For the heavyweight division, the 1990’s were total chaos. A complete chronicle of the ups and downs of the big men during that decade reads like a season-long script for a bad soap opera. Here goes:
In the biggest upset ever, Buster Douglas knocked out Mike Tyson. Tyson then raped a beauty queen and went to jail. Evander Holyfield defeated Douglas, who lay down on the canvas and let the referee count him out. Holyfield then defended his championship 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” private parts. 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 journeyman 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 knocked out by a single punch from a 46-year-old Foreman. There were three or four world title belts and no one could keep track of who the real champion was. Heavyweight boxing had officially become impossible to take seriously.
During all this craziness, England’s Frank Bruno remained a consistent performer. Consistently disappointing, that is.
Bruno had risen to prominence in the mid-80s, winning his first 21 bouts by knockout. The United Kingdom had long pined for a bonafide heavyweight threat since the country had, up to that point, produced only a single, legitimate world heavyweight champion, 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 produced a heavyweight champ in almost a full century. During that time Tommy Farr, Henry Cooper and Richard Dunn, among others, had stoked the dreams and patriotic hopes of British boxing fans, but none had come close to bringing home the goods.
The same fervent hopes were raised when Bruno, a muscular fighter with a serious punch, mowed down opponent after opponent in front of enthusiastic crowds at Wembley Arena and Royal Albert Hall. The first time he broke the hearts of his countrymen 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 only two minutes left, the clock struck 12 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 world title opportunity in 1986 against Tim Witherspoon in front of a massive crowd at Wembley Stadium. Surely now Frank would capitalize on this great chance, but instead, after a grueling and tightly contested battle, Witherspoon knocked out his fading opponent in round 11.
But in losing, Bruno only endeared himself 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 40 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 Tyson 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 30 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. He couldn’t. Yet 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 would suit just fine.
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 in what had to be his final chance at a world title 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 fervent 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 yet again? Will he break our hearts once more?
Aware he was hopelessly behind on points, McCall finally came alive in the last two rounds and Bruno withstood some desperate moments as the champion threw everything he had at the hometown hero. But to the relief of the assembled throng in Wembley Stadium, this time, finally, Frank made good. 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 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 entire 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 long and now, at last, had seized the glory.
– Michael Carbert