Four full and long decades ago today, a somewhat unknown American heavyweight with a colourful and also ominous-sounding nickname came to town and broke the hearts of British fight fans as he did likewise to the chin of current hero, Frank Bruno. James Smith, better known as “Bonecrusher,” fought the unbeaten Bruno in London, and the man from North Carolina overcame a huge points deficit to score a most devastating knockout win.

Smith, a former college graduate (he would later go down in history as the first ever heavyweight champion to have graduated big school), arrived with the great Emile Griffith guiding him and working his corner. Just 13-1(12) as a pro, with Smith being stopped in his pro debut, “Bonecrusher” showed up in great shape, with him weighing a lean and muscular 231 pounds. Bruno, who had so many of us British boxing fans feeling, or perhaps more accurately – hoping – he would be the next heavyweight champ from these shores in what had seemed like an eternity; the last man to do the job being Bob Fitzsimmons, was always in superb shape, and Big Frank scaled 222. Bruno was 23 years old, Smith was 31.

The fight took place at Wembley Arena, and 9,000 fans showed up. The fight went out on BBC over here (ah, those were the days) and as such, many millions of viewers tuned in. What followed did not prove pleasant viewing for the Bruno Army.

Smith, steady on his feet but never fast, of foot or of hand, was seemingly content to be kept at bay by Bruno’s best weapon, his left jab. For round after round, Bruno banked the points. It was no classic, in terms of excitement or performance by either man, but the most important thing was the win Bruno would pick up, this his first distance victory; Bruno being 21-0(21) upon entering the ring.

Bruno, seemingly in complete control, came out for the tenth and last round with his 22nd win already being written up. But at around the 1-minute mark, Smith suddenly exploded into life. “Bonecrusher” tagged Bruno with a brutal combo as he had him stuck on the ropes. Bruno, unable to hold, took a rainstorm of head shots, most of them landing flush, loaded with venom. Finally, Bruno fell to the mat. It was disturbing seeing the out of it fighter looking around trying to figure out where he was as he lay on the canvas. On pure instinct, Bruno made it to his feet, but he fell into the arms of a handler upon doing so. It was over, and plenty of folks felt Bruno’s career was also done.

No doubt, it was a bad loss, an avoidable loss, but Bruno was far from finished. But for now, it was all nothing but an uphill challenge for Bruno. As for Smith, he would get a shot at heavyweight ruler Larry Holmes in his next fight, with Holmes stopping him in ten. Then, in late 1986, Smith shocked Tim Witherspoon inside a round to win a version of the world title.

Bruno showed dogged determination, with it taking him no less than four attempts, these spread across 11 long years after the Smith disaster, before he finally achieved his dream of becoming champion. Smith and Bruno never did box a rematch, but it sure would have been fascinating to see if they had done so.

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