger.

None could be sure what the champion meant by this gesture, whether he was indicating an intention to terminate tonight's proceedings or merely calling for better order, but dramatic victory was immediately inferred. A cheer went up and hundreds chanted Bruno's name unaware that lawyers representing Lennox Lennox were bringing an action in a New Jersey court yesterday in an attempt to invalidate the contest on the grounds that Lewis not Tyson was the legitimate challenger.

Unfamiliar with such demonstrations of faith, Tyson looked back bleakly over his left shoulder. "He doesn't look the part, slack somehow," an American trainer, Beau Williford, said.

The chief change in Tyson since his release from prison last year is that he no longer looks intimidatingly confident. In the opinion of most he will defeat Bruno and is a clear favourite in the betting, but doubts linger.

They spring from thoughts of the challenger's claimed spiritual awakening, his unconcealed frustration. "I try to do my best but I always fall short of the mark," he said this week.

A factor vital to the initial spectacular phase of Tyson's career was the conviction that nobody could withstand his grim purpose, his refined ferocity. Opponents trembled visibly in his presence, beaten before they entered the ring.

Interestingly, the first evidence of decline came with Tyson's defeat of Bruno in Las Vegas seven years ago. The youngest heavyweight champion in history, Tyson was only 22 but the effect of widely reported personal upheavals were evident suddenly in flawed timing and general puzzlement. That night a more accomplished fighter than Bruno, who was stopped in five rounds, might have beaten him.

A sensational loss to the unbackable James "Buster" Douglas in Tokyo 12 months later confirmed suspicions that Tyson was on a downward spiral. "I wasn't aware of the pressure," he would say, "and it caught up with me."

The doyen of boxing trainers, 83-year-old Eddie Futch, who has had more than 20 world champions, including Joe Frazier, and now works with Riddick Bowe, disputes utterly the idea that Tyson can again become an irresistible force in the heavyweight division. "It simply isn't possible," he said this week. "We're talking about a guy who was locked up for a long period and didn't fight for almost four years. That's an awful long time in the life of a fighter."

Futch is unimpressed by reports of Tyson's successes in sparring. "The gym and the ring are different places," he said. "Fighters wear a headguard in the gym and the gloves are heavier. They don't feel the full impact of punches so it can be a place of false impressions."

Tyson takes a good shot but a renewal of the experience could come as a terrible shock. "I think so," Futch added, "but it's not as important as obvious flaws in timing. You couldn't learn very much from the couple of minutes Tyson was in with Peter McNeeley but quite a lot when he then fought `Buster' Mathis. The fact that Tyson missed with so many punches suggests that his reflexes are nothing like what they were when he was unquestionably the most devastating hitter since Joe Louis."

In boxing, sharp reflexes are as important to defence as they are to the pressing home of attacks, particularly in Tyson's case because he is usually at a disadvantage in reach. It was the way Tyson moved his head when coming forward, the disconcerting roll of powerful shoulders that made him so difficult to hit. "He doesn't appear to be as successful with that anymore and I think it's all to do with dulled reflexes," Futch said.

Shortly before attending a dinner held in New York this week that coincided with the 25th anniversary of an epic contest between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, the veteran trainer spoke with Bruno and was impressed by his confidence. "Bruno led me to believe that he can beat Tyson," he said this week at his home in Las Vegas.

It is not simply that Futch sees more self-esteem in Bruno. "The fact of being champion will have improved his confidence. He's a big guy with a powerful jab and showed against Oliver McCall that he has learned how to hold and hang on in a crisis."

The prediction here is that a crisis will come quickly. The idea of pacing a fight has never appealed to Tyson. A favourite expression is that he is full of bad intentions.

Some recent events have put a strain on the process but logic suggests that Tyson will send Bruno into history before the scheduled 12 rounds are completed. Whatever chance the British hero has of victory rests with how well he performs in the early rounds, how he copes with the barrage of hooks and uppercuts Tyson is sure to unleash from the opening bell. "I've never known Frank be so full of himself before a fight and he's going to cause a great shock, end one of the most famous careers in boxing because when he gets through with this there will be nowhere for Tyson to go," Bruno's trainer, George Francis, said.

Upon being acquainted with this bellicose statement Tyson's chief advisors, John Horne and Rory Holloway, wore expressions of amusement. "It's all over for the champion," Holloway said. On the basis that Tyson may not be what he was but Bruno probably is, I find it impossible to make a case for the popular challenger. The forecast is Tyson in five, maybe earlier.

Bruno v Tyson

34 Age 29

17st 9lb Weight 15st 10lb

6ft 3in Height 5ft 111/2in

82in Reach 71in

47in Chest 43in

52in Expanded 45in

17in Biceps 16in

14in Forearm 14in

34in Waist 34in

24.5in Thigh 27in

10in Calf 9in

19.5in Neck 161/2in

10in Wrist 8in

14in Fist 13in

9in Ankle 11in

44 Fights 44

40/4 Won/lost 43/1

38 Stoppages 37

13 1st-rd KOs 19

1/3 World titles 10/1