IN the land of the hardest game, where the bravest of hearts bend and break, feel-good stories as uplifting as the one achieved by Frank Bruno are rare. The British boxer, the musclebound everyman, the pantomime star and all-round loveable lump, at last – against all odds – completed his long, torturous journey and became world heavyweight champion on September 2, 1995.
Wembley Stadium’s twin towers had not witnessed anything like it since they watched over England’s 4-2 victory in the 1966 World Cup Final. This time, the visitor – and undisputed villain of the tale – was not an unfortunate German football team but an unpredictable, yet frighteningly durable and hazardous American called Oliver McCall. The British fans had seen him before. They had watched as he psyched himself up with astonishing emotion – screwing up his face and sobbing his eyes out – as he made his way to the ring to knock out unbeaten WBC champion, Lennox Lewis. The whole episode, from tears to termination, was quite a shock.
The gifted Lewis had beaten Bruno in seven rounds before that. The loss to his countryman, Bruno’s third failure to claim an elite belt, appeared to spell the end of Big Frank’s ambitions. In 1986 Tim Witherspoon halted an exhausted Bruno in 11 rounds. Three years later he was rescued from Mike Tyson in the fifth. And then in 1993 came the loss to Lewis. The nation seemed to fall in love with the Londoner a little bit more after every defeat; the rollercoaster crashes in world title fights had become almost inevitable, but 33-year-old Bruno – totally absorbed with ambition – was growing tired of being adored for failure. Against McCall, success was his only option.
“I’m a totally different person to the man who fought Witherspoon,” Bruno explained with the fight approaching. “I’m 210 per cent different. I’m more determined and positive. I’ve matured, I’m more focused. I’ve got better concentration… That Witherspoon would not last three rounds with me today to be quite honest. I was very inexperienced. I’ve never been scared. The only man I’m scared of is the man above or a rottweiller, a pit-bull terrier or a man with a gun.”
McCall did not bring a gun. His weapon of choice was a volatile and explosive psyche that he carried with him at all times. It made him dangerous. It also made him beatable. In 31 bouts, he had lost five times, yet each defeat came on the cards and McCall disputed them all. Since his stunning win over Lewis, the American had outhustled the great, but past it, Larry Holmes over 12 rounds. In that contest, the WBC champion failed to impress and there were whispers – no one dared utter them too loudly – that McCall, still high on the Lewis victory, had underestimated Bruno.
“I wasn’t overconfident,” Jimmy Adams, McCall’s manager, tells Boxing News today. “I knew how this fight meant such a lot to Frank Bruno. And Bruno was a heck of a puncher. He didn’t have the best chin in the world, and we knew if we got to him he’d be in trouble, but a puncher is always a puncher. Maybe Oliver was a little overconfident, he’d just beaten Lennox Lewis with one punch and he was getting ready to do the same again. But Oliver did train hard and he didn’t underestimate Bruno. We knew that this was Bruno’s last chance to win the title and that he was hyped up and not ready to let his fans down.”
Bruno’s veteran coach George Francis – a truly brilliant trainer and man – knew his heavyweight was in the form of his life. Four years shy of his 70th birthday, Francis – who severed ties with fighters like Henry Maske so he could focus all his attention on Frank – had been working with Bruno since 1986, rising through the ranks to become his head trainer.
“I’ve been a trainer for 40 years and I think Frank has improved immensely,” Francis told us a week before the Frank Warren-promoted showdown. “He [Bruno] watches what he does every night and if he makes a mistake he puts it right the next day. Frank’s a workaholic. I’ve had world champions – John Conteh, John Mugabi and Cornelius Boza-Edwards – but Frank is a man of fire. My hardest job is to get him to ease down.”
Bruno was indeed fired up. McCall had gotten under his skin. He had accused Bruno of being an ‘Uncle Tom’, of selling out and betraying his race. Seven months before the contest, Oliver’s friend Gerald McClellan had been left fighting for his life following a brutal, gruelling loss to Britain’s Nigel Benn, whom Bruno had been cheering on from ringside. McCall, unwisely, promised to exact ‘revenge’ for McClellan’s condition on Bruno.
