25 SEPTEMBER 1993, Page 55


Fighting talk

Frank Keating

ONE FANCIES (know what I mean?) that Frank Bruno's grating public career of jar- ring and affected gormlessness — however lucrative it might have been for playing Buttcins in panto — will come to a judder- ingly sudden halt when Lennox Lewis clob- bers him next weekend at Cardiff Arms Park. Bruno's assumed guise of stage black thicko might have served Jack Benny's old sitcom butler, Rochester, well enough, but we have all grown up since then and Bruno's self-insulting antics (cued in ad nauseam and with pathetic relish by British broadcasters) must have had the country's black population wincing and cursing with embarrassment for the past dozen years.

The impressive athlete Lewis is a very different kettle of calibre and role model.

An open-air contest for the 'world' cham- pionship, under a raging moon in a field far away from London, will really 'turn on' and bring out the romantics of pugilism. Back in the moonlit mists of time, Humphries and Mendoza fought in Hampshire, at Odiham 205 years ago, after which Humphries sent his backer in the capital the battle report, 'I have done the Jew and am in good health.'

Daniel Mendoza beat Humphries in two return fights, at Stilton and Doncaster, and at Smitham Bottom in 1792 was recognised as champion when he walloped Will Warr. Then came Belcher and Cribb, Gully and Pearce. . .

Last week I had to go to Southampton, and made a detour from Newbury up to Hungerford Downs. It was difficult to sense what it might have been like — in the small hours in December 1821 — when Bill Neat fought 'the Gasman' Tom Hickman, and, according to the Landon columnist, Pugilis- tica, 'the capital waited for the result, which was being sent either by horseman or pigeon, and such was the intense feeling in the city that the streets were crowded all night as if an election contest was at its height. All were inquiring the result, which was known centrally about seven o'clock.'

When Tom Spring beat Neat two years later at Andover the venue was billed as 'somewhere between Bristol and London' to allow magistrates no opportunity of intervention. When the grand Herefordian, Spring, clattered the Irish challenger, Lan- gan, at Worcester racecourse in 1824, the billing was 'exactly 100 miles from London', although such vagueness did not stop the crowds coming, as the great Pierce Egan reported: . . . the roads in every direction round Worcester beggaring all description. . . The adventures at the Inns would furnish subjects for twenty farces, and the company in general in the city of Worcester was of so masquer- ade a character that it defies the pen; and even the celebrated pencil of a George Cruik- shank would be at fault to give the richness of its effect.

Cardiff on Friday night and Saturday morning 169 years later will not, methinks, quite measure up to that. Live television by Sky and a one-sided match-up does not suggest, as Egan noted, 'a perfect jubilee, full of gaiety, to the inhabitants'.

And once he has finished with the sur- geons and the smelling-salts, Frank Bruno will sit up and deliver a stooge-scripted quip with which to sign off from the back pages — for, it is devoutly to be wished, the very last time.