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Frank Bruno Is Britain’s Favorite Sports Hero

March 14, 1996

LONDON (AP) _ To his adoring British public, he’s Big Frank or Our Frank. One day, he might be Sir Frank.

Frank Bruno is the most popular sports figure in Britain, a national treasure whose reputation was built on gallant efforts in defeat and a gentle giant manner outside the ring.

It took 13 years and four attempts for Bruno to become a world heavyweight champion. If he beats Mike Tyson at Las Vegas Saturday night to retain the WBC title, Bruno’s place in British sports history _ and British hearts _ would be secure.

``When Frank won the title, the average person, like the taxi driver, loved it,″ Bruno’s British promoter, Frank Warren, said. ``But if he beats Mike Tyson, it will be the biggest thing for British sport since England won the World Cup in 1966. It will make him the most famous sportsman in the world.″

Bruno was battered by Tyson in their first fight in 1989 and is a heavy underdog again for Saturday’s match. But many Brits believe _ or want to believe _ that the 34-year-old Bruno can win this time.

British tabloids have been hyping the fight in shameless fly-the-Union-Jack style for weeks. The Daily Mirror’s slogan is ``Belt him for Britain, Frank.″ The Sun publishes letters from fans urging Bruno to ``spank the Yank.″

Born in Wandsworth, south London, the youngest of six children, Bruno was a street tough who was kicked out of school at 11 (he once punched a teacher to the ground) and was sent to an institution for problem boys at Oak Hill in Sussex.

The school helped tame the young Bruno, who began channeling his energy into boxing. He started fighting as an amateur while working as a construction worker, shop assistant and bingo hall attendant.

``I wanted to be a little different,″ he said. ``The only way I knew how to was boxing.″

But eye problems nearly stopped Bruno from pursuing a career as a boxer. Blurred sight and weakness in the peripheral vision of his right eye prompted the British board to refuse him a boxing license.

In 1981, Bruno went to Bogota, Colombia, for an operation to correct the problem. A surgeon removed a piece of his cornea, reshaped it and stitched it back into place.

Bruno got his license and turned pro in 1982, winning his first fight on a first-round knockout over Lupe Guerra.

In 1986, Bruno fought for the WBA title but was stopped in the 11th round by Tim Witherspoon. He challenged Tyson three years later, rocking the champion with a left hook in the first round before being battered into submission in the fifth. Bruno’s third title shot ended with a seventh-round loss to WBC champ Lennox Lewis in 1993.

Bruno was Britain’s most lovable loser. His refusal to give up endeared him to the public, as did his Mr. Nice Guy personality.

Bruno became a regular fixture on TV pitching HP sauce. He appeared in Christmas stage productions called pantomimes. His repartee with BBC boxing commentator Harry Carpenter _ ``Know what I mean, ’Arry?″ _ became part of the national lexicon.

After the Lewis defeat, many of Bruno’s supporters urged him to retire. But he fought on and secured a fourth title chance, this time against WBC champion Oliver McCall.

Last Sept. 2 at Wembley Stadium, Bruno earned a 12-round decision over McCall and became the first British fighter to win the heavyweight title in the ring since Bob Fitzsimmons in 1897.

``When I watch the McCall film, I have tears in my eyes,″ Bruno said. ``People don’t know how much getting that belt means to me.″

Now, Bruno is trying to free himself of his caricature image.

``It hurts when people get the idea that I’m some kind of pantomime freak, that there is nothing more to me than, `Know what I mean, ‘Arry,’ or that I can’t put two words together,″ he said.

``I took some (abuse) over the years, ridicule, being slagged down, embarrassed ... Often, I didn’t want to step out of my house _ it got that bad. People think it’s all an act, and that I’m a dummy who’s thicker than two planks of wood. But I’ve got a great deal of pride. Underneath I’m a serious guy, and all I’m trying to do is provide both for myself and my family.″

Bruno and his wife, Laura, have two daughters, Nicola, 13, and Rachel, 9, and one son, Franklin, nine months.

Beating Tyson would give Bruno the respect he says he has been denied by much of the boxing community. Bruno is getting $6 million for the fight, compared with the $30 million for Tyson.

A victory would put Bruno in line for a possible $30 million payday against WBA champion Bruce Seldon this summer in England in front of his own fans.

``Now this is my time,″ he said. ``I’m relishing it, cherishing it. No one ever gave me anything. I have been dedicating myself 16 years for this fight. There is nothing bigger.″

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