“First of all, I didn’t like that and I told Oliver that,” Adams admits. “He [McCall] was out of line. I’ve met Nigel Benn a few times and he seems like a great guy who wouldn’t want to hurt anyone on purpose like that. But Oliver and Gerald were good friends. They had trained together before Gerald came over to England to fight Benn. But in London, Oliver had a lot going on around him. He had lots of family members around him and he wasn’t focused like he should have been. The biggest thing though was Oliver was really pumped up in the dressing room. He got himself warmed up and he was pumped up great.”
Behind the scenes, whip Ernie Draper – whose job it was to look after all the fighters on the bill – had a different take on McCall’s condition. “He was standing there like he was going to a funeral, I thought ‘blimey, look at him.’ He really did look like a bag of nerves,” Draper remembers. Another memory of the night – which remains the only time during Ernie’s 40-year career where he allowed himself to get “over-excited” by the action in front of him – was the noise that greeted Bruno. “The roar when he came out, and I’ve been to most of the major fights [in Britain], was the biggest I have ever heard. I haven’t heard anything like it since. It was a bit like the cheers Ricky Hatton got [in Manchester] but even that did not really compare. The roar for Bruno was even louder than that.”
That almost deafening support may have affected McCall. Adams felt that somewhere between leaving the dressing room and entering the ring, his fighter’s mind-set crumbled.
“They took him, by himself, to the top of this ramp and by the time he came down he was cold,” Adams explains. “Oliver was that type of fighter, he’d cry and get himself hyped up and then he’d fight from the bell. But here he got cold, he lost his momentum and he didn’t start to fight until it was too late.”
Bruno, as was customary, started fast. His left jab – always his finest punch – was effective even when served alone, yet when accompanied by his meaty right it acted as a foreboding rangefinder. McCall had never before been off his feet, and was fearlessness to a fault. He greeted each punch that thumped off his face with a madman’s grin. But suddenly, towards the end of the opening round, the “Atomic Bull” – perhaps for the first time in his career – realised he was not invincible. Bruno’s power hand crashed off McCall, hitting him squarely below his eye. This time there was no time to smile. He rocked back, the 30,000 crowd cheered wildly while the Chicago champion salvaged his balance.
Adams had been concerned that something wasn’t right since before the opening bell. Now he was certain. “When we stepped into the ring [I was worried he would lose],” Adams recalls. “I could always read Oliver’s face, and when he came off that ramp, I could see he had lost his momentum. I could see it. Then, in the first round or second round, Bruno hit Oliver with a big right hand and he cut Oliver and hurt him. Oliver was not used to being cut like that and that also threw him off. That was the only time, when I was with him, that I ever saw Oliver really hurt. He came back to the corner and we had to try and get him going.”
It was an electrifying start for the challenger. But we had been here before; against Witherspoon he controlled the early rounds, he famously rocked Tyson in the first session, and was level with Lewis at the point of being run over. Against McCall, he controlled rounds one to three. By the fourth and fifth, things started to change. The zip went out of his jab, the trailing right was off target, and McCall was starting to wake up. The action became untidy and it appeared, as early as halfway, that Bruno was slipping into survival mode. Ian Darke, commentating on the action for Sky Sports, was acutely aware that Frank’s bright start could be eclipsed at any time. And underneath his calm, articulate microphone manner, he felt concern for Bruno. They went back a long way.
