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October 26, 2005

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MY DESCENT INTO MADNESS; The full, haunting story of Frank Bruno's decline into insanity has never been told. Now, in his autobiography, being serialised this week in the Mail, he reveals how drugs and the break-up of his family drove him over the edge.

The Daily Mail (London, England); 10/24/2005


FRANK BRUNO'S home, for the time being, is a deluxe health spa in rural Hertfordshire. As he lopes, sleek and muscular, through the plush afternoon calm of the foyer, heads turn.

Two old gents, retired military types with handsome moustaches, confer quietly.

'Of course, in many ways, he was miscast as a boxer. Far too nice a fellow,' opines one.

And this, in a sense, is the paradox that defines him: Bruno, a man who knocked people senseless for a living, who was once a world-class proponent of the most barbaric of sports, has, even in the melee of the ring, sustained a reputation for decency.

For six brief, glorious months in 1995 he held, for Britain, the title Heavyweight Champion of the World. In the adulation that ensued he did not forfeit his humility.

Then he lost his title to Mike Tyson, retired from the sport that had ruled his life since his teens and in the next few years lost almost everything else - bar the public affection in which he was held.

The chronicle of his afflictions began with his final defeat. Deprived of the purpose that sustained him, his mental health began to fail. His behaviour became bizarre and erratic, his grip on reality tenuous. Then, five years later, his marriage ended.

Laura, his partner of 20 years, departed with their three children, Nicola, 21, Rachel, 18, and Franklin, 11, leaving him to rattle aimlessly around the vast home in Stondon Massey, Essex, they once shared.

Bereft of the compulsion to train and removed from the family he loved, he shambled aimlessly towards mental breakdown. He derived comfort from sleeping in a boxing ring in the grounds of his house. He went for runs wearing a gum shield.

Invested in these acts of pathos was a palpable yearning for his glory days.

His weight ballooned, then plummeted. Then a six-month cocaine spree pitched him perilously close to psychosis.

'It was the worst thing I could have done in my state of mind. It took control of my brain,' he says.

It is this revelation - violently at odds with the sober, God-fearing Frank his public adore - that is the most shocking disclosure of his brutally honest and compelling new memoir, to be serialised in the Mail from tomorrow.

Bruno, 43, reveals how reckless experimentation with the drug compounded his illness; how it eventually contributed to his enforced stay in a psychiatric hospital two years ago - and how he fervently wishes he had never tried it.

His book tells the age-old and inspiring story of a young man of modest background, few prospects and volatile temperament, who channelled his aggression into boxing and rose from penury to fabulous wealth through his success in the ring.

A reform school graduate, he would have dissipated his life in menial manual jobs; possibly ended up in prison, had it not been for his will, his iron discipline and the prodigious power of his punch.

But his story is more than the cliched fable of a poor boy made good: it also offers a poignant insight into his vulnerability in the ring, the desolation he felt after defeats and the addictive but transient thrill of success.

In 1989 he suffered a bruising defeat in a world title fight against Tyson.

He takes himself back in time into the ring to recall the awful comedown of losing. 'I can hardly breathe. My legs are starting to go. Out of the corner of my eye I see Terry [Lawless, his manager] waving a white towel. I really don't want this. I want to go down fighting. But it's over.

'There's nothing to say. The adrenaline's still pumping, but I'm empty. All that work - a year-and-a-half of preparation and training - for this.

'I hear the fans still singing my name - Broo-no! Broo-no! - I've let them down. Again. I feel devastated and suddenly all alone. I can't share my humiliation with anyone. It's all down to me. I wasn't good enough.' Another defeat, against Lennox Lewis, ensued: there was the same awful anticlimax after the hyped build-up, the shame, the loss of dignity.

Bruno's mother Lynette - a retired nurse and Pentecostal preacher - begged him to retire from fighting.

BUT HE admits: 'I could not walk away a loser.

I'm a proud man. I'd have had no dignity if I'd quit then.' In the event, his self-esteem was restored. He won the world title he had spent his career striving to attain. In 1995 he beat American Oliver McCall on points before an adoring crowd at Wembley Stadium.

