Frank Bruno’s hands may have knocked out 38 heavyweights over the course of his legendary boxing career, but they look so very delicate as he cradles his precious first grandchild.
Just four weeks old, Amaya Georgina Bruno-Hardy nestles into the former world champion’s protective embrace as his hands gently curl around her.
A mutual fan club of two, she gazes up at 56-year-old Frank, whose granite features split into a proud-as-punch grin. Planting a kiss on her cheek, he softly coos: ‘Are you all right, lovely? Aren’t you beautiful.’
Introducing the newest member of the Bruno family, they make quite a double act: not so much Little and Large as Teeny and Titan.
Very ‘appy’: Frank Bruno with daughter Rachel and baby Amaya, above
So how does Big Frank — master of the pro-fighter’s stare-down and comic ‘Know What I mean ‘Arry’ catchphrase — feel about his reincarnation as hopelessly soppy new grandad?
‘Appy, very ‘appy,’ he says, filling the room with that familiar deep bass chortle. ‘It’s like a fairy story with a happy ending. Know what I mean?’
Amaya was born on July 14, weighing 8lb 5oz, to Frank’s younger daughter Rachel and her husband Bobby Hardy, a 34-year-old company director.
Bruno admits that waiting for Rachel to give birth, he was more nervous than before any title fight.
Anxiously pacing the corridors of Basildon Hospital in Essex, he prayed mother and baby would be well after Rachel’s three-day labour failed to progress and she had an emergency Caesarean.
Frank met Amaya just 20 minutes after her safe arrival as 31-year-old Rachel, who suffered gestational diabetes, lay elated but exhausted in the recovery room.
Posting a picture of Amaya’s feet, framed by Bobby’s hands in a heart shape, he tweeted: ‘Today I became a grandad and my daughter became a Mummy. Proud doesn’t even come close to how I feel today. So much love.’
Rachel laughs: ‘It was love at first sight. Dad’s totally smitten. I can’t remember seeing him so happy. He can sit and just stare at Amaya for hours.’
This is quite some comeback for Frank Bruno — one which Rachel once feared would never happen, when his long, well-documented battle with mental illness threatened to rob him of his sanity.
Diagnosed bipolar in 1998, and sectioned three times when the illness overwhelmed him, Rachel feared she’d lost the dad she knew and loved.
Proud as punch: Frank Bruno with daughters Nicola, then nine, and Rachel, aged five
But today, for the first time in years, she feels she can say: ‘I have my father back.’
‘When he was ill, Dad would completely withdraw from his family. We’d see him on birthdays and at Christmas, but since Amaya’s birth, I think I’ve seen him more in the past four weeks than the past four years,’ she smiles.
‘I didn’t think we’d ever be in this position. I never thought we’d regain our family like it is now. It’s so nice to have us all healthy.’
Remarkably, Frank reveals he’s been medication-free for two years and says: ‘This is the best I’ve felt in my life.’
He is under no illusion that he is cured — he accepts bipolar is a life-long condition — but he believes he is finally winning what he describes as ‘the biggest fight of his life.’
Only two-and-half years ago, Rachel was distraught when, in the grip of another episode of ill-health, Frank made the shock announcement on ITV’s This Morning that he was coming out of retirement to box again at the age of 54.
In a moving interview with this paper, Rachel begged her father to reconsider. The comeback, which never would have been allowed by the British Boxing Board of Control anyway, was quickly abandoned.
Today, sipping on a beetroot smoothie, Frank appears so relaxed and comfortable in his own skin, you’d never imagine he’d ever been ill at all if you didn’t know about his troubled history.
At 6ft 3in and just over 16 st of solid muscle, Frank still trains and looks as fit now as he did in his prime — and hardly a day older.
‘I could easily run a marathon or go 12 rounds in the ring,’ he says, but quickly adds: ‘Don’t get me wrong, it’s definitely not happening. No, no, no. I still love boxing but there’ll be no comeback. I really have thrown in the towel this time.
