He prefers to be called Aussie Joe now, and for his ring appearances he wears a flowing, rather flouncy white satin robe trimmed in the Australian national colors of green and gold. His hair still grows in thick golden curls, and both his face and physique are pretty much the same replicas of Greek statuary that they always were. At 6'4" and 240 pounds, he is more gorgeous and flamboyant than ever—a hunk of beefcake with such a flair for theatrics that some in Sydney snicker that his persona is cast more in the slapstick mold of a professional wrestler than in that of a heavyweight boxer.
Sydney's Aussie Joe is none other than Joe Bugner. Born in Hungary and raised in England, Bugner plied his trade for 20 years from London to Las Vegas to Kuala Lumpur. Yes, he's the same Joe Bugner you vaguely recall—the same journeyman who has racked up 61 wins in 72 fights. The same Bugner who won the British Commonwealth and European heavyweight titles from the enormously popular Henry Cooper in 1971 and was never, ever forgiven for it by the British press.
Yes, that would be the same plodding fighter who was thereafter dubbed the Harmless Hercules, the Anxious Adonis and the Great White Dope by his many detractors. The same also who lasted 27 respectable rounds in two losing decisions against Muhammad Ali when Ali was in his prime. And the same who produced 12 more good rounds in a losing effort against Joe Frazier.
Yes, Aussie Joe is that same Joe Bugner—but, of course, he is not really the same at all. Indeed, the man is 37 years old now, and he has been more or less born again during his recent residency Down Under. First, he is about to become an Australian citizen, and says the contrast between his life in England ("They'd go miles to boo me") and Australia ("The country's most powerful men want to shake my hand") is the difference between "chalk and cheese." Second, after a fierce divorce, of which every nasty detail was smeared in tabloid headlines all across England, Bugner is married again. He has become a loving, laughing, almost burblingly happy husband to Australian-born Marlene Carter, a onetime war correspondent and show-biz columnist.
May 24, 1987
Third, the man British boxing writer Hugh McIlvanney once described as being "built like a Greek statue but with fewer moves" is now among the smoothest of socialites in Sydney. The Bugners are on the A list for every la-di-da function in town. Fourth, and perhaps most surprising, Bugner is once again fighting, and his middle-aged heart is set on a shot at Mike Tyson's WBA and WBC world heavyweight crowns.
Bugner's boxing reincarnation began on Sept. 15, 1986, when he climbed into a Sydney ring to fight James (Quick) Tillis, a reputable opponent who was ranked 16th by the WBC. After a 2½-year layoff, Bugner had reduced his weight from 280 pounds to 234, and though many in Sydney's boxing crowd viewed him as nothing but a soft-bellied society toff, he beat Tillis in a unanimous 10-round decision. Two months later, in another 10-rounder, Bugner outpointed seasoned heavyweight David Bey, who was ranked 18th by the WBC.
Suddenly, his comeback had a smidgen of credibility, and Bugner began envisioning one last title fight. Now ranked 20th by the WBC, Bugner is scheduled to fight former WBA champ Mike Weaver on May 29. Just two years younger than Bugner, Weaver has fallen to 18th in the rankings, but a convincing victory could move Aussie Joe a notch closer to a bout with a real contender. Bugner has no doubts about his ability to handle Weaver. "I am going to show the world that I'm not too old," he says.
It is one thing to try to delay old age. But why, really, is Bugner risking his pride and his comfort, to say nothing of his health, in this dubious quest for a championship he never came close to winning when he was much younger? His answer is quite direct. "Money's a big factor, I don't deny that," he says. "But there is something else. I've been criticized by the British media for so long for supposedly giving only half of what I have, for being a disappointment as a fighter. I intend to thumb it to them with this comeback."
