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Frank Bruno: Boxing champion to pantomime hero

Ben Blackmore March 25, 2010
Frank Bruno became something of a national treasure © Getty Images
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"Arise, Sir Bruno" the Sun proclaimed after Frank Bruno finally got his hands on the WBC heavyweight championship.

After 44 fights, 15 years inside the ring and four knockouts (two of which were brutally painful to watch - let alone receive), England's most lovable sports personality had at long last got his hands on boxing gold. Fighting in front of a packed Wembley Stadium, back when the twin towers still stood tall in 1995, Bruno clung on for dear life during a frightful final-round ambush to defeat Oliver McCall via a unanimous points decision.

Having twice been knocked out in the latter rounds of past title attempts after leading on the judges' scorecards, once against Tim Witherspoon and then at the hands of Lennox Lewis, Bruno finally found the resolve to hold on and defeat McCall.

"It was like a Michael Jackson concert, Pavarotti, Vera Lynn and VE Day, all rolled into one," Bruno said when recalling the atmosphere of the occasion on that balmy September night.

McCall was an emotional mystery, a mess, as he walked to the ring with tears streaming from his face - just as he had done a year earlier when he shocked Lewis to claim the title. In fact, had he not floored Lewis, McCall would have been something of a national laughing stock.

It was certainly no laughing matter for a 33-year-old Bruno though who, having dominated the entire contest for 10 rounds, typically ran out of steam in what was his final chance to reach heavyweight boxing's summit. Ducking and diving as if trapped in a low-ceilinged bat cave, only the ropes were keeping Bruno up as the bell ultimately came to his rescue. At long last, he was champion.

I certainly knew about it when he started hitting me. The hurt - not only physically, but psychologically - of losing that fight is difficult to make people understand."

As a proud union jack-wearing patriot and assured Thatcherite, Bruno was a rarely found British sportsman who warmed the hearts of the nation. Even the late Harry Carpenter, legendary boxing commentator, famously tossed away his impartial colours to shout "Get in there Frank" back in 1989 when Bruno rocked the invincible Mike Tyson, before suffering a savage fifth-round stoppage in his second shot at the title.

"When I actually caught Mike Tyson," Bruno said of his first-round left hook, "and he started rocking, I thought for a minute that possibly we had him. But he came back much stronger and I certainly knew about it when he started hitting me. The hurt - not only physically, but psychologically - of losing that fight is difficult to make people understand."

Perhaps fittingly, it was Tyson who ended Bruno's career in the Briton's first mandatory title defence, once again terrorising Bruno on his way to a third-round stoppage. Bruno was later told that if he boxed again he would be risking a detached retina and the sight of one eye. Retirement beckoned.

Unfortunately Bruno had not been prepared for the life-changing moment of when he eventually hung up his gloves, and when his support system capitulated around him the 6ft 3in friendly giant developed bipolar disorder. Bruno's wife Laura left him, his trainer and close friend George Francis died, and Bruno was taken to Goodmayes Hospital under the provisions of the Mental Health Act.

"Bonkers Bruno Locked Up" was the headline in an early edition of the Sun newspaper, providing contrasting symmetry with Bruno's previous career high. The headline prompted a storm of protest, demonstrating the affection the public had for Bruno, and led to a more sympathetic "Sad Bruno in Mental Health Home" lead in later editions.

Fortunately, since that day in September 2003, Bruno has returned to his place as one of England's proudest sons, entertaining the nation on quiz shows, in pantomimes and during public appearances.

Bruno's pantomime debut came alongside Michael Barrymore in Aladdin at the Dominion theatre in London, while a recent appearance on the Weakest Link quiz show in August 2009 saw him evade presenter Anne Robinson's evil stare to earn £12,800 for charity.

And charity is what now dominates Bruno's life. Having publicly offered to help Paul Gascoigne when the former footballer was sectioned in February 2008, the majority of Bruno's work is now done away from the glare of the cameras. Using his own experiences as personal testaments to aid others, he regularly speaks at mental health conferences, providing huge support to an organisation called Time to Change, who deal with the stigma that is attached to mental health issues.

Bruno also continues to make guest public appearances, recently doubling up with fellow boxer Ricky Hatton, where he makes sure his famous "Know what I mean 'arry" catchphrase lives on.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

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Ben Blackmore is deputy editor of ESPN.co.uk