‘I’m very proud of everything I achieved in my career, but my family has always been more important than any title. I’m happy just to be Grandad now.’
Frank puts this recovery down to careful stress management, meditation, good diet, adequate sleep, the support of his doctor and full-time PA — and his devoted, but long-suffering, family.
He has learned to recognise the warning signs — racing mind, obsessive thought patterns and over-exercise — and slow himself down.
In 2016, he bought a £50,000 mobile home on the Isle of Sheppey in Kent, jokingly referred to as his ‘caravan’, where he likes to escape from the madding crowd.
‘Sitting there quietly, with nothing between you and the sea, you could be anywhere in the world,’ he says. ‘I like my own company.’
But he’s clearly enjoying spending more time with his family, too, and is looking forward to welcoming a second granddaughter — already named Olivia — when elder daughter Nicola, 36, gives birth in October.
In September, he is going on his first big family holiday in years, somewhere in England, with Rachel, Nicola and their partners, carpenter son Franklin, 23, and of course newcomer Amaya.
‘I’m very ‘appy both my daughters will be mums,’ he says. ‘I can’t have them getting jealous of each other now, can I? Know what I mean?’ There’s that chortle again.
Until he fell ill, the Frank Bruno story had read like a glittering tale of triumph over adversity, with success, fame, expensive cars with personalised number plates and enough money to live on for the rest of his life.
One of six children, Frank was sent by his parents, Robert and Lynette, to an approved boarding school in Sussex to save him from childhood delinquency after he fell in with a bad crowd growing up in Wandsworth, London.
Pictured above with his MBE, irrepressible Frank Bruno with Nicola (far left), Rachel and Laura, in 1990
As a teenager, he discovered boxing and never looked back.
In a professional career spanning 14 years, Frank won 40 out of 45 fights, with 38 of those by knockout.
Married to childhood sweetheart Laura, with whom he shared a mansion in Essex with their children, he once came second only to Princess Diana in a popularity poll.
But it was his verbal sparring with late boxing commentator Harry ‘Arry’ Carpenter which led to offers of TV, panto and charity work, conferring on Bruno ‘national treasure’ status.
Rachel was four when, in 1990, her father received an MBE for services to boxing and charity, beaming with joy as she was pictured with him at Buckingham Palace when he collected his award.
She was nine when her Dad won the WBC world title in 1995 at Wembley Stadium, beating Oliver McCall and celebrating back home with Asti Spumante and sausage rolls.
Frank recalls the joy of holding baby Franklin in his arms, while Rachel tied his title belt around her waist like a hula hoop and Nicola, then aged 13, watched a replay of his triumph on a television.
‘As I looked at my kids, I’d never felt so happy in my life,’ he recalls. ‘As I watched them enjoy the moment, I thought my heart was going to burst out of my chest.’
Six months later, in Las Vegas, Rachel and Nicola witnessed their father’s bloodied and brutal career-ending bout against U.S. fighter Mike Tyson.
Racing into his arms when the match was stopped, Rachel cried: ‘Daddy, Daddy, I hope he didn’t hurt you too badly.’ Defeated in his first title defence, Frank, who suffered a torn retina, was forced to quit boxing aged 34.
At a farewell press conference Frank declared: ‘I am going to be happy. I am going to get a suntan, here and there, use my Black & Decker here and there, just chill out with my family.’
But without the structure and discipline of boxing, and ‘no Plan B’, his life fell apart. Struggling to adapt to life outside the ring, he became a nightclub DJ and was a magnet to hangers-on intent on spending his money.
His marriage collapsed in 2000, and two years later his trainer and mentor, George Davies, took his own life.
‘Divorce, loneliness, the battle to find something — anything — to replace that boxing drug; they truly were the hardest punches I have taken in my life,’ he writes in his recent autobiography, Let Me Be Frank. ‘I went from fighting in front of 30,000 people in sold-out arenas to spending most days on my own in the lounge with no one to talk to.’