Despite winning those 61 fights and more than $3 million in prize money, Bugner never gained the respect of British fight fans. A Hungarian refugee who sneaked across the border with his mother during the Soviet invasion in 1956, he grew up in St. Ives, England, to become a spectacularly proportioned youth able to throw a discus 183'11½" at age 14. When he was just 17, Bugner became a licensed professional boxer and immediately discovered the bitter end of the sweet science.
"In my first fight," he recalls, "I was dreaming I was Hercules or Tarzan, combing my hair or trying to get my best profile to the cameras, when the bell went off and the guy decked me. The next time I saw that opponent he was driving the No. 10 bus in Birmingnam.
Though many boxing writers came to believe that Bugner's place was also on a bus, he lost only one of his next 34 bouts. But he still had difficulties. In March 1969 he beat a fighter named Ulric Regis. The man died of a brain hemorrhage the next day, and some people thought that after that bout Bugner's punches were less punishing.
Bugner's victory over 'Ammering 'Enery Cooper in 1971 was another dark experience that should have been bright. Cooper was 36 and long over the hill. Yet 'Enery was a lovable bloke, and he had held the British title for more than 12 years. When the huge young Hungarian emigrant, 23 pounds heavier and only two days past his 21st birthday, was awarded a very controversial 15-round decision, the wrath of all England fell on him. "Oh, they were saying terrible things, insulting things," Bugner recalls. "They said, 'How dare a Hungarian be the champion of old England!' They acted as if now that Henry Cooper the king was dead, there could be no other king. To this day, they've never forgiven me for the disgrace I brought on England by beating Henry Cooper."
For many people, the high points of Bugner's career are three losses. One was his 12-round defeat at the hands of Ali in Las Vegas in 1973. Although soundly beaten, Bugner held on the whole way, despite suffering a deeply cut eye in the first round. The second was Frazier's 12-round victory over him in London five months later. Frazier decked him in the 10th, but Bugner rose to carry the fight to Frazier in the last two rounds.
The third notable loss was a purely defensive 15-round ordeal against Ali in 118° heat in Kuala Lumpur in 1975. After the fight, Ali brayed to the press, "This man is the next heavyweight champion of the world after I retire." Not many people agreed. Jim Murray of the Los Angeles Times wrote, "To the people of Kuala Lumpur, Western pugilism must seem like a concert where one guy is wheeled in like a piano for the other guy to bang on for 15 rounds. They must wonder when it's Bugner's turn."
Even though Bugner had 43 knockouts in his career, the criticism most often leveled against him was that he lacked aggressiveness. "In his prime," McIlvanney said recently, "Bugner did not lack strength, durability or willingness. But while he was no coward, he was never really a fighting man. Passivity was his pervasive flaw."
Nevertheless, one of Bugner's most painful defeats occurred because he fought when he should have run. In March 1977 he was to meet heavyweight Ron Lyle in Las Vegas. "Ten days before the fight, I splintered a bone in my foot," says Bugner. "I was under the illusion that I would fight Ali again if I beat Lyle, so I agreed to keep training. It was disastrous. I got the pounding of my life. I had two cracked ribs, a damaged kidney, a burst eardrum. The next day, everyone from my camp was gone, except my brother. I swore then I wouldn't fight again. I realized I was nothing but a piece of meat, a dollar sign."
He fled to Hollywood, a confused and troubled man. "I was a typical Hollywood bum," he says, "chains draped over my chest, Gucci loafers, hanging around the Playboy mansion from time to time and not a damned thing going on in my life. I had been taken for $1 million by my wife. I wasn't boxing. My ego was a wreck. I was lucky to have kept my marbles under all that pressure."
That he did was due in large part to a chance meeting at a Beverly Hills garden luncheon thrown by actress Joan Collins in June 1977. That is where, over the champagne and caviar, Joe met Marlene. At the time she was a show-biz writer for the National Enquirer. "It paid very well," she says of the scandal sheet, with no trace of embarrassment. "And I met marvelous people."
