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The meaning of Tyson Fury

He survived addiction and a suicide attempt to return to victory in the ring. Now the philosopher-fighter considers the “void” after boxing.

By Declan Ryan

In 2015 Tyson Fury was poised for a shot at the dominant heavyweight champion Wladimir Klitschko and certain he would win, despite the long odds on his upsetting the steely Ukrainian. “He was thirty-nine years old and clearly slowing down…For some reason, he couldn’t see his end was on the horizon, but I could.”

A discussion of the end in sight feels especially pointed in Fury’s new autobiography, Gloves Off – a fuller, more candid offering than Behind The Mask (2019) – as he finds himself, at 34, closer to the end than the beginning of his boxing career. Or, as he makes clear, the end of the second of his boxing careers. Fury has, in recent years, come back from almost impossible conditions to reign again, overcoming mental health crises, enormous weight gain and “Paradise Syndrome”, the latter a by-product of dethroning Klitschko that night in Düsseldorf.

Fury has been a mass of contradictions since emerging as a sideshow with a near-parodic boxer’s name. At 6ft 9in Fury, in his prospect days, was a curly-headed, ungainly attraction on undercards of stars such as Carl Froch. He was notorious for a much-screenshotted uppercut he once clumsily administered to his own face. A traveller, he notes that he experienced discrimination before he was famous but his talent made it impossible for prejudices to sideline him within boxing: “I’ve earned the right to fight on merit.” Nonetheless it took a while for him to be respected; his demands for a tilt against Klitschko were largely met with derision and anticipatory schadenfreude by pundits and fans. No one beat Klitschko, not for a decade – his safety-first style was honed to a fine point by the great trainer Manny Steward, saviour of vulnerable heavyweights. There were lots of things Fury knew that the rest of the world didn’t.

At the positive end of that list was a self-belief instilled by Fury’s having been around Klitschko before, while learning at the feet of Steward himself. Steward had noticed the promise in Fury’s unusually fast feet, extraordinary dexterity and reflexes for a big man, and tipped him to be a future champion. Fury makes it clear that he’s always maintained old school methods, that “the concept of fighting… hasn’t evolved because it doesn’t need to”; “[Klitschko] had surrounded himself with doctors, weightlifters, sports geeks and top chefs, while my training camp was running out of a tin shed in a muddy field in Liverpool and I slept in a caravan. I still lost 6 stone in the build-up to give him a hiding.” Fury believed himself fated to become a champion. Spurred from childhood by his pro boxer father’s dedication, he had his first fight aged nine, against a neighbour, wearing a baggy Donald Duck tracksuit. He felt he had Klitschko’s number and that as the fresher, hungrier man boxing history meant there would be a forceable changing of the guard.

Fury was, however, suffering in silence. He’d just lost his uncle and first trainer, Hughie, and his wife Paris had recently endured a miscarriage. He says of the time: “I was an emotional time bomb and the clock was ticking.” His goal for the past seven years – of facing Klitschko – had become an irrelevance in the bigger picture of personal struggles. Despite this, and thanks to an evening of “clinical precision”, Fury’s hand was raised in Düsseldorf at the end of twelve absorbing, frustrating rounds (“I was a motherfucking bamboozler”) and he reached his unlikely zenith. This was a catalyst for collapse, not celebration: “The world was at my feet and all my dreams had been fulfilled. So what else was there to live for? Nothing. And that made me a dead man walking.”

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Tyson Fury is a man who needs a mission. Having spent so many years aiming his dedication, drive and sacrifice in Klitschko’s direction he found himself with no more worlds to conquer. Tellingly he mentions the impact his OCD, as well as his temperament, has on training: “Listen, you’ll have to give me a goal, even if it’s an outrageous one, because I ain’t quitting. There will be no burnout and I’ll be here until tomorrow morning.” This monomania has been a mixed blessing. He became known as an “apex predator”, and his addictive streak did lead to burnout. He developed a darker form of commitment, drinking ten to 18 pints a day, bingeing on the junk food for which he had always had a weakness, and falling into a cocaine habit. Beneath it all was his never-acknowledged mental illness, which led him to the precipice: a suicide attempt in which he drove his Ferrari towards a bridge at high speed, and only aborted at the final minute when he heard a voice telling him to stop, for the sake of his children.