But the triumph lasted a mere six months. Then, once again - in his final fight before a detached retina in his right eye enforced his retirement - he faced his old foe Tyson. And once again, he was vanquished.

'Back in the dressing room I ached everywhere, but mostly inside,' he recalls. 'I wasn't a fighter any more. I was - well, I wasn't sure what I was. I was an ex-boxer with a dodgy eye. I was 35 and I didn't have a job.'

So began his painful decline into insanity. He spent recklessly, gave money away, hung out with strangers and descended into paranoia.

'I thought people were trying to attack me. Even at my son's christening I was acting strangely. I invited the whole world back to our house.' He was persuaded to see a psychiatrist, who diagnosed bipolar affective disorder - more commonly known as manic depression - but he refused to take medication.

Since his adolescence he had, he freely admits, used cannabis.

Could the drug have aggravated his fragile mental state?

Compounded by the tumult in his personal life and the cumulative effect of years of physical assault in the ring, it cannot have helped his condition.

Then he inflamed it still further: for the first time in his life, he tried cocaine. It happened five years ago. He was in Las Vegas with an acquaintance and a group of strangers who were already under its influence. How did the first hit feel?

'My heart started beating,' he recalls. 'I was full of energy, but it wasn't natural. It was chemical energy messing up my body and brain.

'Why did I do it? I don't know really. I was bored, away from home. I dabbled with it for six months and every time I came down I felt bad. Like I had one hell of a hangover. I had a headache. I felt sick, miserable. I thought: "This ain't doing me no good, man. It's a silly, crazy, foolish thing to do. It ain't me."

'A lot of things went through my head. I felt mixed up, paranoid. I knew it was dangerous. So I stopped.

I don't touch anything now. I don't even have a drink. I don't want to be involved in that way of life again. And I've spoken about it because I'm trying to be as truthful as I can.' THOSE closest to Bruno also knew the truth about his mental state. His brain was in tumult. 'My mind was whirling out of control,' he recalls. 'It felt like I was listening to three radio stations at the same time.

'It was all confusion, noise, hassle.

I felt weird, inhuman. It did not enter my brain to commit suicide - I'm not that brave - and I didn't realise how ill I was.

'The papers were printing photos of me cycling without shoes on and running in my gum shield. I didn't understand what they were writing. I was too ill.

'But now I know some of what they said was nonsense. They wrote that I thought I was the jockey Frankie Dettori. I didn't. But I do remember saying inappropriate things. I did say: "If Frankie can ride over 26 jumps he must have a lot of stamina in bed." And I told Harry Carpenter he looked sexy without his glasses.

'My family was saying: "Seek help."

I was up all night, my mind racing. I was confused and I was thinking too much. I didn't switch off.

'I'd phone people in the early hours.

Then I'd sleep at odd times; sometimes in the boxing ring in my garden.

A tank could have run through the place when I was sleeping. It wouldn't have woken me up.

'I was very, very confused and unhappy. I'd lost my wife, the kids weren't with me any more. I was in the house on my own and it wasn't a home any more.

I'm not ashamed to say I cried. My sister Joan was coming in to look after me. My mum would cook for me. I couldn't look after myself.

'Then George Francis committed suicide. I loved him like a father. He was funny, warm and wise. He'd been my trainer since I was 29.

'My own dad died when I was 15.

George was the man I turned to when I was down. I could always chat to George. So when he died, it was a big blow.

'He always said to me: "Frank, the biggest fight will be when you finish." I didn't realise how right he'd be.' Indeed, the knocks that assailed Bruno were remorseless. Finally, it was his daughter Nicola who called the ambulance that took him to Goodmayes, a psychiatric hospital in Essex.

He was sectioned - made an involuntary patient for 28 days, although he actually stayed a couple of weeks longer - on September 22, 2003. Police had to be called to his home to help the ambulance crew subdue him, so consumed was he with a rage, fear and confusion.

'I gave them a lot of verbal. I was very, very scared. Worried out of my wits,' he recalls. 'It was the sickness in my head that made me aggressive.