“I covered Frank from when I was a young BBC radio commentator,” Darke tells Boxing News. “It was his [professional] debut and I did the interview two days before the fight. At the press conference I asked him if I could do an interview for BBC radio. He said, ‘What do I have to do?’ So I get the recording machine out and I’m getting ready to ask the first question and he grabs the mic off me. ‘I think I’ve just got to say I’m going to knock him out. Knock him out quick!’ I said, ‘Wait a minute Frank, I’ve got to ask you a question first, and then you respond.’ He looked at me, and then said, ‘Hang on! I’ve got to go and phone my mum to tell her it will be on any minute’. ‘It isn’t going to be on any minute [laughing], it’s going to be on tonight at quarter to seven on Radio Two!’ To think he’d come from that, well…”
In the 13 years that had passed, Bruno had become exceptionally savvy under media fire. And his ability to field punches had also improved from the days he lost to Witherspoon, Tyson, and even Lewis. In rounds eight, nine, and 10, the Englishman caught his second wind. Darke started to believe it was going to be Bruno’s night. But only quietly. “When you’re commentating on a fight or any sporting event, you’re not watching it as a fan, who’s had a few beers and is talking about it with his mates,” the veteran broadcaster explains. “There’s a job to be done and you’ve got to be even-handed. All of us who chronicle the careers of these guys, you interview them a lot, and you get to like them, and you share their ambitions almost. I did like Frank a lot, and I knew how much it all meant to him. I will freely admit that I wanted him to win as much as anyone in the crowd.”
With two rounds to go, Bruno appeared to be well ahead. McCall, spurred on by a rabid Jimmy Adams, braced himself for a big finish. “It wasn’t until the later rounds – I had hollered at Oliver that he was losing the title after the 10th round – when the ‘Atomic Bull’ finally came alive,” a rueful Adams recalls. “But Bruno held on.”
By the final session, the last three nail-biting minutes, Bruno was exhausted. The Wembley crowd were frantic. Benn, alongside an equally out of control Warren, was hammering the ring apron, urging his ally to hang tough. Naseem Hamed was readying to leap in between the ropes and celebrate. The round dragged on like a sleepless but exciting Christmas Eve night. And then the bell sounded. Bruno knew he’d won. McCall knew he’d lost. Bruno was declared the winner, unanimously. Party poppers exploded, confetti filled the air. Frank, puffy and bruised from battle, hugged the green WBC belt like it was a gift from God.
“You would never class it as a great fight but it was one of the standout British occasions of the modern era, no doubt about that,” Darke says. “He was a national institution and everyone was willing him to go over the line. It was a fantastic night. With Frank, he was one of the few fighters who transcended the sport. It wasn’t just boxing fans, it was the whole nation willing him on.”
Then came the post-fight interview. The nation that had been thrilled by his triumph was brought to its knees by Bruno’s teary address. He thanked his family, his trainer, his friends, his promoter, and his fans. The emotion – so infectious, so raw – overflowed. It had been bubbling beneath so many years of being the nearly man, and was brought to the surface by the pre-fight skirmishes with McCall.
“I’m not an Uncle Tom, no way, I love my brother,” Bruno said, inhaling sharply as his words skidded over the tears. “I’m not an Uncle Tom. I’m not a sell-out.”
The intense speech took Darke by surprise. For him, so close to the action, it was the most memorable chapter of the evening. “After the fight, Frank was blubbering into my microphone and coming out with all that stuff that I’d never asked him about. It was obviously something that was deep inside his soul. ‘I’m not an Uncle Tom, tell them I’m not an Uncle Tom,’ and he was crying as he said it. It was pretty emotional stuff.”
McCall, too, was feeling the weight of the occasion. Back in his dressing room, and an ex-champion, he accepted he had been beaten. “It was sad, he was saddened,” Adams reflects. “But he wasn’t ready to quit. He had lost previous fights and he said he was ready to just move on and get the next one [fight]. He really wasn’t all that fazed by it. He knew he’d lost fair and square. There was no issue with the judges at all. In fact, when we were in London they all treated us really nice. Oliver liked London, me too. Bruno was just the better man that night. I’ve been in boxing since ‘82 and I’ve never bet on a fight. But if I was to bet, I’d have bet on McCall to beat Bruno.”
All that mattered in the end was one man. Bruno lost the title in his first defence – a chaotic loss to Tyson in a rematch – but that doesn’t matter now, not really. Very few can claim to have done what Bruno did that night in 1995. His country, his band of brothers, will forever be proud of the man who refused to give in. The man who always knew he would be king.