Wednesday 13 December 2017

Fists of fury... But how Irish is the new world champ?

Although he was born in Manchester, controversial boxer Tyson Fury says he fights for Ireland

Tyson Fury
Tyson Fury
Tyson Fury, right, in action against Wladimir Klitschko

Eamonn Sweeney

On St Patrick's Day 1908 in the Theatre Royal, Dublin, Jem Roche of Wexford challenged the Canadian Tommy Burns for the world heavyweight title fight. At five-foot-seven, Burns was the shortest ever heavyweight champion.

Unfortunately, the fight was pretty short too as Roche got knocked out after 88 seconds.

It was the quickest ever finish to a heavyweight title bout and would remain so for another 74 years.

It was also the last time an Irish-born boxer fought for the title. In fact, only one other Irish fighter had challenged for the crown, the far superior Sailor Tom Sharkey, born in Dundalk, who lost on points to James Jeffries in 1899.

The story is slightly different if you bring in the parentage rule. The first generally acknowledged world champion, John L Sullivan of Boston, who reigned from 1888 to 1892, was the son of a Kerry father and a Westmeath mother.

The man who succeeded him, James Corbett, was the son of a Mayo father, as was the great unbeaten champion of the 1920s Gene Tunney.

James Braddock was also from Irish emigrant stock and his defeat by Joe Louis in 1937 marked the end of the Irish-American era and the beginning of African-American dominance.

Braddock's rise to the heavyweight summit was so unlikely, he'd been beaten 26 times before winning the title, that it became the subject of a Hollywood movie, Cinderella Man, starring Russell Crowe.

Last Saturday, in Dusseldorf, a new champion was crowned - one just as unlikely, in some ways, as Braddock. He also happens to be the first Irish-connected champion since the Cinderella Man.

Tyson Fury wasn't given much of a chance against reigning champion Wladimir Klitschko. Klitschko had been champion since 2004 and had made 23 successful defences, generally winning with embarrassing ease.

Fury, though unbeaten in 24 fights, was viewed as one of his weaker challengers, a fighter who hadn't taken on anyone remotely in the champion's class. Yet, a battling performance from the Mancunian saw him take a unanimous points decision and one of the most prestigious titles in world sport.

So how Irish is Tyson Fury? Well, his mother is from Belfast and his father comes from Tuam. And he comes from a background which, in the last English census, was regarded as constituting a distinct ethnic group, Irish Traveller.

Irish viewers are occasionally confused to see documentaries about 'Irish Travellers', in which almost all of the protagonists speak in strong Essex or London accents, but as far as the English authorities are concerned, heritage rather than birthplace counts in these matters.

Perhaps the most compelling argument in favour of Fury's Irishness is that, unlike footballers who turn to Ireland when they can't make the English team, he went out of his way to represent Ireland when he had a choice.

An outstanding amateur, he was ranked number three in the world, Fury represented Ireland on three occasions before being forced out of Irish boxing by an objection to his eligibility from the Holy Trinity Club in Belfast.

He's also held the Irish professional heavyweight title, and when, three years ago, an internet troll described him as a "fake Paddy", Fury's wife Paris responded: "It's his Irish roots he is true to."

And two years ago, Fury told the website Irish Central: "All my people are from Ireland. I was born in Manchester but I am Irish. I have lived in Ireland, visited all my life, and when I fight, I represent Ireland."

However, it's his identity as a Traveller which seems to be most important to Fury who has said: "We are outsiders. People have got to understand that our lifestyle is totally, totally different. We may be the same colour and we may speak the same language, but deep inside, we are nothing alike. We are aliens.

"What is it? Our goals are different to other people. We want different things."

His win over Klitschko makes Fury the most high-profile representative of the Traveller boxers who have been making huge waves in the ring in recent years, among them is his cousin Andy Lee, who won a world middleweight title last year.

At amateur level, John Joe Nevin won a silver medal for Ireland at the last Olympics, while Joe Ward and Michael O'Reilly won medals at the recent world championships.

When I spoke a couple of years ago to Pat Ryan of the IABA, who'd coached O'Reilly at the Portlaoise club, he noted that Travellers "come from a fighting tradition", while stressing that "the majority of Travellers have evolved away from bare-knuckle boxing, it's just a few families involved there now".

And it's also the case that boxing clubs in this country have been one of the few places where Travellers have been welcomed.

Fury has said in the past that his Traveller heritage accounts for a somewhat antediluvian attitude towards women's rights, commenting: "In our culture, it is all about the men. The men can do everything, and women just clean and cook and have children and look after that man.

"They should be happy with that lifestyle, really. There are no rights for women in a Travelling community."

But it's his views on homosexuality which have gotten him into hot water over the past week.

During a somewhat rambling rant about the apocalypse, Fury stated that: "There are only three things that need to be accomplished before the devil comes home: one of them is homosexuality being legal in countries, one of them is abortion and the other one's paedophilia."

After claiming that he'd been misquoted, Fury then reiterated that he thought homosexuality was wrong.

The result is that an online petition calling for the BBC to remove Fury from the shortlist for Sports Personality of the Year has garnered over 40,000 signatures at the time of writing, while Labour MP Chris Bryant has jumped on the bandwagon and suggested Fury should be asked to the House of Commons to explain himself.

Fury further compounded the offence with the apparently outrageous suggestion that the favourite for the award, heptathlete Jessica Ennis-Hill, "looks quite fit when she's got a dress on".

Those views, or at least the ones on gay rights, are pretty repugnant to many people.

Yet, in declaring his opposition, however clumsily, to abortion and homosexuality, Fury, a born again Christian, is only adopting the same attitude as not just the Irish Catholic Church, but other religions - which, the likes of Chris Bryant, would never dream of criticising.

As the boxer says: "The Muslims have their ways, we have ours."

Fury is an easy target. Not seen as fully British by the British or fully Irish by the Irish, he occupies that limbo to which Travellers have been consigned historically. They seem to be regarded as, in the words of a forthcoming Hollywood movie, Beasts of No Nation.

Yet, the fact is that Fury probably knows far more about what it is to be at the receiving end of prejudice than those calling for his head.

After all, prejudice against Travellers is the prejudice that doesn't just dare to speak its name, but proudly proclaims it from the rooftops.

In the past, Fury has criticised Channel Four's Big Fat Gypsy Wedding documentaries, noting: "You wouldn't have big fat Pakistani weddings or big fat black weddings. It's discrimination and it's very offensive.

"There are idiots out there, like the people on those programmes, but you can find the good and bad in all walks of life. If you go to Wytenshawe where I was brought up, it's not like that."

In any event, it's hard to know how seriously to take any of Fury's statements.

His behaviour in the run-up to the Klitschko fight was at times so bizarre, there were worries expressed about his mental health, though it now seems like a crafty and successful ploy to spook the champion.

Having won the title, he then proceeded to sing the Aerosmith power ballad I Don't Want To Miss A Thing for his wife, Paris, about whom he's said in the past: "She thinks I'm a nice person. I'm not a woman, but to be married to a man like me - a stallion - must be a good feeling."

Now there's talk of a possible defence in Croke Park.

It still remains to be seen whether Fury is a proper heir to Klitschko or a new version of Leon Spinks, the fighter who shocked the world by dethroning Muhammad Ali in 1979 only to lose a return match six months later and disappear back into obscurity.

For the moment, the wider world is trying to get a handle on the man who says of himself: "Not everyone is as gifted as me in being able to talk rubbish."

The new heavyweight champion of the world has always liked to say the first thing that comes into his head, but he may have just found out that with great power comes great responsibility.

Sunday Independent

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