Inside the Mind of Tyson Fury, British Boxing’s New Folk Hero
Clive Martin travelled to Fury's personal gym on the outskirts of Bolton to meet the man and his family.
All the best fighters come with their own legend.
From as far back as the early days of Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion (who taunted whitey by flagrantly dating his women before knocking out the toughest men he could offer) and Jack Dempsey, the hobo champion who honed his trade fighting mountain men for small change, it's clear that we love some romantic context with our boxers. Think of Ali throwing his Olympic gold medal into the Ohio River; Barry McGuigan's dad singing "Danny Boy" at Loftus Road; Marvin Hagler legally prefixing his name with "Marvellous"; and basically everything Mike Tyson's ever done. Boxing, it's clear to see, is as much about myth as it is about sport.
It wouldn't be right to say there haven't been any legends in boxing recently – think of Vitali Klitschko facing down Putin's goons at Euromaidan, or, to a lesser extent, Kell Brook getting shanked in Tenerife. But there is a sense that there are those at the top (usually a Klitschko), and then a whole host of mandatory no marks for them to face.
However, there's one fighter who seemed to arrive as a ready-made folk hero, a 6'9" travelling boy with a face like an extra from The Departed, fists that could knock through a load-bearing wall and a name that doesn't seem real: Tyson. Fury.
Still only 26 years old, Fury has become the cult star of British sport, the underground anti-hero I doubt we'll be seeing at this year's Pride of Britain Awards. Despite being one of the biggest draws in his division, his fame exists in a different realm to your Hoys, your Farahs, your Gerrards and even your Frochs. It exists on YouTube, on Sky Sports 4, in the still-printed pages of the old-school tabloids – and absolutely nowhere near Sports Personality of the Year.
The reasons for his exclusion from the world of mainstream sport are clear to see. He isn't Frank Bruno, the dignified British bruiser, still humble in the big time. He is outrageous, offensive, ungrateful. He called Wladimir Klitschko, the world heavyweight champion and an avid humanitarian, a "pussy" and a "shithouse". David Price, often characterised as the UK's most humble boxer, is merely a "scouse prick" in Fury's eyes
He is a deeply religious man, his beliefs manifesting themselves in a sort of visceral, Old Testament kind of way. He drives on the hard shoulder of the M6 and fights Eastern Europeans on Channel 5. He is the bastard child of Rocky Graziano, Paul Sykes, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Tyler, The Creator: uncompromising, uncontrollable and utterly compelling.
Even as a close follower of his work (both in and out of the ring), I find him almost impossible to make sense of – a fighter and a man of gleeful contradictions. Sometimes he calls himself the fiercest, best looking man in boxing, other times he's a "useless lump of lard". He's been painted as a showboater, a homophobe, a bully, a bullshitter, a Muslim convert, a minor celebrity and a secretly brilliant sportsman. He once punched himself in the face during a fight. He is, in his own words, "a brash, outspoken gypsy warrior".
I'd come to the outskirts of Bolton, where a media event would be taking place in the days leading up to Fury's next fight – the winner of which would be named the mandatory challenger for the world heavyweight title. Tyson was coming off the back of a tough (but still undefeated) 18 months; at the end of 2013 he briefly retired, incensed that David Haye had pulled out of their scheduled fight for a second time. Fury claimed that the cancelled fight left him broke and that Haye's "arse was flapping in his trousers", while Haye blamed injury. Whatever the reason, it left a bitter taste in the young contender's mouth.
But a few fights later (including a hard-fought second win against Derek Chisora), and Fury is only one match away from a world title shot against either Klitschko or Deontay Wilder, the young American with nearly as many knockouts as professional fights (Fury calls him "big bollocks" and claims he can't wait to fight him).
It seems that for all the ridicule and abuse levelled at him over his career, the boy from Wythenshawe had more than risen to every challenge. That he was now standing, if not quite on the threshold of greatness, then at least on its door mat, wiping his boots.
Fury's shot at glory is being run out of this place, an old pub in the shadow of the West Pennines. Now converted into "Team Fury", it doubled up as both a gym and Tyson's living quarters in the run up to a fight. With the old signage still hanging, the only clues that this was now the HQ of a professional athlete were the frosted windows and Team Fury insignia – a perfect example of the low-key outlook that only serves to enhance Fury's cult hero status.
