Hubbard’s Cupboard: Broo-no, Broo-no! Why almost two decades on Big Frank is still our favourite fighter
By Alan Hubbard
“C’mon my son”… “Mind his ‘ead, ref.” These are among the most familiar cries from boxing audiences. But there is another which resonates even more loudly in any arena when the sport’s favourite fight figure is spotted at ringside. “Broo-no, Broo-no!”
It is 19 years since Frank Bruno last fought but no British boxer – with the possible exception of Sir Henry Cooper – has remained as iconic a personality in the public consciousness and been afforded as much love, even though he was never the British champion.
And ironically both he and Cooper were heavyweights whose popularity was enhanced rather than diminished by their losses than their victories.
I was reminded of this when the debate arose following up-himself Floyd Mayweather jnr’s nonsensical notion that he is the greatest boxer of all time, placing himself above Muhammad Ali, Joe Louis and the two Sugar Rays.
It occurred to me that the arguments would be loud and long about who is the greatest British boxer of all time. Lennox Lewis, Ted Kid Lewis, Benny Lynch, Jimmy Wilde, Joe Calzaghe, Ken Buchanan, John Conteh? We’d all need time to think about that.
But there is no doubt in my mind who was, and is still, the most popular.
Scores of fighters have attracted respect and admiration but few will have anything approaching the lingering genuine affection bestowed on Bruno.
Ricky Hatton for example, attracted raucous support, but mainly from his home-town of Manchester. Bruno’s was nationwide.
At the showing of a new documentary film on Ali last year there were dozens of celebrated fight figures present but Bruno, as always was centre of attention.
Fans swarmed around him, and he greeted them all with his customary polite aplomb.”Nice one, nice one” he’d nod as they queued to shake his hand.
And who was it who raised the loudest cheer when the TV cameras panned the celebrity faces in the 80,000 crowd at the Froch-Groves fight at Wembley? Why Bruno of course. A crescendo of “Broo-no, Broo-no” quickly echoed around that vast arena.
What’s not to like about him? Especially as Bruno has never been in the badmouthing business.
His banter with the late BBC boxing commentator Harry Carpenter became a double act almost as entertaining as Morecambe and Wise. “Know what I mean, ‘Arry” endures as a catchphrase to this day.
That was the upside of his life. He was boxing’s cuddly bruiser but when the lights went out on his career and he ended up being sectioned (held in a psychiatric hospital) for 28 days, inevitably the popular belief was that Bruno had lost his marbles and that boxing was the main contributory factor.
He had been escorted to hospital by police after suffering a severe bout of depression.
“Bonkers Bruno,” screamed The Sun’s scurrilous front page splash in 2003, seven years after his retirement, a headline for which quite rightly they were vilified and forced to apologise. Later he revealed that he had twice been sectioned in 18 months and diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
What Bruno needed was a lifeline. And it may be that after a month in a mental hospital (“You thought Linford Christie was fast. There was no way he could touch me the day I was let out,” Bruno said), he found it in the beginnings of his restoration as an in-demand personality. They started inviting him to functions, to boxing dinner evenings where he was in the company of friends.
Barry McGuigan, the former world featherweight champion told me: “It must have been especially hard for Frank, sitting at home looking at a sports celebrity panel shows with Audley Harrison or Amir Khan occupying a seat that once would have been his.
“His breakdown was the culmination of a number of things: his divorce, the suicide of his trainer, George Francis, which robbed him of a great source of counsel, being out of the public eye. Finally the poor guy just cracked. He’s a lovely big bloke and he’s obviously had a problem with self-esteem all his life.”
But now, after the fights, the divorce, the spells on a psychiatric ward, Bruno seems at peace with himself, still occasionally sipping the celebrity juice but happy to keep a lower profile. If the fans will let him.
For whenever he walks down the street those cries of “Broo-no,Broo-no” break out from across the road.
In his 46-bout career Bruno may have shipped a few punches, notably against Mike Tyson in their two painfully brief encounters, but nothing like those inflicted on many fellow tradesmen in the hardest game of all.
For all his problems, Bruno does not show the slightest sign of punch-drunkenness. Thankfully Big Frank still has his marbles, and most of his millions.
One of the most illuminating hours I spent with him was backstage at the Mayflower Theatre in Southampton a few years back where Bruno was treading the boards in in panto, his unmistakable basso profondo voice exhorting the kids to “Izzy, whizzy, let’s get busy.”
Then he was doing his seasonal as the Ringmaster, starring alongside glove puppet Sooty and a Principal Boy from the Bill in Goldilocks and the Three Bears.
It was his seventh panto. He’d been a matinee Idle Jack and a rather robotic Robin Hood, but this one, he said, was his favourite, breaking all box-office records when it ran originally in Birmingham.
Waiting to don his crimson Ringmaster’s cape and topper, he perched cautiously on his dressing-room sofa, responding ponderously, as ever, to questions with platitudinous politeness, punctuated by his trademark guffaw.
We talked about his chequered ring career and how after bruising losses to Mike Tyson, Lennox Lewis, Tim Witherspoon and the aptly-named James ‘Bonecrusher’ Smith he finally became world champion by outpointing Oliver McCall over twelve rounds at Wembley.
Bruno did not last long as champion – the contract he signed to get McCall meant he had to face Tyson again in his first defence. He had been stopped in their first fight five years earlier after becoming the first to dent Iron Mike, with a left hook. ”Get in there Frank!,” Carpenter famously bellowed. Alas, he didn’t.
The title fight with Tyson turned out to be his last. Due to a severe eye injury Bruno was advised not to fight again to avoid running the risk of causing any more damage to it, which could result in permanent blindness.
In the muted presence of his personal Barmy Army of 5,000 Brits, Bruno the putative panto star had boxed as if he wouldn’t say boo to a Mother Goose.
Did he have any regrets about that? “You can’t live your life wondering whether you should have done this or wishing you’d done that,” he replied.” It’s like saying if I’d have known the right Lottery numbers I’d have won the jackpot. You can only do your best all the time and I did. I’d like to have put up a better performance, but, though it’s not an excuse, I couldn’t see properly after I was cut. No use crying about it now.”
Bruno and Tyson have met only briefly since then, for a much-publicised public tete-a-tete in a London hotel. Unlike some old adversaries, they haven’t kept in touch.
Bruno says there are no hard feelings, even though Tyson once labelled him a “coconut” (meaning he was white on the inside), but people who have been in state penitentiaries shouldn’t throw stones.
It was after his second loss to Mike Tyson in 1996 that Bruno slowly derailed in retirement. He was already a prisoner of his own “Broo-no” phenomenon. It made him. And in a way it broke him.
He had enjoyed the fruits of his buffoonery but when the celebrity work started to dry up he found his days empty. “Boxing had been my life,” he once said. “It had given me purpose, discipline, status. I’d been Frank Bruno, boxer. Now I was Frank Bruno, what? I no longer had boxing or my family. I was lonely, it was confusing and scary.”
For those closely acquainted with him it was clear that even being Big Frank Bruno was just another panto role which he played robotically. He never seemed to relax, nervously cracking his knuckles along with his jokes.
Publicly he played the fool, but at heart he was never really cut out to be a court jester. One suspects he has been fighting demons as his chief opponent all his life, living on that forced “Heh, heh, heh” since he first pulled on a pair of boxing gloves. He has never really been able to be himself, whoever that might be, but even now, despite his traumas, he remains, at 54, a national treasure.
Read Alan Hubbard’s Punchlines tomorrow