Marlene had departed her native Sydney in 1971 in order to become a newspaper woman of the world—quite literally. "They wanted me to write cookery at my paper in Sydney," she says, "and I wanted to be Brenda Starr." She wound up covering wars and politics from such places as Paris, Bangladesh, Saigon and Israel before settling in Hollywood in 1972 to write about celebrities. She was something of a fixture in the Hollywood social set when she and Joe found each other in Collins's garden.
When he introduced himself, he was too ashamed of his past even to tell her that he was a boxer and he mumbled his name so that she thought he said "Bloggs." She also assumed that he was an out-of-work actor because, she says, "That's exactly what he looked like."
She didn't know his real name or his profession until their third date, when one of Hollywood's paparazzi shot a picture of them kissing in a hotel, and a local paper ran the photo under the headline JOE BUGNER'S NEW BIRD. Marlene's 13-year-old son saw the picture and said to his mother, "What does Joe Bugner see in you? He's a great boxer."
From then on, Mr. Bloggs became Mr. Right, and the energetic, optimistic Marlene began a rebuilding job on Joe's ego. "I introduced him to himself," she recalls. "He had come to think he was a failure. He was a great fighter! They had just crippled him in England with their booing and their insults. I got him to see the greatness he had achieved—all those victories. I made him stop dwelling on the negatives."
Bugner agrees: "I had been thinking about the bad stuff that happened in England. With Marlene's help, I finally put all of that in the back of my mind. I got the idea of looking at my life ahead of me instead of behind me."
Marlene also had an idea to pull Joe out of his professional doldrums. She convinced him that he could act, then became his agent and found him work in Italy in a 1977 spaghetti Western, A Man Called Bulldozer. He was good enough to get parts over the next two years in several low-budget movies, including Buddy Goes West, Delta House and The Sheriff and the Satellite Kid. With Marlene doing the negotiating—she had quit the Enquirer by then—Bugner was well paid. They were married in November 1978 and wound up owning homes in Beverly Hills, the Napa Valley, Rome and London.
Then in 1980, after almost 3½ years in retirement, Bugner decided he wanted "one more fight," and he KO'd a palooka named Gilberto Acuna in eight rounds in London. Bugner didn't fight again for 20 months, but he was quite active from May 1982 to January 1984, fighting seven times, with five wins.
After that came a loss on points in February 1984 to Steffen Tangstad in Copenhagen. Bugner was so outraged by that decision that he and Marlene decided to leave boxing—and the Northern Hemisphere—forever. In March 1984 they moved to Sydney, bought a $250,000 apartment in the city's toniest suburb. Darling Point, which the hoi polloi refer to as Snob Village, and began one of the more unlikely incarnations in the many lives of Joe Bugner.
Not long after they hit Sydney, the Bugners found themselves in great demand by the social set. Eventually they became chums with many of Australia's movers and shakers, including Prime Minister Bob Hawke and his wife, Hazel. Joe and Marlene attended charity balls, theater openings and an array of dinner and cocktail parties. Pictures of Marlene in ravishing frocks, usually with plunging dècolletage, and of Joe in a tux or white linen suit started appearing in the local papers.
To everyone's amazement, the Bugners—without either inherited wealth or a pedigree—were a smash in Sydney society from the start. Says Roz Raines, who until recently wrote "Star People," a society column for the Sydney Mirror, "This is not such a big city and people can become well known very quickly. Joe and Marlene bring an incredible presence to any party. Their presence can guarantee a success. She dresses superbly and gives the impression of great wealth. Joe is very quickwitted and he looks wonderful. He's even made boxing trendy again."
That is easier said than done in Australia. Further, it's probably not true outside Darling Point. The promoter for both the Tillis and Bey fights was "Break Even" Bill Mordey, 50, a former newspaperman who says, "No one in Australia makes a full-time living from boxing. There just isn't enough of it. If I didn't put out a magazine, I couldn't make ends meet. Australians are very skeptical. They don't like being fooled by big publicity campaigns that try to inflate poor fighters just because they have come all the way out here to fight. They've been intrigued by Bugner, although they think his Aussie Joe act is perhaps a bit heavy."