To put things in perspective, Wladimir Klitschko – the man who holds most of the belts Fury wants to win – trains at facilities in the grounds of a five star hotel at the foot of the Wilder Kaiser Mountain in rural Austria. There are "energy centres", outdoor pools and horse-drawn carriages onsite, which would surely please his movie star fiancee.
Many boxing heads will tell you that Fury is the man Klitschko least wants to face for his title defence; he's just too up for it, they say – too unpredictable, too hungry, perhaps. Suburban Bolton might not be the most glamorous training spot on earth, but it's not going to strip him of any of the raw power and thirst for victory that keeps him winning.
And if training for a title shot in a converted pub doesn't seem quintessentially Tyson Fury enough, the gym is directly opposite a pasty shop and flanked by a pizza/kebab emporium and a still-functioning pub. For somebody who's been criticised for his weight throughout his career – as well as admitting to having more than a little penchant for the sauce – Fury isn't exactly distancing himself from his demons.
Then again, you get the impression that he finds all this quite funny, and if the gym's proximity to these deep fried forbidden fruits isn't intentional, it's a coincidence he would surely find amusing. A heavyweight fighter, training for a big shot against a European behemoth, opposite a pasty shop in Bolton. It's like Rocky IV reimagined by Peter Kay. It's pure, pure Tyson Fury.
The gym itself is decorated with pictures of boxing heroes gone by; both household name champions like Dempsey, Robinson and Louis, but also fighters whose names ring out in the Irish Traveller community that Tyson hails from. Fighters like Uriah "Big Just" Burton and Bartley "King of the Gypsies" Gorman, the one time "hardest man in Britain" and subject of an early Shane Meadows film.
Tyson himself was never on the bare knuckle circuit, but he very much comes from that tradition and fights not unlike a bare knuckle man, utilising a philosophy that is as much about heart, fearlessness and stamina as big punches or steeled abs.
Hunkering down with him in the camp are his father and his uncle, both former fighters (Bare Knuckle and Queensbury), as well as a few brothers, cousins and second cousins, all of whom are up-and-coming fighters. As his father John Fury will later tell me: "There are no builders, no bricklayers, in this family – we're all fighting men."
We're kept waiting for the Fury team while they finish their lunch in an unspecified location. Milling about the gym are his manager, a team of British Muslim guys from Stockton On Tees who seem to be sponsoring Tyson through their customised boxing glove business and a few of the local kids who train here when Team Fury aren't planning their scalping of a world champion.
The Sky and BBC cameras that had assembled to meet Fury didn't seem to know what to make of his extended entourage in the gym today. It wasn't that it was unprofessional (all boxers are late, all have their entourages), but there seemed to be a refreshingly laissez-faire attitude towards the proceedings. Here was one of the top contenders in international boxing, training in an old pub on the outskirts of Bolton, letting a bunch of kids mess around on the equipment while the nation's media assembled before them. A hater might call it amateurish, but surely anyone else would find it charming, which isn't a word you hear in boxing very often.
Calling to mind boxers who come from a dynasty – like "Irish" Mickey Ward, for instance, later immortalised in The Fighter – Tyson seems to be very much a community fighter. A man who sticks with his family, uninterested in award ceremonies and branded content deals. A real local hero. The whole thing was quite heartening to see.
While we were waiting, one of the younger lads, 11-year-old Kai from Manchester, gave us a demonstration of what he'd been working on in the gym.
"We got him training here because it's the best place for him. He's been fighting 12 and 13-year-olds way bigger than him, and they keep pulling out because they've seen him on YouTube", his proud dad told me. "On the weekends, he busks in Manchester with his skipping rope. Makes £100 a day."
I ask young Kai if Tyson ever helps him out with his training.
"He came down a couple of Sundays ago," he said. "I was shadowboxing for a bit and came out the ring. He said, 'How old are you?' I told him I was 11, and he said I'd be the next world champion in 10 years."
Watching him hit the pads, it wasn't hard to share Tyson's optimism about the guy.
Eventually, the Fury crew rolled in: Tyson, his dad, his uncle, assorted brothers and cousins, and his sparring partners. It was obvious they were taking a certain glee in making us wait, and for all the down-to-earth, family feel of the gym, there was also a canny media operation at play here. Tyson seemed to find the whole thing pretty amusing as they wired him up under his tight red lycra, surely aware of the hold that he has over these people, surely aware that he looked just a little bit ridiculous, this hulking gypsy warrior turned out like a Canal Street podium dancer. But that's what Tyson is: a little bit ridiculous.
