The worst prediction had come from a writer named Steve Lillis in Sunday Sport, one of the pile of London newspapers that fight for space at every corner newsstand. Steve Lillis had written that he would dress in a French maid's outfit and be Frank Bruno's slave for a week if underdog Bruno won the WBC heavyweight championship over Oliver McCall at Wembley Stadium last Saturday night. Frank Bruno now looked for Steve Lillis through blue sunglasses.
"Steve Lillis," the big man said. "Where are you?"
The words came from bruised and swollen lips, the voice a bit unsteady because the tongue was also swollen and the jaw was sore. The sunglasses covered more swelling, both of Bruno's eyes being halfway closed. He said that he looked "like E.T. drunk." He did not seem to mind so much.
"There you are," Bruno said, spotting his man in the press conference crowd. "Steve Lillis, you're my slave for a week."
Heavyweight champion of the world.
The WBC title might be devalued in the current boxing commodities market, only one third or even one fifth of the total heavyweight-title picture, but for the British it was the same title Joe Louis or Jack Dempsey or Mr. Muhammad Ali himself had held. The British are amenable to overstatement. The details do not often stand in the way of a good British-built story, especially when it involves their all-time athletic dreamer.
The fact that Bruno had been reeling through the last two rounds of his unanimous 12-round decision against the suddenly enlivened and desperate McCall only made the scene better. More dramatic. More heroic. Could any of the Union Jack wavers in the crowd of 23,000 outdoors at Wembley not believe that their man had wrung the most out of his abilities? He could not have lasted another minute, much less another round. He endured. He won. He was British.
"It's unbelievable, a miracle," Bruno said. "I know I sound like a parrot, but that's the word. Unbelievable. All the stories about how 'He had no stamina, couldn't take a punch, couldn't do this, couldn't do that.' I wasn't trying to prove anything to anybody but myself, and I done it."
This was the 33-year-old Bruno's fourth and certainly final try for the crown, a crown, any crown. His first three title shots—against Tim Witherspoon, Mike Tyson and Lennox Lewis—all ended the same way, with Bruno knocked silly. The knockouts were straight from the Saturday-morning cartoons, Bruno's senses suddenly gone, bluebirds suddenly appearing from his ears and chirping around his head.