Boxing: Bruno must not be left to fight on alone

Former heavyweight hero's plight touches the heart but help is at hand as Sport England offer ambassador's role
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They unveiled a blue English Heritage plaque in south London last week in memory of the late Ted "Kid" Lewis, a former world welterweight champion and all-time great of the British ring. In normal circumstances Frank Bruno would have been among the honoured guests, but sadly, as the nation well knows, the big man's circumstances were distinctly abnormal, as he was detained with severe depression in a psychiatric hospital.

Inevitably, the popular belief is that Bruno has lost his marbles and that boxing is the major contributory factor. Such a facile explanation is almost certainly well wide of the mark. In his 46-bout career he may have shipped a few punches, but nothing like those inflicted on many fellow tradesmen, among them Sir Henry Cooper who, at 69, is unarguably compos mentis.

So, too, was "Kid" Lewis, who died just four days short of his 76th birthday having engaged in more than six times as many fights as Bruno. Indeed, he had more fights in one year (58) than Bruno had in his entire career.

The majority of Bruno's bouts were negotiated with the assistance of Jarvis Astaire, one of the key promotional figures in his career. Astaire, who was at the plaque ceremony, makes the point that until last week there had never been any suggestion that the 41-year-old Bruno had taken too many punches. "He's been retired for several years and there hasn't been the slightest sign of punch-drunkenness. It's not a boxing thing, it's a life thing. The trouble with Frank is that he's suffering from life."

What he needs, of course, is a lifeline, and one may be at hand. Roger Draper, the chief executive of Sport England, said that they are prepared to offer the former world heavyweight champion a meaningful role when he is well again. "There is no reason why he could not become one of our sporting ambassadors. He could be a great motivator for the growing number of kids who want to take up boxing in schools and community centres."

A similar notion has occurred to Barry McGuigan, who says he will be putting it to the British Boxing Board of Control. "The only time I've ever really seen him relax is with kids," McGuigan said. "He'd be wonderful with them." McGuigan, the president of the British Boxers' Association, says Bruno's plight has accelerated their plans to set up a counselling service for former fighters. "We have talked with a number of leading psychiatrists and psychologists and one of them, Beechy Colclough, a top man in his field, who has worked with the likes of Michael Jackson, is now coming on board. I only wish we could have got them together before all this happened.

"The trouble is, many boxers don't have the inner resources or negotiating skills to deal with life after the ring. They have a gaping hole in their lives. It must have been especially hard for Frank, sitting at home looking at a programme like They Think It's All Over with Audley Harrison occupying a seat that once would have been his.

"His breakdown is a culmination of a number of things: his divorce, the suicide of his trainer George Francis, being out of the public eye. When he retired he no longer had a focus in his life. Finally the poor guy just cracked. He's a lovely big bloke but he's obviously had a problem with self-esteem all his life."

One who sensed that Bruno's world was about to fall apart was Jamaican-born Joe Frater, Britain's first black promoter. He says: "Frank's not the first person to get sick in this way, but because he's a boxer, boxing gets the blame. Here you have a genuine, honest man,a terrific father. He has gone through hell with his divorce and he has been let down badly by those so-called friends around him. God knows what effect this will have on his kids. A lot of damage has already been done.

"About six months after he had retired I heard a whisper that he was thinking of applying for a trainer's licence, and I said if this was so I'd be more than happy to work with him and offer any help. He said, 'No thanks Joe, boxing is a dangerous business. No way will I get involved again, I want some peace. I want to spend as much time as I can with my family'.

"I class myself as a genuine friend, but sadly he doesn't have many. There are the usual bloody hangers-on, but he doesn't need them. He needs to be part of the boxing scene. It's all he knows."

For those closely acquainted with him, it was clear that even being Frank Bruno was an act, just another panto role. He never seemed to relax, always cracking his knuckles along with his jokes. Publicly he played the fool, but at heart he was never really cut out to be a court jester.

One suspects he has been fighting demons all his life, living on his nervous laugh since he first pulled on a pair of boxing gloves. He's never really been able to be himself, whoever that might be.

The morning after he had dethroned Oliver McCall at Wembley to win the WBA title, the Sun proclaimed "Arise Sir Bruno". Last Tuesday in their early editions it was "Bonkers Bruno". Some may think it's all over, but boxing has a duty to help him get back on his feet. Who knows, perhaps one day Bruno, like "Kid" Lewis, will be heralded as a national treasure.

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