For the heavyweight division, the 1990’s were total chaos. A complete chronicle of that bizarre decade for the game’s big men reads like a season-long script for a bad soap opera. Here goes:
In, arguably, the biggest upset of all-time, Buster Douglas knocked out Mike Tyson. Tyson then raped a beauty queen and went to jail. Evander Holyfield defeated an unfocused Douglas, who lay down on the canvas and let the referee count him out. Holyfield then defended his title against a pair of pot-bellied men fighting in the wrong decade, George Foreman and Larry Holmes. Holyfield and Riddick Bowe battled three times before Andrew Golota ruined Bowe with his vicious attacks on “Big Daddy’s” groin. Before that, Bowe had, literally, thrown one of his title belts in a garbage can as some kind of protest and it ended up going to Lennox Lewis.
But just when it looked like Lewis might be headed for a defining showdown with Bowe, he lost to little-known Oliver McCall. Holyfield then lost to Michael Moorer, before being diagnosed with a heart ailment which was healed by a television evangelist, while McCall almost lost to Holmes, and Moorer was then knocked out by a single punch from a 46-year-old Foreman. There were three or four world title belts being passed around like party favors and no one could keep track of who the real champion was. Heavyweight boxing had officially become impossible to take seriously.
Further reflecting all this craziness was the career of England’s Frank Bruno, a leading contender with a special talent for breaking the hearts of British fight fans. Bruno had risen to prominence in the mid-80s after he not only went undefeated in 21 straight bouts but won them all by knockout. The United Kingdom had, for generations, pined for a genuine heavyweight threat. After all, the country had, up to that point, produced only a single heavyweight king, that being the great Robert Fitzsimmons, who won the title back in, wait for it, 1897. Yes, England, home of the Queensberry Rules, had not spawned a heavyweight champion in almost a full century. During that time Tommy Farr, Henry Cooper and Richard Dunn, among others, had stoked the dreams and hopes of British fight fans, but none came close to bringing home the goods.
The same fervent hopes were raised when Bruno, an impressively muscled athlete with a serious punch, mowed down opponent after opponent before enthusiastic crowds at Wembley Arena and Royal Albert Hall. The first time Frank broke his countrymen’s hearts was in 1984 when American contender James “Bonecrusher” Smith journeyed to London, the winner of the match to be in line for a shot at champion Larry Holmes. For nine rounds the undefeated Bruno outboxed Smith, using his sharp jab to keep the bigger man at bay until, with just two minutes left, the clock struck twelve and Frank succumbed to the “Bonecrusher’s” assault.
The Briton regrouped and reeled off seven straight wins, six by KO, including a one round massacre of former champion Gerrie Coetzee, before receiving his first chance at a world title in 1986 against Tim Witherspoon in front of a massive crowd at Wembley Stadium, everyone primed to rejoice for their new hero. But instead it was Don King who celebrated, the promoter waving American flags inside the ring as thousands of disconsolate fans filed out of the stadium after Witherspoon had knocked out a fading Bruno in round eleven.
But in losing, Frank only endeared himself even more to the British public. No one could question his effort and spirit and the British people were charmed by his honest character and good humour. He was, if anything, an even bigger attraction in his native land now, a point proved the following year when he drew a mob of forty thousand and pocketed almost two million dollars to pummel washed-up veteran Joe Bugner in a completely inconsequential match.
Bruno’s drawing power earned him another chance at glory, this time in America. Fresh off his first round demolition of Michael Spinks to unify the heavyweight crown, Mike Tyson defended against Bruno in 1989 and the stands at the Las Vegas Hilton Center were overflowing with patriotic, anthem-singing Britishers who had made the journey across the Atlantic to see their hero make history. It didn’t happen. Despite being the first boxer to seriously hurt “Iron Mike” when he landed a thudding left hook in the opening round, the referee had to rescue a helpless Bruno from Tyson’s assault in round five.
A long rest was in order and following a thirty month layoff, during which Frank took up acting, the pride of England embarked on a comeback and once again put together a string of wins which resurrected the hopes of his long-suffering fans.
It was 1993 and by this time England did finally have a heavyweight champion in the person of Lennox Lewis who, while having developed as a boxer in Canada, had been born in England and retained his U.K. citizenship. Not surprisingly though, British sports fans largely saw Bruno as their man, not the guy with the funny accent, and again a massive crowd turned out to see if Frank could finally get the job done in the first ever heavyweight title bout between two British fighters. And once again Bruno appeared on the cusp of glory as he gave as good as he got for six rounds, but in the seventh Lewis struck with a shattering left hook and Frank, once more, had to be saved by the referee.
By now Bruno was a weathered veteran, a survivor, no longer the fresh-faced prospect who had excited his countrymen more than a decade before. He beat a string of journeyman to keep himself in the mix, and then word came that yet another chance at a world title was to be his. Oliver McCall had vanquished Lewis in 1994, then barely outpointed a 45-year-old Holmes in a surprisingly competitive fight. McCall needed a good payday and an easy win and decided a used-up Bruno and a trip to merry ol’ England was just the ticket.
The moment McCall vs Bruno was signed and sealed some of Bruno’s compatriots expressed misgivings. There had already been far too much heartache for those of little faith, too many dashed hopes which now made the prospect of cheering Bruno on yet again bittersweet, if not masochistic.
But come fight night, Frank Bruno showed how gallant and game his warrior’s heart remained as from the opening bell he took charge, snapping home his hard left jab and bulling a lethargic McCall about the ring. For ten rounds, and to the growing apprehension of the huge London crowd, Bruno was the stronger and busier fighter, and the tension mounted with each passing minute, the question on everyone’s mind: will he cave in once more? Will he break our hearts yet again?
Aware he was hopelessly behind on points, McCall came alive in the last two rounds and Bruno withstood some desperate moments as the champion threw everything he had at the hometown hero. Clinching at every opportunity, the massive crowd roaring, Bruno protected his fragile chin through the final three minutes as if it were a priceless porcelain artifact and, to the great relief of the huge throng in Wembley Stadium, the tiring challenger survived to hear the final bell.
Such was the challenger’s effectiveness on this night that the announcement of the judges’ decision was little more than a formality. But the goosebumps still rose both when Jimmy Lennon Jr. declared ‘… for the winner and new WBC heavyweight champion, Frank Bruno!’ and as the crowd, Union Jacks held high, burst into a rousing rendition of “Land of Hope and Glory.” England put aside the fact Bruno hardly deserved to be considered the best heavyweight in the world with Lewis, Bowe, Tyson, Moorer and Holyfield all active and ranked above him, and chose instead to revel in the moment, if not for their nation, then for the model of perseverance and dedication that was Frank Bruno, who had hoped for so many years and now, at long last, had seized the glory.
– Michael Carbert