British Champ Frank Bruno Steels Himself for Iron Mike

updated 02/20/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/20/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

Rosy dawn has broken over London's Hampstead Heath. On a footpath, among anorexic-looking joggers, a huge, powerfully sculpted figure wearing earphones steams effortlessly over the crest of a hill. Frank Bruno, 27, the British heavyweight champ, is doing his daily six-mile run, part of his training for his Feb. 25 world title bout against the scarifying Mike Tyson.

For a condemned man—Bruno is an overwhelming 9-to-1 underdog—the 63", 230-lb. challenger is in remarkably good spirits. It's not just the $3.8 million he will earn; Bruno figures he has got a fighting chance against the 35-0 Tyson. "Americans think I'm the London Bridge that's going to come crashing down, but this London Bridge is full of concrete. Know wha' I mean?" he says in a cheery near-cockney accent. "I want to win so bad that if the fight took place 10 years from now, I'd still be waiting."

Truth is, it already seems like 10 years since this bout was first announced. Originally scheduled for last September, it has been postponed five times. Let's roll the prefight highlight film: Tyson drives into a tree. Tyson fires his manager. Tyson separates from Robin Givens. He breaks his hand. He's accused of pawing a woman at a disco. He and Givens reunite, then split again after Dr. Givens pronounces him a manic-depressive on national TV. He files for annulment. She sues for libel. He dumps his longtime trainer. "He's one confused dude," says Bruno, shaking his head.

When Tyson and Bruno do square off in Las Vegas, an estimated 5,000 of Bruno's countrymen will be there hoping to watch a British heavyweight capture the world title for the first time in 92 years. He is, many insist, a much more worthy representative of the sport than his adversary. After all, Bruno donates time to charity work, goes to church regularly (his widowed mother is a Pentecostal minister) and preaches abstinence from drink and drugs. "He is as he seems," says his trainer, George Francis. "He's a hell of a nice guy—a lovely person both in and out of the ring."

Despite a tendency to maul the language even more savagely than his opponents, Bruno is a popular guest on chat shows and a favorite in telly ads for candy bars and steak sauce. Besides making him known to non-fight fans, the commercials have made his trademark "You know wha' I mean?" a national catch-phrase. In August the fighter was even voted the Best-Dressed Man in Britain by the Menswear Association of Great Britain. Among the also-rans: Bonnie Prince Charles.

The heavyweight crown may be a little more difficult for him to wrest from its owner, since Bruno's 32-2 record has been compiled against noncontenders best known for napping on canvas. His last fight, a full 15 months ago, was a knockout of 37-year-old Joe Bugner, a relic from the Muhammad Ali era. His two losses, both KO's, came at the hands of journeyman Americans, James "Bone-crusher" Smith and Tim Witherspoon. "Bruno's got no chance," says Associated Press sportswriter Ed Schuyler. "Even if Tyson committed suicide, the odds would be even."

Bruno shrugs off such cynical sentiments. "When two punchers go into the ring, anything could happen," he asserts. "I'm putting my heart, my body and soul into this fight." He has certainly taken his training seriously, even that old boxer's dictum calling for celibacy. "No bonking for four months," he says miserably. More important, perhaps, Bruno has been working with trainer Francis on protecting his chin, which is not reputed to be the soundest part of his anatomy. "Bruno used to stand straight up with his chin up," explains Francis, 60. "Now he bobs and weaves. This is important to throw off his opponent."

Also in his favor, Bruno feels, is the fact that he once sparred with Tyson. "It's a big advantage," insists Bruno, "because a lot of guys are scared of him before they go into the ring. I know he goes to the toilet the same way I go to the toilet. He cries. He bleeds."

Bruno, who grew up in a working-class section of Hammersmith, London, was the youngest of six kids born to a Jamaican mother, who was then a nurse, and a Dominican father who worked in a cake factory. Rambunctious as a child, he remembers "running around and being a bit crazy, with my mother threatening to send me to boarding school." She did, shipping him off when he was 12 to four years of discipline and learning at the private Oak Hall, a special corrective boarding school in Sussex. "I hated her for it at first," says Bruno, but it was "the best thing that ever happened to me. It taught me dignity, to respect other people and be polite."

Later Bruno did factory and construction work. In his off hours he fought, winning the Amateur Boxing Association Championship as a teenager. He turned pro in 1982, and between the ring and his TV endorsements, he has done well enough to buy a five-bedroom home in Essex, with a pool in back and a silver Mercedes-Benz parked out front. These he shares with his live-in lover, Laura Mooney, 29, and their two girls, Nicola, 6, and Rachel, 2. Frank and Laura have been "dating" for nine years, but the ever-cautious Bruno hasn't yet made up his mind about matrimony. "I don't want to rush into anything and get divorced," he says.

Because he doesn't wish to be divorced from his senses, either, Bruno figures to be equally deliberate when he goes up against Tyson. Yet he feels no fear. "I feel very confident," he says. "One thing I can't stand is losing."

—Jack Friedman, and Laura Sanderson Healy in London

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