Thursday, 21 June 2012

1987: Frank Bruno v Joe Bugner

Not all British heavyweight clashes are as naff, classless and tacky as Haye-Chisora. In relatively recent years, I can recall a couple of 'Battle of Britain' bouts that I was genuinely excited about: Lewis v Mason, and Lewis v Bruno. But before these fights, there was another in 1987 that was just as eagerly anticipated, between 25-year-old Frank Bruno and the much travelled 37-year-old Joe Bugner. It was a fight that wasn't supposed to happen, a fight that saw one promoter take his first steps into the boxing world, and one which would provide Bruno with the chance to silence his critics, temporarily at least.

Bruno of course was the darling of British boxing in the eighties, although I probably wouldn't use that word if I ever met him. Through his relationship with commentator Harry Carpenter, and his initial exploits in the ring, Bruno had enchanted the nation, bringing hope to boxing fans that finally we had found a great British heavyweight prospect, and also amusing us with his humour and nature outside the ring too. After 21 straight wins between 1982-1984, Bruno came unstuck in the final round against James 'Bonecrusher' Smith, but had recovered sufficiently to gain a crack at the WBA title against America's Tim Witherspoon in 1986. Despite leading in the fight, Bruno's lack of stamina came back to haunt him, and Witherspoon finished the fight in round 11, meaning Bruno had to start again on the path to another tilt at the heavyweight crown.

Bugner was everything that Bruno was not, especially in the popularity stakes. The Hungarian-born fighter had hardly endeared himself to the hearts of the British public, by controversially defeating Henry Cooper in what turned out to be Cooper's last ever bout in 1971. Defeating our 'Enry on a hotly disputed points decision was tantamount to mooning at the Queen during the recent jubilee celebrations. "I never wanted to be the man who ended Henry’s career. I had no idea that was to be his last fight" Bugner commented in 2008. "What happened to me after that fight was worse than being crucified. Even the Kray twins got a better press. I was blamed for something I had no control over and one moronic Labour MP even called for me to be stripped of my title, stripped of my assets and sent back to wherever I came from. I was a 21-year-old kid and my mind was totally f****d after that. I had another 20 fights in England after beating Henry and the reaction from the crowd was bloody painful every time. In the end, I was chased out of my own country." In subsequent years, Bugner would establish himself as a decent heavyweight, losing to Ali in a shot at the world title in 1975. But the British public didn't forgive or forget easily, and Bugner's defeat of Cooper still rankled, although it seems harsh to blame a man who, after all, didn't decide who the fight should be awarded to. However, in recent years, Bugner had made yet another comeback, beating Jame Tillis, David Bey and Greg Page within a year, and he was starting to move back up the world rankings.

The fight only materialised after a host of problems were overcome: Trevor Berbick was originally supposed to fight Bruno at Wembley on September 29, but he had to pull out 11 days before this date due to a back injury. This left Bruno twiddling his thumbs, and in desperate need for a fight, due to his desire to progress through the heavyweight division to the inevitable Tyson clash. Enter Barry Hearn.

Hearn had so far made his name in snooker as head of the Matchroom Sport company, and this was to be his first foray into boxing promotion. On September 22, Ron Wills reported in the Daily Mirror that "It could be ON. The heavyweight punch-up every fight fan in Britain wants to see - the showdown between Frank Bruno and Joe Bugner". Although Bugner admitted that he had never heard of Hearn when the promoter called him, the obvious attraction was there for both men. Bruno had been called out by Bugner on numerous occasions, so this would be his chance to put the record straight, to prove that he wasn't running scared of the more experienced fighter. For Bugner it would be a chance to put one over the British public, especially as he was now basing himself in Australia. And of course, both men would make a bob or two in the process.

