Toughest battle of a national treasure

Frank Bruno in action and right with Nick Owens
Frank Bruno in action and right with Nick Owens

Former world heavyweight champion Frank Bruno found his toughest fight outside the ring as he battled with a mental health condition.

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Frank Bruno shuffled into the room, head-down, shoulders drooped, his loud, gregarious voice breaking with emotion as he introduced himself.

As he lifted his head his eyes were bloodshot, glazed and tired.

Frank and I may have been sitting opposite each other in the lounge of his favourite health-farm.

But the truth was he wasn’t really with me.

He was somewhere else - in the grip of the biggest fight of his life.

Days earlier he’d been in hospital, locked up and detained under the mental health act, after doctors decided he was a threat to himself and to others.

After finally winning back his freedom Frank had decided to give me a major newspaper interview, his first in two decades, to talk about his illness.

“Listen,” he said pulling his chair nearer to mine. “What happened in that hospital will live me with forever. I can’t ever, ever go back there. I have a simple choice now. I fight or I die.”

That interview was published in the Sunday Mirror five years ago.

Last week Frank and I were sitting opposite each other in a room again.

This time we were on the 31st floor of London’s One Canada Square skyscraper at Canary Wharf - the stunning sights of the capital glittering in a clear October night-sky.

Frank was wearing a yellow three-piece suit, a broad smile was on his face and his eyes were dancing with life.

“Brunooo, Brunoo, Brunoo,” went out the chant from the room next door.

“Wicked.” said Frank jumping up. “Guess that’s our cue to get out there boss. Come on Nick, lets go.”

To cheers and applause the pair of us then took to the stage in-front of hundreds of Frank’s fans to launch his new book.

Let Me Be Frank is the story of how one of this country’s most loved sportsmen won the hardest fight of his life.

For Frank that battle started after his retirement from boxing.

His career saw him win 40 out of 45 fights - the pinnacle coming, of course, when he beat Oliver McCall in 1995 at Wembley to become a World Champion.

But the following year Mike Tyson knocked Frank down and turned out the lights on his career.

Suddenly a man who, in 1996, was ranked the second most famous Briton behind Princes Diana, was lost.

A man who had boxed in-front of 30,000 people suddenly found himself alone.

And his life quickly crumbled.

But retirement from boxing weren’t the only blows that left Frank floored.

The suicide of his beloved trainer, George Francis and a painful divorce from his ex-wife Laura led to his life unravelling.

Frank was diagnosed with bipolar disorder - and the illness would lead to him being sectioned three times between 2003 and 2012. He checked into a hospital again in 2015.

For Frank, those periods in hospital pushed him to the limit.

As we reveal in the book, during his incarceration in Basildon Hospital, he was even attacked with a knife.

But, like all great champions, Frank refused to give up and, as his book reveals, his experiences in hospital provided a spring-board for change.

In the weeks after he left hospital Frank and I launched a campaign to raise awareness about the stigma surrounding bipolar disorder and other mental health conditions.

Frank has now become a crusader for the cause speaking out with incredible bravery about his illness and the need to improve services people receive.

Frank is now in the shape of his life. He lives medication free and knows his illness inside out.

Others are not so lucky and nowhere needs more investment and support for services than Preston.

Last year in a series of features our sister title the Lancashire Post highlighted how the city is now the suicide capital of the country. Blackpool is not far behind.

In our research for Let Me Be Frank we reviewed services up and down the country.

And Frank’s letterbox was testimony to the appalling lack of support people are receiving.

Those who are brave enough to ask for help often find the care they need isn’t on offer.

And, even if it is, people face a long wait to receive specialist treatment.

That’s why the legacy of Frank’s story is what he will be doing in days, weeks, months and years ahead.

His recovery has led to Frank forming a foundation which aims to offer help to those slipping through the net of the NHS.

By offering counselling, non-contact boxing and exercise the Frank Bruno Foundation will help save lives.

We are hoping his new book starts a conversation across the country about standards of care.

One in four people will experience a serious mental health condition in their lifetime.

So if you are reading this on the bus, in the pub or down the gym the chances are someone standing very near to you will be going through a problem and possibly suffering in silence.

Why not ask someone you think is going through a tough time if they need some support.

Speaking about his illness may have been the hardest Frank has ever done.

But it was also the moment his life changed forever. Now we want to help change the lives of others as well.

· To learn more about the Frank Bruno Foundation visit www.frankbruno.co.uk

Frank’s new book Let Me Be Frank, is out now published by Mirror Books. To buy a signed copy visit Frank’s website.

Author

Nick Owens studied journalism at the University of Central Lancashire.

He is now head of news at the Sunday Mirror and Sunday People.