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30 years ago: Tim Witherspoon KOs Frank Bruno

Wolverhampton | Sport | Published:

Tim Witherspoon has always maintained Frank Bruno beat himself in their world title fight at Wembley Stadium 30 years ago to this day.

Witherspoon is still the last American world heavyweight champion to bring his belt to our shores and defend his crown successfully,

writes Craig Birch.

'Terrible Tim' shattered Bruno's hopes of glory in the Englishman's first shot at global honours and extended Britain's near century-long wait for a world heavyweight ruler.

English-born Lennox Lewis finally put that to bed in 1993, some 96 years after Bob Fitzsimmons had made history. Bruno later got the job done, at the fourth attempt, in 1995.

But it was Witherspoon in the firing line back on 19 July 1986 with Bruno, fast becoming a darling of the nation, fancying his chances.

The 25-year-old had been European boss but he'd already been beaten and stopped once before, in the 10th and last round against James 'Bonecrusher' Smith two years previously.

Witherspoon had been robbed out of sight in his first world title opportunity, coming off second best to an aging Larry Holmes for WBC honours.

He then won and lost the WBC crown before picking up the WBA strap, with Bruno his first defence in his fourth world title fight.

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Aged 28, he'd come out on top at levels Bruno hadn't but was considered there for the taking, on appearance alone.

While Bruno looked to have muscles in his spit at their head-to-head meeting and the weigh in, Witherspoon was flabby even as a heavyweight.

The notion that the champion had arrived all of the way from Philadelphia in Pennsylvania without taking the fight seriously wasn't entirely accurate, though.

Nutrition had not been his strong point, true, and coach 'Slim' Jim Robinson took action when he got wind of it. Witherspoon had definitely ballooned since they got on the plane.

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The last American world heavyweight champion to retain his title in England - Tim Witherspoon in 1986.

He recalls: "I trained pretty good, but I started eating different foods when I got to England. It was my first time over and I'd never had to make weight before.

"I remember them sending 12 cases of orange juice to my room in the hotel, I was drinking that and then I was eating really well. I must have gained 7lb to 10lb.

"I was running a lot and still putting it on, then my trainer came in and saw the orange juice. I told him it was complimentary and he was like 'I think they did this on purpose!'

"I think I was 224lb when I left America and I wound up being something like 234lb at the weigh in. We gave the juice to my sparring partners!"

Witherspoon had been rendered out of shape, but he remained adamant would still be capable of beating Bruno on fight night.

His confidence soared, in fact not just because of the people around him but also because of the English public.

The man in the street had reservations about whether Bruno could pull it off and Witherspoon reckons it eventually told on their countryman.

He said: "A lot of people doubted him, claiming he was too muscular and things like that. When I came over and talked to the people, I noticed there were several different opinions of him.

"That gave me an edge. It was his first chance to become a world champion and a lot of weight was on his shoulders. He had a lot on his plate.

"I think that worked against him. I knew it and I took advantage."

Frank Bruno throws a shot at Tim Witherspoon in their world title fight 30 years ago to this day.

Before getting down to business, Witherspoon first had to run the gauntlet of a hostile Wembley crowd after 40,000 spectators packed into the stadium for an open-air show.

Bruno could punch, but Witherspoon had the ability to slip them. The American had a chin, too, whereas our Frank's punch resistance was already deemed suspect.

Boxing with a languid style suited Witherspoon over a long haul, with Bruno looking increasingly stiff as he blew himself out in the later rounds.

The fight was still relatively close on the cards when the end came, just three seconds before the bell was due to finish the 11th round.

Bruno first came forward to put three punches together to Witherspoon's head, only to be sent reeling into the corner from an overhand right.

Running for cover, Bruno escaped but could not defend the same shot three more times, dumping him onto his backside in Witherspoon's corner. In went the towel and it was over, without a count.

Witherspoon said: "I didn't want to go back home for people to tell me I'd punked out, with all those thousands of people there. That gave me energy when I got to the arena.

"I had the opportunity to show my talent, it was the ideal moment and, as soon as I walked to the ring, I really wasn't nervous.

"I knew the crowd were there and that they were really hostile. They wanted their man to win and were behind him, 100 per cent. I'm just glad I got out of there safe!

"I knew all I had to do was hit Frank solid on the chin and the fight was over. He was game but he was basic, although some of his combinations were good.

"He needed to learn a lot more to reach his goal, but he was in good shape. His muscles were as big as I had ever seen.

"I planned on taking my time, because I knew I could block his punches. That allowed me to relax a bit more.

"I knew I'd have to knock him out, that I'd have to hurt him in order for them to give me the fight. I took my shots when they came along."

Bruno was gutted in his first time on the big stage, with the bout starting at 1am to accommodate box office in the United States. He went home with $1.1million, though, as the beaten man.

Witherspoon took the belt home with $900,000 of the purse. After he lost his title, he would spend years battling his promoter, Don King, in court over his earnings.

Bruno said: "I felt like I had been beaten by the best heavyweight around, at that time. He was so under-estimated.

"Don King tried to take away the greatness that came from Tim. If you were looking for pound-to-pound, toe-to-toe and punch for punch, he was as good as they come.

"This man came from the ghetto and battled his way up to be as good as, if not better than Mike Tyson. I felt like he was up there with Muhammad Ali.

"It was a tough fight for me and I woke up looking like ET the next day! It was a war for 11 rounds and I got beat by the better man that night.

"Every time I went into the ring, I've gone in there to try my best and do my best, whether that ends up with me winning or losing. I have no shame in that.

"My heart goes out to any boxer, whether he's the champion or not, that loses a world title fight. I've got respect for anyone who is in that situation.

"I had no problem with my coach, Terry Lawless, throwing the towel in. He feared for my safety and did what he thought he had to."

Witherspoon and Bruno have become friends since and co-headlined Showfighter's 'A Night of Champions' event at Grand Station in Wolverhampton earlier this year.

They can happily talk about that punishing night now and the respect they have for each other, which began to grow the day after the fight for Witherspoon.

He added: "Frank is a really nice guy, he called me on the telephone to congratulate me in a way nobody in my boxing career ever did. I have to give him top respect."

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