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. Winning via unanimous decision (115-113, 117-111 and 117-111), he made history as the first British heavyweight to win a world title on British soil and consequently lined up that rematch – nearly seven years to the date that they had first fought – with former undisputed heavyweight champion of the world, ‘Iron’ Mike Tyson.
16th March 1996. Weighing in at 247lbs to Tyson’s 220 and standing at 6’ 3” to Tyson’s 5’ 10”, those packed within Vegas' MGM Arena, as well as those watching on PPV at home, held expectant breath at the ponderable ‘Revenge or Repeat?’ Could Bruno achieve the unthinkable and prevail against a challenger widely and veridically marketed as the ‘baddest man on the planet’.
Bruno tempered the tactic of impetuous imprudence that he opened with during the first fight – clearly learning from the loss and resultant pain – instead replacing it with reactive and repetitive rotations of spoil, hold and lean. Tyson, in response, cut a patient figure, albeit one whom flashed fleeting expressions of frustration, catching Bruno on the breaks and wrestling to control the clinches.
In the intriguing, grappling battle of energy conservation, Tyson often placed his arms beneath Bruno’s before resting them atop the taller man’s shoulders, thus allowing him to drag Bruno down and expend the champion’s energy, rather than allowing his own to be sapped by the weighty lean of the champion’s heavier and considerable mass upon him.
With 30 seconds remaining in the first round, Bruno relapsed into abandoned unconcentration, relinquished the game plan and again masochistically regressed into enduring tenderising, heavy-handed exchanges. Tyson’s characteristic coiled squat and sharp reflexes – honed, hardened, complementary and synchronised through years of ceaseless repetition – unfurled to unleash a rapid succession of injurious overhand rights and left hooks. Thus, Bruno staggered to his corner at the end of this round confused, likely concussed and now disadvantageously bleeding from a laceration to his left palpebra.
He recovered his faculties and tactical sense sufficiently in the minute's reprieve to reconvene the game plan for the entirety of the second round; and whilst his preventative tactics were certainly neither explosive nor spectacular, they were also neither ruinous and as such could be respected and appreciated, especially when understood and empathised through the animalistic prism of survivalism.
Round 3 and much of the same was expected and indeed required from Bruno. Instead, with only 45 seconds elapsed within the round, the heaving champion adopted a lazy southpaw stance and extended a tentative jab followed by a languid straight left. Tyson dodged both without inconvenience nor disagreement and returned fire with a 13-punch combination of such preternatural ferocity, that in isolation the athletic bravura of this accurate assault transcended both its explosive and violent terrestrial nature. Instead, finding exult, apprecaition and recognition in that unspoken realm of our subconscious usually reserved for pure art and for momentary manifestations of unintelligible divinity.
Bruno sank between the middle ropes, too pained, discombobulated and stunned to continue. It’s unlikely he could appreciate the sublime beauty of the carnal savagery he had just endured, but he would certainly have felt it. Tyson, in the gestured way he would come to ritualise all successive victories, sank to his knees and bowed his head to the Muslim prayer position of the sujud, thanking Allah in the customs of the Islamic religion he had converted to whilst incarcerated.
In the aftermath, Bruno mooted the idea that he would like a rematch, a chance to become a world champion again and to contest a potentially legacy-defining trilogy against Tyson. Sadly, during a routine medical examination, he was told that this desire would remain forever unsated; that his right eye showed evidence of significant weakening and peripheral damage, which a heavy blow to either the localised area or his wider head in general would likely render him resultantly blind. Such a conceivable possibility would ensure that he could never fight under the sanctioning of the British Boxing Board again and so Bruno retired, or rather boxing retired Bruno. He was 34 years old. Without boxing, his post-athletic life became a succession of pantomimes, chat show appearances, bipolar-induced breakdowns, recovery, and mental health advocacy. He formed the Frank Bruno Foundation in 2008 and continues to be involved in boxing, now using it as a vehicle to help those suffering from mental health issues, to fight stigma and encourage social inclusion, as well as to also promote physical and mental strength, achievement and fulfilment.
Conversely, Tyson, aged 29 at the time of the Bruno rematch, continued to define this heavyweight era, drawing unprecedented public interest through a conflation of shock, intimidation, awe, and horror which lasted through the entirety of the 1990s and into a new millennium. He would be involved in world title fights against Evander Holyfield and Lennox Lewis and continued to fight until the athletically senescent age of 39, losing his final professional fight to Ireland’s Kevin McBride in 2005.