Wednesday 12 December 2018

The Tyson Fury enigma: Which side will the world see of boxing's man of contradictions?

Boxing

Boxers Deontay Wilder, left, and Tyson Fury exchange words as they face each other at a news conference in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)
Boxers Deontay Wilder, left, and Tyson Fury exchange words as they face each other at a news conference in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

Paul Hayward

From world champion to pariah, and back round to challenger, via mental illness, is a script that would impress any Hollywood celeb heading down from the hills for the big fight. Tyson Fury is really a rehab story with a cinematic possibility of him leaving the ring in Los Angeles as world champion for a second time.

From the walk of fame to the path of shame, Fury has seen it all in a career of extremes. Not since Muhammad Ali has a heavyweight performed two major roles at once. Ali was an advocate of black liberation. Fury says he is fighting to support the cause of mental health. And yet, juxtaposed with that aim is his need to break the most fearsome puncher in the heavyweight division: the World Boxing Council champion, Deontay Wilder, who has scored 39 of his 40 wins by knock out.

According to a new book by David Kipen, the poet W H Auden called Los Angeles “the Great Wrong Place,” but for Fury it turns out to be the right place to try something audacious. Alcoholic excess, recreational drug taking, a positive dope test, suicidal urges and a 10st gain in weight are the extraordinary backdrop to his quest to regain a world title almost three years to the day since he dethroned Wladimir Klitschko, who was baffled by the Lancastrian hulk sharing a ring with him.

In this new, redemptive phase, Fury re-emerges fit, clean-faced and clear-headed, though with some of the old eccentricities intact. Wednesday’s final press conference was proceeding in diplomatic fashion until Fury’s voice filled the hall like that of a euphoric preacher. “I’m flying, I’m f****** flying,” he cried.

Fury’s challenge for Wilder’s belt in a ring where Lennox Lewis defeated Vitali Klitschko 15 years ago could go several ways. Wilder could connect with one of his haymaking hooks or overhand rights to reveal the true cost to Fury of the three years he spent abusing his body and clinging to sanity. Or it could be a victory that earns Fury recognition for one of the greatest boxing comebacks. There are also plenty of messier permutations in between. But there is nothing mundane about it. Few fights have caused pundits to trade opinions on who might win in such long exchanges.

In Fury’s bid for popularity here (he claims just about everyone on the streets knows him), you can see Americans being drawn to the idea of someone conquering demons on their TV screens while not quite knowing what to make of him and his entourage. He stands before them as an enigma who switches between saying the title is the dream of his lifetime to one who says it means nothing at all.

Hollywood likes it plots linear, clean, but Fury is a confusing figure from a world few of us know. Talking to television on Thursday he said: "I'm a winner. I've never lost. But what will it mean? To be brutally honest, not a great deal. It will be like just another pair of shoes in the closet.” But he also conceded: "There can't be many bigger and better comebacks than this. Not too many people have come back form where I've been. Not many have come back from 28 stone. It will rank up there with the best comebacks of all time.”

So which is it? Both, because Fury is many things - and deeply conflicted. In a seminal interview with Showtime about his plunge following the Klitschko fight, he said of his return to boxing: “I wanted to show the world - if mental health can bring someone as big and strong as me to his knees - the heavyweight champion of the world - it can bring anyone to their knees.”

He recalled his triumph over Klitschko: “It felt like, oh well, that was a load of rubbish. I just felt like an emptiness, a deep gaping hole of nothing, darkness, and grey clouds. Every day was grey.

“I was worthless. It was just a horrible, horrible feeling that people need to understand - that many many people are in the same boat.” He spoke of a childhood in which he felt “lonely and left behind” and said: “After the fight, someone asked me - ‘what are you going to do after the fight?’ And I said - ‘I’ll tell you what I’m going to do, I’m going to be deeply depressed for a long time. I knew it was coming, and I was on the verge of dropping off the other side. I had a feeling I didn’t want to wake up any more, I didn’t want to live. I look back at it now, when I look at those videos and see - that man is very unwell.”

Fury’s message in that 50-minute exchange was: “I believe that if enough people talk about it it’s going to raise more and more awareness, and this crisis is going to have to be addressed properly.” And he has not strayed from that line throughout a build-up in which it would have been easier for him to stick to ring talk.

Two years ago he was an outcast who people wanted banned from the BBC Sports Personality of the Year awards. In an interview, he had said: “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.” Then he claimed that, ”"Zionist, Jewish people ... own all the banks, all the papers, all the TV stations.” A still-controversial positive test for nandrolone also damaged his standing.

From there to here - a big pay-per-view night in America - is a leap even boxing would think far-fetched. Yet Fury was introduced to Los Angeles as, “The lineal champion, the Gypsy King, undefeated in 27 fights, Britain’s Tyson Fury,” as if the intervening mayhem never happened. “He’s had his problems. What he’s done with his life, how he’s turned it round, that’s like winning world title in itself,” says Frank Warren, his promoter. “When you think how bad it was, some of the stupid things he said, and the way he was behaving, he’s a different person now.”

While Fury is still inclined to monologues dismissing the world title as ultimately trivial, Warren says: “What he is is a boxing encyclopedia, an exponent of the art of boxing. He can tell you anything about anybody’s style. I respect him for that. He studies people, studies old fighters, and learns from it.”

Contradictions abound. Logic, though, points to Wilder being a fast, hardened champion who, while lacking big-name victories, has a strong chin and always finds a way to send his opponents to the canvas. Wilder is also angry and hyped and sees Fury as a fine way to raise his profile, which is much lower in America than an unbeaten champion would expect.

The ‘Great Wrong Place’ turns out to be the right place for two fighters with wildly contrasting objectives: for Wilder, another, fame-boosting knock-out, but for Fury, a way back to life, after his first burst of fame led him nowhere but down.

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