MORECAMBE, England — Even as a child, Tyson Fury never envisioned an occupation other than his present one: heavyweight champion of the world. In his marvelously grandiose way of thinking — something required of a real heavyweight champ, which is to say, a fighter for whom mythology and marketing are one in the same — it was destiny, perhaps prophesy, and without question, God’s will. But now that he’s fully in his prime, as a fighter and an attraction — 94,000 tickets sold, most in a matter of hours, for his title defense against Dillian Whyte this Saturday at Wembley Stadium — Fury is vowing to retire.
“After this fight, I’m walking away,” he told me. “A lot of people don’t believe me. I seen me dad do an interview the other day, ‘He ain’t gonna walk away. He can’t live without boxing.’ But that’s where they all underestimate the big GK [for Gypsy King], I can live without boxing.”
“I’m two-time heavyweight champion of the world,” says Fury, still just 32. “Undefeated in my 13 going on 14-year campaign as a professional. Won every single belt there is to win. Broke a lot of records. Done a lot of good….”
“Helped a lot of people.”
But what in retirement could possibly nourish that heavyweight ego?
“I helped meself,” he goes on, oblivious to my apparent cynicism, “helped me family. Secured the rest of our days. I’m going out with a bang. What more is there?”
Well, there is the matter of those three other belts, currently held by Oleksandr Usyk.
“All of which I’ve owned previously,” he reminds me.
The threat of retirement is among boxing’s oldest tropes. Truth is, if fighters were any good at retiring, far fewer would leave the game as damaged as they tend to do. The same ego that made them champions in the first place tends to keep them coming back. Meanwhile, a four-belt belt unification fight against the eventual winner of Usyk and Anthony Joshua could be not only the richest fight in history, but an irresistible proposition for a man such as Fury, a champion for whom there was no real antecedent.
How could you not…
“How could I not?” he responds, arching his brow to mock the very question.
It’s here, amid Fury’s self-styled dramatic pause that I recall him telling me, on the eve of his second fight with Deontay Wilder, that he would walk straight across the ring and beat up the then-feared American champion. I didn’t believe him then. But I kind of believe him now. What’s more, Fury believes it — in this moment, at least — and that’s the point. Belief made him; it’s his sacred obstinacy.
Isn’t there the temptation?
“Not really,” he says. “I always said, ‘When I walk away, I’ll never come back. Never.'”
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FURY WAS BORN three months premature on Aug. 12, 1988. His father named him for the last heavyweight champion America deemed worthy of mythologizing, Mike Tyson, who had famously knocked out Michael Spinks in 91 seconds earlier that summer.
Says Fury the elder, still beaming with pride: “It took a thousand years to breed my son.”
Well, a couple of centuries at least.
On either side of his family, Tyson Fury’s bloodlines are full of “Gypsy Kings,” Travellers recognized as the great bare-knuckled fighters of their eras. They fought, according to “Behind the Mask,” Fury’s autobiography, in mines and racetracks, campsites, quarries and, of course, pubs. They include Tyson’s cousin, Bartley Gorman, a bare-knuckle champ who reigned from 1972 to 1992, known as “the most dangerous unarmed man on the planet.”
Still, that Bartley Gorman isn’t to be confused with the original Bartley Gorman, Tyson’s great-great-great grandfather who earned his kingship in County Mayo, Ireland in the 1800s. Then there were Ticker Gorman and Othea Burton and, of course, Tyson’s own father, “Gypsy John” Fury.
“I was the best Fury,” John says. “Apart from me son.”
He’s not bragging on his professional record — 8-4-1, according to Boxrec.com, as a local heavyweight in and around Manchester — but his status as a bare-knuckled fighter. John was the kind of guy who’d sit by the elders at a campfire and tell the bravest young brawlers “let me break your nose. That way you’ll know a good man’s done it.”
So much for rites of passage.
“If I have put your eye out, I’ll put your eye out,” John says. “If I have to bite off your nose, I’ll bite off your nose. Whatever I have to do to get a win.”
Tyson wasn’t like that, though. He always had length and size (140 pounds as a 10-year-old), but apparently not the temperament. Though Gypsy John’s progeny — who’d grow to 6-foot-9, blessed with an unheard of 85-inch reach — would eventually prove the most graceful heavyweight of his generation, Tyson has never been in so much as a street fight.
