Eight steps on the road to Las Vegas

When Frank Bruno steps into the ring against Mike Tyson in Las Vegas in the early hours of tomorrow morning it will be exactly 14 years since he made his professional debut. Nick Halling looks back on the key contests of his career
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The Independent Online
Right hand starts renaissance

v Guerra March



British heavyweight boxing was in a moribund state 14 years ago. The little known Neville Meade was the reigning British champion, having won the title the year before against one Gordon Ferris. Meade would lose his title a year later to the equally obscure David Pearce.

However the division was set for a revival. In East London, the prospects of the Algerian-born Funso Banjo were being touted by his many supporters. The 32-year-old Joe Bugner was preparing for the third of many returns from inactivity. And Frank Bruno, in his first professional contest, was top of the bill at the Royal Albert Hall, already widely hailed as a potential world champion.

Bruno's potential had first come to light in 1980, when he won the Amateur Boxing Association heavyweight title. However, his professional career had almost run aground before it had taken off when Bruno failed his British Boxing Board of Control medical with an eye problem.

Terry Lawless, who had bought out Bruno's first manager, Burt McCarthy, paid for his young hopeful to have surgery in Colombia to repair a weakness in the peripheral vision in his right eye. The operation was a success and Bruno was granted a licence on his return to Britain.

His first opponent was the hapless Lupe Guerra, who subsided inside a round at the first sign of hostilities. Bruno had clearly been the beneficiary of the over-cautious matchmaking which would characterise much of his early career, but in retrospect, the right hand that ended Guerra's resistance marked the start of a domestic heavyweight renaissance.

Well-timed punch reveals vulnerability v Cummings Oct 11th 1983 Aided by the ever-watchful Lawless, Bruno had disposed of 18 carefully selected opponents in just 40 painfully one-sided rounds by the time he faced Floyd "Jumbo" Cummings at the Albert Hall. His world title aspirations appeared genuine, while his engaging personality meant he was on the way to supplanting Henry Cooper as the nation's favourite pugilist.

There seemed little to fear when the mouthy, confident Cummings swaggered into the ring. Cummings had recently boxed Joe Frazier to a draw, but the old champion was a pale imitation of the thrilling warrior of the Seventies.

However, Cummings was known to possess a clubbing left hook and when it landed flush to the side of Bruno's jaw at the end of round three the Londoner was in genuine distress. The shot landed as the bell sounded, which was just as well for Bruno, who stood transfixed, head bowed, unable to move or defend himself.

Lawless raced from the corner to guide his stricken charge back to the safety of his stool. The minute's rest was sufficient, because although Cummings launched wave upon wave of crude attacks, Bruno managed to survive, eventually halting the spent American in the seventh.

Bruno was afforded a standing ovation as he returned to his dressing- room: he had survived his first crisis, but Cummings had exposed a lack of mobility and, more pertinently, Bruno's vulnerability under the impact of a well-timed punch.

Squeezed out by `Bonecrusher' May 13th 1984 v Witherspoon

Two more knock-out victories after the Cummings fight enabled Bruno to set up a contest with James "Bonecrusher" Smith, an unofficial eliminator for the world title held by Larry Holmes. Little was known of Smith in Britain, although his reputation across the Atlantic suggested a capable opponent who could both withstand and administer punishment.

For nine rounds the Londoner produced the best boxing of his career to open up an unassailable points lead. However, in the 10th and final round, Smith finally caught his man. As with Cummings, Bruno seemed incapable of comprehending what had happened, remaining upright as Smith unloaded. Lawless insists the American landed 27 unanswered punches before Bruno went down for the full count, his first loss in 22 contests.

After a brave challenge against Holmes, Smith would go on to win the World Boxing Association version of the title before taking Mike Tyson the distance. Bruno appeared too fragile to mix in such company.

Witherspoon doles out punishment July 19th 1986 v Witherspoon In the first of his four assaults on the world title, Bruno was matched with Tim Witherspoon, the reigning World Boxing Association champion. It seemed he had recovered from his beating against Smith, having won the European title (Bruno never fought for the British championship) and then disposed of a former world champion, Gerrie Coetzee, inside of around.

Witherspoon arrived at Wembley in dispute with his promoter, Don King, amid rumours that he was disillusioned with his profession. With the advantages of a home crowd and an uninterested opponent, the oddsmakers favoured the Londoner.

For 10 rounds, Bruno looked a safe bet, picking off the man from Philadelphia with a stream of accurate jabs. In the 11th, however, Witherspoon seemed to tire of it all. A crashing right hand caught Bruno cold, the challenger eventually wilting in a neutral corner under a fearful barrage. Once again, Bruno's inability to cope in a crisis had found him out.

Low point reached in absurd mismatch June 27th 1987 v Gardner In some respects, this was the low point of Bruno's career. The Briton found himself matched against Chuck Gardner in a bizarre open-air promotion in Cannes. Bald, overweight and with no record to speak of, Gardner clearly did not belong in the same ring as a genuine contender.

It looked a mismatch: it proved to be an embarrassment. Bruno disposed of his woeful rival inside a round. Criticism came from all sides, including the BBC, which had been a loyal camp follower from the beginning. Even the general public, for whom Bruno could do little wrong, were less than impressed.

Champion shaken but not disturbed Feb 25th 1989 v Tyson Bruno's second attempt at the world title saw him matched against the man he faces again in Las Vegas tonight. At the time Mike Tyson was the most feared fighter in the world and a man who looked certain to dominate the heavyweight division for years to come.

Tyson put his rival down inside the first few seconds, as the contest threatened to become an embarrassment. Bruno, however, composed himself and towards the end of the round landed a left hook which stopped the young champion in his tracks. Bruno hesitated, Tyson recovered and the moment was lost.

There was no questioning Bruno's bravery, but in the end the fight became a typically one-sided affair. Bruno sustained a thorough beating before being rescued by the referee in round five. For the only time in his career, he had been thoroughly outclassed.

Lewis prevails in battle of Britons Oct 1st 1993 v Lewis The Tyson fight proved to be Bruno's last under the stewardship of Terry Lawless. Bruno went into retirement for more than two years, while enjoying a new career in pantomime and the light entertainment industry.

When he emerged in 1991, self-managed, he signed a promotional deal with Mickey Duff which resulted in a third assault on the world crown. Boxing is a hype business, but there was nothing fake about the mutual dislike between Bruno and his fellow Briton, Lennox Lewis.

Before an open air crowd in Cardiff, Bruno gave a composed and competent account of himself for six rounds, before Lewis connected with a wild left hook in the seventh. Bruno's head and hands dropped, Lewis pressed home his advantage and Bruno was rescued by the referee. The weakness first exposed by "Jumbo" Cummings a decade earlier had thwarted him again.

Fall of McCall finally ends the odyssey Sept 22nd 1995 v McCall

Lewis would lose his title to Oliver McCall, an American heavyweight promoted by Don King. King's partner in Britain is Frank Warren, who had survived a shooting to return to promotional pre-eminence. Ever the shrewd businessman, Bruno signed with Warren, confident the connection would lead to a match with McCall.

Warren also enjoys a relationship with British Sky Broadcasting - a significant factor given that the BBC had decided to terminate its interests in Bruno after a meaningless first-round defeat of Jesse Ferguson following the loss to Lewis.

Bruno was duly granted his wish and at an emotional Wembley stadium built up a healthy points lead. McCall ended the stronger, but unlike Smith, Witherspoon, Tyson and Lewis, failed to find a finish. After a career spanning 13 years, 44 contests and four title attempts, Bruno was a world heavyweight champion at last.