He looked in better shape than I'd seen him before; the belly he'd taken great delight in not caring about seemed to have been lost to the past. He doesn't have the Men's Health cover star body that Deontay Wilder has, but he's leaner than the critics give him credit for – and, aside from that, strikingly handsome (yet definitely not pretty), as well as being imbued with an astonishing physical and personal charisma. Fury is a star, and he knows it.
The embittered, vinegar-throated old fight hacks, some of whom looked like they were nursing a Travelodge-bar hangover, seemed enamoured with him, poking at him to get the juiciest quotes and taking selfies to show their mates. Watching the fanfare, he reminded me not of any boxer of recent times, but of a pop star from just south of here: Robbie Williams. A cheeky, slightly out of shape, good looking northern lad who had somehow earned the chance to take on the world, and was going to milk it for every drop. A fight against Klitschko would surely be his Knebworth.
My turn came to speak to him. I'd been promised 20 minutes, but in his presence every minute feels twice as long. In person, I found he gives off an air of tongue-just-about-in-cheek confidence, rather than the vulgar chest-beating and trash-talking he's often accused (and often guilty) of. He's polite, funny, intelligent, not too easily offended. I got the impression he was tired of answering the same questions about his opponent, his regime, the likelihood of fighting Klitschko... so I took a swing and asked him how much of his persona is real and how much is show.
"I just be myself, and if people don't like it, they can stick it, really. I'm not that interested in what people think of me," he shrugged.
Does he think he's made the sport more interesting with all his shenanigans?
"Boxers do the same thing: they punch somebody, they go to a gym, they train for a bit. But I don't think boxing should be boring; I think it's one of the hardest sports in the world, so why shouldn't the guys be outspoken and controversial? Not just being a stupid dummy and getting punched in the face. Muhammed Ali didn't do all that, Floyd Mayweather didn't do that – so why should I?"
But does all the controversy turn people against him? Judging from the sheer amount of time he spends calling out his haters on Twitter, it's evident he has a few. So what is it about him that winds people up?
"I think it's my arrogance and cockiness, and the fact that I'm undefeated and that I keep winning that drives people crazy. And I keep rubbing it in as well – salt in the wounds. It's very good for me to upset people and torment them. My success drives people's jealousy. I hope I become so successful that I drive everyone insane," he said with a sharky grin.
Is it this seemingly endless confidence that lies behind his success so far?
"Confidence is the key to winning all fights, because a confident man is a winner. If you're negative and down in the ring, your opponent can see that. But if you're confident, and you're ready, then he's not gonna be so brave."
And is it this confidence that the likes of Haye and now Klitschko appear to be running scared of?
"I do think Klitschko's running scared of me, and he has done for a while, otherwise he would've fought me already."
But what are they running scared of, exactly?
"My unpredictability. It's very hard to prepare against somebody like me: you don't know whether I'm orthodox, southpaw... you don't know if I'm gonna come forward. They never can tell what I'm about to do, and that's what makes me so hard to prepare for, and why fighters don't wanna fight me. If you have three orthodox sparring partners, say, you'd also have to have three southpaws as well. I'm a crazy kind of person to train for."
Tyson wasn't exactly modest while appraising his own abilities – or the abilities of his future opponents – but he seemed quieter, more focused, more polite than I'd seen him in press conferences before. He hadn't called anyone a pussy, for one. Compared to how he can be, he was behaving like a hotel bellboy.
Some of this is surely down to the reemergence of his father in his life. John Fury is an ex-fighter himself – and a good one, too, going by the moniker "Gipsy" and facing up against English world champ Henry Akinwande in the early-90s. However, in 2011 he was jailed for gouging out the eye of a man named Oathie Sykes at a car auction. John served four years of his 11-year sentence for what he described at the time as "a fair fight between travelling people".
I asked him how it is being back in his son's life after watching his last few fights from prison. "It's a wonderful, wonderful feeling," he said. "I've got a second chance at life. It's like having cancer and getting the all-clear – it's on that sort of level for me. I'm here to provide relaxation of the mind. My brother [Tyson's trainer, Peter] has the boxing side covered, and he's doing a great job at what he does. I don't think I could do a better job; he's transformed a British fighter into a world fighter in two and a half years, and that's a feat on its own. But I'm hoping to relax my son's mind and get him to behave in the manner of a world champion.
