Bruno has already proved that he has plenty of quiet determination. After an amateur career that included only one defeat (quickly avenged) and made him, at 18, Britain's youngest amateur heavyweight champion, he found his transition to the pros threatened by the discovery that he was nearsighted in his right eye. That might have jeopardized his effort to get a pro license from the British Boxing Board of Control, so he was sent to Bogotá, Colombia, where José Barraquer, an ophthalmologist, had pioneered a surgical technique for reshaping the cornea to cure myopia.
Bruno admits that he found Bogotá a frighteningly hostile city; most of his time was spent in his hotel room with the door locked. But he never had any doubts about undergoing the ordeal. "In life, if you get one chance to do something big you are more lucky than most men, and that was my big chance," he says. "And I was always sure the surgery would be a success, because I believe in God." A success it was, and he was duly licensed.
Bruno's self-confidence has often been less conspicuous, but there was nothing tentative about the way he anesthetized Coetzee. "For a long while Frank couldn't totally believe in himself as a fighter," says Hamilton, who helped steer him as a teenager away from work as a laborer and into boxing. "But now he really fancies the job."
"Already I am the strongest heavyweight in the world," Bruno declared recently, "and I mean to make myself half as strong again."
"If you do that," said a reporter, "they'll take your license away."
It's all improbably stirring stuff to be hearing around the camp of a British heavyweight. Still, there are entries on the other side of the ledger—a certain sluggishness and his pronounced vulnerability to an occasional stiff one on the chops.
When Floyd (Jumbo) Cummings, a hard-hitting journeyman, inflicted just such an embarrassment early in their fight in October 1983, Bruno's nervous system was left in such disarray that he might have been mistaken for a man trying to leave by several exits at the same time. But he recovered and stopped Cummings in the seventh round. There was just the opposite of a last-reel rescue against James (Bonecrusher) Smith the following year. Going into the 10th and final round Bruno was so far ahead that Smith might have been excused for giving up the chase. Instead, the American sensed that his young rival was tiring rapidly and launched a final, battering assault. Bruno's response was abject disintegration. The finality of his only loss sent a momentary shudder through Bruno's backers. Now, if such dark moments are mentioned, his fans simply recall the authority with which Bruno has roughed up the other 27 opponents who have lost to him, 26 by knockout. They may have been a motley, generally unmenacing bunch, but Terry Lawless insists that his man is maturing swiftly and is ready to take the world title.
If Lawless were talking about any kind of fighter but a heavyweight, his countrymen might be more easily convinced. For ever since gloved fighting became internationally acceptable, the British experience with heavyweights has been a bizarre blend of the lamentable and the hilarious. The only world titleholder England can claim in the modern era is Bob Fitzsimmons, who was born in Cornwall, but he had emigrated far from his English roots long before he knocked out James J. Corbett in the 14th round at Carson City, Nev. The year was 1897, and the nine decades that separate us from Fitzsimmons's felling of Corbett offer a vista about as cheering as a barracks hospital in the Crimean War.
Whether British contenders are seen as valiant tragedians or as a long line of bad vaudeville acts forever auditioning for a part far beyond their abilities, there is one cherished exception to the miserable pattern. At Yankee Stadium on an August evening in 1937, Tommy Farr, who was born tough in the mining valleys of South Wales, went the full 15 rounds with the young, seemingly irresistible Joe Louis. Farr's bravery and resilience against a great champion making his first title defense should have meant the fight was close. It wasn't. Farr took a systematic beating. Yet his performance was undeniably heroic, and Tommy, who died earlier this year at 71, surely earned his celebrity. After all, he was one of only two British heavyweights in this century who went the distance in fights for the world championship. And Farr is not likely to suffer from comparison with the other possessor of that particular distinction, Joe Bugner.
In his prime, Bugner had the physique of a Greek statue, but he had fewer moves. He did not lack strength, durability or willingness. But, while he was no coward, he was never really a fighting man. The sport in which he originally distinguished himself, after arriving in England as a Hungarian refugee following the 1956 revolution, was discus throwing. It obviously suited his nature rather better than the one he took up professionally. Passivity was his pervasive flaw, and it was never more manifest than in his title shot against Muhammad Ali in Kuala Lumpur in 1975. Everything about that occasion was slightly weird, not least the fact that the hostilities, such as they were, took place in the morning. Only the spectators suffered during a boring 15-round waltz that Ali won easily on points. Toward the end of the ordeal, one sage ringsider, remembering Bugner's past with the discus, turned to this writer and said, "We knew he couldn't punch, but we thought he could at least throw."