Joe Tessitore interviews Tyson Fury prior to his bout with Dillian Whyte on Saturday.
Still, at 14, he challenged the King and told his father that videos of his fights weren’t all that impressive. Put on the gloves, said his father. This was by Uncle Hughie’s old tire shed, where young Tyson trained through much of his boxing apprenticeship.
It didn’t last long. Tyson hit his father with a left hook to the body. Broke three ribs. John couldn’t have been any happier had his son just pulled a sword from a stone.
It was all settled then. The boy would become champion of the world. “I wasn’t the greatest husband,” John says, taking stock of his virtues, or lack thereof. “I’d tell me missus I was going out for a newspaper and up in Spain for a month.”
Then there were the four years he went away for an assault that resulted in the other guy losing an eye (result of a longstanding beef, John says, insisting that the gougee was infamous as a police informant in the Travellers community).
By his own admission, John wasn’t the most even-keeled kind of guy. “There were times when I was madder than a box of frogs,” he says. “But I was a great father.”
By that, he means that he kept reminding Tyson of their lineage and his destiny.
“You keep telling a kid that and guess what? He believes it.”
“I was 100 percent certain that I was going to be heavyweight champion of the world,” Tyson says. “The belief, the faith was there.”
But its origin remains subject to question. Was it paternal? Internal? Or, as Tyson himself now suggests, somehow divine?
“How? Where from? I do not know. Me father had 13 pro fights, um, and lost four of them. That ain’t world champion material, is it?”
But what of all those fighting kings who comprise his ancestry?
“There was no breeding to be heavyweight champion of the world,” he says. “They were all scrappers and fighters. We could go to a pub today and find someone who’s a scrapper, but it doesn’t mean his son’s going to be the heavyweight champion of the world, does it? So I believe I’m chosen.”
Perhaps he is. Still, the destiny he imagined as a boy is mere, minor and infinitely less probable than what has actually happened. Go rummage through your assortment of boxing fables, real and imagined, from Muhammad Ali to “Rocky.” If Fury does indeed win and walk away come Saturday, his might well prove the best story of them all.
IN THE SUMMER of 2016, just months after he took three belts from Wladimir Klitschko, Fury got in his Ferrari and headed toward the Barton Bridge, a span traversing the Manchester Ship Canal. He’d been drinking and drugging, a 400-pound man in the midst of a profound depression. “I’d been thinking about it for a long time,” Fury recalls. “And I finally decided this was the day, and this was how it was going to happen.”
He decided he’d end it by ramming the Ferrari into the bridge stanchions. The speedometer read 160 mph. He was, in his father’s parlance, madder than a box of frogs.
What did you envision in that moment? I ask.
“At the moment? I didn’t believe that anything was possible apart from ending up in a padded room.”
“I heard a voice speak to me, clear as I’m speaking to you,” he says. “It said, ‘Do not do this. Think of your children. Think of your family. You’re going to destruct everyone’s lives.'”
Whose voice? I ask.
“I believe it was God’s.”
Fury pulled over.
“I knew I couldn’t do it on my own anymore. I needed medical help.”
The story of Fury’s comeback — his victorious trilogy with Deontay Wilder, his eventual advocacy on the subject of mental health — has been told many times, but never properly contextualized. Fury wasn’t martyred like Ali. No one thought to depict him as St. Sebastian on the cover of Esquire. It’s one thing for an athlete to come back from being 400 pounds. Or from drugs and booze. Or more common still, orthopedic ruin. But Fury came back from what the rest of the world terms as crazy. What’s more, there was no reservoir of goodwill from which he could draw. He left the game for three years, dismissed as an indolent bigmouth. He was despised. And nowhere did the revulsion run deeper than in his native Britain.
“Here in this country,” says his father, “we will always be dirty Gypsy bastards to the powers that be.” Maybe that’s part of it, being a Traveller. But there was another element, too: Tyson Fury was everything British heavyweights weren’t supposed to be: nimble, brash, glib and very, very good.
I recall a conversation with The Sun’s Colin Hart, long the dean of British boxing writers. “We’re very envious of success,” he said. “It’s a national trait.”
