Bruno's flashback to the future

Harry Mullan questions the Briton's belief that he can alter the course of history
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The Independent Online
SOMEWHERE in the dark corners of his mind, where Mike Tyson keeps the bad times and the secret fears, lurks the moment in Las Vegas seven years ago when a mighty left hook from Frank Bruno sent his legs in different directions and let him know, for the first time, that professional boxing is about pain as well as glory.

It was one of those sporting cameos you can recall with the clarity and precision of a glossy photograph, like Geoff Hurst exultantly lashing the ball into the top of the German net in the closing minute of the 1966 World Cup final or Red Rum battling up the last rise at Aintree on the way to his third Grand National. It was the moment when the myth of Tyson's invincibility was exposed, when we realised that the man we had thought unbeatable was just as vulnerable as anybody else who has been hit by the best punch a 16st heavyweight can throw.

Had Bruno not come to the same conclusion a few vital seconds after the rest of us, the course of boxing history might have been altered. While the nation willed him to follow up, and the BBC's Harry Carpenter abandoned professional detachment to bellow "Come on, Frank, you've got him!" into the microphone, Frank dithered. In fairness, he was still dazed from the effects of the knockdown he had suffered less than a minute earlier, and by the time he grasped just how badly Tyson had been shaken, the chance was gone. It wasn't Frank's night, but for the first time in Tyson's rampaging career he had been hurt. Bruno pushed the door ajar and, a year later, James "Buster" Douglas kicked it down when, in the biggest upset in boxing history, he knocked out Tyson in Tokyo.

The recollection of that brush with sporting immortality is what kept Bruno's ambition alive in a tough business which well-meaning observers, including this one, had for years been urging him to abandon. He has cherished the memory and drawn inspiration from it, and it will be the secret weapon he takes into the ring at the MGM Grand Garden arena when he faces Tyson again on Saturday. What he almost did once, he believes he can do again - and in a sport where positive mental attitude counts for so much, that could give him a considerable edge.

Bruno believes he is strengthened by what happened last time, but Tyson is sorely diminished by it. Fighters who trade in intimidation, as did Tyson in his Iron Mike period, create an aura of invincibilitywhich they wear like a suit of armour. But when the armour has been pierced even once, their ability to instil terror drains away like petrol from a holed tank. James Toney was considered the most frightening fighter in the business only 18 months ago, until Roy Jones gave him a humiliatingly one-side beating and took away his IBF super-middleweight title. Today Toney, the latest victim of the beaten bully syndrome, is a fat and unmotivated plodder who couldn't even be bothered to train below 14st 4Ib for his most recent win.

The good Tyson - correction, the great Tyson - petrified even brave and gifted opponents like Mike Spinks, whom he destroyed inside a round only seven months before facing Bruno. In hindsight, that was Tyson's peak performance, an essay in annihilation unmatched since Joe Louis took revenge in 124 seconds over Max Schmeling in 1938.

But he didn't frighten Bruno when they met for the first time in Las Vegas in February 1989, and the roles are dramatically reversed in the rematch. Now, it's Bruno who holds the title (or at least the World Boxing Council's version of it) and Tyson who is the challenger. Of course, Tyson is expected to win, but there is a growing body of opinion that an upset could be in the air. The optimism, unsurprisingly, is more widespread here than in America. British bookies were offering only 11-4 against a Bruno victory last week, but a bit of judicious shopping in Las Vegas could have got you a more generous 8-1.

There was the same kind of feeling around when Bruno made his first bid against Tim Witherspoon a decade ago, when jingoistic fervour and tabloid tosh combined to tilt the odds in favour of those unpatriotic punters who fancied the American. That was always a lost cause for Bruno; however well he fought in the first eight rounds, he lacked the experience, stamina and punch resistance to survive 15 rounds (then the championship course) against a man of Witherspoon's quality. This time, though, there are different considerations.

The pressure is on Tyson, not the champion. He has not had a serious fight since Razor Ruddock tested him for 12 gruelling rounds in 1991. His comeback appearance against Peter McNeeley in August proved only that the gullibility of the American sporting public is indeed unlimited, while his ragged performance before knocking out Buster Mathis in December suggested that he had deteriorated even from the scrappy brawler he had become in the fights which came between his two catastrophes at the hands of Buster Douglas and Desiree Washington. Tyson's claim that he had been deliberately missing with his punches so that Mathis would be lured into carelessness is nonsense. Would a writer deliberately split infinitives seven times in a row just so that when he gets it right on the eighth occasion the readers could say: "There's a man who knows his grammar"?

The ex-champ's timing was gone, his footwork was deplorable, and, tellingly, he fought with the air of a man who didn't much care one way or the other. The young Tyson went to work with a frightening intensity, a hunger to prove to the world and to himself that he belonged up there with the great champions whose careers he studied so avidly in the huge film collection of his then-managers, Jim Jacobs and Bill Clayton. He craved recognition and respect, not just the money, although that came in unprecedented amounts. He had the tools and the opportunity to become the greatest heavyweight champion in history: I remember Jim Jacobs telling me in 1985, only half- jokingly, that the master plan was for Tyson to become champion at 20 (which he did), clean up the division (which he did) and then retire for about three years, to allow a fresh generation of contenders to emerge.

The plan collapsed at stage three. Tyson did indeed take a long break from the ring, but not in the way Jacobs envisaged - although Jacobs had bailed him out of enough scrapes not to be surprised that his protege's downfall would involve a woman. Tyson got to the top of the mountain, only for his life to become a self-destructive saga of failed marriage, an alleged suicide attempt, street brawls, spending sprees, managerial disputes and finally, unthinkably, a prison sentence for rape.

Bruno, by contrast has done everything right. He made a virtue of defeat, learning from the experience of title-fight losses to Tim Witherspoon, Tyson and Lennox Lewis to become champion at an age when many of his contemporaries have retired. In the process, he has made a fortune and become a national institution. Whatever happens on Saturday, Bruno's future is assured, but given the type of people with whom Tyson chooses to surround himself, the same cannot be said of the former champion. Rory Holloway, his alleged "co-manager", told a Las Vegas press conference that "Bruno will die in the MGM ring", which gives a fairly accurate taste of their class. Tyson is a man in turmoil, but Bruno, despite his well-publicised dissatisfaction with his pounds 4m purse, is at peace with himself.

He knows that his best and perhaps only chance is to "mug" Tyson early in the fight, to walk at the smaller man, back him up and club him with everything he can. But that strategy of blind hope recalls a dressing-room conversation between Lorenzo Boyd, one of Tyson's early sacrificial offerings, and his manager Beau Williford. "Beau, I'm going out there and back him up," Boyd proclaimed. "OK," said Beau, "and while you're doing that, I'll be backing the ambulance up." Boyd didn't make it past the second round, but Bruno has the bulk, the confidence and the power to do better. I don't believe he can win, but for five or six punishing rounds he may have a few of us doing our Harry Carpenter impersonations.