Never before in this century had two British subjects fought for a heavyweight title, and now we know why. Seven rounds of two large Britons fighting for anything in the wee hours of a cold and damp Welsh morning was more than enough. Just before 1:30 a.m. last Saturday, in a lovely 109-year-old rugby stadium called Cardiff Arms Park, Lennox Lewis defended his WBC heavyweight title with a seventh-round knockout of Frank Bruno, another in a long line of lumbering British giants with Wedgwood chins. Somewhere Tommy Farr, the Welsh heavyweight who in 1937 proved himself a glorious exception by giving Joe Louis all he could handle for 15 hard rounds, was trying not to weep.
Settled in among the 25,000 fans in Cardiff was Tommy Virgets, the trainer of Tommy Morrison, the muscular American heavyweight who will get the next shot at Lewis, on March 5 in Las Vegas. Virgets found it hard to believe that Lewis, undefeated in 24 fights, could be so limited in skill. "I came over here wondering if Tommy was ready for Lewis," said Virgets. "Now I wonder if Lewis is ready for Morrison. Tommy loves a war, and Lewis obviously doesn't. He retreats under the slightest pressure. If this doesn't motivate Tommy to keep away from the booze and women for the next six months, nothing will."
As it is, Lewis received his share of the heavyweight crown as a gift after WBA and IBF titleholder Riddick Bowe tossed the WBC belt into a trash can back in December. And while Lewis won his first defense, a boring 12-round affair with Tony Tucker in May, he displayed few championship qualities. Against Bruno he displayed fewer—and until he found that tender chin with a left hook early in the seventh round, he displayed even fewer.
"He pushes his jab," said Virgets. "He doesn't throw combinations. He doesn't attack. When he did get aggressive, Bruno came right back at him, and Lewis immediately backed off. He just doesn't want to get hit."
On Friday, Lord Brooks, a senior steward of the British Boxing Board of Control, said, "I have nothing against Bruno, but for the credibility of British boxing I have to hope that Lewis hits him on the chin in the first round."
A magnificently built man with no hint of malice outside of the ring, a quality that has made him greatly adored by the British public, Bruno had won 36 of his 39 fights, but that was misleading. Most of the men he had hammered to the floor couldn't have survived two minutes in a Philadelphia gym. Anytime he faced an American, Bruno's carefully woven reputation came unraveled. In 1984 Bonecrusher Smith lost most of nine rounds to Bruno. He then knocked the Briton out in the 10th. It took Tim Witherspoon 11 rounds to find that porcelain chin when he fought Bruno for the WBA title in 1986. And in '89 Mike Tyson needed only five rounds to end Bruno's challenge for the undisputed crown.
As fond of Bruno as they may be, the British have no illusions about his ability. At a luncheon the day before the fight, a pair of boxing gloves signed by Lewis and Bruno was auctioned off for the benefit of young Welsh athletes. The auctioneer, refusing to give up when the bidding stalled at $2,400, offered to erase Bruno's name. "Stop that," said Lord Brooks, trying not to laugh.
Bruno's reputation as a fighter took another dip when he retired briefly four years ago to concentrate on a stage career in pantomime. In the tradition of pantomime, men play the women's roles and women play the male parts. One of Bruno's more vivid roles was Juliet. You can well understand why Romeo, after seeing the 6'3" 238-pounder in a pink dress, killed himself.
With the Lewis and Bowe camps edging toward agreement on a unification fight late next year, Lewis was under pressure to dispatch Bruno, a 4-1 underdog, quickly and violently. Lewis's credentials as a champion were shaky at best in Britain, and nearly nonexistent in the rest of the world. Born in London 28 years ago, Lewis won the 1988 Olympic super heavyweight gold medal while representing Canada, and though he returned to England to fight as a pro, many Brits continue to regard him as a Canadian at heart and a Briton for convenience.
And so it was that Bruno entered the ring to meet Lewis with THE REAL BRIT Stitched across the rear of his boxing trunks. The music he had chosen to herald his entrance was Land of Hope and Glory, a patriotic English tune that excludes the Scots, the Irish and the Welsh. Lewis was more considerate of his surroundings: He entered to reggae music as both the British Union Jack and the Welsh Red Dragon flag whipped about him in a stiff breeze.
The crowd was unswayed by both Bruno's gaffe and Lewis's gesture. The cry went up for the challenger: "Bruno! Bruno! Bruno!"—deep and drawn out. Only the Welsh national anthem, Land of My Fathers, was sung. Lord Brooks, a Welshman, had ordered that God Save the Queen not be played. "The crowd will only boo," he said. "It would not be fitting."
With everyone casting an anxious eye at the black, threatening sky—it had rained hard, with swirling winds, most of the week, and the forecast on the night of the fight was for more of the same—Bruno built a comfortable lead in the early rounds behind a hard, accurate jab. Had it been raining at the 1 a.m. start (the ungodly hour had been agreed upon so that HBO could telecast the fight live back to the U.S. during prime time), there would have been a 24-hour postponement. If the fight had been halted by weather before three rounds were completed, it would have been ruled a technical draw. However, if the rain had begun falling past the third round, the man ahead on the judges' scorecards at that point would have been declared the winner. As it turned out, that man was Bruno, who led 29-28 after Round 3 on all three cards. Rain at that moment would have made the silent Juliet the WBC heavyweight champion of the world.
While Bruno's crushing jab gradually turned the left side of Lewis's face swollen and bloody, the champion operated in retreat behind his pushing jabs and occasional overhand rights, most of which followed a Western Union message announcing their arrival. The few attacks that Lewis was able to muster seemed spurred by anger, as if he'd been goaded by a bully until he could take no more. When Bruno responded to the assaults with barrages of his own, Lewis quickly backed off.
In the eyes of many ringside observers, Bruno was still well ahead after six rounds. Of course, the judges disagreed, which seems to be the WBC fashion these days. What could they have been watching? After Round 6, Adrian Morgan, a Welshman, had Bruno ahead 59-55, as did SI. But the two Americans, Jerry Roth and Tony Castellano, had scored it 57-57 to that point. That would have made it a majority draw—the outrageous outcome of last month's Pernell Whitaker-Julio Cèsar Chàvez WBC encounter, in which Whitaker was the clear winner.
No matter. In the first minute of the seventh round Bruno's chin got in the way of a Lewis left hook, and the sound of glass breaking echoed throughout the stadium. "I saw him pulling back to throw a right hand," said Lewis, "and I hit him with a perfect hook, which everybody said I didn't have."
Once hit, Bruno stood stark still, almost as if paralyzed. When hurt, almost any fighter, at least the good ones, will grab an opponent in a bear hug, quickly retreat or fire back until his head is clear. Not Bruno. With Bruno suddenly little more than a heavy bag, Lewis turned vicious. Right hand after right hand slammed against Bruno's stationary head. As the challenger sagged under the savage assault, referee Mickey Vann moved in and pushed Lewis away. But he wasn't stopping the fight. He was warning Lewis for holding. "I knew I was giving Bruno a few extra moments to recover, but a foul is a foul," Vann said later.
When Lewis was released from the penalty box, Bruno again stood there waiting, motionless, defenseless, hands down, wondering why there is never rain when you need it. After a few more needless punches Vann stepped in again, this time to put an end to the fight. An hour later Bruno was on his way back to London, where the rain had fallen all night.
Lewis (above and far right) was as cold as the Welsh air until a Round 7 flurry stopped Bruno.
[See caption above.]
In the early rounds Bruno used stinging jabs to build a lead against an ineffectual Lewis.
In the end Lewis still had his belt, but he was damaged goods, literally and otherwise.