They gave me a shot in the backside. I went down like a tree.' It was, he says, the worst day of his life.

In hospital he was locked in; given more drugs to calm him and stabilise his moods. 'I felt trapped,' he says.

'People were telling me: "This is for your own good, Frank. There will be light at the end of the tunnel."

MY BIG sister Joan, who is a year older than me, very humorous but calm and precise, said: "If you don't behave yourself Frank, they'll put you in a worse place."

'She's a good girl. She gives it to you straight and I've always listened to her advice. They gave me some serious drugs. I couldn't function. I slept a lot.

But slowly I began to adjust.

'After a while I came to my senses. I calmed down. The noise in my head quietened. It was a relief.' It is a measure of the esteem in which he is held that Bruno received 10,000 cards and letters of support during his stay in hospital. He was comforted by messages of solidarity from people who had been through a similar mental hell.

His appeal extends outside the loyal coterie of boxing fans. The nation warmed to the low rumble of his pantomimic laugh, the 'Know what I mean 'Arry?' catchphrase; the sheer, guileless charm of the man.

Today much of the old Bruno is in evidence. He looks fit and toned. He is punctiliously polite.

He calls me 'Ma'am' and the waiter 'Sir'.

He supplies the requisite Bruno bonhomie. The rich bass laugh rumbles like overhead thunder.

The trademark patois bubbles up.

He even turns his illness into jest - 'I was a couple of tablets short of a prescription, know what I mean?' - because he knows how we love Bruno the Clown.

But I wonder, is he quite out of the woods? He still takes lithium to stabilise his moods. His daily workout is a compulsion: he needs the discipline of exercise to stop his mind from fragmenting. 'I was a prisoner of the gym when I was boxing. I still am.' And at present, while he househunts, he has no home. He has sold the old family home and for the past four months has lived in the cosseting but impersonal confines of this luxury health farm owned by a friend.

Does he worry that his mental illness will return? 'Not really,' he says. 'I would not put myself in that position. I wouldn't stress myself out. I know the warning signs now. I'd see it coming. I'd get some help. I know I have to eat properly, sleep properly, look after myself.' There is pathos in this isolated, self-sufficient image. Bruno has no new woman in his life. 'I've been celibate for quite a while,' he says.

'Mum tells me I should get my fishing rod out and find a nice girlfriend, some company. Every time I speak to her, I tell her how hard it is on your own. But I don't know if I want to get serious again. I'm not too sure. I can't believe how women are today. They really tell it like it is.

'You really have to have bottle to go out, get chatty, give off the vibes, get a date. So sometimes I just play dumb. And if I do ever find the right girl, I'd have to take her to the "family board". Mum would have to approve.

So would Joan. They'd both have to have their say if I want to settle down.'

Bruno, it seems, has always relied on the support of strong women. I ask if he has a close friend in whom he confides.

'I offer up the odd prayer,' he says.

'God is a good mate. I don't wait until I'm in crisis. I have the odd discussion with Him. I read my Bible. I still believe. It keeps me humble, gives me focus. My mum gives me some psalms to read.

She's a powerful lady. When she's at the altar she has a way of getting those lyrics over. She's a seriously wicked preacher.' He has been chastened by that foray into drugs, into the world of false friends and spurious pleasures.

'I go out sometimes and shake a leg, but people scare me,' he confesses.

'I'm afraid someone will spike my drink, so I pick and choose my mates carefully.' There is solace in the kids; in watching his son play football or his daughter Rachel - who is studying drama - in a production. He likes a game of chess, the cinema, a meal out - 'family pleasures' - he says.

Hardest of all, perhaps, is adjusting to the routine of a life unpunctuated by the adrenaline rush of triumph and the devastating lows of defeat.

'You have to learn to be content with reality,' he says. 'You have to learn to live a normal life, to be humble and grateful for what you've got. The buzz of winning doesn't last for ever. You have to come back down to earth in the end.'

TOMORROW: The day my world came crashing down

COPYRIGHT 2005 Solo Syndication Limited

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