In London’s Docklands area, on the north shore of the Thames, the next act in British heavyweight boxing history plays out this Saturday. It is the second iteration of an old feud. Tyson Fury (22-0), the giant Irish Traveler who bears his family’s heavy cross, climbs back into the ring where he’ll face Dereck “Del Boy” Chisora (20-4) for the British and European titles. In their first fight, held in 2011, Fury unanimously decisioned a fat “Del Boy” in London. It was a fine win for a 22-year-old, an age that’s conspicuously unripe in an era of old heavyweights. But, despite seven subsequent wins over three years, Fury’s career has been stalled by inactivity and become more notable for the fights that didn’t happen than for those which did. Now that Anthony Joshua has supplanted him as Britain’s most promising heavyweight, Fury must prove he’s still worth worrying about.
Tyson Fury is a movie character whose role is to provide comedic relief, only in real life. At 6’9 he is oversized and unevenly behaved, oscillating from profane to profound, depending on his mood. An active tweeter, the Manchester native has spewed homophobic invective at rival British heavyweight David Price, but the account name on his page now reads ‘Jesus My Lord’. God, who may or may not like gays, depending on which religious authority you listen to, is Great, particularly when Tyson’s career proceeds smoothly.
He is also a Gypsy, and Fury’s heritage is indivisible from his character. By ‘Gypsy’—a term Fury uses to describe himself—I mean he is part of the Irish Traveler ethnic minority that’s spread across Ireland and the United Kingdom. Historical and contemporary representations of Gypsy culture are contentious. For outsiders, traveler campsites are mysterious staples of rural England, at once foreboding and enticing, insular communities governed by rules in which physical power maintains honour between men. Travelers have long been subjected to the majority’s xenophobia and mistrust, and recently, they’ve endured buffoonish characterization through television shows like ‘My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding,’ a show Fury himself lambasted.
There is another side to Gypsy custom, well known to anyone with a modicum of knowledge about British fight culture, which scaffolds the Traveler mystique. Bare-knuckle fighting, in which family scores are settled, bets are placed, and testosterone surges, is a constituent of Gypsy life. For those of us who aren’t Travelers and don’t live in the United Kingdom or Ireland, YouTube provides us with a portal. Under grey skies in some indistinguishable rural local, groups of men (sometimes accompanied by young boys) meet in the street for mediated, always brutal fistfights. The competence of the fighters varies but the result is usually the same: bloodshed. Fury’s father, ‘Gypsy John Fury’, was one such bare-knuckle pugilist.
‘Gypsy John’ even made his own foray into the professional ranks. He had twelve bouts, of which he won eight, but he experienced little of Tyson’s success. John Fury is now in jail, having been convicted in 2011 of gouging a man’s eye out in a street fight which stemmed from an incident that occurred 12 years before in Cyprus, which John Fury felt hadn’t been settled definitively. He wept at his sentencing, so fearful was he that his son’s career—which John had long steered—would be damaged by his removal. “His boxing career is on the line,” he said during his unsuccessful attempt to plead with the judge.
John Fury was instrumental in Tyson’s development, is the seed from which Tyson’s confidence has germinated, and he states with absolute confidence in a 2009 television interview that Tyson is a future heavyweight champion. Self-confidence, or rather, grandiosity, seems hereditary. Tyson consistently refers to himself as “the best heavyweight on the planet” despite his unexceptional record. In the same television interview, a steely-eyed John ruminates on glory and legacy, and says that no one remembers a man for having money, only for what he’s accomplished. He invokes Mike Tyson, after whom he named his son, as an example of someone whose name will live on despite his missteps. For the Furys, fighting is a way of ensuring history does not forget them.
His father’s imprisonment was understandably difficult on Tyson, who changed trainers several times afterwards and experienced large fluctuations in weight. Into the void stepped Peter, John’s younger brother, who helped correct some of Tyson’s technical mistakes and ensured he regained his fitness. Like John, Peter has seen the bowels of the correctional system and spent nine years in jail for crimes he committed as a street figure in Manchester. I doubt prison can improve a man, but Peter Fury provides a convincing counterargument. From inside the circus in which Tyson operates he’s emerged as an impressive voice of reason. Soft-spoken and reasoned, he carries himself with the experienced clout of a man who knows things can be much worse. Indeed, they have been. Last year he told boxingscene.com about his stint in prison, characterizing it as “hell on earth”: “Going inside made me realize what life was about and what I was missing. It was like being in the dark for 24 hours, people have no idea what it’s like, but you move on, learn from it and it makes you a humble person.”
The Furys have seen no shortage of drama, and this has been an especially trying year. This summer, Tyson’s wife suffered a miscarriage, and his Uncle Hughie was hospitalized with a blood clot, from which he passed away eleven weeks later. Fury was scheduled to fight Alexander Ustinov, but in light of these events the bout was cancelled. He has not been in the ring since February, when he knocked out journeyman Joey Abell in London. Before the stoppage Fury looked vulnerable, getting hit cleanly several times by someone who was not supposed to be a problem.
