Frank Bruno: “I saw things I shouldn’t have seen”

British boxing legend Frank Bruno on being smacked as a child, his father's advice – and 'fighting with life itself'

I’d been to boarding school before I was 16 and now I was getting ready to come into the big wide world. I was a boy turning into a man. I was a pretty happy teenager. I was the youngest of six. I was the baby but I could hold my own with the adults and I had dreams and plans for what I wanted to do. My dad was a tough character but a man of few words. He taught me some skills for life. He told me he wouldn’t be here forever so I had to learn how to look after myself and work hard. He told me to trust nobody because everybody’s out for themselves.

My mum was very very tough with me, she took no nonsense. She was very strict on manners and she told me if I didn’t get a job within two weeks I would be out of the house. She was a district nurse, my dad worked in a paint factory – she had to drop it that way. She’d had a hard life. I got smacked very, very hard if I was out of order or didn’t act appropriately. In the olden days we didn’t have a choice, we had to do what our parents said. In the end I got sent to boarding school but eventually I thanked them for sending me. I could have gone the wrong way and that probably stopped me.

I got myself in a lot of trouble, and my mum and dad were frantic

I was a bit of a loner and when I did hang out it was with people older than myself. The good thing was I had an elder stepbrother who looked out for me. He was 6ft 6 and seven years older than me. He told certain friends, don’t get him involved in this or that, look after him. Don’t teach him the wrong way. When I got into trouble he always brought me back. He told me it wasn’t right for a young lad to behave like that.

I used to move around a lot, on bikes from when I was eight, then later on the bus if I had money. One minute I’d be in England, then I’d be in Scotland. I’d be all over the place with friends doing all sorts of things. Getting myself in trouble. My mum and dad were frantic and I got myself in a lot of trouble. Would I tell my younger self not to do it? Well, I learned a lot about life. About looking out for myself. Sometimes you can grow up too fast. I got pulled down by my brother but I saw things I shouldn’t have seen.

Frank Bruno fights Oliver McCall before becoming WBC heavyweight world champion
Frank Bruno fights Oliver McCall before becoming WBC heavyweight world champion

From the age of 10 I was down the gym. It changed my life. I started sparring the first day I went down there. I got beaten up, and the next day I went back for more. I wanted to get my revenge. From the age of 12 I wanted to be a champion boxer. People looked at me like I was cuckoo but I was a very determined character. I remember sparring with a guy who turned into a policeman later on. He beat me up, a good counter-puncher, a clever boxer, southpaw. As the years went on I started to keep up with him, though he was four years older than me. I only had three junior fights – won two, lost one. After I left school I started experimenting more, knocking boys out. I was in the local paper. I boxed for London, then England. Things started taking shape.

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I remember listening on the radio to fights with Muhammad Ali, my dad’s favourite. I remember the Frazier fight, the George Foreman, Henry Cooper.  If I wanted to inspire my teenage self I’d show him a film of the Oliver McCall fight in 1995 [above]. Because I won the world championship with that fight. I remember the moment I won. It was an unbelievable experience. I’d had ups and downs, a long journey, up to the top of the hill then being kicked down again. To actually achieve your dream, that’s an unbelievable experience. I was emotional for that one because I’d had four ­attempts previous to that. So to win, it was sensational.

To actually achieve your dream, that’s an unbelievable experience

Sometimes when you’re down, you need mental strength to get back up again [Bruno was sectioned in 2003 and is diagnosed as bi-polar]. Pride, dignity, everything is taken away from you. It would have been nice if someone could have supported me when my boxing career finished. As a boxer, you’re in a different reality. You live on the road. When that stops, reality hits. My trainer had told me, when you finish boxing the biggest fight is with life itself.

Frank Bruno and his mother Lynette
Frank Bruno and his mother Lynette

I felt pressure coming at me from all different angles when I stopped boxing. You’ve got kids, you have to look after them, make sure they’re happy. I didn’t try to hide things from my kids. I think they had a good life. But at the same time they were sheltered from reality. I was struggling. You’ve got a mortgage, you’ve got a car to finance, you’ve got a partner – you get divorced. That’s all stress, isn’t it? You look at yourself in the mirror, you’re not happy with your body. Your mind isn’t focusing properly, you feel lethargic. You go down the pub, you’re unhappy. And when that drink wears off you’ve got to get back to reality and get back on the conveyor belt. It could happen to anybody.

Let Me Be Frank by Frank Bruno (Mirror Books, £20) is out now. Signed copies are available at frankbruno.co.uk