The British love a rags to riches story, the more humble the beginnings the sweeter the scent of success. Perhaps it’s the residual effect of our empire days when a bloodlust saw us punching above our weight. Yet the reaction amongst certain quarters of the public and media to the rapid rise of unbeaten boxer Tyson Fury, a traveller, has been counter to this country’s propensity to always back its heroes. At times it has been insidious and shameful.
Speaking recently about his upcoming defence against Wladamir Klitschko, who he defeated to become heavyweight champion of the world, Fury was asked what had changed in his life since he achieved a life’s ambition: “Fury sounded almost sad when he replied ‘Nothing really, I just get more racial abuse and discrimination,’” reported the Guardian.
Fury is a rarity in the sporting word. He is the white, working-class, northern male who, like Wayne Rooney, Ricky Hatton or others before him, has nurtured a talent, yet unlike these he does not receive widespread adoration. In a decade when the thuggish John Terry has lead his country, why is this? The simple answer is prejudice. Fury’s is the story that many are simply embarrassed celebrate because his views don’t chime with the liberal consensus. To them he is not the “right” kind of hero. Rarer still, he is a white victim of racism – from white people.
Some might argue that in expressing conservative Christian opinions he brings it on himself and Fury is often happy to indulge in provocation (usually in the lead up to fight), yet the public reaction to his views, and what this says about contemporary orthodoxies, is educational. Much of the backlash against him is from the liberal, the bookish, the superficially tolerant: those who ordinarily consider themselves defenders of free speech, ethnic equality, religious freedom.
To defend Fury’s opinions on homosexuality and abortion is not to agree with them, but rather recognise the right that Britain must always accept differing religious opinions. The prejudice against him, however, is predominantly ethnic. Anti-traveller racism is still seen by many as an acceptable racial taboo, the insult “pikey” publicly bandied about freely by some where the N- or P-words are not.
He needs to be considered in context. Fury is a fighter operating in the showman’s tradition, who alongside the likes of his cousin Hughie Fury, an impressive rising star, David Haye, and his latest adversary Anthony Joshua (polite, lives with his Mum; the media-sculpted yin to Fury’s wild-man yang), are ushering in a new golden age for British boxing. His spiel has a weight of history behind it. He knows this; his critics do not.
Many were aware of his father “Big John” Fury, long before his son took to the canvas. A handsome and formidable boxer in his heyday, Big John was a contender who also fought bare-knuckle. It was he who bestowed upon his son the middle name Tyson when he was born in 1988 just six weeks after Mike Tyson felled Michael Spinks in 91 spectacular seconds at Trump Plaza, Atlantic City, at the pinnacle of his fighting career. (Fury’s mother got her way in naming him Luke, after the key book of Gospels from which much of modern theological understandings of the origins of Christ are extrapolated.)
The Furys are related to Bartley Gorman, the late Uttoxeter-based, self-styled King of the Gypsies. Though it was a mantle many travellers adopted, Gorman’s claim was justified. His career was the stuff of legend, the flame-haired fighter battling in quarries and mine-shafts, and even once sparring with Mohammad Ali, mainly for honour. Another Fury predecessor was Manchester-based Uriah “Big Just” Burton, a much-feared fighter and unofficial community leader of sorts.
With bare-knuckle and unlicensed boxing now thriving, inspired partly by the true tales of these tarmac warriors, Tyson Fury instead chose the legitimate route. Not for him scrapping in car parks for chump change, but a lifetime of discipline, dieting and dedication for which he is now justly reaping the rewards: belts and money. And, sadly, abuse.
It is not merely the middle class intelligentsia who are divided about Fury, either. Watching him dismantle the mighty Klitschko on a pub screen in a town in the north-west on a Saturday night I was struck by the shameful ethnic epithets being shouted by some of the young white men watching the fight. He, they declared, was not one of their own.
To dismiss Tyson Fury is to overlook his talent, knockabout humour and humility among his fans. It also diminishes his standing among his own community, where he is respected as someone who has taken on the wider world with hard work – and won. In time, his career may be seen as a key stage in the building of bridges between travellers and mainstream society, and helping end anti-traveller prejudices once and for all.
Ben Myers’ most recent novel “Beasting” won the Portico Prize For Literature