Joker turns king to lampoon a nation

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The Independent Online
THERE was surely a more appropriate postscript to Frank Bruno's arrival atop one of the peaks of world heavyweight boxing than an explosion of official indignation from both sides of the Atlantic that the man he deposed amid tumultuous scenes at Wembley last weekend did not complete a drug test. Anyone who studied Oliver McCall's contribution to the fight would not have been surprised that he failed to hit a sample tube with the required amount of urine afterwards.

Bruno, of course, had no such trouble. He is well used to having the piss taken out of him by his fellow countrymen and, indeed, the most significant benefit of his victory is that it could relieve him of the post of national sporting buffoon. That's if he wants to be relieved, of course. He shows no sign yet of relinquishing a role that has served him well, bringing him wealth and popularity and thoroughly compensating for his hitherto unattainable dreams.

He has been hamming it up all week, mainly with the enthusiastic support of the Sun newspaper whose front page on Friday showed him kneeling on a velvet cushion being dubbed "Sir" Frank by a look-alike Queen. Today he will be driven through London in an open-top bus, sponsored by the same newspaper and Sky TV, who are deliriously happy at their record-breaking viewing figures.

All harmless fun, no doubt, but I think boxing fans would have preferred a more serious appreciation of his new position and less of the tiresome self-lampooning. Bruno reputedly received pounds 1m for his Wembley endeavours - presumably it was pounds 1,000 for the fight and pounds 999,000 for taking part in the stomach-wrenching extravaganza that preceded it - but a more important reward may have been the immunity he can now gain from the mockery and the sneers that have accompanied his 14 years as a professional.

The boxing ring has never contained an easier target for ridicule and few of us who snipe for a living will be ashamed to confess to having drawn an early bead on him. Anyone who has a regard for boxing would find it difficult to admire the slow and winding road to the top that Bruno's handlers managed to make downhill most of the way.

A large proportion of the cognoscenti would have been prepared to bet their homes against his ever becoming a heavyweight champion of the world. It is just as well that bookmakers deal only in cash or the ranks of the homeless would have been considerably thickened last week. Those who remain detractors are liable to be shouted down by enraged Brunophiles. It will be a new generation of that ilk, the old one having long ago lost faith.

For its unlikeliness alone, Bruno's ascent deserves to be regarded as the sporting phenomenon of the age and, in the end, there was merit in it. Whatever McCall's shortcomings, Bruno clambered resolutely into the ring to face a bona fide title- holder and thoroughly deserved the unanimous verdict of the judges. He may not look the definitive champion but he looked far more the part than he ever did in his younger days, and when his jab was spent and his legs leaden he revealed preservation techniques not previously noticeable. We have to accept his triumph and now put up with the show-ground barking of the promoter Don King who will no doubt bore deeper into the well of our dislike.

But we cannot let Bruno proceed towards whatever riches lie ahead of him - "a glorious abundance" of opportunities according to King - without placing his achievement in the context of the time he has spent at the forefront of our awareness. If you recall his early days you might have been surprised that when he was pouring out his thanks to all who had stood beside him, the name of Terry Lawless was not mentioned. Lawless was the manager who took him as our leading amateur and planned a course of opponents carefully selected for offering the minimum of threat and the maximum of falling ability. It was neither the first nor the last time a new prospect has been studiously nursed through his first fights as a pro. But Bruno's nursing went on and on. It was like breast-feeding a 25-year-old.

You might think that there is nothing wrong with steering your charge thus but it is traditional for any fighter with his eye on progress to gain his national championship on the way up. Bruno never fought for the British title and, as a consequence, that championship almost ceased to exist in the public eye. With the big promotion muscle behind Bruno, there was hardly any box-office without his presence and British heavyweights who deserved a chance against him didn't get a look-in.

There was another unfortunate aspect of the power behind him. His handlers had a contract with the BBC to provide almost all the Corporation's fight coverage. Needless to say, Bruno was at the head of it and although the quality of his opponents was constantly criticised, the BBC persisted in showing his inadequate contests and out of that came his famed relationship with Harry Carpenter. However, when Bruno was hogging the screen against the world's biggest palookas and swopping witticisms with 'Arry, better boxers than him were getting much less exposure than they deserved. Bruno's amiable personality may well have brightened up scores of Sportsnights and a decade of Sports Personality of the Year shows but these were not the brightest, or fairest, years in British boxing

Bruno and Lawless split in 1989 for reasons neither has elaborated on and the BBC finally blew him out 18 months ago. Despite Bruno's gallant shows in three world title attempts, his other opponents have still been hand-picked. London fans stopped bothering to go and when he fought Jesse Ferguson at the NEC in Birmingham last year, barely 1,000 turned up. Once more the fight ended in one farcical round. "Enough is enough," said the BBC, giving Sky the gift of their life.

Now we await news of Bruno's next opponent. It is not asking much to hope British boxing can be favoured with a genuine end to an amazing career that has only occasionally been a blessing to the sport.

WHEN I aspired to be an outside-half at the age of 13, the sportsmaster used to shout: "Run straight, boy, run straight." He never explained why and I could never understand the sense of running at the opposition instead of the open spaces. Hence my swift departure from the team. In his new autobiography, Jeremy Guscott at the Centre, the England player criticises the outside-half Rob Andrew for "eating up" the centre's space when he ran with the ball. "We had to shout 'straighten up, straighten up' as he went along," Guscott complains. When Andrew was 13, he must have had a more tolerant teacher than I did.

PAUL GASCOIGNE'S decision to change his hair-colouring from blond to blue-black for England's match with Colombia raises two questions. What is an international doing farting around in a hairdresser's chair the day before a big game? What happens if he has an off-dye?