In the ebbing seconds of the 11th round—as a battered and barely conscious Frank Bruno crouched in Tim Witherspoon's corner being bludgeoned by the WBA heavyweight champion's heavy right hands to the head, as referee Isidro Rodriguez tried to interpose himself between the helpless Englishman and those huge blows, as trainer Terry Lawless threw in the towel from across the ring—there could only be relief that the bout had ended in such an unequivocal way. For at London's Wembley Stadium more than 40,000 fans wore the ugly face of incipient violence that has become the hallmark of British sports crowds in recent years. They probably had more booze aboard them than any previous London sporting crowd, which is no small feat. The baying of "Brun-oh, Brun-oh" had started fully two hours before the main event, which was set for 1 a.m. Sunday to accommodate U.S. television. In the interim, ticketless fans would break down no fewer than five gates, and others would sweep ringward from the highest and cheapest seats. Later there would come a chair-hurling attack on the police protecting Witherspoon's exit from the stadium.
And yet, only a week earlier the fight had seemed to hold the promise of high comedy. What, for heaven's sake, were Witherspoon and his entourage doing in the ticky-tacky little town of Basildon, some 30 miles across the Essex wetlands from London? And was that fight training that was going on at the Basildon Leisure Centre? The name of the building seemed all too appropriate as Witherspoon ambled round the ring for what was called sparring, looking soft and flabby and repeatedly getting caught by jabs.
Was Witherspoon so confident of his ability to defend against the basically inexperienced Bruno that he just couldn't be bothered to work? Or had he come to sleepy Basildon just to stay out of trouble? He has had a bit of that in the past. In fact, he was meeting Bruno only by courtesy of a WBA decision to virtually ignore his having tested positive for marijuana after his victory—his 24th in 26 fights—over Tony Tubbs on Jan. 17. But judging from his antics in the ring, and his refusal to pull up his shirt for photographers, life in Basildon's Crest Hotel, where there truly was little to do but sleep and eat, might have suited Witherspoon's appetite.
Questioning Witherspoon on the matter served only to make him angry. "You'll see my stomach when the bell rings," he snapped three days before the bout. "I'm around 223 now; 225 is the goal."
In fact, a sighting of Tim's turn was possible earlier than that, at the weigh-in on Saturday afternoon. After the balky scales showed that the 24-year-old challenger weighed 227 pounds, Witherspoon stepped up and proved to be almost 10 pounds over his target weight.
Slim Robinson, the champion's trainer, was quick to point out that muscle definition, such as Bruno possesses, is no indication of boxing prowess. "And anyhow," added Witherspoon, a little surprisingly, "fitness, conditioning don't have too much to do with the fight game. These muscle-bound guys can't take a shot. Bruno doesn't have a great punch. Just a basic one-two and a left hook." Robinson had the last word. "You've not had a champ here since Bob Fitzsimmons, and we aim to keep your record intact," he said.
Robinson was accurate if not diplomatic. Bruno had suffered his only defeat at the hands of James (Bonecrusher) Smith back in 1984, when he was knocked out in the 10th round. This after 21 consecutive victories, all of them by KOs, 17 of them within two rounds. What dismayed Bruno's fans most about that loss was his total bewilderment when Smith caught him with a left to the jaw. "Nobody likes getting hit," commented Britain's Henry Cooper, the former heavyweight challenger, "but Frank didn't seem to know what to do about it."
Now, more than two years after that knockout, partly atoned for by his 110-second demolition of Gerrie Coetzee last March, Bruno waited in the wings as the last two heavyweights to meet in Wembley Stadium climbed into the ring and jocularly stripped off their jackets as if to resume their 1963 bout. They were Muhammad Ali and Cooper, but the Wembley crowd this night had no time for sentiment. With little notice of the old war-horses, it just continued its chant of "Brun-oh, Brun-oh."
Through the opening five rounds, it looked as if the crowd—which had paid an estimated $4 million, more than had been taken in at any previous English sporting event—would get Britain's first world heavyweight champion of this century. It had to wait, though, until the second round for Bruno to land a significant right. Witherspoon weathered it, as he did a further series of rights while he was up against the ropes.
This was not the ideal scenario as sketched out by Bruno's more avid fans. In that, Bruno's mighty right cross would be deployed as early as possible to settle the issue. In the unlikely event that Witherspoon should withstand such a blow, the fight would hinge on whether the champion, an unbeautiful if effective fighter who tends to smother rather than cleanly knock out opponents, could contain the well-conditioned challenger and force him to go beyond 10 rounds—unknown territory for Bruno.