British tastes, especially in heavyweights, ran to the “lovable losers” — dutifully modest and self-effacing fighters like Henry Cooper and Frank Bruno. Tyson, by contrast, was loud and showy, his style naturally balletic. His sensibilities — perish the thought — were almost American.
Now, generations of Brits have tried to conquer the States. But Tyson Fury is the only one to succeed. Even as the sport became more British, Tyson became more American. What’s more, the agent of his transformation was that most American of institutions — television.
“I was made for American TV,” he says. “I look at boxing as show business.”
It began with the lead-up to the first Wilder fight. He was great on the mic, but the prevailing opinion on either side of the Atlantic was that his verbal dexterity would lose its charm as soon as Wilder knocked him out. Not only didn’t that happen, but the exact moment of Tyson’s star-spangled ascent to stardom is a matter of record. It was Dec. 1, 2019. There was 2:10 left in the 12th round when Tyson rose from a Deontay Wilder knockdown.
Never has a draw been more of a win. The character to whom he was now compared was no longer a fighter but a wrestler: The Undertaker. What could be more American?
From there, it was cake — or perhaps apple pie is a better metaphor. In short order, Fury became the centerpiece of extravagantly produced ring walks that featured him in the role of Apollo Creed or wearing a giant Mexican sombrero. He’d begun delivering de facto sermons on mental health with the practiced candor of a reality star. He trained in Vegas. Bought a house in Vegas. Did a stint with the WWE. He even got an American trainer, SugarHill Steward, scion of the great Emanuel Steward. But most of all, in a country that finds nothing lovable in losers, Fury was a winner, twice bullying the much-feared Wilder into submission.
“America has been a beacon of light for me,” Fury says. “They embraced me, took me in as one of their own, supported me, paid me. America turned me into a superstar.”
The irony is that it took American stardom for him to finally be loved back in the U.K.
“It’s only after an open battle with mental health,” he says, “after going to America and toppling their long-reigning champion that I’ve gained the respect and admiration of the British fans.”
By way of proof, I offer those 94,000 tickets, inconceivable just a few years ago. “I single-handedly broke all the records, sold out Wembley on me own,” he says, dismissing as inconsequential Dillian Whyte’s refusal to participate in any promotion before fight week. “I don’t believe any single athlete in the world is capable of doing that, apart from me. It’s never, ever been done this way.”
As for Whyte, they were sparring partners a decade ago. “He used to help me out in camp and I used to help him out,” Fury says. “Dillian is a good, solid heavyweight. He’s got a good left hook, got a good catch and counter … he’s no pushover.”
Just the same, Fury adds: “He’s never been on the world stage of big time boxing and I’m very, very, very experienced at it. That will play a factor, whether he likes to admit it or not. He’s never, ever done what he’s about to do. It ends with [my] big right hand, detonating on Dillian Whyte’s face.”
I ask if he could be more specific as to the timing and duration.
“It won’t go past the midrounds, for sure.”
I had to suppress a laugh the first time he told me he was going to run across the ring and knock out Wilder. I’m not laughing anymore. Rather, I’m reminded of something Steward told boxing writer John Brister: “That trilogy with Wilder turned Tyson into a different fighter.”
“I was a slick mover, a dancer,” Fury says. “Today I’m a risk it all for glory guy.”
He purposely spars in a tiny 16-foot ring: “I’m trying to knock motherf—er out.”
In other words, this Gypsy King has become more like his ancestors.
ONE WONDERS ABOUT the nature of a “risk it all for glory guy.” For a fighter like Fury, the crowd itself is a drug, and 94,000 a pretty potent dose.
How do you kick after something like that? How do you just walk away?
Easy, he insists, working backward, reciting names like a kind of pugilistic genealogist, the lineage of another dynasty to which he belongs: Wladimir Klitschko, Lennox Lewis, Evander Holyfield, Mike Tyson, George Foreman, Muhammad Ali.
“I’m just a drop in the ocean,” he says. “Soon, there’ll be another young guy, good looking, knocking everybody out. And another after him. And so on.”
However long the dynasty lasts, there won’t be another one like Tyson Fury. He was unique, as a character and fighter. And I find myself wanting him to hang on, just long enough to bust up his young would-be successor.
At least the kid would know that a good man’s done it.