In October 1993, Lennox Lewis fought Frank Bruno in a clash of British boxing titans at Cardiff Arms Park. It was a fight swirling with undercurrents of race and identity, and remains a classic to this day.
This article originally appeared on VICE Sports UK.
While the fight between Lennox Lewis and Frank Bruno may have been dubbed 'The Battle of Britain', many felt that it wasn't a representative billing. While Bruno was a Londoner born and bred, raised in Hammersmith to a Jamaican mother and a Dominican father, Lewis found his identity questioned by much of the media and the public, despite his huge success as a nominally British athlete. The controversy over his disputed Britishness stemmed from the fact that, despite being an East Londoner by birth, Lewis had moved to Canada at the age of 12 and had represented the True North at the 1984 Olympics, and again four years later in Seoul, where he won gold. He was Canada's flag bearer at the 1988 Olympic closing ceremony, though he had moved back to Britain soon after to begin his professional career.
Whether or not it was fair for the press and public to speculate on Lewis' national allegiances depends on personal perspective. Ultimately, it was a strategy for selling the fight, and one that played on a broader obsession with immigration, race and the intrusive desire to define which of those people who identified as British could, and could not, actually claim to belong. Lewis had repeatedly said that he considered himself British, though he was described as "a Canadian at heart and a Briton for convenience" in the media. That might not have been entirely unfounded, considering that he would go on to state in an interview in 2015: "When I turned pro, I had to go to the United Kingdom in order to pursue my career. The infrastructure to develop boxers wasn't in Canada then." Still, if Lewis had a complex and possibly conflicting set of loyalties, he certainly didn't say so at the time.
Going into the fight, the general excitement around the pairing of Lewis and Bruno was massive. It was a golden era for British heavyweight boxing, with Nigel Benn and Chris Eubank fighting their infamous rematch just over a week later. The clash between Lewis and Bruno was scheduled to take place on 1 October 1993, with Cardiff Arms Park the chosen venue. Lewis was the reigning WBC heavyweight champion, fighting the second defence of his belt after beating Tony Tucker by a unanimous decision that May. Bruno was fighting in his third world title bout, having lost his two previous fights against 'Terrible' Tim Witherspoon and Mike Tyson at his fearsome peak.
While Lewis was the clear favourite for the fight, both men had formidable records. Bruno was 36-3 and had beaten American boxer Carl Williams (aka 'The Truth') by TKO not five months earlier, while Lewis was undefeated at 23-0. Bruno was undoubtedly the people's champion, the maverick challenger to Lewis' smooth operator. Bruno did manage to ruffle his rival in the build-up, however. He pandered to the pre-fight narrative, saying that Lewis was "... not British," adding: "Nobody cares about Lennox Lewis in Britain." "I'm a little bit dark, but I was born in Hammersmith," Bruno went on in the pre-match press conference, leading Lewis to retort: "What was I supposed to do, not follow my mother to Canada? I've fought more British fighters than that guy has."
Looking back on these exchanges, the spectre of early nineties racism seems to loom large over proceedings. The fact that Bruno felt the need to qualify things with "I'm a little bit dark, but..." only adds to the sense that these were two men fighting over their British credentials, as defined by a largely white public and an even whiter mainstream press. For context, this was mere months after the murder of Stephen Lawrence, and much of the social and cultural change that came in the aftermath with regards to race had yet to take hold. Both Bruno and Lewis seemed to feel their selfhood was under threat, even if the latter was put under a much more blatant sort of pressure.
In the end, Lewis was drawn into the battle over identity, accusing Bruno of being an "Uncle Tom" and adding: "He makes a fool of himself, dressing up in girls' clothing on television." Bruno was already a television personality in Britain at this point, beloved by many for his gregarious character, sense of humour and occasional displays of total daftness. While others saw this as playing to type, living up to a form of caricature that deprecated his West Indian upbringing and roots, Bruno would later be diagnosed with bipolar disorder, which shines a rather different light on his extrovert public persona. Lewis wasn't to know this at the time but, nonetheless, he had given the fight an even nastier edge. Bruno had accused him of not being British enough, and now he had accused Bruno of not being black enough. Ultimately, 'The Battle Of Britain' had become a clash of origins, and one which gave an unedifying glimpse into the national psyche as a whole.
