Champion of the work ethic

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It is five o'clock in the morning and Frank Bruno squeezes his huge frame into a bath. He's been training for over an hour already, and now he is washing and dressing, before leaving home for one of his stints on Channel 4's The Big Breakfast.

The fan heaters are blasting warm air inside his Bentley as the WBC heavyweight champion heads off to work along the country lanes that lead from his beautiful home near Brentwood, to the television studio in Hackney.

While most of the world slept, Bruno went to work, almost as if that memorable night on 2 September, when he prised the WBC heavyweight belt away from Oliver McCall at Wembley, had never happened.

"People think it's all an act, and that I'm a dummy who's thicker than two planks of wood," he explains as he drives. "I may seem like an idiot when I come out with all the 'Where's Harry?' lines, but I've got a great deal of pride.

"Underneath, I'm a serious guy, and all I'm trying to do is to provide both for myself and for my family."

Which is why we find ourselves alone as dawn approaches, the ice cracking beneath the Bentley's tyres, and the sleet hurtling past the headlamps.

But surely the Brunos are financially set for life, especially after his latest deed in the ring?

"If something happened to me tomorrow, my family should be comfortable, but I want to make doubly, if not trebly, sure. Now that I've really made myself a platform, I want to make the most of it. I'm not going to stay in bed and do nothing.

"I know a lot of people who would start smoking cigars and hanging about in Stringfellows. There have been quite a few boxers over the years who have lost themselves after they had won a world title. They allowed themselves to get carried away, and it was awful to watch.

"But I'm a young man. I've got thirty years of work ahead of me, and other careers to think about. That's why I'm prepared to clock in and work."

Despite the fact that 34-year-old Bruno has been a popular and familiar face on stage and screen for many years, winning the world title and fulfilling his dreams in the process has, if anything, made him even hungrier than before.

"If I'm not hungry, what the hell am I doing getting up in the middle of the night?" he argues. "I'm digging deeper because I've never had such a good platform as I have now."

The platform, of course, comes with the heavyweight champion tag. It has been there for a good five years anyway, but Bruno believes that by finally winning the title, a whole new world has opened up.

The alternative result that autumn night, after three previously unsuccessful attempts to win the biggest prize in boxing, would have meant a great deal more than any of us realised.

"There have been loads of time in the past when I have wondered where was I going," Bruno admits. "I'd lose another world title, and everyone would say: 'See, what did we tell you? There were times when I felt embarrassed, driving my car in the streets or turning up at functions. " He turns to look and me and emphasises that last statement. "I felt embarrassed, man. People were thinking, 'Oh my God, it's not him again. It's not that Know What I Mean, Harry? guy. You've had your chance, you're never going to do it.'

"I've had a lot of criticism from a lot of people in my life - 'he can't box, he shouldn't be doing that, why is he carrying on?'

"I've never been on an ego trip, but I had to prove that I could do it, both to myself and, it seemed, to everyone else. Don't forget, I have to look at myself in the mirror. I couldn't have lived with myself if I'd listened to all the voices telling me to pack it in."

So what went through Bruno's mind during those first couple of heart-stopping rounds when he withstood the furious onslaught from a man who knew he had to knock his opponent out to successfully defend his hard-earned world title?

"I was desperate. It was my last chance, and I knew it. I had nowhere to go. If I had lost, that would have been it," he explains before pausing to turn the ignition off as we arrive at the Big Breakfast cottage.

"I saw Don King go over to McCall's corner with a couple of rounds to go. He told his man that he had to 'knock the mother out'. Then, before the last round my trainer, George Francis, spoke to me. He said: 'You've got to remember everything you've ever learned in your life for the next three minutes, because your life is going to depend on this round.'

"The desperation of the situation helped me hang in there. As McCall punched me, I thought about my wife Laura, my children, and the house, and I realised that I was just three minutes away from finally fulfilling my lifetime ambition. I couldn't let it all go."

When Bruno heard the announcer announce the judges' verdict with the word "new", his reaction and emotions were different from those around him.

While his promoter and entourage, his corner men and family punched the air and hugged each other with delight, Bruno dwelt on his life. "Everything flashed through my mind at that moment. Of course, I was happy, but I knew how desperate I had been, and I experienced more of a sense of belated fulfilment and relief that I had arrived.

"Just think about it. Franklyn Roy Bruno had finally arrived. I'd become the first British heavyweight champion to have won the title in the ring [an obvious reference to Lennox Lewis] for 98 years. Seeing my kids born, getting married, moving into my house, they were all special moments for me, but I tell you, hearing that announcement..."

He stops talking and just shakes his head, lost for words until he begins to describe his immediate thoughts in the ring as the new champion.

