HE'S NO. 13 : Bruno's Luck Doesn't Figure to Be Any Better Than That of 12 Other British Heavyweights Since 1900

Times Staff Writer

Given the track record of his British predecessors in this century, zero for 12, the odds against Frank Bruno winning the heavyweight boxing championship at the Las Vegas Hilton Saturday night, 7 1/2-1, look about right.

On the other hand, given Mike Tyson's most recent performances in the ring--his last three opponents have lasted less than a total of seven rounds--90-1 might be more like it.

But this sunny, smiling son of London's blue-collar Wandsworth District will nonetheless step through the ropes Saturday, becoming the 13th British heavyweight to challenge an American for the heavyweight title in the 20th Century. And no one predicting an upset has yet been found, not even among the 40 or so British journalists on hand.

"Most people back home are just hoping he can give Mike a good fight, maybe extend him a little bit, not get embarrassed," said Colin Hart of the London Sun.

Bruno has seemed quietly confident. "I'm relaxed, I'm quite confident," he said. "I respect Mike Tyson, but I don't fear him. I respect any man who has the courage to step through the ropes."

Bruno, who has 31 knockouts in his 32-2 record, is England's most popular sports figure, according to British writers. His chiseled face is on television and in newspapers daily. He earns a six-figure income endorsing products.

In England, anything this guy does is news. Last September, a nation was transfixed as news reports came in from Jamaica, where Bruno, caught in the 200-m.p.h. winds of Hurricane Gilbert, protected his girlfriend and two daughters with his body.

For the hurricane he figures to see Saturday, they say he'll earn about $3.6 million, plus what he earns from British closed-circuit and cable television. The total could hit $6 million.

He's an open, affable man, who, like his opponent Saturday, spent a term or two in what the British call a "special school." In Tyson's case, it was called reform school.

Bruno's family arrived in London from Jamaica in the late 1950s. His father died when he was 11. His mother, Lynette, is a nurse and a Pentecostal evangelist.

At 27, Bruno is almost 6-foot-4 and should weigh about 225 Saturday. He was almost that big when he was 15, and a schoolyard bully. His mother, unable to control him, enrolled him in a "special school" outside London.

As British boxing writer Hugh McIlvanney put it, the school, Oak Hall, was for youngsters "who were not yet delinquent but were heading enthusiastically in that direction."

At Oak Hall, someone taught big Frank how to box. In short order, just after Bruno turned 18, England had its youngest amateur heavyweight champion.

He turned pro in 1982, and knocked out his first 21 opponents. Excitement grew. Crowds began watching his East London workouts, in a gym above a pub.

Then Bruno met Bonecrusher Smith in 1984, in London. In a 10-rounder, Bruno, by all accounts, won at least seven of the first nine rounds. But he came apart in the 10th and Smith knocked him out.

He knocked out four more opponents--including Gerrie Coetzee in one round--and earned a World Boxing Assn. title bout with Tim Witherspoon at London's Wembley Stadium in July, 1986.

It was the Smith fight all over again.

Before 40,000, Bruno, ahead on everyone's card, was knocked out in the 11th.

Now you know why the odds are 7 1/2-1. When Tyson beat Smith on a decision in 1987, he won nearly every round.

Is there any way Bruno can pull this off and become the Englishman who finally reverses his country's nine-decade losing streak against American heavyweight champions?

Not many in England think so, but they'll love him just the same.

"He's so popular, I think he'll be a hero if he lasts more than 91 seconds," said Hart, alluding to the time it took Tyson to dispatch Michael Spinks last June.

"If he goes two or three exciting rounds, that would be even better. If he wins, they'd probably make him a duke, he'd visit Buckingham Palace . . . "

Despite widely held beliefs that he will lose, Bruno remains optimistic.

"If I paid attention to what everyone said about me, I wouldn't get out of bed in the morning," he said.

Of his losses to Smith and Witherspoon, he reminds critics he's older and stronger.

"I'm more of a man now than when I fought Witherspoon, mentally and physically," he said.

He may stand little chance of beating Tyson Saturday night, but with most of those he has been in contact with the last seven weeks, he would win a unanimous popularity decision.

The hotel staff threw a party for him when he broke early camp in Scottsdale, Ariz., and those there said that some of the employees shed tears when he left.

Things haven't been nearly that sweet at the Las Vegas Hilton, however. Bruno was reportedly upset that his suite wasn't made up when he arrived in town, that no limousine was provided to take him to his workouts and that the hotel wouldn't give him a Tyson-Bruno T-shirt.

Honest.

Embarrassed, Team Bruno called a news conference, where everybody apologized. "It just slipped out of my mouth," Bruno said.

Bruno would also win a beefcake decision. If no one had ever seen or heard of either fighter, no one would bet against Bruno when they take their robes off.

Bruno is all lean slabs of muscle. And much taller than Tyson. He is also, most agree, strong enough to hurt the champion, maybe to even knock him off his feet.

But he couldn't do it to Smith or Witherspoon, so . . .

Camp Bruno talks a good fight, in the face of the odds. "I guarantee you're going to see one of the best fights you've ever seen here in the U.S.," said his trainer, Terry Lawless.

At a press conference Wednesday, after Don King had talked for 45 minutes, Bruno stood up and spoke for one minute. "Don King makes Mike Tyson out to be Superman, but I've got the Kryptonite, right here," he said, showing his right fist, then sitting down.

Since his arrival here, Bruno has been seeing a psychiatrist, who comes to the Hilton every day to put Bruno under hypnosis. It's a form of relaxation therapy, Bruno's camp explains. They say the challenger was in excellent physical shape in the bouts he lost, but that prefight tension drained him.

And Bruno has had plenty of time to get tense. This fight, because of the Tyson-Robin Givens soap opera divorce and other problems, was postponed five times.

Originally, it was to have been held in London. When the site was switched to Las Vegas, the Hilton compensated British promoters, as well as Bruno. "I don't fear any man, but I do fear losing," Bruno said. "I fear making a fool of myself in front of millions of people."

That could happen, Frank.

This is an impressive-looking challenger, but one who stands straight up, throws one punch at a time, exposes his chin, is slow as a statue and has a history of wearing down in the late rounds.

But stop worrying, Frank. If you wind up looking foolish against this guy, you'll have lots of company.

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