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When Frank Bruno was cleared to fight and Michael Watson fought for his life

Frank Bruno
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On the Friday Frank Bruno was cleared to fight and on Saturday night Michael Watson came close to death. Steve Bunce on a weekend that no one could forget

ON Friday night Frank Bruno was cleared to fight and on Saturday night Michael Watson came close to death.

It was in September of 1991 and it was not a weekend that anybody will ever forget. On the Sunday, incidentally, 1,200 fans crammed the Grosvenor House in Park Lane for a Muhammad Ali night; he never showed. It was a truly surreal end to three days and nights of carnage.

Bruno had announced his intention of fighting again at the start of September; a hearing was swiftly convened for the British Boxing Board of Control’s office for Friday September 20. The British business needed the big lad back.

Bruno had a torn retina from his previous fight, a loss to Mike Tyson in early 1989. It had been fixed with surgery and there was genuine hope surrounding his return to the ring. The Board’s offices, in Pimlico at the time, were packed that night, we stood in hallways and on the pavement outside and waited for the news.

He was cleared to return, told he needed to have regular checks and we all left in triumph for a hastily convened press conference. It was set to take place at the Cumberland hotel at Marble Arch and people jumped in whatever motor was available for the journey. Mickey Duff beat us all there and he was in an aggressive mood. Duff was very hard on the press at times, especially the younger ones. Actually, he was dismissive of most people in the game and that was because he knew his business. He also loved it.

“This will be the best Bruno we have ever seen,” said Duff, and he was probably right.

There was, it has to be said, very little talk about the remarkable eye surgery, but a lot of talk about a fight with Lennox Lewis. “Who has Lewis fought? Why does he deserve a fight with Bruno?” added Duff, who was never a fan of the fighter and hated the men behind Lennox. Duff had heavily backed his man, Gary Mason, against Lewis in March of that year and Lewis had won in seven rounds. It was one of the few fights Duff ever admitted that he got wrong, but he still never fancied Lewis.

And then on the Monday, after Bruno was cleared to fight, at the Holiday Inn on Edgeware Road, members of the Lewis team made an offer of 2 million quid for a fight with Bruno. It was seriously bad timing: Watson, at that point, was hovering between death and survival. And it looked like death. Watson was still on the front and back pages and there was a 24-hour siege outside St. Barts hospital. It was a siege, not a vigil.

Three weeks after Bruno was given back his licence to fight, an opponent was named. It would be the BeNeLux champion, a bar owner from Tilburg in Holland and a man who spoke six languages. The Flying Dutchman, John Emmen, was named. Bruno had an opponent and the tickets for the return, the comeback, the fight at the Royal Albert Hall started to sell. And they did sell.

“He’s a character and a personality on the Continent,” declared John Morris, the secretary of the Board, when asked about Emmen’s credentials “If Frank needs a test at this stage, he’s the right one.”

Emmen, at that point, had won 16 of his 18 fights; a few months before the Bruno fight, he had stopped Franco Wanyama to win the BeNeLux heavyweight title. Wanyama would die a lonely and neglected death in Rugby in 2019; the sad and abused fighter travelled from Uganda to the Seoul Olympics, to Belgium, to Las Vegas and finished his journey in the Midlands. Franco’s story is not for the squeamish.

Frank Bruno

When Bruno and Emmen walked to the ring, the old hall was rocking that night with expectation and love. “This is where the comeback begins,” said a breathless Harry Carpenter. It was theatre, mate.

I once wrote: “It was not a funny fight.” And I was right.

Bruno sent the Dutchman tumbling with a full-blooded clout on the ear. He got up and he was bundled over again. The crowd wanted blood; it was bedlam in there that night.

As Emmen rested on a knee, he was hit with a big left hook, a great shot. Bang, It was totally illegal and savage. Emmen could have fallen flat on his back, the referee, Mickey Vann, could have disqualified Bruno and then there would have been a riot. And a rematch.

However, Big John had big guts. He got up, having clearly injured his knee – he could barely stand – and stood to fight some more. Vann, who would have thrown Bruno out, make no mistake, gave Emmen some time and gave Bruno a severe talking to. Vann also dropped to a knee and gave Emmen’s injured knee a magic rub. It was during that bizarre interlude that somebody in Bruno’s corner, probably George Francis, utters the deathless: “Oi, fucking get on with it.” Sound really travels at the Royal Albert Hall.

Bruno did “get on with it” and landed with a sickening left hook and Emmen was down and out. It was the finish everybody in the paid-for seats wanted and everybody at ringside feared. Still, the Bruno Show was back on the road. In the ring at the end, Emmen’s mother and wife both got Bruno’s autograph on the fight programme.

In the dressing room after the first-round knockout, Bruno explained what had happened with the wayward shot: “I was so anxious,” he said. “He was ducking and diving and I just wanted to get him out of there. I have apologised to him for the accident.” Emmen accepted defeat like a star, praised Bruno’s power and thanked the fans.

After the fight, Bruno went off to Bristol for the pantomime season. Honest, that’s true.

Lewis would win a world heavyweight title by the end of 1993.

Watson was making his miracle recovery by the time Bruno was gadding about on the stage that Christmas.

And, Big John Emmen, the character from the Continent? He’s still ducking and diving and a real hero in my eyes for not diving on the floor after that mighty left landed.

Incidentally, there will be more on the Watson fight, which took place the night after Bruno’s good news from the Board, in a few weeks. Yes, it’s the rematch with Chris Eubank. Like I said, it was an unforgettable weekend.

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