Against this backdrop, Tyson Fury has cut a jagged path through professional boxing. It cannot help that he’s suffered from depression, which contributed to, and was probably influenced by, his weight gain. Before Peter brought him back into shape, he metastasized to 322 lbs, which left him in a state of such self-disgust that he called himself an ‘obese, fat pig.’ Despair is never far away for the father and born-again Christian, who after his two fights with David Haye were cancelled, says he momentarily quit boxing because he was so frustrated. He once told The Independent, “I do sometimes think life is pointless and that is where the boxing comes in.” Unlike one’s unknowable place in the universe, there is no ambiguity about two men punching each other in the face. Neither is there any vagueness about the excitement it provides.
Fury has thought deeply enough to consider life pointless, but this is only one side of his conversational teeter-totter. The other is a menagerie of curses, cheap shots, and sexual barbs, most of which he delivers with the wink and smile of a boy who’s pleased with himself for having said something naughty. His outlandish comments have resulted in fines and limp-wristed opprobrium, but little else. Fury’s clowning doesn’t seem to leave scars. Few take him seriously.
This is partly because he’s so absurd, and partly because his posturing frequently backfires, reminiscent of when Fury once punched himself in the face while throwing an uppercut. Or when he bullied Steve Cunningham after the bell at Madison Square Garden and then was promptly walloped by a huge punch and knocked down. Not everyone likes him, and some want to see him destroyed, but there is such a pervasive sense of ridiculousness to everything he does that even dour fans end up smirking. More importantly, Fury is well-regarded because he is genuinely fun and seems to possess a good nature. At the press conference to promote the superfight with David Haye that never happened, Fury’s promoter, Mick Hennessy, said that what he wanted, as much as a good bout, was for the world to see what a wonderful person Tyson is.
An interesting personality can build a fight, but it will do little to help you win a boxing match. Tyson has often looked susceptible in the ring, whether because he was out of shape, easily hittable, or mentally unsound. In spite of his own lofty self-assessments, he doesn’t move with the precision or grace of Anthony Joshua, but lumbers, giant-like with his long, angular legs, and doesn’t punch particularly hard for someone who is over 250 lbs. This doesn’t mean he can’t fight; nor does it mean he has a weak spirit. Fury has decent hand speed for a heavyweight and boxes with a Gypsy’s courage. After being knocked down in the Cunningham fight he returned to form, imposed his size, and earned a seventh round stoppage.
This week Fury told The Daily Mail, “’I’m like Achilles, Hector and Alexander the Great. I’m like Red Rum, people like me only come round every 500 years.” I don’t think Achilles would have been knocked down by Nevan Pajkic, and unlike Red Rum, Fury’s ponderous feet aren’t spry. Conversely, I don’t think this is the fight that will expose his shortcomings. Fury has already defeated Chisora once, and did so boxing in a way that catered to “Del Boy’s” strengths. That is, rather than establish his jab Fury fought the eight-inches-shorter man at close proximity. Tyson was rocked in the second round when Chisora landed several heavy left hands, but still won a clear decision. Chisora was grossly out of shape and figures to be in better form on Saturday, but he is a limited brawler, while Fury, who is older and wiser, should be improved. He has promised a better version of himself, and while all boxers make this boast in advance of fights, it’s interesting to speculate on what sort of package Fury can bring if he’s fit, focused, and more technically advanced.
If he defeats Chisora, as the betting line says he will, there is already talk of him fighting Anthony Joshua, who is now considered Britain’s greatest heavyweight prospect, a distinction Fury once contested exclusively with Liverpool’s David Price. In fact, Fury, Price, and David Haye once appeared on the cover of The Ring, under the title ‘Rule Britannia’, which implied that a British heavyweight revolution was taking place. David Haye is no longer an active fighter; David Price was knocked out twice by Tony Thompson and is rebuilding himself; and Tyson Fury has a date on Saturday with a fringe contender he already beat. That is not a revolution.
Generations of Furys have fought for pride and place, and Tyson’s career is the apotheosis of this tradition. Fighting is, and always has been, a way of garnering respect in a society which discriminates against Travelers. You can be called a “Pikey” and told you’re a piece of shit, but the black smoke of xenophobia dissipates before the physical reality of fighting, in which combatants are on even terms and strength, not class, determines one’s worth. It allows men like John and Tyson Fury to transcend their emptiness and create a legacy in a world they believe would prefer their inexistence. Fighting, in other words, is firm ground upon which to plant their flag. Lamenting life’s cruel comedy, in which men thoughtlessly strain for illusory forms of glory, the homicidal Macbeth concludes that “it is a tale/ Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury/ Signifying nothing.” This may be true, but boxing provides a temporary answer to eternal despair. Sound and fury will abound on fight night, and despite the cosmic irrelevance, it will signify everything.
— Eliott McCormick