Former world heavyweight champion on battling his mental health demons, why Tyson Fury deserves his success and missing his old pal ‘Arry
Frank Bruno is the man who brought joy to millions but today, he just wants the quiet life. “I live at home by myself,” he says. “And I think I’ll die by myself the way things are going. I want to try to live a little longer, less stress.”
The life and times of Bruno, 60 this month, are far removed from the joker whose turn on the pantomime circuit made him such a familiar face over Christmas. There are the mental health struggles, the demons, the charity work – not to mention the world heavyweight title that was forged in a tough boarding school that he still calls “Borstal”.
Today, though, Bruno can be himself. And that means Franklin Roy Bruno, dressed immaculately in a checked blue suit and tie, and in good humour, is happy to look back on a life lived, sometimes brutally, in front of the gaze of millions.
At the Frank Bruno Foundation boxing centre in Northampton, he sits in front of a giant mural that depicts his fight with Oliver McCall at Wembley Stadium in 1995 when, to the delight of the nation, and at the fourth attempt, he claimed the world heavyweight title. But Big Frank is keen to reflect even further – back to the Sussex institution where he was sent following an altercation with a sports teacher in south London.
“Borstal is not a nice place to be,” he says. “All the bad boys who think they’re tough go in a blue van. When they got off the coach there would be so much testosterone they’d just start fighting each other. I said that ain’t for me. That was some crazy s—. All the bad people are supposed to be in London but they switched to a place in Sussex. It was tough.
“Those teachers weren’t messing around. If they did anything to the teachers, they’d be locked up. You have to treat the kids like that because they were out of order.”
Home life had not prepared him to be sent away. Famously, his mother, a district nurse, had said baby Franklin “punched a hole in his cot”, part of the legend which grew up around him as he knocked out or retired his first 24 opponents with a stunning muscularity.
“My mum went mad over my behaviour because she was always looking after me,” he recalls. “I cried for nearly a year when I went to Sussex. But it was the best thing that could have happened to me because I was hanging around the wrong sort of crowd and they were doing some shifty stuff. But I was always hooked on being with these people.”
Interred with a tough crowd, Bruno got a crash course in life at Borstal. “You learnt to look after yourself and watch your back. Some of them didn’t look after themselves and some of them are dead now,” he says. “Parker, one of my best friends, I went to his funeral and it wasn’t nice. He died and he wasn’t old enough to die.”
One wonders what those who scrapped with Bruno in Sussex must have thought when he was suddenly elevated to fighting royalty. The fights against Mike Tyson that stopped the globe, a world title win, an adoring nation – this was a man to be taken seriously in his sport.
So what of his rivals? It is Mike Tyson that Bruno remembers as “a horrible so and so. You’d hit him on his head and he’d still come forward. He had the strength of about 10 men. If you met him in the street he’d take care of business. He was a dangerous guy.”
There is little love lost, even now, for Lennox Lewis, who called Bruno an ‘Uncle Tom’, an insult suggesting the Londoner has sold out his Caribbean roots to become part of the white establishment. Even today, a reflective Bruno is still clearly hurt by the incident.
“He was upsetting me by saying some stupid things,” Bruno says. “I shouldn’t have let him. Only a two-faced rat could say someone is an Uncle Tom when his mother comes from the same Jamaica as my mum. I would never call my mum that or anyone that but he hit that low.
“I don’t need to come off my pedestal or grovel to him because he’s nothing to me. That was very nasty to say a thing like that. He can take that, thank you, and stuff it where the sun don’t shine. I should have beaten him. But the better man won on the night.”
What followed is a harrowing tale of how mental health can disintegrate. Recently, Bruno was sectioned during lockdown and he paints a bleak picture of what mental breakdown, and the treatment that follows, can entail. “I know what some people suffer,” he says. “I know there’s a lot of men out there, through the testosterone or whatever, they won’t admit that their arm is hurting or their toe is hurting or they’re not feeling too good in their brains.
“But they will get there one day and understand exactly what I mean. I wouldn’t like them to go down the same route I did, where I was forced to take medication and forced to take an injection in your a— every month. It ain’t a nice thing to go through. They never let you go through the doors to see what’s happening. The way they treat a lot of patients there is sad, very sad.”
‘Fury is a good man – deserves his success’
Bruno is busy these days, at openings, cutting the ribbon, meeting folk, and training at his foundation. “It’s a 12-week course,” he adds. “A lot of people are scared to come in but when they do their confidence is gone. I’m not teaching people how to box, I’m helping them.
“[It is] non-contact boxing, just to get some exercise. It allows them to get rid of the pressure they have. It’s a nice vibe. I can’t wait to get it moving. Tyson Fury has got his name in the picture to help the Frank Bruno Foundation and I will wait to see what sort of mood he’s in. He might be on a bit of a binge at the moment so I’m not going to push the boat out. He’s a good man, very kind. I want Tyson Fury to win because he’s broken through all the mental things that he’s had and deserves his success.”
On the current heavyweight scene, Bruno would like to see Anthony Joshua recapture his belts, but says that the former Olympic champion should go out and “bully” Ukrainian Oleksandr Usyk. He is also a fan of Fury, both men having had to deal with their demons, and would like to witness Fury and Joshua meet in the ring, believing it “would be good for British boxing”.
Bruno may have been a fighter as a youth but, he insists, that is not boxing. For him, a man who can talk with authority about the mental and physical benefits of sports, suggestions that boxing should be discouraged – or banned – are absurd. “Why should it be banned?”, he says. “Golf could be classed as a more dangerous game than boxing. What’s it done? Everything is dangerous. You can drive around in a borderline 200 mph car. They could die. Play rugby and you are the guy taking the knee and the foot to the face. That’s called rugby. Boxing is just one to one. Some people like running, some people like swimming, some people like the boxing exercises. It’s a very powerful game. It encourages youngsters to get involved.”
Fury and Joshua, Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather, Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier – for most boxers, it is a fellow fighter who they will forever be linked to. Not Bruno. Instead, he will always be associated with Harry Carpenter, the former boxing commentator who became such a close friend to Bruno before his death in 2010 and was the ’Arry in one of sport’s most famous catchphrase. “I do miss Harry,” he says.
“Sometimes you could ring Harry up and talk about something and get it off your plate. He was a very constructive, no nonsense man, very knowledgeable. But we’d have a laugh as well.”
Bruno has raised millions for charity, brought joy to the nation through sport and entertainment and has sparked an important conversation about mental health. But, he says, “I’m just a guy from south London. Nothing special. Just a ducker and diver.” Bruno, of course. is much, much more than that. And maybe the king of the catchphrase is deserving of a new one-liner: Arise, Sir Frank.
- The full interview Frank Bruno: Off The Cuff can be seen on the DAZN platform and App
- Frank Bruno 60 years a fighter – signed copies only available here