CUS D’AMATO, the trainer and guru whose master-work was Mike Tyson, had his own much-quoted theory about fear. Control and use it, he taught, and it will become a weapon with which to beat your opponent, but let it get out of control and it will destroy you like a forest fire.
That, I suspect, is what happened in Frank Bruno’s mind on that Saturday night (March 16, 1996) in the hours and minutes before he left his dressing room at the MGM Grand Garden to face the most terrifying and intimidating opponent since Sonny Liston.
Bruno, making his first defence of the WBC heavyweight title, had talked a great fight during the build-up to this hugely-important match which drew a capacity crowd in the 16,000-seat arena and millions more on pay-per-view in America and Britain. But when the time came for him to leave the sanctuary of his changing room and make the long walk into the arena, he did so with the air of a man trudging towards the electric chair.
That is not said lightly, or with a view towards disparaging the immensely likeable and brave Bruno. All fighters, even Tyson, feel fear, and the man who says he doesn’t is a liar. Tyson, famously, was once filmed in tears before an amateur match, with his then-trainer Teddy Atlas having to comfort him and stiffen his resolve. No doubt Tyson, too, had his secret fears about Saturday’s rematch with a man who had hurt and dazed him when they first met seven years ago, but as he has repeatedly and regrettably demonstrated to his cost, he is a naturally violent and abusive man who, paradoxically, feels safest and most at home in the ring, in the only environment in which he is in absolute control of his own destiny.
He turned his fear into a weapon of destruction, using it to fuel the thrilling aggression which carried him to a decisive and dramatic victory in the third, but Bruno (17st 9lbs) allowed himself to be consumed by it. I have rarely seen a man more uneasy about his immediate future, or with less confidence in his own ability to determine it. The inner doubts showed in his face and in his body language and demeanour, which had none of the focused and frightening intensity of Tyson’s.
The fight meant everything to the disgraced and now rehabilitated former champion; it was what had occupied his dreams during the long months and years in jail, and the strength of his emotions showed in the unusually demonstrative nature of his reaction in the minutes after referee Mills Lane had rescued the beaten Bruno 50 seconds into the round.
Tyson (15st 10lbs) spread his arms wide with an expression of unrestrained joy and exultation, before sinking to his knees in the middle of the ring. He then walked across to the beaten and disconsolate loser, kissed him and rubbed his head in a comforting gesture while speaking quietly to him. But as he left the ring, he stopped on the ring apron and yelled in exultation, pointing to the WBC belt around his waist.
It was almost primeval, reminding me of nothing so much as a gorilla beating his chest and bellowing its supremacy in the herd. It was a rare and out-of-character display by a man whose emotions are normally locked away behind an expressionless mask, and it showed how much the victory had meant to him. He had shared Bruno’s doubts and apprehension, but now he felt unbounded relief where Bruno knew only despair.
The crowd, at least a third of them noisy Bruno fans, responded well to Tyson’s decisive victory and showed sympathy with the loser, who stayed in the ring long after Tyson had strode away with the belt in which Bruno had taken so much pride and satisfaction. Tyson’s victory had been so complete that there was no room for argument or recriminations, although I shudder to contemplate what might have happened had Lane been forced to disqualify Bruno for the repeated holding which had already cost a point deduction in the second.
Bruno’s fans are not, by and large, boxing fans – the number of empty seats during an undercard of ‘world’ title fights, and the shoulder-crushing crowds around the hotel bars, showed that. They roared out football songs and chants, while American tourists stared in amused bewilderment. But these were the same breed of fans who rioted after Bruno’s defeat by Tim Witherspoon a decade ago, and the threat of violence bubbled just below the surface. Their boos and whistles completely drowned the American national anthem, an appalling discourtesy to a country where anthems are scrupulously respected. Not for the first time, we cringed with embarrassment in the Press seats. It may be true that only a small percentage of the British contingent were involved, but if that were the case, they must have lung capacity which a whale would envy.
The undercard was fought in near-silence, apart from the women’s six-rounder, but when Tyson was first spotted on the giant TV screens in each corner of the arena as he left the dressing room, the noise and excitement began to build. He was dressed, as always, in black shorts and boots wearing a short poncho which he shrugged off as he entered the ring.
Bruno looked exceptionally tense and apprehensive when he appeared in camera shot, and he talked to himself throughout the long-drawn-out preliminaries – perhaps praying, or maybe taking a lead from Steve Collins by chanting a victory mantra. Tyson, as always, prowled around the ring as if straining at the leash. One of his seconds wore a jacket emblazoned with the legend “Loved by few, hated by many, but respected by all …”, and the anxiety writ large on the Bruno team showed that was no exaggeration.
Tyson did that trademark little skip before launching himself at Bruno in the opening seconds, firing overarm rights. Bruno jabbed at him, then fell short with a right as the squat challenger came inside. Bruno jabbed, then grabbed -– the first of many such offences which tested to the limit the patience of referee Lane, handling his 86th ‘world’ title fight. Bruno landed a left hook, but took a heavy right and held on as Tyson drove punches to the body. Tyson complained about the holding, then missed with a right and their heads came dangerously together. Bruno tried to jab him off and got home with a solid-looking right, but already the champion was lumpy around the eye.
Tyson missed again with the left hook but landed the right, while Bruno missed with one attempted right uppercut but seemed momentarily to shake Tyson with the second. Tyson hit back but he showed courage to stand his ground and blast back with crude but heavy blows, and Tyson glared at him before turning away to his own corner at the bell.
Bruno’s left eye was cut, a long slice just above the lid. It was not possible to see exactly how the injury had occurred, but it was not the kind of cut you would expect from a head-butt.
Whatever chances Bruno had were draining away as the cut worsened appreciably early in the second. Tyson could sense the anxiety in his man, and bulled into the attack. There was no feinting or working for openings: this was fighting, not boxing. Mr. Lane took time out to speak to them both, but Bruno kept clinging on at every opportunity. It was not the way to keep a title, and when Lane finally ordered the judges to deduct a penalty point, I wondered whether any champion in history had ever been penalized like that so early in the title defence.
Nothing was going right for Bruno. Tyson’s thudding punches were hurting, and the blood running down from the cut was hampering his vision. Surprisingly, he turned southpaw for a moment, probably more from confusion than as a tactical ploy, but quickly reverted to orthodox as the challenger caught him again.
Tyson’s elbow caught Bruno in a clinch in the opening moments of the third, but it was the champion who was cautioned, inevitably for holding. The end came abruptly half-a-minute later. Bruno went back towards the ropes and Tyson opened up with a ferocious barrage as the Englishman stood against them.
Two left hooks, a right, a left hook, two right uppercuts – one missed, one landed – and a final left hook sent Bruno into a squatting position on the bottom rope, and referee Lane acted promptly to rescue him before Tyson could inflict real damage on a hurt and defenceless target. It was a chillingly-executed finish, reminiscent of Tyson at his best, and must have sent a shudder of apprehension through WBA champion Bruce Seldon and his IBF counterpart Frans Botha, who watched from adjoining ringside seats.
Seldon would be next in Tyson’s drive to reunify for the second time.
Neither champion poses much of a threat, probably less than Bruno did, and on this vastly-improved showing the only men who can seriously test the revitalised champion are Lennox Lewis and Riddick Bowe, two huge fights down the road.
Iron Mike is back – and the business is buzzing again.