Updated: Feb 26, 2020
"Out on bail, fresh out of jail, California dreamin’’ is the mellifluous opening lyric to the second verse of Tupac’s 1995 hip-hop anthem California Love. But what does this have to do with Mike Tyson vs Frank Bruno II, you may wonder. Well, apart from the ominous link that the fight took place in 1996 in Las Vegas, Nevada, the same year and location that Tupac was questionably murdered, and the tenuous link that Nevada neighbours the sunshine state of California...at the time of their second fight, bear with me, Mike Tyson was quite literally fresh out of jail...
The Build Up
The two men first fought in February 1989 for Tyson’s undisputed WBA, WBC, IBF and lineal heavyweight world titles. This was Bruno’s second attempt at becoming a world champion and he came into the fight with a prestigious record of 32-2. His two previous loses occurred via knockout: an 11th round TKO loss to Tim Witherspoon in July 1986 – when Bruno was challenging for the WBA world heavyweight title – and a May 1984 loss to James Smith (44-17-11), when Bruno was knocked out in the last round of a fight he was winning comprehensively and leading unanimously upon all three judges’ scorecards.
Bruno was a former European heavyweight champion, popular within both the esoteric circles of a marginalised boxing fanbase, as well as appealing to the lucrative crossover audience of the inclusive British public, being a beloved and celebrated sporting personality within his native England.
Frank’s marketable popularity was indeed so exploitable that the first fight was initially due to be held at London’s Wembley Stadium. But whilst Tyson’s personal botherations (divorce, as well as a split from long term trainer and beneficent influence, Kevin Rooney), physical hindrances (breaking bones in his hand during a street fight as well as knocking himself unconscious during a car accident) and legal inconveniences (unresolved financial issues between his manager, Bill Clayton, and his promoter and soon-to-be manager, Don King) not only delayed the fight, they ultimately precluded him from travelling internationally, meaning, unavoidable, that the contest would have to be staged within the United States, with the iconic Las Vegas Hilton hotel chosen.
Tyson came into the fight on the back of four successive KO victories, the most recent of which had been a first-round annihilation of a quondam two-weight world champion (light-heavy and heavy), Michael Spinks (31-1). As the bell sounded, he and Bruno began trading flurrying fusillades of fisted malevolence; Tyson knocking Bruno down early to the count of 4 and Bruno closing the round by meaningfully rocking Tyson for the first time in his career. Sadly, this furious pace could not sustain and from the second round onwards, Bruno’s cavalier aggression emerged misguided. A combination of holding, dogged resilience, and liberal refereeing conspired to allow him to reach the 5th, where two uppercuts and a trademark Tyson left hook landed upon his backed-up and battered frame, giving Richard Steele no defendable alternative but to bring a premature end to the fight.
It was following this contest, however, that the careers of both men, once correlative through their shared identities as professional boxers, began an intermittent period of unexpected divergence. Whilst Frank’s career continued to progress upon a similar trajectory as before, the turmoil in Tyson’s private life began to accelerate. Divorced and separated from many of the anchoring and trusted influences that had supported his rise to become the youngest and possibly most feared heavyweight champion who ever lived, Tyson began a destructive, self-indulgent period of extracurricular drinking, illicit drug abuse and womanising. The rigours of training, once habitual, were neglected; his mental focus was lost, both becoming sufficiently degraded to the point that in February 1990 he lost his heavyweight titles to 42-1 outsider, Buster Douglas. Just over a year later his decline reached its punctuating nadir, as he was arrested and sentenced to six years imprisonment for the rape of 18-year-old-Miss-Black-Rhode-Island, Desiree Washington.
Frank, as aforementioned, conventionally used the three years Tyson would eventually serve in a continuance of the institutional behavioural pattern particular to professional boxers, by winning ranking eliminator contests to earn further world title opportunities. The first came for the WBC title in October 1993, when Bruno challenged the then-undefeated Lennox Lewis (41-2-1). Billed as ‘The Battle of Britain’, the fight was close as it went into the 7th round. Two judges had it level, the other 59-55 in favour of Bruno. Despite this, Bruno’s face was significantly swollen and his eyes distended to the point of near-complete closure, the cumulative result of precise, unceasing and uncontested Lewis jabs. A minute and eight seconds into this 7th round, a three punch combination – an overhand right to the back left of Bruno’s head, a glancing left uppercut followed by an unseen and unimpeded straight right – thrown following a Lewis left hook which landed flush as they broke, had Bruno out on his feet and the referee, Mickey Vann, between them waving to signal the end of the fight.
Tyson remained incarcerated as Bruno worked his way to a 4th title shot, but he had been released on parole by the time this championship contest finally took place. 2nd September 1995 and it would be the apotheosis of Frank Bruno’s professional career as a heavyweight boxer. Prior to the fight, Don King had ensured that Tyson had leapt to the fore of the WBC rankings, replacing Lennox Lewis upon a pay-per-view 3rd round KO victory over Buster Mathis Jr. Don also promoted the WBC champion and Bruno’s championship opponent, Oliver McCall (59-14); and brokered an arrangement that whoever prevailed between Bruno and McCall would then face Tyson as their mandatory next defence.
Bruno outclassed McCall at a packed Wembley stadium. Win