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He prefers to be called Aussie Joe now, and for his ring appearances he wears a flowing, rather flouncy white satin robe trimmed in the Australian national colors of green and gold. His hair still grows in thick golden curls, and both his face and physique are pretty much the same replicas of Greek statuary that they always were. At 6'4" and 240 pounds, he is more gorgeous and flamboyant than ever—a hunk of beefcake with such a flair for theatrics that some in Sydney snicker that his persona is cast more in the slapstick mold of a professional wrestler than in that of a heavyweight boxer.
Sydney's Aussie Joe is none other than Joe Bugner. Born in Hungary and raised in England, Bugner plied his trade for 20 years from London to Las Vegas to Kuala Lumpur. Yes, he's the same Joe Bugner you vaguely recall—the same journeyman who has racked up 61 wins in 72 fights. The same Bugner who won the British Commonwealth and European heavyweight titles from the enormously popular Henry Cooper in 1971 and was never, ever forgiven for it by the British press.
Yes, that would be the same plodding fighter who was thereafter dubbed the Harmless Hercules, the Anxious Adonis and the Great White Dope by his many detractors. The same also who lasted 27 respectable rounds in two losing decisions against Muhammad Ali when Ali was in his prime. And the same who produced 12 more good rounds in a losing effort against Joe Frazier.
Yes, Aussie Joe is that same Joe Bugner—but, of course, he is not really the same at all. Indeed, the man is 37 years old now, and he has been more or less born again during his recent residency Down Under. First, he is about to become an Australian citizen, and says the contrast between his life in England ("They'd go miles to boo me") and Australia ("The country's most powerful men want to shake my hand") is the difference between "chalk and cheese." Second, after a fierce divorce, of which every nasty detail was smeared in tabloid headlines all across England, Bugner is married again. He has become a loving, laughing, almost burblingly happy husband to Australian-born Marlene Carter, a onetime war correspondent and show-biz columnist.
Third, the man British boxing writer Hugh McIlvanney once described as being "built like a Greek statue but with fewer moves" is now among the smoothest of socialites in Sydney. The Bugners are on the A list for every la-di-da function in town. Fourth, and perhaps most surprising, Bugner is once again fighting, and his middle-aged heart is set on a shot at Mike Tyson's WBA and WBC world heavyweight crowns.
Bugner's boxing reincarnation began on Sept. 15, 1986, when he climbed into a Sydney ring to fight James (Quick) Tillis, a reputable opponent who was ranked 16th by the WBC. After a 2�-year layoff, Bugner had reduced his weight from 280 pounds to 234, and though many in Sydney's boxing crowd viewed him as nothing but a soft-bellied society toff, he beat Tillis in a unanimous 10-round decision. Two months later, in another 10-rounder, Bugner outpointed seasoned heavyweight David Bey, who was ranked 18th by the WBC.
Suddenly, his comeback had a smidgen of credibility, and Bugner began envisioning one last title fight. Now ranked 20th by the WBC, Bugner is scheduled to fight former WBA champ Mike Weaver on May 29. Just two years younger than Bugner, Weaver has fallen to 18th in the rankings, but a convincing victory could move Aussie Joe a notch closer to a bout with a real contender. Bugner has no doubts about his ability to handle Weaver. "I am going to show the world that I'm not too old," he says.
It is one thing to try to delay old age. But why, really, is Bugner risking his pride and his comfort, to say nothing of his health, in this dubious quest for a championship he never came close to winning when he was much younger? His answer is quite direct. "Money's a big factor, I don't deny that," he says. "But there is something else. I've been criticized by the British media for so long for supposedly giving only half of what I have, for being a disappointment as a fighter. I intend to thumb it to them with this comeback."
Despite winning those 61 fights and more than $3 million in prize money, Bugner never gained the respect of British fight fans. A Hungarian refugee who sneaked across the border with his mother during the Soviet invasion in 1956, he grew up in St. Ives, England, to become a spectacularly proportioned youth able to throw a discus 183'11�" at age 14. When he was just 17, Bugner became a licensed professional boxer and immediately discovered the bitter end of the sweet science.
"In my first fight," he recalls, "I was dreaming I was Hercules or Tarzan, combing my hair or trying to get my best profile to the cameras, when the bell went off and the guy decked me. The next time I saw that opponent he was driving the No. 10 bus in Birmingnam.