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While this was a watershed it wasn’t until a Halloween party Fury attended, dressed as a skeleton, that he finally hit bottom, looking around at the crowd of young people and thinking “you’ve chucked it all away. What’s going on?” His boxing licence had been suspended due to his being judged medically unfit, there was the matter of a ban in the ether due to a failed drugs test, and he had piled on weight, reaching almost 30 stone. As well as the matter of survival, Fury found another pressing reason to dust off his training gear in Deontay Wilder, then the World Boxing Council champion, who had mocked a photograph of a bloated Fury on social media and was knocking out all comers. “[Anthony] Joshua ain’t got the bollocks to do it, so it’s going to take an old, fat, bald-headed feller to come out of retirement,” Fury writes. Armed with another seemingly implausible aim, Fury set about getting into shape, initially just trying to shift weight but soon looking to sharpen his fighting skills, via a couple of comeback bouts against journeymen.

Having finally sought medical help after longstanding reluctance, Fury sees the public nature of his breakdown as making him “more like the average person on the street” and allowing him to become an “unofficial ambassador for mental health” (there’s a list of helplines at the back of the book). This was never more the case than when he rolled the dice and, in December 2018 in only his third fight back, faced the ultra-violence of Wilder, a move so risky Fury’s irate father refused to talk to him during the build-up. The final round, with Fury seemingly knocked cold only to rise “like a phoenix” became one of the rare moments in sport that was immediately transformed into metaphor. Only awarded a draw on the night, Fury is at peace with being robbed (“by not losing I’d emerged victorious”), in part because of his definitive victories over Wilder in two rematches. The third fight took place after nights spent in hospital with his premature newborn daughter (“If this baby can get out of this hospital… then I can go over there and hammer some useless dosser”) and brought the possibility of lasting damage in the ring to the front of his mind.

Fights take a toll, to the extent that Fury suffers anxiety if he watches them back. “I often physically slip the punches,” he says. He suffered short-term memory loss after the third Wilder encounter, but was lured back to face Dillian Whyte at Wembley Stadium and his old foe Derek Chisora at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium this year.

He now has one eye on the door, despite the money always on the table, knowing the end is on the horizon. He is a deep thinker, his “Gypsy King” persona deals in hyperbole (“I bent the fabric of reality, twisting this way and that”) and is a promoter’s dream, a line in willed extroversion designed to sell fights and generate headlines. He puts some of his well-known, unpalatable comments in the past down to a desire to court controversy and a symptom of then-unacknowledged depression. A man of faith who describes family as his armour, Fury knows what it’s like when the phone stops ringing, and warns other fighters off collecting entourages (“Let’s meet up in ten years… Then we’ll see if any of these pricks are still hanging around you”), aware of the emptiness that awaits when he hangs up his gloves. He describes boxers as selfish, their Spartan camps meaning weeks away from all home distractions, a difficult ask for a man who makes phone calls for company on long drives.

The fights – however dangerous – are the fun bit for Fury, offering rare absorption and a chance to show off preternatural gifts, a place of calm for a man who can’t be idle. He is learning how to live without the sport which has defined him. “When I leave there’s bound to be a void,” he writes, referring to the fighters who’ll be left when he bows out, with “not a personality between them”. But he might say the same of his life post-boxing, too. A scholar of the game, he knows quitting may prove his toughest challenge of all.

Declan Ryan is a poet and critic who writes on boxing and literature. His first poetry collection, “Crisis Actor”, is forthcoming from Faber & Faber in 2023.

Gloves Off: The Autobiography
Tyson Fury
Century, 336, £25

[See also: An A to Z of Carmen Callil]

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