Heavyweight Champion Tyson Fury – On June 27, 1988, undisputed heavyweight champion Mike Tyson knocked out his undefeated challenger, Michael Spinks, in 91 seconds. Six-and-a-half weeks later, in Manchester, England a son was born to John and Amber Fury. They named him Tyson.
Born prematurely, the boy was puny. But by age 11, when he quit school, he was strong enough to perform physical labor. He gravitated into work paving streets, a common occupation among the menfolk in his clan. Now, at age 27, Tyson Fury has no need to pick up a shovel. He is the heavyweight champion of the world, the true heavyweight boxing champion by the rule of lineal descent.
The Furys are members of a community that has been looked down upon for generations by a large segment of U.K. society. They are Irish Travelers. Many are blond and blue eyed, unlike the Romani gypsy with whom they are often lumped.
There are Irish Travelers in the United States, an estimated 7,000. The largest pockets are found in Aiken County, South Carolina, and Tarrant County, Texas. Like their British cousins, they too have been held in contempt. In the mid-1990s, according to a letter published in the Aiken (SC) Standard, a restaurant in North Augusta, South Carolina, had a sign in the window stating that Irish Travelers would be refused service — Jim Crow for white folks.
In the United States, Irish Travelers have been identified with home improvement scams and insurance fraud. In Britain, Irish Traveler men are widely seen as ill-bred ruffians. In 1997, a headline in the Sunday Independent read: “Patience Runs Thin When Uncivilised Travellers Spill Blood.”
To be certain, much of the calumny directed at Irish Travelers is a manifestation of bigotry. A burning loyalty to one’s extended family, an admired trait in other groups, is disparaged as Irish Traveler clannishness. A middle-class child who isn’t enrolled in school is being home-schooled. An Irish traveler child in the same circumstance is labeled a truant.
That being said — and while acknowledging that writers who are assimilated into the middle class can’t write objectively about marginalized groups – it’s hard to ramble through newspaper stories about Irish Travelers without feeling the vibe of that old saw about there being a kernel of truth in every stereotype.
Bartley Gorman (1944-2002), the most celebrated bare-knuckle fighter of modern times, was an Irish Traveler. A biography of him, titled King of the Gypsies, is replete with tales of insanely brutal fights held on the sly to avoid the police. When Gorman was fighting, needless to say, the Queensberry rules didn’t apply.
John Fury, father of Tyson, was a bare-knuckle scrapper who also fought in sanctioned matches. Gypsy John, as he was known, had 13 “legitimate” fights, winning eight. Lord knows how many impromptu fights he had outside the ring. A scuffle with another Irish Traveler at a car auction in 2010 had bad repercussions.
The scuffle, according to newspaper accounts, was the culmination of a 12-year grudge over a bottle of beer. During the battle, Gypsy John gouged his victim’s eye out. At his trial, his attorney requested leniency on the grounds that fighting was a way of life in Fury’s community.
The magistrate was unmoved. On Feb. 10, 2011, Gypsy John Fury, Tyson Fury’s dad, was sentenced to 11 years in prison. He was released on probation after serving four years.
With his father away in prison, Tyson Fury’s uncle Peter assumed a larger role in his life. Peter Fury, Tyson’s chief trainer and overall mentor, has had his own troubles.
Peter Fury served two terms in prison, the first on a charge of conspiracy to distribute amphetamine and the second on a drug-related charge of money laundering. In total, he spent nearly nine years in confinement.
Peter Fury’s past caught up with him in April of 2013 when he was barred from entering the United States to work in his nephew’s corner when Tyson Fury made his first and only U.S. appearance, opposing Steve Cunningham in the Theatre at Madison Square Garden. Tyson Fury has said that whether he ever fights in the U.S. again hinges upon whether his uncle can come with him.
Tyson has run afoul of the law too, but in a relatively trivial way. When he failed to show up in court on a traffic warrant, he was slapped with a weekend in jail. There are, however, people who would like to see the reigning heavyweight champion locked away somewhere for a good long time.
Fury created a stir when he expressed homophobic and misogynistic opinions in an interview with a reporter for the London Daily Mail. When he claimed that he was misquoted, the Mail published the entire transcript of the interview. A video subsequently surfaced that confirmed the gist of what he had said.
