On July the 19th, 1986, a packed out crowd at Wembley in London sat with their fingers crossed and hoped for the best – Defending heavyweight champ Tim Witherspoon met nation’s favorite and all-round good guy Frank Bruno, and though Britain had not had a heavyweight ruler for almost 100 years, the pressure on Bruno was massive. He simply had to win.
The overwhelming feeling was, how could such an ill-trained man – Witherspoon looking decidedly flabby at the official weigh-in – beat Britain’s biggest sporting hero? And how Bruno could punch. In his previous appearance in the ring he had dispatched 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 that a Brit this Brit, would at last get his hands on a heavyweight championship after such a long time.
Muhammad Ali was at ringside, and in a lovely pre-fight moment, he and one-time rival, the beloved Henry Cooper, met in ring centre. Ali playfully pretended to remove his jacket, and get ready to fight. Cooper pointed to his eyebrows and smiled, signaling to the scar tissue he had picked up in his two bouts with The Greatest. It was priceless nostalgia. Then it was down to business for the present day combatants.
With the crowd in rapturous form, Bruno 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 – 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 Bruno’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. Bruno, 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. Witherspoon, however, held his punch much better than Bruno. 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.
Witherspoon’s “can opener,” his right hand, saw to it that he was still the WBA heavyweight champion. Britain would have to wait a while longer yet before its drought was ended.