IF rising from the 12th-round knockdown in their first fight was a microcosm of the Tyson Fury story so far, the ‘Gypsy King’s performance in his rematch with Deontay Wilder was a sample of what could follow. Not as profound as his December 2018 resurrection, but no less awe-inspiring, the beating he put on Wilder in Las Vegas this month was both terrifying for the division and uncharacteristically clean and drama-free for Fury.
Make no mistake, what transpired on February 22 was no overnight success story. Nor should Fury’s rise – be it from a knockdown or to prominence – come as a surprise to anyone aware of his journey.
The truth is that the 31-year-old’s undefeated record is relevant only to what happens in the boxing ring. Away from it he has taken his licks and losses and more than once needed to display an ability to rebound from setback. Most say it’s a wonder he has become heavyweight champion of the world again after so many problems away from the ring. Some say it’s a wonder he is still alive.
On the day he was born, Luke Tyson Fury was the size of a fist. His survival was touch and go but he fought to pull through and pull through he did. Two decades later, on the day he turned professional, he was all grown up, now bigger than your average. His fighting name was Tyson Fury and with a name like Tyson Fury, and a mouth like no other, it was easy to question his authenticity and presume him a gimmick. Many did.
Early on there were obstacles, things he had to fight. As well as the pressure brought on by his name, he had to fight his age, which, being 20, was precariously young for a heavyweight, and he had to fight his size, which most believed would limit his ability to operate the way a heavyweight needs to operate. He also had to fight the chequered history of traveller boxers and the longstanding perception that they are all talented amateurs who eventually lose discipline and hunger upon turning pro.
Essentially, though known now as the ‘Gypsy King’, nothing was handed to Fury on the way up. Nobody anointed him. There were as many people praying for his downfall as his success and when the talk was of Fury fighting David Price, few were picking Fury to win. They preferred Price’s supposedly better technique and punch power. They preferred the guy who wasn’t running his mouth before learning to walk. Though both were unbeaten, only one of them was being talked about as a future heavyweight champion of the world.
And back then it was plain to see why. Price had yet to come undone, his vulnerabilities still hidden, while Fury’s proclamations of greatness were undermined by facile fights against British cruiserweights and journeymen like Daniil Peretyatko and Aleksandrs Selezens.
Not just that, in his eighth pro fight Fury met John McDermott for the English heavyweight title and of the 10 rounds completed appeared to win no more than his opponent. Outboxed at times by a soft-bellied man of six foot three, the performance served only to add credence to the views of those forecasting Fury’s downfall. [That said, referee Terry O’Connor, the sole scorer of the fight, saw it differently. Siding with the favourite, he awarded Fury the victory by a nonsensical score of 98-92.]
Three fights later Fury sorted any uncertainty in fine style, stopping McDermott inside nine rounds in the pair’s 2010 rematch. As well as figuring out McDermott, he had figured out the key to improving from fight one to fight two, a quality he would call upon again a decade later.
Before that, more adversity. In 2011, a right hand thrown by Neven Pajkic in the second round sent Fury to the canvas and caused a swarm of travellers to rush to ringside in the hope of exacting revenge on their friend’s behalf. Thankfully, though, Fury sorted Pajkic himself, securing a stoppage in the next round and saving both his unbeaten record and a riot from breaking out.
In 2013, meanwhile, he hit the deck again, this time when fighting Steve Cunningham on his American debut. Fury saw Madison Square Garden from every angle that night, though would rather have not seen its ceiling and lighting rig in the second round. Still, as before, he rallied back with interest, overcoming additional shaky moments to stop Cunningham in the seventh.
The finish was proof, some believed, of a champion’s heart. A positive thing. Others, however, argued the dramatic, up-and-down nature of the fight was symptomatic of a phony destined to be found wanting the moment he stepped up his competition. Only time would tell.
Phony or not, because he kept winning Fury eventually got his shot at the WBA, IBF and WBO world heavyweight titles in 2015. His best opponent to that point was Dereck Chisora, a man he had defeated twice, which would explain why nobody gave Fury a chance of beating Wladimir Klitschko, undefeated for nine years, in Düsseldorf, Germany. But Fury believed and that was all that mattered. In befuddling Klitschko for 12 rounds he ended a near-decade reign and somehow prised new levels of quiet from a notoriously subdued German crowd. The silence was attributed to confusion rather than disappointment.
After the fight, Fury rested on a bench in his changing room and picked at the blisters his movement had produced on the soles of his feet. Jubilation, it seemed, was counteracted by pain in much the same way hearing the congratulations of loved ones was being counteracted by a feeling of being crowded, overwhelmed. There on the bench you could see the adrenalin leave his body and the weight return to his shoulders.
The next morning, Fury spoke to the media and revealed a fear that he had peaked, that it would never get better than Dusseldorf and Klitschko. It was a slice of brutal honesty, something expected of Fury. Yet it was also a retirement hint, one ignored by all but those familiar with Fury and the tendencies of traveller boxers.
With media duties done, Fury then disappeared, hopping in a car with his wife, Paris, to travel 140 miles to Rotterdam. More an escape than a journey home, it saved them sharing a plane with everybody else and bought them time before the demands of a world heavyweight champion started to impact a family whose comfort came from being outsiders.
