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1. EIGHT years before Frank Bruno challenged Oliver McCall for the WBC heavyweight title on September 2 1995, the pair sparred at the Royal Oak Gym in Canning Town. Bruno was rebuilding following a 1986 loss to Tim Witherspoon while the American was largely unknown. “We sparred for about 12 rounds,” Bruno remembered. “He caught me in the eye with his thumb. It was competitive, nice, but I don’t think he liked belly shots. I know he doesn’t, but he’s got a good jab and a lot of people underestimate that. No one got the better of it, but he was complaining when I hit him to the body, or on the border, and he kept saying ‘keep them up’.”
2. AS well as the defeat to Witherspoon, Bruno had also failed in world title bids against Mike Tyson and Lennox Lewis. It was Lewis who McCall shocked to win his belt the year before. Since then, McCall had notched one successful defence – a tight points win over the ancient Larry Holmes.
3. MANY felt this was Bruno’s best chance to lift the world crown he desired so much. Including head trainer George Francis, who had worked with Bruno since 1986. “Frank has improved immensely. He watches what he does every night and if he makes a mistake he puts it right the next day… He’s had time to mature. When we started he was very stiff and muscular. He’s still muscular, but he’s more flexible, he bends his knees and is a much better fighter. But I wish I had him when he was 16 or 17, because some habits are hard to break.”
4. NIGEL BENN, preparing for a fight against Daniel Perez on the Wembley undercard, invited Bruno to join him at his Tenerife training base. But the heavyweight declined, explaining: “I can’t run 15 miles a day in high altitude and go and spar the way I do. Benn can’t spar the way I spar. All men are made differently. I couldn’t do it then go to the gym in the afternoon and spar eight rounds. I’m not Superman. Benn can’t train harder than me. I could bet my life on it. I love him. He’s come back from the brink.”
5. BRUNO, alongside promoter Frank Warren, attracted 30,000 fans – many of whom booed Edwin Starr’s rendition of the American anthem – to Wembley Stadium on a chilly evening. Benn despatched Perez in the seventh round and accompanied Bruno on the long walk to the ring, through the fireworks and screaming fans. It was there that McCall made him wait for 15 minutes. The champion emerged with that pained, almost tearful, expression designed to perplex his opponents. There had been rumours that the Amercan had not taken his training seriously, that the fame of being king had interfered with his lifestyle, but he was in fine shape.
6. PREDICTABLY, the hard-punching Briton started fast. He had no trouble connecting with McCall but the first few blasts were met with a smile, until a sweeping right hand wiped the false joy from his face, and the steadiness from his legs, at the end of the session.
7. McCALL had some success, bruising Bruno’s eye as early as the second round, and started to work his way into the contest before the halfway mark of the 12-rounder. By the seventh and eighth rounds it looked like McCall was on the brink of taking definitive control. But the challenger regained momentum in the ninth, his left-right working hard to keep McCall at bay. By the close of the 11th round, though, Bruno – ahead on points – was holding on tight to survive and the crowd prepared for a nervy final three minutes.
8. THE final round was one-sided, as McCall, fighting with urgency absent for most of what came before, fired in menacing shots at his muscle-bound opponent. Some expected Bruno to collapse, like he had done before, but showing all his experience, he held on to the last bell. He was rightly awarded the unanimous decision, two scores of 117-111 and one of 115-113 to send the crowd into euphoric celebration.
9. BRUNO was, of course, absolutely delighted. “If I never walk again, get run over or get shot, it’s down in history that I’m heavyweight champion. I don’t want to get cocky, but believe me this belt is a nice thing. I want to show people that with hard work and perseverance you can get what you want out of life… From the first round to the last I knew he wanted to knock me out. That last round was very tough. He came at me like a madman. All I could do was try to survive and I did survive. I look like ET but I’m a winner, a champion.”
10. THE new champion did not enjoy his newfound status for long and he lost the title in March 1996 to the comebacking, rampaging, Mike Tyson. He announced his retirement shortly afterwards. McCall admitted he was struggling with drink and drug dependency, but in 2014, almost 20 years after his loss to Bruno, he was still a useful, albeit no longer world class, professional fighter pushing 50 years old.
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