If all the British fighters who have been presented this century as contenders for the heavyweight championship of the world were laid end to end, most would look pretty much as they did when their challenges were over. Americans tend to joke about heavyweights from Britain having an affinity with the horizontal, but the record is bleak enough to give the jibes a sound historical basis.
Even in an age when the title that was once trumpeted as the greatest prize in sport has been squalidly fragmented, and the attempts to put it together again involve a thoroughly unconvincing cast of characters inside and outside the ring, any aspirant from across the water is not likely to be taken very seriously. So Frank Bruno, who will fight WBA champion Tim Witherspoon in Wembley Stadium on Saturday night, has come a long way just by being recognized as a premier challenger.
What earned the 24-year-old Englishman that distinction was his 110-second annihilation of Gerrie Coetzee, a former WBA champion, on March 4. That was a dramatic victory, but does it warrant new optimism among the Brits?
Only up to a point. For a start, it must be said that Coetzee, once an aggressive fighter with a potent right hand, looked like a fat man on vacation when he went to London to meet Bruno. He announced his retirement on the morning after his defeat but might have been truer to the realities of his physical condition if he had done so a couple of months earlier. The punches with which Bruno battered Coetzee were well delivered and thunderously destructive, but by the time the South African's grossly bloated body lay draped across the bottom rope at Wembley Arena, his lolling head supported by ringside photographers, it was impossible to escape the thought that the local hero had burgled an empty house.
Bruno is out of an unfamiliar mold for a British heavyweight. He is big (nearly 6'4" and around 224 pounds), he is black, and he can punch. Bruno will tell you, also, in his personalized version of a Cockney accent that gives engaging expression to a warm, boyish personality, that half a dozen years ago, long before he turned pro, his brother Michael scrawled on their mother's kitchen wall the prediction that Frank would be world champion in June 1986.
The sibling seer could not have been expected to allow for the mysteries of Tim Witherspoon's urine, which was found to contain traces of marijuana after he took the WBA title from Tony Tubbs in Atlanta last January. It presented a complication that threatened to throw Michael's prophecy off schedule, as the WBA reacted to the violation by ordering a rematch with Tubbs. But American promoters weren't clamoring to stage Tubbs-Witherspoon II, which figured to draw a crowd that could travel to the bout on one motorcycle, and out of their indifference has come a deal that gives Bruno his chance. Although brother Michael's inscription had specified June, the large—six children—and close Bruno family reckons it can live with a month's delay.
Clearly, young Bruno has no need to rush, and the only immediate worry may be his obsessive tendency to overtrain in the gym above the Royal Oak, a pub in London's East End from which his manager, Terry Lawless, has already sent out four world champions—Charlie Magri (flyweight), Jim Watt (lightweight), John Stracey (welterweight) and Maurice Hope (junior middleweight). Bruno's appetite for exercise can be alarming. By dawn on the morning after a fight he's likely to be pounding out 10 miles of road work while wearing a weighted belt on a body that carries a far more spectacular array of muscle than is usually associated with a fighter's physique.
Even as a young schoolboy he was freakishly strong, and his classmates did not always find him a friendly giant. "We used to get parents coming to the door all the time to complain about him fighting their children," says his mother, Lyn, a district nurse and evangelist in the Pentecostal Church who came to England from Jamaica in the late 1950s. "Whenever the phone went ringing in the evening and he was not around, I used to think, 'What has he been up to now?' But he was never a bad, problem child; he never got in serious trouble with the police or anything like that."
However, controlling a boy with the body of a man had become difficult long before Lyn was widowed in 1977 (Bruno's father, Robert, came from Dominica), and when his teachers found Frank too much of a handful he was packed off to what he now likes to call his "boarding school." In fact, Oak Hall is an establishment the London education authorities set up in the Sussex countryside to cope with youngsters who were not yet delinquent but were heading enthusiastically in that direction. There was the inevitable hierarchy of hardness among the residents of Oak Hall, and after enduring his share of bullying, Bruno made sure long before he left that he was the boss of the yard.
The unfailing civility that characterizes his behavior out of the ring these days—an impression of gentleness increased by his light, slightly singsong voice—makes it easy to imagine that the sway he held over his schoolboy peers was based on simple respect for his size. But Al Hamilton, a West Indian journalist who knows Bruno well, is certain that his upcoming challenge for the heavyweight championship won't be hindered by any lack of aggressiveness. "Very few people have seen the real Frank Bruno in the ring," says Hamilton. "He wants that world title very, very badly, and once he's in there fighting for it, he'll be mean all right."