The worst prediction had come from a writer named Steve Lillis
in Sunday Sport, one of the pile of London newspapers that fight
for space at every corner newsstand. Steve Lillis had written
that he would dress in a French maid's outfit and be Frank
Bruno's slave for a week if underdog Bruno won the WBC
heavyweight championship over Oliver McCall at Wembley Stadium
last Saturday night. Frank Bruno now looked for Steve Lillis
through blue sunglasses.
"Steve Lillis," the big man said. "Where are you?"
The words came from bruised and swollen lips, the voice a bit
unsteady because the tongue was also swollen and the jaw was
sore. The sunglasses covered more swelling, both of Bruno's eyes
being halfway closed. He said that he looked "like E.T. drunk."
He did not seem to mind so much.
"There you are," Bruno said, spotting his man in the press
conference crowd. "Steve Lillis, you're my slave for a week."
Heavyweight champion of the world.
The WBC title might be devalued in the current boxing
commodities market, only one third or even one fifth of the
total heavyweight-title picture, but for the British it was the
same title Joe Louis or Jack Dempsey or Mr. Muhammad Ali
himself had held. The British are amenable to overstatement. The
details do not often stand in the way of a good British-built
story, especially when it involves their alltime athletic dreamer.
The fact that Bruno had been reeling through the last two rounds
of his unanimous 12-round decision against the suddenly
enlivened and desperate McCall only made the scene better. More
dramatic. More heroic. Could any of the Union Jack wavers in the
crowd of 23,000 outdoors at Wembley not believe that their man
had wrung the most out of his abilities? He could not have
lasted another minute, much less another round. He endured. He
won. He was British.
"It's unbelievable, a miracle," Bruno said. "I know I sound like
a parrot, but that's the word. Unbelievable. All the stories
about how 'He had no stamina, couldn't take a punch, couldn't
do this, couldn't do that.' I wasn't trying to prove anything to
anybody but myself, and I done it."
This was the 33-year-old Bruno's fourth and certainly final try
for the crown, a crown, any crown. His first three title
shots--against Tim Witherspoon, Mike Tyson and Lennox Lewis--all
ended the same way, with Bruno knocked silly. The knockouts were
straight from the Saturday-morning cartoons, Bruno's senses
suddenly gone, bluebirds suddenly appearing from his ears and
chirping around his head.
Against McCall, after winning the early rounds with a constant
left jab, Bruno had a better sense of self preservation at the
end. Then again, the 30-year-old McCall--who had won the title
last September with a second-round knockout of Lewis and
successfully defended it in April against an antique Larry
Holmes--presented few problems until the final two rounds. His
most aggressive moments had come during the prefight hype, when
he threatened to turn Bruno into "a vegetable" and called him
"an Uncle Tom."
The first British-born, British-raised heavyweight champion of
any kind--Lewis was raised in Canada, and Herbie Hide was born in
Nigeria--Bruno long has been the country's most curious and
beloved athletic hero. His failures somehow have added to his
popularity, his character cast in the tabloids as sort of a
Jimmy Stewart with biceps. "This is a lesson for all people,
black or white, yellow or pink," Bruno told his public after his
triumph. "You don't have to be born rich. You don't have to go
to university. All you have to do is work hard, persevere, and
you'll get whatever you want in life."
The fight's co-promoter, Don King, might have entered the ring
with McCall, but at the end he was smiling with Bruno and
ordering up a red Bentley convertible as the fighter's prize for
victory. King also owns Bruno's contract and said repeatedly
that the winner of this fight would be in line for Tyson early
next year. Then again, he has said a lot of things.
"I want to fight Mike Tyson again," Bruno said through his
swollen lips. "Then I want to call a taxi and go home."
Or maybe his slave can drive him.
COLOR PHOTO: BOB MARTIN After piling up points early with his sharp left jab, Bruno (left) withstood McCall's belated assault. [Frank Bruno fighting Oliver McCall]