"Sometimes he flares up, but it's only frustration. A lot's gone on in his life, and he's entitled to be like that from time to time. He's not perfect – he tips tables over, sometimes he swears, says the wrong things, but we've been through all that. He's got to look at life in a different manner, to not get so pent up about what people think of him. I tell him, 'If things aren't going your way, take it on the chin. Be patient.'"
It's easy to mistake this kind of talk for PR chat – John playing the nice guy card for the cameras. But I couldn't help but see a genuine sincerity in what he was saying. I wondered if these were lessons he'd learned in his own life.
"When I was a young man, I was a wild man," he told me. "I didn't fear anything. I thought that whatever I'd meet in my life, I'd meet it head on; never take a step back. But only a fool would think like that, and I've learnt that from my own life."
Does he think Tyson can fulfil the glory he never quite reached in his own fighting career?
"My son will reign as heavyweight champion of the world for many years, and the proof in the pudding is there," he said, adamantly. "He's a talent and a half. He's a gigantic fella. He's quick, fast, tough and he's a natural fighting man. He comes from a fighting stock."
I'm interested in this notion of "fighting stock". Obviously there are a lot of fighters within the family, but can John envisage a time in which Furys won't have to fight? Is it all just a means to a better life?
"All I can say about that is that if you've not got the talent to be a world class fighter, then don't bother with any kind of fighting. It's a mug's game. I'll say that because I've learnt that from the inside and the outside, but you only learn that when you get to this age and have been through what I've been through. If you can't excel in your sport, do something else – that's what I say."
Through talking to John, I'd come to understand a different side to his son, one different to those we already know: the showboater, the thug and the comedian.
He told me that Tyson was a quiet kid who "loved McDonalds and riding in cars – the normal things teenagers do. He was actually the only one in our family who I didn't think would be a fighter, because of the kind of person he was. Tyson's had his parental guidance. I've always been there for him, but I got put away. If you're used to your dad always being there, and then he's not, how you gonna react? One thing I did say to him was, 'Stay out of trouble; don't get a criminal record.'"
Tyson might be from a travelling family that's had its fair share of scrapes with the law. But, if anything, he's the quiet, athletically centred, goody-two-shoes of the bunch. He's never been to prison and his controversies have all been legitimate. He's a sportsman from a dynasty of street-fighters, and I wonder if the pressures that arise from such a situation play heavy on his shoulders.
For all his cocky bravado in reaction to the criticism he's faced, I wonder if part of it gets to him after all. Maybe the real Tyson Fury is the 26-year-old lad from Manchester who loves McDonalds, whose real fight is being accepted by the world he wants to sit atop.
Fury seems to be a kind of outsider not just in the boxing world, but in the wider world as well. I overheard a young reporter from a local paper ask him about his relationship with Manchester – where he was born and raised.
Fury bitterly responded with: "Manchester's never had any time for me, and I've never had any time for Manchester; it's a kind of pact we seem to have. I'm not representing any country, any city – I'm representing me."
I wonder how much being a half-British, half-Irish, all-Traveller plays in this lack of interest in nationality or hometown allegiances.
Interestingly, many of the people around Fury appear (including his manager, Asif Vali) to be Muslims. He briefly grew a beard and started mentioning prayers and Islamic ceremonies on Twitter. This seemed odd, coming from a previously committed Catholic, and many assumed he'd converted. But spending time within the camp, I realised that may have come about because he's surrounded by Islamic culture, with these friends, in this part of the world. So perhaps his flirtations with the faith were a kind of tribute to them. That maybe this band of Travellers and Muslims had bonded in their community's common exile from the mainstream of British life. Team Fury seemed to be a kind of stateless group whose only real home is in the gym and the ring.
Eventually the questions were halted and the main event was upon us: the sparring session. I'd never seen a professional boxer in such an intimate setting before, and as the preparation rituals got underway it wasn't hard to notice a change in the man. The showiness was replaced by a cool focus. He seemed to distance himself from what was going on in the room, gravitating instead towards the guidance of his uncle. Kai was watching on, the young apprentice searching for the lessons which could make his future in the sport.
It wouldn't be over-egging it to say there seemed to be an air of real anticipation around the sparring, like we were about to see something that we'd be recounting in late night pub debates for years to come: "Tyson Fury? I saw him spar once."
