McCall vs Bruno: The Night Big Frank Finally Did It
When Frank Bruno was rescued by Mickey Vann on that cold wet autumn night in 1993 the career of Frank Bruno looked dead in the water. The calls for retirement were loud, even louder than they had been on previous such nights. A new beginning looked highly unlikely, this had to be the end of the Bruno story.
We had seen a familiar pattern at the start and an even more familiar feeling at the end. Bruno had started well, Lennox Lewis anything but. But Lewis found the punches he needed that prompted Vann to wave the fight off.
Bruno had been here before, three times he had chances to lift the world heavyweight title. In every opportunity he had moments, but he couldn’t get over the line. The British heavyweight hopeful looked to have seen any lingering hopes disappear in Cardiff. But Bruno would give it one last final go.
Mickey Duff the paymaster behind much of Bruno’s career left the fold soon after the latest disappointment. Duff only promoted Bruno once more after the latest disappointment, an awful one-sided fight with Jesse Ferguson that brought back memories of that farcical much-maligned fight with Chuck Gardner.
Duff in his autobiography said Bruno ended their relationship by letter when their contracted working relationship was weeks away from ending. Duff expected more, and he never forgave Bruno. Morally, Duff expected better, but Bruno thought it was time to go elsewhere. As Duff would say himself, ‘If you want loyalty buy a dog.’ The bitter rival of Duff, Frank Warren saw an opportunity, he believed there was still life in the boxing career of Bruno. He made his move to sign Bruno.
In 1994 a former sparring partner of Bruno, Oliver McCall landed a punch that relieved Lewis of his WBC heavyweight title. McCall then defended his title against an ancient and far less mobile Larry Holmes and nearly lost. Holmes was 45, McCall looked as though he had the heavyweight championship on loan, especially with Mike Tyson on the comeback trail after his recent release from prison following his rape conviction.
Warren, then in partnership with Don King, lobbied for Bruno to get his fourth and surely his final chance at heavyweight glory. Bruno had won three times since that heart-breaking loss to Lewis. Bruno went on a UK tour, beating opposition that wouldn’t have looked out of place early in his career. Ferguson was just the start.
In the end Warren got his way with King, Bruno at 33, would indeed get one last shot at gold. The deal was done at the Grosvenor House Hotel in London in a ‘take it or leave it’ kind of deal. The price for beating McCall would be renewing acquaintances with Tyson.
McCall had helped Bruno prepare for his first fight with Tyson in 1989, whatever friendship they had, had long since gone. In the lead up to the fight McCall had referenced a tragic night in a British ring and said he was looking for vengeance after the Nigel Benn-Gerald McClellan fight and said he would turn Bruno into a vegetable. Bruno quite rightfully took the comment personally and promised to make him pay for what he said. Words said in the name of publicity are often gutter level, McCall sunk even lower than that.
Despite the perceived lucky punch against Lewis and the struggles with Holmes, McCall still posed significant problems for Bruno. ‘Big Frank’ had a reputation for fading late in fights, and with McCall having one of the best chins in the heavyweight division, the smart money was on the champion retaining his title by overcoming any early difficulties to stop his challenger in the second half of the fight. The script wasn’t that hard to write or imagine. We had seen it before.
Bruno lost to Tim Witherspoon in his first attempt at the world heavyweight title at Wembley Stadium in 1986, and he would return to that same gladiatorial arena in 1995 for his final try. Over 20,000 fans would witness Bruno try one last final time.
The reception Bruno got was astonishing considering the previous nights of failure, the love affair was still strong for that one final push. McCall kept him waiting in the ring for 15 minutes. The oldest trick in the book rolled out yet again. This time it had little or no effect on Bruno. McCall came with a team of ready-made cheerleaders, the payroll was large, how many stayed post-fight isn’t too hard to imagine.
Edwin Starr belted out the American National Anthem, predictably and regrettably it was booed heavily. A tiresome ritual that never seems to end.
Take away all the emotion of the evening it wasn’t a great fight. In truth, it wasn’t even a very good one. But it was a night of rebuilding and fulfilling shattered dreams, a night of high drama, waiting for the Bruno gas tank to empty, the headlines probably already partially written. But on this September evening, Bruno didn’t break.
Bruno got the early lead as predicted, McCall slept and didn’t wake until it was too late. The big booming Bruno jab dominating and frustrating his opponent. A few switches to southpaw to try and rest the aching and tiring left hand gave McCall hope. The signs that Bruno was started to fade were now plainly visible. The crowd held their breath, the journalists started to finish their stories.
But the long career of Bruno had by that stage taught him a few new tricks of survival. As his heavily muscled body started to fatigue, Bruno grabbed when he needed to. It wasn’t pretty or always legal, but it worked. It was very much needed.
McCall came to life desperately trying to salvage his title. The final three minutes were pure theatre, agonisingly so. Bruno looked as though he would unravel with the finish line in sight. McCall threw everything at Bruno, but it was in vain. The challenger survived, another minute longer the story might have been different. Finally, Bruno had got the moment he had waited his whole career for. The decision was a formality. At the fourth attempt, Bruno had finally done it. The new champion had finally shaken off the brave loser label, to finally be crowned the heavyweight champion of the world.
“If I never walk again, get run over or get shot, it’s down in history that I’m heavyweight champion,” said an emotional Bruno post-fight after his dream had finally been realised.
But it would only last six months. Bruno had taken a punch on his right eyeball at the end of the opening round of his fight with McCall. The injury was bad, severe retinal damage, it didn’t heal and he winged his way past the pre-fight medical for the return with Tyson. Bruno risked too much for one last dance. What he risked seemed to hit him on that infamous ring walk.
Tyson blasted his way to a new supposed era of dominance and once and for all ended the fighting career of Britain’s favourite heavyweight.
Retirement wasn’t kind to Bruno, it brought divorce and well documented mental health problems. But Bruno, showing the resolve he showed throughout his boxing life, is fighting back. The fight will be long, never-ending even, but Bruno is unlikely to be found wanting.