Tim Witherspoon v Frank Bruno: Twenty Years Ago This Month

14.07.06 - By James Slater: Big Frank Bruno had the advantage of fighting his first ever world title fight at home. His bout with Philadelphia’s “Terrible” Tim Witherspoon was held at Wembley stadium in London, England. Britain desperately wanted a heavyweight champion and Bruno, who the public had very much taken to, what with his seemingly ego-free and down to earth personality, was given a great shot to do the honours in his fight with Witherspoon. Tim was a fine fighter, to be sure, but at the weigh-in for the fight he sported a physique that wasn’t what one could in any way call chiselled. More so than he had done in the past, Tim looked somewhat flabby. While in comparison, Frank’s body was absolutely rock solid - as usual. One thing for which he could always be relied upon was training hard in the gym. Bruno never failed to enter a fight in tip top shape. Could the muscle man defeat the more experienced, yet possibly out of shape WBA champion?

On July the 19th, 1986 a packed out crowd at Wembley sat with their fingers crossed and hoped so. Britain had not had a heavyweight ruler for almost a hundred years and as such, the pressure on Frank was massive. He simply had to win. The overwhelming feeling was, how could such an ill trained man beat Britain’s biggest sporting hero?

Bruno could punch too. In his previous appearance in the ring he had despatched former champ Gerrie Coetzee in a single round. The South African may have been past his best, but this was still a fine showing from Bruno. One that convinced many a Brit would at last get his hands on a heavyweight championship after such along time. It was all up to Frank.

Muhammad Ali was at ringside and, in a lovely pre-fight moment, he and one-time rival - Britain’s only other contender for best loved British heavyweight boxer - Henry Cooper, met in ring centre. Ali playfully pretended to remove his jacket and get ready to fight. Henry pointed to his eyebrows and smiled, signalling to the scar tissue he had picked up in his two bouts with The Greatest. It was great nostalgia. Then it was down to business for the present day combatants.

With the crowd in rapturous form, Frank started well. The pace was really quite frenetic. There was no way this fight was going to go the distance. The question was, who would last better? Witherspoon was far from unbeatable. He had lost, in a brilliant effort it must be said, to all-time great Larry Holmes back in his first attempt at becoming a world champ, in 1983. He had also lost, on points, to Pinklon Thomas. So he could be beaten. He had never been stopped though and his chin was known to be very reliable. As for Bruno, he had been stopped, once, in his only loss. This had come in crushing fashion against one of Tim’s vanquished foes, the big punching James “Bonecrusher” Smith. While a mile ahead on points, Bruno had been caught in the tenth and final round and beaten to brutal defeat. He had also been extremely badly shaken in a winning effort against Floyd “Jumbo” Cummings. Was Frank’s chin his only vulnerability, or was his stamina questionable also? We found out in round eleven.

Witherspoon, despite not having an aesthetically pleasing a body as Bruno, was a far more natural fighter. He was very well equipped in the ability to relax in the ring. Frank, on the other hand, was very tight. The size of the occasion perhaps adding to his tension, Bruno was running on empty after ten rounds. He had acquitted himself well in these rounds, but one had the sense that Witherspoon was biding his time, sure that the muscle bound Bruno would hit the wall eventually. This was indeed the case. In round eleven, both guys connected with big right hands to the head. Tim, however, held his punch much better than Frank - whose chin, along with his stamina, proved to be somewhat suspect. This combination of fatigue and a less than granite jaw was too much for the challenger. He crumbled into a corner and Witherspoon, pounding away at a barely standing target, gave the referee, Isidro Rodriguez, no choice but to dive in. Tim was still the WBA heavyweight champion. Britain would have to wait a while longer yet before it’s drought was ended.

Witherspoon had fought a far from perfect fight and Bruno had tried with all his might - in the process showing that he was definitely world class. But the difference was Tim was comfortable in the ring, while the sometimes stiff looking Bruno was far from the same. In the end he took considerable punishment and it is testament to his courage and determination that he carried on with his career as long as he did. Many were ready to write him off as a big punching, but china chinned fighter after the loss. Big Frank proved them wrong though.

Witherspoon lost his very next fight, in a rematch with “Bonecrusher” Smith. This time, instead of boxing to a comfortable unanimous decision, Tim was stopped in one shocking round. This prompted some to suggest that he may have lost on purpose, as a way of freeing himself from the clutches of his promoter, Don King. Tim, famously, had been extremely disgruntled with the amount of money he cleared from the Bruno fight. Maybe he did, at least subconsciously, hand his title to the man he had previously beaten with relative ease.

As for Bruno, he battled on for another nine years before finally making his dream of becoming heavyweight champion a reality. After crushing KO defeats at the hands of Mike Tyson and Lennox Lewis ( who had ended Britain’s long wait for a heavyweight boss in 1992) Frank out pointed Lewis’ conqueror, Oliver McCall in 1995. He had achieved his goal at the fourth attempt. He remains one of Britain’s best loved sportsmen to this very day.

For refusing to give up after the KO he suffered against Tim Witherspoon almost twenty years ago today, Frank Bruno taught us all the value of perseverance!

Article posted on 15.07.2006

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