Even the proper boxing hacks – who probably go to events like this a few times a week – seemed excited, salivating at the prospect of seeing the beast in anywhere smaller than a football stadium. Even with head-guards on, the room was amok with bloodlust and butterflies.
It started off rather guarded, Tyson exchanging jabs with his sparring partners, Sean Turner – a wide-as-he-is-tall contender from Dublin, and the very picture of a professional brawler – and Marcin Rekowski, a quiet but highly rated Polish fighter with a speed comparable to a man far younger than his 37 years.
Marcin was wearing a head-guard, but neither Tyson nor Sean were. I asked Tyson's manager, Asif, why exactly Turner wasn't wearing one, considering he was there to be punched in the face all day.
"He's Irish – he doesn't care about getting hit," was his response.
As the bouts wore on, Tyson's style became more apparent. This was only sparring, but with his partners clearly chosen to mimic the weight and height of his opponent, it was obvious that we were at a dress rehearsal for the real thing. I noticed Tyson's blows, which seemed almost innocuous at first, beginning to weigh down on his opponents. You could see the fatigue in their eyes, the "not another of one of these" in their knees with every hit, jab, hook and uppercut (his best shot, I'd say) that landed clean. They were beginning to hurt.
The interesting thing about Fury's style is that for all his size and strength, he's not actually a power puncher. He doesn't punch anything like his namesake, Mike. His hits are bruising. They seem to send refraction waves through even the biggest of bodies, but they aren't crash, bang, wallop knockout hits. Some commentators have noted this as an embarrassment – that he's not as big a hitter as he might think. But the truth is that while Tyson is a talented boxer, his prowess comes from a very different kind of quality: heart.
As fights go on, Tyson gets better. He comes into his stride, whereas his opponents begin to stutter and mis-hit. He starts to enjoy himself. His shots, which once seemed conservative, suddenly seem wild and devastating. He stands taller, hits harder, moves his head more. He starts to look magnificent, like the fighter he claims to be. It comes from a natural stamina, but it also comes from his heart. And when John Fury says his son has got what it takes to be the champion, I think it's these qualities he's talking about, rather than his actual boxing technique. It's a style that you'll see in many a gypsy fighter, but not too many modern heavyweights. And that is perhaps what sets Fury apart.
But is all that travelling-man bravado and sentimental "heart of a lion, never gives up" stuff really going to guide him through against a Teutonic machine like Christian Hammer, let alone Wilder or Klitschko? Are the big-bollock boys simply just too fit, too professional, too studied to falter to this rather old-fashioned style?
I really can't say. Having watched most of Tyson's fights, there is an element of getting through on a wing and a prayer in some of them (mind you, I have seen him dominate, too). Having said that, there is this sense that he might just be able to do it. That he's got enough about him – enough power and enough determination and enough madness to see him beat a freight train, let alone a man a couple of inches shorter than him.
I think the question is not whether he can beat the top boys in the division, but whether anyone can beat him. Not because he's unbeatable, but rather that he will not lose. He's either totally fallible, or near invincible. Anything in between wouldn't quite be right. Fury might not be the best boxer in the world, but it's going to take a hell of a man to tell him otherwise.
Only time will tell where Tyson Fury will be viewed in the annals of boxing history when all is said and done. Will he reign at the top for years as his father believes? Or will he become a side note, a Question of Sport mystery guest, the future answer to an ItBox question about that British heavyweight whose title shot was knocked back by one of the big boys? A nearly-man, a heavyweight Ricky Hatton?
But maybe that doesn't matter too much, because his place in our folklore is all but assured. Whatever happens to him as a fighter, we'll surely be reminding ourselves of "Tyson Fury, the brash, outspoken gypsy warrior who took on the world and called Wladimir Klitschko a shithouse" for years to come. The movie they inevitably make about his life might even be better with an ending like that.
But Tyson Fury has ambitions far beyond being just a folk hero, because he's already that. He wants to be the world champion, and god knows he might just do it.
Tyson Fury's fight against Christian Hammer takes place on February the 28th at the O2 Arena, London.
Tickets are on sale for Risky Business, priced at £50, £75, £100 and £250 + booking fees, from eventim.co.uk and 0844 249 1000 or AXS.com and 0844 824 4824.
BoxNation will televise live and exclusive on Sky 437/HD 490, Virgin 546 and Talk Talk 525.
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