There was a time, not that long ago, that British heavyweights were cruelly branded and labelled as horizontal. A near-century of failure to capture the biggest and richest prize in boxing resulted in that unfortunate and unflattering assessment.
Bob Fitzsimmons, the last British-born heavyweight champion of the world, held the title until 1902 and in truth, there had been little hope of any British heavyweight ever again holding the title. The British applauded a brave effort, but derision of some home-grown challengers wasn’t a rare occurrence.
But suddenly British fight fans had some semblance of hope, a new challenger had emerged from the gloom. Frank Bruno, the former ABA heavyweight champion, had turned pro under the astute guidance of Terry Lawless.
Bruno had to go to Colombia when he was just 19, to correct his short-sightedness before he could even begin the journey to the promised land, an early sign of that determination that would serve him so well in later years.
The Bruno story started in 1982, and Harry Carpenter declared it over in 1984 after James ‘Bonecrusher’ Smith knocked him out in the 10th and final round when he only had to stay standing to win.
By 1986, Bruno had been rebuilt and repackaged as a heavyweight contender on the world stage against the usual conveyer belt of opponents doing the rounds at the time.
The former WBA heavyweight champion, Gerrie Coetzee was tempted to London to face Bruno. The South African was on the slide, but the way Bruno demolished him sent the tabloids into a frenzy. Coetzee was blown away inside two minutes and the scribes on Fleet Street convinced the nation that the long wait would soon be at an end.
Bruno challenging for the heavyweight championship of the world needed a venue to match the occasion. Wembley Stadium hadn’t graced the boxing world since Henry Cooper knocked down a certain young American heavyweight in the 1960s. The old stadium was chosen and the old rivals, Cooper and Muhammad Ali would be ringside to witness the apparent changing of the guard.
Tim Witherspoon was the reigning WBA champion in the summer of 1986, and hopes were raised further when he came over to England to fight Bruno looking as though his preparations had been lacking. But Witherspoon told Boxing Social that wasn’t the case.
“I trained really hard, [promoter] Don King had us in a training camp with around 30 people. We used to run in the morning and chop wood and train most of the day, everyone was trying to get me ready to fight Frank Bruno. We trained hard, I sparred with a lot of different heavyweights, I was in shape,” recalled Witherspoon.
“But then when we flew to England, I didn’t really realise how big the fight was. I knew I was defending my title but Don King didn’t really present it to me just how big it actually was.”
Witherspoon had a certain reputation, the partying denting his fighting skills. A post-fight urine test after his title-winning fight against Tony Tubbs in January had found traces of marijuana. Witherspoon could have been stripped of the title, he wasn’t but it was hardly a sign of dedication to his craft. Maybe with that in mind, Witherspoon was given an opportunity for temptation.
“When we first went over there they put us above a pub in London, people were coming in watching us, knocking on my door trying to get me to go with different women. There was a lot of distractions so when Don King found out we moved to Basildon in Essex, but we were in an area where you could go partying and drinking.”
Despite training hard for the fight, Witherspoon had started to gain weight to the bewilderment of his team.
“One day they brought around 20 cases of orange juice to my room. So after each run, I would come back and just drink this orange juice. One day my trainer said to me why are you gaining weight and I told him about the orange juice, so I think I gained about six or seven pounds because of the orange juice and all the sugar that was in it. So that’s probably one of the reasons I gained weight because I didn’t tell my trainer until four or five days after.”
Much of the pre-fight talk was focused on the champion’s paunch rather than the weight of his punch. The weigh-in would be the first time electronic scales would be used for a fight in England. Witherspoon looked soft and when he weighed in on the day of the fight; he looked puzzled why he weighed so much.
“In America, I was weighing around 228lbs and I felt good even when I was in England. I didn’t really feel any different but I weighed in heavy,” Witherspoon told Boxing Social.
Witherspoon would have been forgiven for thinking he was in for an easy night. The history of British heavyweights and Bruno getting stopped by Smith, who Witherspoon had previously beaten, could have given way to thinking Bruno wouldn’t be too much of a challenge. But Witherspoon insisted he took the threat of his challenger very seriously.
“I didn’t think Frank Bruno would be easy, I didn’t take him lightly like I took a lot of other guys lightly. So I was really serious about Bruno, it was something that I had dreamed of, going into someone’s backyard and coming out victorious. I had always wanted to do something like this so we didn’t underestimate him at all,” he said.
ITV and BBC had shared delayed coverage of the fight, both networks would show the fight the following day, ITV on the Sunday morning and the BBC in the evening. In a pre-fight show just hours before the fight, the BBC had Barry McGuigan and Anita Dobson from EastEnders in the studio. It was at the height of popularity for the flagship BBC soap and with ‘insightful’ analysis from Angie Watts, “Frank is fighting for anyone who wants to win” imagine that level of punditry in the social media world of the modern-era.
Despite his impressive physique and impressive knockout ratio, Bruno was branded weak around the chin. Floyd ‘Jumbo Cummings practically knocked Bruno out on his feet at the end of the opening round of their fight. The bell saved him that night, it didn’t when he lost to Smith. Bruno had a reputation, Witherspoon had real intent on proving that point.
“I knew that he was in really good shape, but the word going around was that his chin was suspect,” remembered Witherspoon. “So I decided, because I had a good defence, I was going to work my punches and hit him on the chin real hard. But I was hitting him on the chin and he didn’t budge. A lot of people were saying he can’t take a punch, but I was hitting him and I realised he could take a punch. I hit him with that right hand in the final round, but before that, I was hitting him with shots and he just took them. So I had to go to another plan, using my defence and get closer to him.”