By September 28 the fight had been scheduled for Tottenham's White Hart Lane ground for October 24. A gate of 40,000+ was predicted for a fight that would definitely capture the public's imagination (commentator Reg Gutteridge on the night pointedly stated that "the tabloid press convinced them that they really wanted it"), and figures of £3 million were soon being quoted for the ticket sales, radio and TV coverage, along with sponsorship deals. For their troubles, Bruno would be taking home £450,000, with Bugner pocketing £250,000, Bruno's share of the purse inflated by his option to take 35% of the gate receipts. Bugner chose not to gamble on this, and the press saw this as an early triumph for the younger man.

Hearn promised that the fight would not be shown live, mainly in an attempt to boost ticket sales, but two days before the main event, Ron Wills reported in the Mirror that "BRITAIN'S fight fans have been pulled on to a monster 'sucker punch' by boxing's newest promoter, Barry Hearn. He pledged that the eagerly-awaited £3 million heavyweight punch-up between Frank Bruno and Joe Bugner at White Hart Lane on Saturday would NOT be screened live by TV. But now, I understand, ITV will show the clash of the boxing juggernauts at 10.30 pm. Strictly speaking, Hearn has lived up to his pledge. Just. By precisely seven minutes if the twelve round scrap, scheduled to start at 9.35, goes the distance." Hearn was adamant that he had done nothing wrong: "I don't think the public has been conned. I believe real fight fans will want to be there as it actually happens. If the TV screening has been delayed by an hour it's not live, and I think sports fans understand and expect it. They know that is sport in 1987." The final sentence is telling: even in 1987 sport and TV were struggling to establish ground rules in their relationship, and once another party got involved in the affair (Sky), things were going to get a whole lot more strained.

Predictably the trash talk began in earnest once the fight had been announced. Bugner predicted he'd knock Bruno out in the first round and stating "...he's going to get a real bashing from me — because he's stepped out of his class. Frank is a 'C' class fighter who may just have been promoted to the 'B' class. I'm an 'A-plus' fighter...and only the world champion has two pluses after his name." Big words indeed from the big man - Bugner would weigh in at 256 lbs to Bruno's 230, the heaviest Bugner had ever been for a fight - but soon the talking had to stop and it was time for the two men to meet in the ring.

486 lbs of fighting machines....

Bruno was understandably the big odds-on favourite, quoted as 1/3, with Bugner the outsider at 5/2. As both men marched to the ring, it was apparent just how cold the night was (approximately 40ยบ F), although the atmosphere was buzzing, as the vast majority of the crowd hoped that Bugner would get his comeuppance. The first round started at a frantic pace, with Bugner charging towards Bruno, mainly using his head, in an attempt to intimidate the favourite (in the words of co-commentator Jim Watt). Soon enough things calmed down, and Bruno started finding his range, all of his punches being cheered wildly, even if some were missing the target. At the sounding of the bell, both men carried on throwing punches, and it appeared as if the apparent needle between the pair was for once not simply media manufactured.

Watt continued to complain about Bugner's use of the head in round two, although Bruno remained the picture of concentration. Bruno's jab was working well, with Watt already waxing lyrical: "This is the best I've seen of Frank Bruno." Round three started with chants of "you fat b**tard" filling the north London air, as the crowd showed their contempt towards Bugner, and before long his age and excess physique was starting to look like an issue. Bugner's jabs were all falling short, as Bruno's reach advantage started to tell, and Bugner was holding on towards the end of the round as Bruno started to impose himself.

You could tell that both fighters had certainly warmed up during round four, Gutteridge highlighting the fact that they looked like "steaming bulls". Bruno was making the older man work, constantly probing with his left jab, forcing Bugner to move around the ring. Again Watt praised Bruno, informing all that "This is the most professional I've seen Frank Bruno", and it was hard to disagree with this, as Bruno finished the round well. ITV viewers were then treated to the sight of Bruce Willis grinning at the cameras. The Moonlighting star had, according to Gutteridge, backed Bugner, but must have known that his tip was up against it.