"It all happened in a few seconds, but I could see myself as an eight- year-old kid when I first saw Muhammad Ali win the world title. That's when I told my mum I wanted to become world champion. I saw all the people slagging me off over the years. I thought about the Bonecrusher Smith fight, when I was ridiculed and dismissed after losing it in the final round. I looked back on the Tim Witherspoon, Mike Tyson and Lennox Lewis world title fights. That's why I started to cry. I cried like a baby."

There was another reason as well for this sudden public show of raw emotion. McCall, among others, had referred to Bruno as an "Uncle Tom" before the fight, a jibe which clearly hurt . Virtually the first words Bruno said when interviewed at ringside that night were a heartfelt denial of such an allegation.

"Yeah, that hurt me very much," he acknowledges. "You see, what you don't know, is that some people believed this. It insulted my integrity, my beliefs, my whole background.

"I went to the Black Music Awards before the fight to present a trophy, and a girl came up to me, looked me up and down in a nasty sort of way and hissed through her teeth. I don't want to go somewhere and be treated like that. So when I had a microphone in my face after beating McCall, I had a chance to state my case and get it cleared.

"I'm very proud of who I am and where I come from, and all I'm trying to do is my best for me and my family. Why anyone should have a problem with that, I just don't know."

At which point, Bruno has to get on with his Big Breakfast duties. During the next two hours, the heavyweight champion of the world joins Lily Savage on the bed, dresses in a robe, plays a tambourine and pretends to be a member of the Hari Krishna sect, runs a flower arranging session, and cries when he can't pick up cutlery because he is wearing boxing gloves.

He has everyone in stitches on set, is courteous and genuinely funny. Bruno is being Bruno, at least the Bruno we see in public. It is his character, almost as much as his achievement inside the ring this year, which won him more accolades last night at the BBC Sports Personality of the Year awards.

"You see, I'm not blessed with a talent or a skill, like say Naseem Hamed is in the ring, or a writer or an actor is outside," he says as we leave the studio.

"But I can still work very hard at what I do, and that's all I've done throughout my life. I didn't get a good start in life, so I've learned how to work. What you saw on the Big Breakfast today was me continuing to strive for me and my family"

With the sun now up, it is back to his other business. We speed off in the Bentley for his next port of call, a Plaistow gym for a major training session with George Francis.

Mike Tyson fights Buster Mathis on Saturday night and then, assuming everything goes to plan, he will meet Bruno in March. Bruno sees this as his golden chance.

"Tyson's a good name for boxing, and he helps to put noughts on cheques, but he's been inside prison for three years and it couldn't have done him any good. It wouldn't matter if he was King Kong, it would have affected him.

"I don't think I could be meeting him at a better time. I'm not happy that I've got to go over to the States to fight him, nor that he's earning a bigger purse when I'm supposed to be world champion.

"But I still can't wait for the fight to happen and prove all the doubters wrong. If I didn't think I could beat him, do you think I would seriously step into a ring with him? I don't want to look like a fool, do I?"

So the doubters remain? "Oh yeah, even after I'd beaten McCall, Henry Cooper was saying that in his opinion I had lost. It was a shame he thought that. How he could think or say it, is a mystery to me. I don't know what I've done to him to deserve it, but that's boxing, I suppose."

And now? "A lot of people are telling me not to fight Tyson because he's too good for me. Well, that's a load of old rubbish. Last time we fought, he was close to being at his best, but I was nowhere near in good enough shape, mentally or physically, to cope with him. I didn't do myself justice, although most people thought I did well because I rocked him with a punch.

"That says a lot about what they thought about me as a boxer. Forget about the fact I hurt him, he beat me."

Bruno seems to be saying that over and above the fact he will be defending his world title, he sees the Tyson fight as a chance for revenge.

"Too right," he replies. "I don't care if I had 10 Tysons coming at me, the result would be the same. I hope Tyson doesn't respect me, just like McCall didn't. That will make the job a lot easier. Ask Oliver McCall if he respects me now! When I say I'm going to knock Tyson out, I'm not just saying it because boxers always make predictions, but because I'm in the best shape of my life. Do you want to know why? Because I'm the world champion."

That's made a difference, then? "The effect has been enormous," he continues. "I feel so relaxed now, and much more confident. I would happily fight Lewis or Riddick Bowe, or anyone, because I feel so good. The pressure is off and for the first time in my life, I don't believe I need to prove anything."

The training begins, the floorboards creak and the punchbag gets mauled. There's one final question. What if his dream had never been realised?

"I would come to terms with it," he insists. "You've got to get on with life and accept what it throws at you. My dad died when I was 14. It was the worst day of my life, but I had to carry on. So you see, I wouldn't have done anything stupid. Besides I would have known that I had tried everything within my power to win the world title."

And then it came back to the serious stuff. Preparations for Tyson have begun, and, it seems, for the rest of his life. He may have fulfilled an ambition first dreamt about by an eight-year-old boy, but Franklyn Roy Bruno is still leaving nothing to chance.