Estranged from his family and used to having everything done for him, he struggled to shop, cook, clean or even load the washing machine, let alone use a Black & Decker drill.
Frank doesn’t believe he was born with bipolar, or that it was caused by ‘boxer’s brain’, but rather that it was triggered by his inability to cope with these ‘roller-coaster’ life experiences.
Hospitalised four times in the space of 13 years, he sometimes withdrew — paranoid — from his family. He couldn’t stand being scrutinised for signs of illness.
Frank gives a heartbreaking account in his autobiography of being sectioned — first in 2003 and twice in 2012 — when his condition worsened.
Today, he admits to feeling ‘bewildered and betrayed’ when his family supported his hospitalisation by doctors, believing a secure mental health unit to be the safest place for him.
Feeling like a ‘caged animal in a zoo’, with the help of solicitors he fought each time to be released, while his children pleaded with him to stay and accept help.
It led to rows and bitter stand-offs with his daughters, but he says now that he can see they were motivated only by concern for him.
‘I loved my kids, and nothing would ever change that,’ he says. ‘There is no dad out there more proud of his children than I am. I’ve forgiven them; it’s all in the past now. What’s important is the here and now and the future. We are looking forward, not back.’
His most recent six-week stay in an NHS mental health unit, three years ago, was voluntary, after he acknowledged he needed help.
Weeks of punishing physical training in preparation for a charity marathon run had left him a ‘physical wreck’. Doctors warned if he didn’t stop, he could suffer a heart attack, stroke or psychosis.
A self-confessed workaholic, whose drive for perfection tipped into mania when his career ended, Frank now believes he’s achieving the balance which had always eluded him.
The first public sign of his recovery came in June last year when he walked Rachel down the aisle at Brentwood Cathedral.
‘When Dad was ill, I often felt I was the parent and he was the child, but now it’s the right way round again, which feels wonderful,’ says Rachel, a personal trainer.
‘I’ve always been prone to anxiety, and stress over the wedding took me to the edge of a breakdown, but Dad gave me a little pep talk in the car. He was so strong and reassuring, telling me I could do it and how proud he was of me. I had tears in my eyes. It felt so good to have him back.’
Rachel, who is launching Bruno Fitness, turned to her dad again for help when she suffered pre-natal depression while pregnant.
With her new business, she wants to help others struggling to cope with pregnancy or motherhood by creating a wellness space where they can bring their babies.
For a long time, Frank feared his much-publicised battle with bipolar had turned him into a ‘laughing stock’. Humbled by the affection in which the British public still holds him, he is now determined to use his personal experience to a good end.
Indeed, a frisson of excitement runs through the guests at Champneys Health Club in Tring, Herts, where we meet for this interview.
At the height of his career, the spa was his home from home. And when Rachel gave birth to Amaya, the midwives and nurses — who up until that point had no idea Frank Bruno was her Dad — couldn’t resist asking for selfies.
Last year, he launched the Frank Bruno Foundation to help other sufferers, and is hoping ‘Arry’ — as in Prince Harry — will get involved with an academy he wants to set up for troubled youngsters, providing counselling, life skills and diet and exercise advice.
While not appropriate for everyone, Frank passionately believes some mental health conditions can be effectively managed through self- care and without strong psychiatric medication.
Frank decided to wean himself off medication — with, he says, the blessing of his psychiatrist — after finding the side-effects worse than the illness itself.
His ‘addiction’ to boxing now apparently under control, Frank — who has a trainer’s licence — gets his ‘fix’ by helping upcoming youngsters.
You could say winning has taken on a whole new meaning for Frank. He wants this comeback, with Amaya in his arms, to be his last.
‘Being a grandfather suits me,’ he chortles. It certainly does.
■ Let Me Be Frank is available from all bookshops, or go to frankbruno.co.uk