Bruno showed skills we hadn’t previously seen. The suspect chin didn’t materialise, the British hope absorbed plenty and laid to rest the myth of the china jaw. Bruno also boxed beyond a level many believed he was capable of. The fight was hard-fought, competitive and close. There were no clear signs that Bruno would soon capitulate or who would win the fight.
“I was in survival mode and just trying to get him out of there. I didn’t think Bruno was tiring at all, he still seemed to have plenty of attitude and energy in that 10th round,” said Witherspoon.
Witherspoon was ahead on the cards going into the 11th, Bruno not given the credit he deserved by the officials with the pen. Boxing News had Bruno a point up. But the judges wouldn’t be needed to decide the winner. The brave challenge by Bruno would soon end. After an exchange towards the end of the round, they both simultaneously landed, but it was the punch landed by Witherspoon that carried more weight.
Bruno staggered back, the long wait for a British world heavyweight champion would not end here. The fans had come to expect this scenario and, in another sad sign of the times, some of them decided the evening’s ‘entertainment’ wasn’t yet over. Not for the first or the last time British fight fans let themselves down.
“I’ve got a grandson in Barnsley and my daughter was born in Tottenham so I know how much they support their sportsmen and I knew there would be a fight afterwards,” said Witherspoon. “I had about 30 bodyguards and, when we came out of the ring, they tried to kill us and if it wasn’t for those bodyguards there would have been a lot of people hurt. The bodyguards were throwing a lot of English people to the floor and threw this one guy over the top who was getting too aggressive.”
According to reports of the time, 200 chairs were destroyed by the alcohol-induced hooligans; 27 of them were arrested with 10 police officers injured in the process of the post-fight brawl on another shameful night for British boxing. Even when Witherspoon and his team managed to safely navigate themselves to the dressing room, the danger wasn’t over.
“We got back to the dressing room, we were all in there, Muhammad Ali was in there congratulating me. I was talking to Muhammad. Then we heard this big bang on the main doors, the fans were trying to knock down the doors to get us, there had to be about 1,000 people out there,” said Witherspoon. “Ali said ‘open the doors’, and the security did and he just said to them, ‘just go away, the fight is over’ and they just went. Ali kind of stepped to the front and probably saved our lives.”
Bruno was Britain’s best hope for a world heavyweight champion but the defeat to Witherspoon on the back of the loss to Smith seemed to end any hopes of Bruno ever realising his dream and the hopes of his nation.
There were calls, even at just 24, for Bruno to retire. But Bruno kept on trying, Mike Tyson and Lennox Lewis beat him in further attempts at the world title. But Bruno would return once more to Wembley Stadium for his fourth and final try. Oliver McCall, the WBC title holder, came over to England, but unlike Witherspoon, he left an ex-champion.
Bruno finally did it, on an emotional night he prevailed on points. Lewis had stolen his thunder somewhat, but Bruno nevertheless could finally call himself the heavyweight champion of the world.
The win over Bruno should have launched Witherspoon to another level. But the problems with Don King, which were simmering prior, escalated further after his win in England. Bruno collected a million-dollar purse, Witherspoon, despite being the champion, left with less than 100k. The motivation waned, but a title defence against Tony Tubbs was arranged for later in 1986. Witherspoon had beaten Tubbs in a hugely forgettable fight in January to become a two-time heavyweight champion. Yet Tubbs pulled out close to the fight with a shoulder injury and Witherspoon would have another rematch instead against James ‘Bonecrusher’ Smith who he had comfortably beaten several years prior. For many reasons, it was a fight Witherspoon didn’t want.
“What happened with the Bonecrusher fight, I was only going to go home with about 50k. When Tubbs pulled out, I thought the fight was off,” said Witherspoon. “I am not going to lie I messed around – sex and stuff and I smoked marijuana. But they called me up and said the fight is still on and I said I can’t fight I’m out of shape. But someone said to me you had better take this fight otherwise you will get blackballed. So I waited a couple of days and said I want to get away from Don King, so I’m going to take the fight and take a dive. A lot of people don’t believe I took a dive but everyone in my corner knew.”
Mike Tyson was punching his way to creating his own at time infamous era and an HBO tournament was in play to crown an undisputed champion. The winner of Witherspoon-Smith would face Tyson next.
“I was only going to get 500k to face Tyson when everyone else was getting millions to fight him. When I fought Bruno, I only went home with 90k. I wasn’t doing that again. I was the happiest guy around. I took the three knockdowns I was as happy as hell after that fight.”
Witherspoon would eventually take King to court to settle their differences, but the defeat to Smith would be the last time he would ever fight for the world heavyweight title. Witherspoon continued, showing glimpses of what could have been before finally hanging up his gloves in 2003 after two straight defeats, finishing with a 55-13-1, 38 KOs resume with the majority of those defeats at the tail end of his career.
Like many of the so-called lost generation of heavyweights, talented fighters lost in a fog of behind the scenes politics, Witherspoon didn’t really deliver on the promise he once showed. The title of the heavyweight champion of the world not enough to stay in the gym long enough to fulfil their potential.
Witherspoon was undoubtedly talented and, despite winning the world heavyweight title on two separate occasions, he had the ability to have done an awful lot more. The win over Bruno was perhaps his finest hour, his last great night in the sport.
Main image and all photos: Press Association.