Mordey has been delighted—and surprised—by what he has seen of Bugner in the ring. "When I first read in the paper he was going to fight again, I thought he was crazy," says Mordey. "I told him and Marlene that when they asked me to make a match. He said that he had watched on the telly while Tim Witherspoon beat Frank Bruno in London for the WBA title, and he knew he could beat either of them easily. Well, I was very dubious, but the next day I saw him spar, and I was surprised at how fit he was. When he fought Tillis, he showed me the best left jab I've ever seen a heavyweight throw. He was even better against Bey. I've seen videos from Joe's early fights, and he was always on the fence. Never made the fight. He's different now, aggressive. I really believe he can win the world title."
Little of Mordey's enthusiasm for Aussie Joe's potential can be found in fight centers around the world. In fact, Sydney isn't exactly obsessed with him, either. Break Even Bill did not break anywhere near even on Aussie Joe's two most recent fights; all told, he says, he lost $63,000 on them. Mordey has scheduled the Weaver fight for the Hordern Pavilion, which holds 5,500 people and is just half the size of the Sydney Entertainment Centre, which also was available. "Joe's top house has been 4,800," says Mordey, "so it's more realistic to go for the smaller of the two and have the place jammed, instead of people being sprinkled about here and there."
Mordey can't count on the local sporting press to drum up interest in the bout. The Sydney papers have written so little about the Weaver fight that some of Aussie Joe's chums on the social circuit have wondered why the couple has virtually dropped out of sight. He is, of course, training with utmost seriousness and cannot indulge in rich food or late hours. His training headquarters, a wonderfully nondescript little building called the Erskinville Police Boys Club, is in keeping with the less-than-gala buildup to the fight. Located in a working-class neighborhood, the gym has a small ring on the second floor used mainly for kids off the street.
Bugner's Australian trainer is Johnny Lewis, 45, a sign painter by profession who has become something of a legend for his success with local boxers. He trains the amateur kids from the neighborhood as well as such pros as Jeff Fenech, 22, an Erskinville boy who holds the world IBF bantamweight crown and is far more popular in Sydney's boxing community than Aussie Joe has been so far. Lewis is tough, smart and a relentless driver. Counting Bugner's two victories, his professional fighters have won 27 straight matches over the last two years. Bugner, who gives Lewis credit for building his confidence, calls him "my own low-key Angelo Dundee."
The Weaver bout is a do-or-die affair for Bugner the boxer. "I have very little time," he says. "If I beat Weaver, I still have only another couple of fights left in me. If I lose, it's over forever. But that doesn't matter to me. I can walk away from boxing because my life is full of other things. I've seen so many boxers who are nothing without it. They have no other identity except as boxers, even when they're old. People like to keep old boxers around like little boys, like pets. I wouldn't ever let them do that to me."
Says Marlene, "Joe can do anything he wants—television, movies, endorsements. We don't need a lot of money, not millions. We're well enough off. The English press wanted nothing more than to have him end up drunk and broke. Oh, they'd have loved that. But Joe doesn't need the English press. He doesn't need England."
"I have a whole race of people cheering for me—Aussie Joe! Aussie Joe! says Bugner. "I enjoy boxing now. I can fight off pain, fight off fear. I'm in great condition. I look good in the mirror."
"He's the Fountain of Youth," adds Marlene. "He has the body of a young man. He is the only white heavyweight in Australia, in the Pacific, in the Far East. He's a great commodity. After all these years, he's a new face."
What if Bugner beats Weaver? (The local odds are 6 to 4 in his favor.) Then his best-of-all-worlds scenario would be to move high enough in the ratings to get Tyson to notice. And if he loses to Weaver? Well, Aussie Joe isn't a bad name for a wrestler, is it?