The fifth and sixth rounds went much the same way: Bruno constantly scoring with his jab, Bugner looking tired and now bleeding from the nose. The sixth round was in fact Bugner's 500th in professional boxing, and as he began to slow down even more in his 501st, you could tell that barring a Smith/Witherspoon moment from Bruno, Bugner would not be winning this fight. However, Bugner had only been stopped twice in his career - in his very first pro fight and 15 years later against Earnie Shavers - and although he was starting to look cumbersome, whether Bruno could take him out within the allotted 12 rounds was another matter.

The end came amid confusion at the conclusion of the eighth round. Bruno landed with a right over the top, rocking Bugner, and although the older man took a barrage of blows from Bruno, he refused to go down. Indeed, Bugner only received a standing count once Bruno had pushed him to the ground. At the end of the count, Bruno surged forward, unleashing punches on the ailing Bugner, and a split second after the bell had sounded the towel came in. However, it transpired that it was actually referee John Coyle that had stopped the fight, a controversial decision, as although Bugner was taking a lot of punishment, he did look to many as he could have carried on.

Jim Watt was consistently gushing in his praise of Bruno, indicating that Bruno had finally come of age and that Britain finally had a heavyweight that they could be proud of. He did add a note of caution, pointing out that despite his kind words he wasn't saying that Bruno was going to beat Tyson, but it is obvious listening to the commentary of the fight on that night, that Watt was mightily impressed with Bruno's work. Less impressed was ITV's ringside man Jim Rosenthal, who seemed to tire of Bruno's repeated references to Harry Carpenter ("Where's Harry?" and "You know what I mean Harry?" were both wheeled out), though amongst this jesting Bruno admitted that he had felt the weight of expectations on his shoulders and also hoped that he had provided England with a Christmas present. Either way, Bruno had passed the test, and impressed Tyson's co-manager Jim Jacobs enough for him to state: "Frank certainly deserves a chance against Tyson."

Bugner, as is the wont of every defeated boxer after a bout, started bigging up the victor, enthusing over Bruno's chances of beating Tyson: "Bruno's punch could upset Tyson. He certainly punched harder than I thought he could. I hope he smashes Tyson's face in...although Larry Holmes could beat him to it." Bugner would be proved correct on the first point (Harry Carpenter's "He's hurt Tyson" moment) but as we all know, neither Holmes or big Frank could cope with Tyson's furious power. A headline writer, presumably opting to give sports psychology a go, was less optimistic in the Daily Express: "Bruno now doomed to date with destruction", James Lawton writing in the associated article "But the idea of stepping in with Tyson still curdles the blood. It is still a fight that reeks of the abattoir." Quite. Bruno was of course destined for his date with destruction in February, 1989, although as we all know, he did perhaps reveal the first cracks in the armour of the mighty Mike Tyson, cracks that had widened to the size of the Grand Canyon by the time James 'Buster' Douglas arrived on the scene in Tokyo.

Bruno would of course finally realise his dream in 1995. Three years later Bugner became the WBF Heavyweight champion at the age of 48, which is a little staggering to comprehend. His last fight was as a 49-year-old, and although he is now 62 I think we can probably rule out yet another comeback. Which is probably just as well, seeing as even in 1987 Bugner's peak was well and truly in the past, thus allowing Frank Bruno to gain yet more adoration from the British sporting public.


  1. Enjoy this blog a lot...trying to explain to the kids that sport back in the day mattered much more; less money, les TV, less was more...

    1. Thanks, I'm glad you enjoy the blog. I'm always boring my kids too about sport in 'the good old days'. Athletes may be a lot more professional today, and TV coverage a lot slicker, but part of me misses sport when it seemed a lot less commercialised (if that makes sense?!).

  2. It's always nice to relieve those moments. Thanks for sharing this post.

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  3. Any chance of covering the Dave 'Boy' McAuley/Fidel Bassa fights? Some of the best boxing I have ever seen.

    1. I do have a vague recollection of the McAuley/Bassa fights in the 80s, so I will definitely add these to my list of future blogs. Researching for my posts is the fun part of this hobby of mine, so I'll have great fun watching the YouTube clips of these fights, and seeing if they were as good as I remember.

  4. Great piece of history, re-affirms why I'm getting my online sports management masters