Frank Bruno performing at the Children's Royal Variety Performance in 1991
Whatever the rights and wrongs of his comments on Britishness, Bruno was certainly misguided in one of his criticisms. Ahead of the fight, Bruno said of Lewis: "I'm sick and tired of his pretences. He calls himself champion. He acts like he's a Sugar Ray Leonard, or a Willie Pep, or a Joe Louis." Comparing Lewis to those greats might have been a little premature at the time, but he was, undeniably, a champion. He would prove it when the two men met in Cardiff, under the menacing clouds of the Welsh night sky.
The fight was presaged by a barrage of fireworks, and a giant light display showing the two boxers mid-fight. Little known at the time, a young Joe Calzaghe had already fought on the undercard, and now it was time for the main event. Bruno entered the ring accompanied by his team, who carried a Union Jack high above his head. His robe was all in red, white and blue, while his shorts were even stitched with a pointed slogan: "The Real Brit". Lewis' entrance was understated but threatening, his poise and focus suggesting he was ready to fight the fight of his life.
With the roar of the near 26,000-strong crowd now deafening, the two men went at it. Bruno was fast and aggressive from the off, though Lewis won the first round regardless. Bruno fought with a virtuoso passion, throwing jabbing lefts and huge rights. In the third round, he caught Lewis with a thunderous punch to the side of the head which seemed to briefly rock the champion on his heels. Despite spending a spell on the ropes, Lewis soon recovered. Then it was straight back to work, with both men working their arms like pistons.
Watching it back now, the fight puts most of the heavyweight title clashes of the modern era to shame. Both Bruno and Lewis have enormous presence, and both men are giving everything they have to bring the other down. There is little rest and no quarter, with punches connecting like hammer blows on both sides. Forget the end result, even for a moment, and the excitement of watching them go to war is both incredibly visceral and painfully immediate.
With the fight reaching its brutal climax, at the end of the sixth round, the judges were leaning narrowly towards Bruno. The bell for the seventh went, and the vicious jabs began once more. Then, in a decisive moment, Bruno went on the offensive, landing punch after punch on a retreating Lewis, battering his arms with huge swinging blows. It was as Lewis was up against the ropes that the definitive punch came. With lightning speed, Lewis suddenly threw a gargantuan left hook which connected with Bruno's chin. From there, the fight was a foregone conclusion. Lewis battered his opponent with a storm of punches, even holding up Bruno's sagging head so that he could land a monstrous blow across his face.
After a brief intervention by the match referee, Bruno's relentless beating continued. Up against the ropes, clearly concussed, he struck a tragic figure: a doomed hero about to meet his fate. Clemency soon prevailed, and Lewis was declared the victor. The verdict was one of technical knockout, though it felt as if a poignant sense of defiance was the only thing that stopped Bruno from slumping unconscious to the floor.
"I think there was too much pride up there, and both boys forgot their boxing," promoter Frank Maloney said afterwards. "That was a real war up there. That was savage." It would have been hard to disagree with Lewis' manager at the time, and even more so in hindsight. Tensions outside the ring had come to the fore inside it, and the result was one of the fiercest fights of the decade.
"I don't keep no grudges, I don't hate Bruno," Lewis said in his post-fight interview, but there was little genuine rapprochement in the immediate aftermath. The things that had been said in the build-up couldn't be taken back, and the issues of race and selfhood that the fight had thrown up were as bitter as they were sensitive. In that sense, the fight was a snapshot of the early nineties, and a moment in time for Britain. Many things have changed with regards to national perceptions of identity in the time since and, then again, some things have not.