The clown who craves respect

Bruno is fighting Tyson for Britain, for the Queen, for the money ... but mostly for his pride, says Jim White PROFILE: Frank Bruno
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The Independent Online
The Sun is in no doubt about what Frank Bruno's fight with Mike Tyson in the early hours of tomorrow morning in a Las Vegas mega-hotel is all about.

"Spank the Yank, Frank," read one of its headlines this week. And this was a typical contribution to the paper's fax line from a group of its readers: " `We put the pride in Mother's Pride, put the great back in Great Britain, Frank' from British Bakeries, Greenford."

Like the poor, Frank Bruno seems always to have been with us. He appears to have carried the nation's hopes in the most basic and brutal of sporting contests for a lifetime, yet he is only 34. For this scrap, against the man who embodies the dangers of the profession, the patriotism dials have been turned up to 11.

The Sun, favoured reading matter among the 3,000 Frank fans at present filling Vegas with their chants ("Broooono, Broooono"), has orchestrated the campaign. It characterises the fight as the collision between a righteous, decent, home-loving Christian Brit and a dodgy, dangerous, convicted-rapist, Muslim American, a simple meeting of good and evil, light and dark.

The paper has a hidden motive for talking the fight up to a degree unprecedented even in a sport that invented hype: the Sun plays an important role as sales promoter for Rupert Murdoch's Sky TV. This fight will be the first ever pay-for-view event in Britain; to sell it at pounds 14.95 on top of the usual Sky subscription, the fight has been promoted as the biggest event in the history of the universe.

But even if there were not a commercial edge to its frenzy, the Sun would probably be right behind Frank anyway. After all, it always has been. Such a whole-hearted embrace of a black sportsman as a national hero is unique. Ian Wright, Linford Christie, Colin Jackson, Paul Ince, Daley Thompson, Lennox Lewis, Naseem Hamed, Chris Eubank: there has been something equivocal about the way those black performers have been lauded. Yet unswerving patriotic support has always been there for Bruno. I remember his first attempt on the world title at Wembley in 1986, when the big American Tim Witherspoon put out his lights in the 11th round. Sitting behind was a wobbly-jowled London racist who spent the entire fight yelling: "Gooo on, Frank, smack the black bastard."

The suspicion is that Bruno has been thus accepted because of the image that has developed around him: big, cuddly, slow, gentle Frank. None of the disconcerting potency of Linford Christie, just a warm, unthreatening presence, a booming voice always willing to be party to some weary rehearsed gag. Encouraged by his canny wife and adviser, Laura, Bruno has been happy to exploit that image commercially. He has never disguised his affection for a pound coin ("What are you doing this for?" an American journalist asked him on Wednesday: "For my family, myself, the Queen and the money.") The cuddly clown image has helped make him a rich man; pantomime, HP Sauce advertisements, commercial endorsements by the barrow-load have followed him around. Once he became a national figure, so it became easier for his boxing advisers to sustain his career.

The disappointing truth about Bruno is that, despite his Greek-god physique and massive punch, his boxing ability alone would not have given him the career he has enjoyed.

"The problem with Frank is that he is not a natural fighter," says Henry Cooper. Indeed whenever he has come up against a class performer - James "Bonecrusher" Smith, Witherspoon, Tyson, Lewis - he has crumpled alarmingly, his eyes blanking, his knees buckling, a picture of awful vulnerability. And yet, defeat after embarrassing defeat, another stab at the big prize is always made available, because he is such a commercial success.

Last autumn the joke heavyweight was widely expected to lose yet again when he fought Oliver McCall for yet another stitched-up heavyweight championship. But he had worked like a Trojan for the fight, produced the performance of his life, stayed on his feet and won it, his reaction afterwards a clear indication that he felt vindicated. "I always knew I could be World Champion," he said, behind a pair of shades hiding his injuries. That win set up a re-match with Tyson.

"When Frank won the title, it meant a lot to the ordinary man in the street, the taxi driver and so on," says Frank Warren, his promoter. "If he beats Mike Tyson, it's the equivalent of England winning the World Cup in 1966."

But Bruno is not doing this for Britain. He is doing it for his own sense of pride. Tyson represents the pinnacle of boxing, the one heavyweight everyone fears with good reason ("He took some horrific punches that day," says Tyson of their previous encounter. "I just remember overwhelming him.") There is no need, financially, for Bruno to go anywhere near him. Yet he is prepared to risk all in his bid to prove himself more than the bumbling horizontal he is widely assumed to be. The paradox at the centre of Bruno's enormous effort is that he is seeking to rid himself of the image that has helped to make him famous.

The champion, angered by the manner in which he will receive only a fifth of the challenger's earnings for this bout, has been less than his usual co-operative self in helping the pre-match publicity. But in the few public utterances Bruno has made, his aim has become clear. The goadings of the Tyson camp ("thank you, Frank, for allowing Mike the privilege of knocking you out," sneered the American's manager) have landed home. At his last press conference the normally placid, polite, decorous Bruno gave the Tyson team an angry finger. What the clown craves more than anything, it seems, is respect.

Tomorrow morning most British hearts, Sun-reading or not, would love Bruno, this romantic trier, this paradigm of British pluck, to stick the finger up to the world and achieve the ultimate in his sport. But most British heads just hope the referee will be quick enough to move in before real damage is done.