Inevitably, countless interview opportunities were chucked his way in the ensuing days and weeks. All the big television chat shows. All the major US magazines. But Fury played hard to get, stressing, “I’m heavyweight champion of the world now, so my time is precious and has a price.” He negotiated every interview and turned down more media engagements than he accepted, seemingly liberated by the freedom his power could secure him and sparing no thought to capitalising on the short window of opportunity plenty had assured him was quick to close. Rather than greed, I suspected the goal was simply to be left alone for a while. And it worked. Driving a hard bargain was the surest way to secure isolation.
I remember in the aftermath of that Klitschko win encountering Fury at low-key shows in Carshalton and Wembley and being struck by how uncomfortable he looked when surrounded. He was in attendance at these shows to support friends, doing a favour for then-promoter Mick Hennessy, but at no point was there any sense Fury was using these public outings to peacock, flaunt his wares or seek validation from the admiring glances and attention of others. Instead, body language suggested his inclination was to hide, to go unseen, to be a featherweight, someone of so-called normal size with a greater capacity to blend in.
It reminded me of the time I saw Nikolay Valuev part a Nuremberg shopping centre en route to a set scales ahead of his WBA heavyweight title defence against David Haye in 2009. (Back then we weren’t to know Valuev, upon losing his belt, would retire for good, but it was obvious in hindsight. Enough clues were there.) That afternoon Valuev cowered as much as a man of seven foot is able to cower. Walking, he was all of six foot eleven and to get where he needed to get Valuev shuffled two feet quicker than he would in the ring the following evening. If all eyes were on him, his were on the floor.
Fury wasn’t that bad, of course. In public, his smile remained as big as his upset win and he had no problem crouching for pictures. But, equally, it’s true to say the giant who goaded and dethroned Klitschko before serenading his wife in a boxing ring seemed at odds with the timid Fury who, overwhelmed by people and attention, sought salvation in a ringside seat. It brought to mind this old Samuel Johnson quote: “He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man.” It made you wonder if Fury’s gregarious personality was in fact more a coping mechanism, a mask one day destined to slip.
Sure enough, the beginning of the end arrived in the form of a bizarre press conference in Manchester, during which Fury went topless and mocked his own weight issues and limitations in front of Klitschko. It was thought to be mind games, Fury being Fury. However, those closest to him would have interpreted the performance as an insight into Fury’s mind – a mind both complicated and falling apart.
Shortly after this performance came news of a Fury injury and the postponement of the fight, which confirmed these fears and provided numerous conspiracy theories. One was that ticket sales were down. Another was that Fury’s training was subpar. Yet all we knew for certain was that the rematch was no longer happening, and that Tyson Fury didn’t appear to be behaving the way we expect a heavyweight champion should behave.
Then things got even worse.
First, we learned Fury had failed a UK-Anti Doping [UKAD] urine test, conducted in February 2015, for elevated levels of nandrolone metabolites. Blamed on eating uncastrated wild boar, this finding cast a cloud over Fury’s February 2015 victory against Christian Hammer and led to Fury accepting a backdated ban following a two-year fight with UKAD for clarity.
Sadly, during this period Fury failed another UKAD test – this one in September 2016 – for cocaine, which was attributed to the depression brought on by his injuries and the ongoing dispute with UKAD. Whatever went on in the shadows, it all amounted to a vicious cycle of bad choices and mixed messages and the only thing more elusive than Fury was the truth.
Nine months ago, Fury had shocked the boxing world and fulfilled a lifelong dream. Now he was on the brink of retirement, something he constantly threatened, gaining weight, partying with football fans at Euro 2016, and doing all he could to self-destruct in plain sight. Now he had gone from champion to ‘cheat’; from troubled soul to damaged goods. If there was a road back, it was one rarely travelled.
Yet, in the end, as shocking as the demise was the eventual rise, which started with a morbidly obese Fury issuing tongue-in-cheek callouts of Deontay Wilder and Anthony Joshua, the heavyweight champions at the time, and grew wings the night he returned to the ring in June 2018 to stop Sefer Seferi.
There were no titles on the line that night. They were now elsewhere. But of far greater importance was the confirmation that Fury was alive, healthy and fighting again. Better yet, by the end of that same year he had agreed to challenge Wilder, the WBC heavyweight champion, and by Christmas was heralded as something between The Undertaker and Jesus Christ. For in coming back, both from that famous knockdown and two and a half years of turmoil, Fury, 30-0-1 (21), had reinvented himself. He had graduated from misunderstood maverick to role model.
Other champions will do it differently. Some will do it properly. But few champions in heavyweight history have been both born and built to do it quite like Tyson Fury. From the name to the size to the ease with which he trades punches with heavyweights in boxing rings, he is a natural, a big man who feels never bigger than when doing the thing he not only loves to do but needs to do.
This was made abundantly clear against Wilder, a fight in which Fury, reinventing himself all over again, upgraded from role model to champion; a champion many now believe is the best heavyweight on the planet. The win landed him both a title [WBC] and a second chance – to prove it, to put things right. And this time Tyson Fury needs protecting, not from punches but himself.