Frank Bruno: 'It could happen to anyone'

Brian Viner Interviews: The former world heavyweight champion's life is back on an even keel after his fight with depressive illness
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Frank Bruno is a frequent but incongruous sight at Champneys, the swish health spa near Tring in Hertfordshire. When I arrive there, one sweltering lunchtime, he is sitting in the shade of a huge oak tree, his basso profundo chuckle rolling out over the manicured lawns. Alongside him is a female journalist for the BBC World Service, who would be hugging herself with delight were she not holding a microphone. Bruno knows that his laugh, and his apparently guileless chatter, still slays an audience.

But his image has taken some pounding these last few years. First there was the break-up from his wife, Laura, amid allegations of violence on his part.

Then there was the breakdown, which in the autumn of 2003 ended with him being carted off for a month to a psychiatric hospital, under section two of the Mental Health Act. It was said in the tabloid press that he was sleeping in a boxing-ring in his garden. He had already, in 1998, been diagnosed with bipolar affective disorder, what used to be known as manic depression.

In his recently updated autobiography, Frank, he writes about all this with impressive candour. Or rather, his ghostwriter, Kevin Mitchell, does. I take my hat off to Mitchell. He has written an engrossing book even though it is not easy to interview Bruno in any meaningful sense.

He gets sidetracked, he mixes up his words, and he deploys the chuckle to encourage the idea that he is no more than a big, amiable teddy bear. When you ask a question containing a word of more than three syllables, he says he'll need to consult a dictionary, and then it comes, the slow rumble of laughter: ha ha ha ha ha ha ha. Or sometimes: heh heh heh heh heh. The truth, I think, is that he is a much sharper cookie than he would have us believe. And perhaps also more calculating, and less chucklesome.

I ask him whether he thinks the propensity for mental illness was always there, or whether it was just a combination of circumstances - which included the suicide in 2002 of his former trainer and mentor, George Francis - that pushed him over the edge? "I don't know about that word prop ... prop ... what was it? I'll need a dictionary for that one. Heh heh heh heh heh. No, if it was always there then I was the last one to know, know what I mean? That pressure, what I had, the retirement from boxing, the break-up of my marriage and all them other things, just got on top of me, know what I mean? It could happen to anyone."

When he was discharged from psychiatric hospital he was prescribed with lithium, and in the book he says he will only come off it when the experts tell him the time is right. Yet when I ask him if he is cutting back on dosages, he says: "I haven't seen any doctor for about a year and I haven't took any medication for about a month. My mum says not to stop taking it altogether. But I've been training, I've been looking after myself, getting plenty of vitamins, getting the right foods, weaning myself off it, know what I mean?"

I'm not sure I do know what he means, but he doesn't seem befuddled, and he does look in extraordinary shape. When I tell him so, he nods and says: "I try and maintain a little bit of fitness, man. I don't want to let the side down in the bedroom, know what I mean? I don't want to give it a time-out, heh heh heh heh heh."

He doesn't identify his current squeeze, although last year he had an affair with a woman called Yvonne Clydesdale who in May gave birth to their daughter, Freya. He also claims to be on excellent terms with Laura, to whom he dedicated the book. He has even come to terms with no longer being able to do the thing that defined him, not panto but boxing. He was, after all, the world heavyweight champion.

"I don't need it, man. There's enough pressure in life without seeking competition. That makes it double pressure. I'm chilling out now, taking it nice and easy. I'm always here at Champneys, and my boy's getting into skiing, so I go to [the dry ski slope at] Milton Keynes quite a lot. I've just bought a new house so I'm trying to get that together. I do different jobs up and down the country. It's everyday life, man. The same as you."

I tell Bruno that I enjoy meeting boxers, or ex-boxers, because what they do or did is so far outside my own experience. I've played cricket, football, rugby, golf, tennis. I have never had someone trying to punch me into next week. What's it like going into the ring with Mike Tyson, which Bruno did twice? "It's one of the most nerve-racking, exciting, tingling, weird experiences," he says. "It's an adventure, sometimes good, sometimes bad." Is there one punch for which he would like to be remembered? After all, he shook Tyson with a huge left hook? "Yeah, but I only shook him on to the other foot. Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha. I knocked Gerrie Coetzee flat on his back with a good punch, a right hand. I took some stick when I first fought him [in March 1986] from those anti-apartheid people or whatever. They put spray on my car. They said I should never have fought him. But when I beat him they was patting me on the back."

Bruno and "Iron Mike" went on a speaking tour of Britain last year, which must have been interesting? "He still has bad boy elements but his heart is in the right place. He had a lot of confusion before, a lot of hangers on. Now he seems very happy. He's a serious guy. He knows so much about boxing, about all the different champions. I've studied a little bit of boxing history myself, but not like him. I can tell you about Jack Johnson, Joe Louis, [Muhammad] Ali, [George] Foreman, [Ken] Norton. But I can't tell you about the smaller weights. I can't sit down and tell you I'm a professor. I'm not Professor Bruno, heh heh heh... I've met most of them. I've met Foreman, Ken Norton, [Joe] Frazier. Boxers have a good rapport with one another, just like tennis players, like footballers, like policemen, like crooks, ha ha ha ha ha."

Speaking of crooks, there's a story in the book about Bruno, in 1981 aged 19, requiring an eye operation. His manager, Terry Lawless, consulted a specialist who said there were only two places in the world where this particular retina operation could be done: Bogota in Colombia and Moscow. Lawless chose Bogota. No sooner had Bruno landed than he was sized up by drugs barons as a potential accessory in smuggling heroin to Britain.

"Yeah, a very, very amazing story," says Bruno. "They was trying to get me to be a mule, know what I mean. When they first met me they thought I was police. They couldn't understand why a young black guy from London would be in South America. Then they asked me to carry stuff for them. I tried to play dumb, and when they got a bit nastier, and said they knew some big people, I said I knew some big people too. After a while they cooled off, but everywhere I went after that they were in touch, with cards and whatever. I still get cards from them now and again. The last one was about two years ago. It said 'thinking of you, your friends in Colombia'. They was serious people, man."

Bruno has never been known as a serious person: too many of us have laughed with him or at him down the years. Does it trouble him, I wonder, that some people look at him and think not of the scraps with Tyson, Lennox Lewis, James "Bonecrusher" Smith, but of Goldilocks and the Three Bears? For the first time, surliness crosses his face. "I don't give a shit, man.

"Couldn't give a monkey's. If they want to remember me as pantomime Frank, or for my stuff with Harry [Carpenter], then that's cool, so long as they remember me." What if they remember him for being sectioned? "Couldn't give a monkey's. It was never as bad as the papers wrote. I never harassed nobody.

"I never slept all night in that boxing-ring, like they said. I just used to lie in it for half an hour." Which brings us back to boxing, of which Bruno, behind all the bonhomie and bluster, is a perceptive observer. "I think Amir Khan's got what it takes, although it will be interesting when he fights someone young and hungry, someone from Mexico or the southern United States, the hungry-belly guys."

Where, finally, does he think he ranks in the list of world heavyweight champions, a title he held for six months after out-pointing Oliver McCall at Wembley in 1995? "I'm just glad to be in there, man. Place me at the bottom. Whatever. As long as I'm in there, man. Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha."

'Frank: Fighting Back', by Frank Bruno with Kevin Mitchell, is published by Yellow Jersey (£7.99)