Before the interview ran, Fury’s name had been added to the short list of nominees for the Sports Personality of the Year, an award first given in 1956. The British Broadcasting Company, which sponsored the award, was inundated with calls to disqualify him for his “vile slurs.” 140,000 people signed an online petition to this effect.
The BBC wouldn’t budge, but Fury’s chances of winning the award were rendered almost nil. He finished fourth behind tennis player Andy Murray, rugby star Kevin Sinfield, and heptathlete Jessica Ennis-Hill. (Asked for a comment on Ms. Ennis-Hill, his fellow nominee, Fury said “she looks quite fit when she’s got a dress on.”)
The British Boxing Board of Control considered fining Fury for his intemperate remarks but backed off. That was prudent as it would have sparked a big backlash. For every person offended by him there are likely a dozen that find his candor refreshing, not because they share his antiquated viewpoints, but because of the reaction it gets from the stuffed shirts in positions of authority.
Fury’s fans must have gotten a good horse laugh when he expressed an interest in running for Parliament, the thought of which must mortify his castigators. And some of his crude comments were actually quite funny. Who didn’t crack a smile upon reading what he said to Wladimir Klitschko: “You have as much charisma as my underpants.”?
Fury’s behavior is mindful of the young Muhammad Ali. The young Ali was forever saying things that outraged the “establishment.” There was a period in his life when he was simultaneously the most admired and most reviled man in America.
Some boxers find that winning a world title is burdensome. Others relish the brighter spotlight. The young Ali embraced his new-found celebrity and had fun with it. He thought it cool that the world stood up and took notice of him, a person from such a humble background. Tyson Fury is experiencing the same heady rush.
Those that know Fury well say that he’s a good-natured chap. “He’s quite gentle out of the ring, a nice, nice lad,” says his amateur trainer Steve Egan. “Beneath the childish bombast,” wrote a London Daily Mail reporter, “(is) a sportsman with a clear and intelligent grasp of his sport’s history and indeed his place in it.”
If this be true, Fury knows that he is the first bona fide Englishman to hold the heavyweight title in the gloved era. Bob Fitzsimmons was born in England but learned the rudiments of boxing in New Zealand. Lennox Lewis was born in England but represented Canada in the 1988 Olympic Games and feels a stronger emotional allegiance to Jamaica, the birthplace of his parents.
England is the cradle of pugilism and quite proud of it. Tyson Fury isn’t the long-awaited golden child – he doesn’t fit the image of a proper Englishman – but he is an Englishman nevertheless and that gives him a leg up in the court of public opinion.
Standing six-foot-nine and burnished with a wonderful name for a prizefighter, Fury seemingly doesn’t have to do much to command a big audience whenever he enters the ring. But he knows better. The British bare knuckle bruisers of yesteryear, the booth fighters that plied their trade on the fair circuit, were rough customers but foremost they were showmen. Fury is cut from their cloth.
Thus far we have skirted the $64,000 question: How good is he? When Fury took the title from Wladimir Klitschko, he defeated a man that hadn’t lost in eleven years. But Klitschko was getting long in the tooth – he turns 40 in March – and as the late, great oddsmaker Herb Lambeck once cautioned me, many boxers grow old overnight. It was a clean win on points for the Englishman, but perhaps that said more about his opponent. Fury’s performance, as in many of his previous triumphs, was inelegant (and that’s being diplomatic).
Some folks think that Tyson isn’t even the best fighter named Fury. They are partial to his 21-year-old cousin Hughie Fury, Peter’s son, a 6’6” heavyweight who is currently 18-0.
Be that as it may, if Tyson can pass his next text, a rematch with Klitschko, a bout between him and Deontay Wilder would be a colossal attraction. Peter Nelson, the new head of boxing at HBO, has talked about the importance of storylines in piecing together a must-see event. If Fury fights Wilder – assuming both are still undefeated – there will be enough storylines to fill an encyclopedia.
History will be very kind to the Klitschko brothers, but they didn’t cause much of a ripple, at least not in the English speaking world. Now there’s an undercurrent that suggests that the heavyweight scene is about to get frothy. Fasten your seat belt.
Check out this video about the heavyweight division at The Boxing Channel