In the ebbing seconds of the 11th round -- as a battered and
barely conscious Frank Bruno crouched in Tim Witherspoon's corner
being bludgeoned by the WBA heavyweight champion's heavy right hands
to the head, as referee Isidro Rodriguez tried to interpose himself
between the helpless Englishman and those huge blows, as trainer
Terry Lawless threw in the towel from across the ring -- there could
only be relief that the bout had ended in such an unequivocal way.
For at London's Wembley Stadium more than 40,000 fans wore the ugly
face of incipient violence that has become the hallmark of British
sports crowds in recent years. They probably had more booze aboard
them than any previous London sporting crowd, which is no small feat.
The baying of ''Brun-oh, Brun- oh'' had started fully two hours
before the main event, which was set for 1 a.m. Sunday to accommodate
U.S. television. In the interim, ticketless fans would break down
no fewer than five gates, and others would sweep ringward from the
highest and cheapest seats. Later there would come a chair-hurling
attack on the police protecting Witherspoon's exit from the stadium.
And yet, only a week earlier the fight had seemed to hold the
promise of high comedy. What, for heaven's sake, were Witherspoon and
his entourage doing in the ticky-tacky little town of Basildon, some
30 miles across the Essex wetlands from London? And was that fight
training that was going on at the Basildon Leisure Centre? The name
of the building seemed all too appropriate as Witherspoon ambled
round the ring for what was called sparring, looking soft and flabby
and repeatedly getting caught by jabs.
Was Witherspoon so confident of his ability to defend against the
basically inexperienced Bruno that he just couldn't be bothered to
work? Or had he come to sleepy Basildon just to stay out of trouble?
He has had a bit of that in the past. In fact, he was meeting Bruno
only by courtesy of a WBA decision to virtually ignore his having
tested positive for marijuana after his victory -- his 24th in 26
fights -- over Tony Tubbs on Jan. 17. But judging from his antics in
the ring, and his refusal to pull up his shirt for photographers,
life in Basildon's Crest Hotel, where there truly was little to do
but sleep and eat, might have suited Witherspoon's appetite.
Questioning Witherspoon on the matter served only to make him
angry. ''You'll see my stomach when the bell rings,'' he snapped
three days before the bout. ''I'm around 223 now; 225 is the goal.''
In fact, a sighting of Tim's tum was possible earlier than that,
at the weigh-in on Saturday afternoon. After the balky scales showed
that the 24- year-old challenger weighed 227 pounds, Witherspoon
stepped up and proved to be almost 10 pounds over his target weight.
Slim Robinson, the champion's trainer, was quick to point out
that muscle definition, such as Bruno possesses, is no indication of
boxing prowess. ''And anyhow,'' added Witherspoon, a little
surprisingly, ''fitness, conditioning don't have too much to do with
the fight game. These muscle-bound guys can't take a shot. Bruno
doesn't have a great punch. Just a basic one-two and a left hook.''
Robinson had the last word. ''You've not had a champ here since Bob
Fitzsimmons, and we aim to keep your record intact,'' he said.
Robinson was accurate if not diplomatic. Bruno had suffered his
only ( defeat at the hands of James (Bonecrusher) Smith back in 1984,
when he was knocked out in the 10th round. This after 21 consecutive
victories, all of them by KOs, 17 of them within two rounds. What
dismayed Bruno's fans most about that loss was his total bewilderment
when Smith caught him with a left to the jaw. ''Nobody likes getting
hit,'' commented Britain's Henry Cooper, the former heavyweight
challenger, ''but Frank didn't seem to know what to do about it.''
Now, more than two years after that knockout, partly atoned for by
his 110- second demolition of Gerrie Coetzee last March, Bruno
waited in the wings as the last two heavyweights to meet in Wembley
Stadium climbed into the ring and jocularly stripped off their
jackets as if to resume their 1963 bout. They were Muhammad Ali and
Cooper, but the Wembley crowd this night had no time for sentiment.
With little notice of the old war-horses, it just continued its chant
of ''Brun-oh, Brun-oh.''
Through the opening five rounds, it looked as if the crowd --
which had paid an estimated $4 million, more than had been taken in
at any previous English sporting event -- would get Britain's first
world heavyweight champion of this century. It had to wait, though,
until the second round for Bruno to land a significant right.
Witherspoon weathered it, as he did a further series of rights while
he was up against the ropes.
This was not the ideal scenario as sketched out by Bruno's more
avid fans. In that, Bruno's mighty right cross would be deployed as
early as possible to settle the issue. In the unlikely event that
Witherspoon should withstand such a blow, the fight would hinge on
whether the champion, an unbeautiful if effective fighter who tends
to smother rather than cleanly knock out opponents, could contain the
well-conditioned challenger and force him to go beyond 10 rounds --
unknown territory for Bruno.
But while Bruno clearly won the early rounds, he did so in an
unanticipated manner. His big right was not much in evidence, but it
was plain that the challenger was jabbing better than he ever had.
Meanwhile, it was Witherspoon who was throwing -- often inaccurately
but always with the promise of danger -- big, looping right hands. By
the fifth, convinced that its man had the fight in hand, the crowd
had mellowed into singing Amazing Grace.
Then, in the seventh round, Witherspoon suddenly scored with three
powerful right crosses. Bruno held on, but from then on it was
Witherspoon's / experience and deceptive stamina that dictated the
fight as the two men stood classically toe-to-toe and fought a
primitive, courageous, strength-sapping battle until those last few
seconds of the 11th, when the champion caught Bruno with that mammoth
''It was a war, and I won,'' Witherspoon said simply. That should
have been the measure of it, but the champion still would have to
fight his way to the sanctuary of his dressing room as war now broke
out between a phalanx of disappointed fans and the police. END