Twelve seconds into saturday's heavy—weight championship fight, it looked like a typical Mike Tyson blowout. On the floor of the ring in the Hilton Center in Las Vegas was Frank Bruno, the contender. It was a spot familiar to British heavyweights.
But with a stout heart, Bruno raised his 228 pounds from the scuffed matting. He was dazed but unafraid. Later Tyson recalled saying, Oh, man, to himself as he saw the heavily muscled Briton pull himself up. No one, Tyson included, expected Bruno, a 10-1 underdog, to win; in his only previous shot at the heavyweight crown, against a portly Tim Witherspoon in July 1986, in London, he had been stopped in 11 rounds. Bruno subsequently won four fights, but while those victories regained for him the status of No. 1 challenger, they didn't convince anybody that he was a serious threat to Tyson. Bruno's most recent victory, in October 1987, was an eighth-round KO of 37-year-old Joe Bugner, whose principal credential was that he had once fought for the title—back in 1975, when he lost a 15-round decision to Muhammad Ali.
The only thing missing from the prefight evaluations of the challenger was a drummer to underscore the one-liners. A sampling: "Bruno has found a way to beat Tyson. They just wouldn't let him bring it through the metal detector at the airport." Ka-boom! "Bruno may be the first contender to be carried into the ring." Ka-boom! And: "When he gets hit on the chin, watch out for flying glass." Ka-boom! The contender got little respect in Vegas.
Tyson may have taken Bruno lightly, and for sure he was in need of work. He toiled for only 19 minutes and 20 seconds in the ring last year and not at all since June 27. He knocked out Larry Holmes in 11 minutes and 55 seconds, dispatched Tony Tubbs in five minutes and 54 seconds and labored all of 91 seconds to stop Michael Spinks before taking time out to divorce his wife, sue his manager, fire his trainer, break his hand in a street fight, smash up some of his cars and—have we missed anything?—have his mental health questioned on TV. At once rusty and supremely confident, the champ seemed to have transformed himself from efficient fighting machine to playground brawler. In stopping the courageous Bruno in the fifth round, the 22-year-old titleholder was often more undisciplined than he was skillful.
March 6, 1989
After Bruno regained his footing in the first round, Tyson furiously charged in to resume the attack. The champion was bent on hammering Bruno into the deck, with no thought for his normally sound defense. In the 31-KO thunder of his 35-0 record, that defense is frequently overlooked. It is not a classic defense—he does not have the educated legs of a Gene Tunney or the uncanny reactions of an Ali, nor can he consistently muster the parries of a Jack Johnson—but Tyson is a master of the peekaboo style. He holds his hands high, almost tight to his cheeks, in the manner drilled into him by his late manager/mentor Cus D'Amato. Tyson makes that shield even more difficult to penetrate with nonstop bobbing and weaving. He is never still in the ring. Spinks was a sharpshooter, yet in his brief appearance against Tyson he threw nine hard right hands—and landed zero.
While winning 32 of 34 bouts, Bruno had scored 31 knockouts, but Tyson fought as though the 27-year-old challenger from Hammersmith, England, had nary a KO to his name. The champ seemed to be almost daring Bruno to hit him, coming in uncovered as he fired wide and wild, his gun sights off center, clearly showing the effects of his eight-month layoff.
The ponderous 6'3½" Bruno employed tactics that further diminished Tyson's accuracy; the Briton spent much of the first four rounds with his left glove cupped around Tyson's 19¾-inch neck, which he seemed intent upon pulling down around knee level. In the first round, referee Richard Steele penalized Bruno one point for holding and rabbit punching, which deterred the challenger not one bit.
"Tyson's a dirty fighter, and the way you fight dirty fighters is by dirtying back," said Mickey Duff, Bruno's comanager. "He butts like a billy goat. Bruno was just protecting himself." Tyson did nothing to disprove Duffs argument: the challenger was constantly punished with Tyson's elbows and forearms, and he was hit when down in the first round and rocked hard by a left hook after the bell ending the third.
Across the ring, Tyson's camp wasn't all that happy with Bruno's manners. "Steele was too lenient," said Jay Bright, the chief second of the champion's all-new corner crew. "Bruno was fighting him very dirty. Very dirty."
Even the bout's start was flawed: Both fighters tried to claim ring center before the opening bell, and Steele had to order them back to their corners. Hardly had the fight begun before Tyson stunned Bruno with a short, looping right to the jaw that splayed the challenger's legs and sent him stumbling backward. Leaping in, Tyson clubbed the back of Bruno's head with another right, driving him to one knee. It was then, before Steele could intervene, that Tyson nailed the fallen challenger with a grazing right uppercut to the side of the head.
Back on his feet, Bruno nodded when Steele asked him if he was all right. Later in the round he caught the recklessly charging Tyson with a jarring hook to the jaw, freezing the champ for a moment. A few seconds later Bruno fired a combination—straight right, left hook—to the jaw that forced Tyson to back up a step. "Yeah, I was stung—I could feel my legs twitch," Tyson said with a shrug later. "But I expected it. We are in the hurt business."
For all the admiration Bruno earned, in particular from the 2,000 of his countrymen in the announced crowd of some 9,800, he displayed more stubbornness than skill. He tends to stand up straight and has very little mobility, and his pawing jab did not prevent Tyson from bulling in. After the third round, Tyson sensed that the challenger was wearing down. "I could feel him breaking slowly," the champion said.
In his corner, Tyson's novice seconds were all but begging him to go to the body. Tyson's former trainer, Kevin Rooney—fired for "disloyalty"—was working with two amateur boxers at a Golden Gloves tournament in Schenectady, N. Y. Another of the champ's former cornermen. Steve Lott, watched the bout with the spectators in the Hilton Center. "It doesn't matter what they tell him in the corner—Mike won't listen anyway," said Lott, grinning.
Bright, who grew up with Tyson in D'Amato's Catskill. N.Y., home, was working his first pro fight. His instructions to the champ were to attack Bruno with rights to the body, followed by left hooks. "I watched enough tapes of Bruno to know that he could be hit," said Bright. "We kept telling Mike to do the things we had practiced, but he stayed too far away. He should have been right on top of Bruno."
In the fourth and fifth rounds, as Bruno continued to unravel, Tyson did begin to snap right hands to the body. "How dare these boxers challenge me with their primitive skills?" he would say. "It makes me angry. They're just as good as dead."
Midway through the fifth, Tyson dug a left hook into Bruno's right side, drawing a grunt of pain. Seeing Bruno moving back against the ropes, Tyson caught the challenger with a right-left combination, forcing him to cover up. The champion paused, ever so briefly, and studied his opponent, a butcher calculating the quickest way to carve a side of beef. Tyson turned slightly to the left, feinting a hook, then shifted quickly to his right and fired two flashing rights. The first caught Bruno in the side; the second started low and screamed upward, catching the challenger under the chin, lifting his head up and back. That was it. The barrage continued and Bruno's face turned bloody. Steele stopped the fight at 2:55 of the round.
Before the bout, veteran trainer Eddie Futch had lauded Tyson as "the hardest-punching heavyweight since Joe Louis." Nobody disputed him. Like Louis, Tyson showed that even on a bad night, he can be daunting.