Britain’s Conundrum: How To Solve A Problem Like Tyson Fury

Britain’s Conundrum – The complex relationship Britain has with her heavyweights is no better illustrated than in the current dichotomy between Anthony Joshua, an untested heavyweight prospect, and Tyson Fury, the reigning and legitimate heavyweight champion of the world. Even by the feverish standards of the alphabet organizations, the passage of Joshua to a strap was tortured. When Tyson Fury signed for a rematch with former champion Wladimir Klitschko, the biggest money fight that could be made in the division and between the #1 and #2 fighters therein, the IBF immediately stripped him of its trinket and set Vyacheslav Glazkov – capable, but certainly not among the five best heavies in the world – against marginal prospect Charles Martin, who had beaten absolutely nobody of note. Designed primarily as a coronation for Glazkov, the Ukrainian exploded his knee in round three, spraining it, dislocating it and tearing his anterior cruciate ligament making Martin one of the most unlikely “champions” in heavyweight history. He came to Britain and failed to land a meaningful punch as Joshua smoked out and destroyed him in impressive fashion.

In his next contest, Joshua will face the undefeated Dominic Breazeale. Breazeale’s best win on paper came in his last contest, a stoppage victory over Amir Monsour. Monsour won every one of the five completed rounds but refused to come out for the sixth having inadvertently wounded his own tongue in the second round causing an injury which supposedly required 36 stitches. This didn’t stop him from dropping Breazeale in the third and spending an uncouth and swing-filled minute seeking the single punch which would have brought him the knockout win.

Just as the height of the bizarre brought Charles Martin his strap, so the height of the bizarre has brought Breazeale to his own shot at a title, although his chances are only slightly better than Martin’s in another fight that can safely be labelled a joke. The sad part is that were it not a title fight, Breazeale would be a reasonable fight for Joshua who seems keen to climb the ladder slowly. Now that it is for a “world championship” however, it is hard not to scoff.

This will not stop the fight appearing on pay-per-view on Sky Sports, Britain’s flagship sports broadcaster. Tyson Fury, meanwhile, will toil in relative obscurity on dedicated boxing channel Box Nation. Box Nation has worked wonders for the sport in this country. Swamped with naysayers from its inception, BN blew them all away with consistently excellent broadcasts of boxing both domestic and foreign, bringing matches that would not otherwise be broadcast on these shores – Lara-Martirosyan, for example – to a hungry boxing public. But it does not have the financial clout of Sky Sports.

This in and of itself is no indictment of Fury’s standing. Fury is a fiercely loyal man who surrounds himself with those he trusts so it is very possible that he would have preferred what he calls the “old-school” leanings of Frank Warren and BN to what he decrees the “new school” Eddie Hearn, who is associated with Sky Sports, regardless.  Certainly his cheerfully naming Hearn “a bitch” who would “get slapped and wouldn’t be able to do anything about it” hints that their working relationship would have been a complex one at the very least. But it is also true that despite the fact that he won the title against a fighter who didn’t try to fight him and will defend it against one incapable of doing so, Joshua is far and away the preferred member of the British fight fraternity. Fans and journalists both appear to have far greater affinity for Joshua’s tombstone physicality and demeanour over Fury’s everyman physique and absurd ramblings.  This is perhaps understandable, but it is true in spite of the fact that while Joshua was banging out never-will-be Martin and enters training for his near double in Breazeale, Fury has been matching the single greatest heavyweight of his generation and is preparing now to do so again.

Fury beat Wladimir wide on my card, and I expect him to do so again. Like so many others, I found the notion of Fury out-boxing Wladimir prior to their November contest, a little ridiculous.  As a Fury fan I thought his boxing skills and punch resistance were being persistently underrated, yes, but Wladimir was far and away the best general in the heavyweight division. A twisted-mirror opposite of Mike Tyson, Wladimir nevertheless benefited from the same general strategic approach in that both men were just peaked and released in the knowledge that their styles, for all that they are diametrically opposed, would eventually win out. Tyson would eventually find his opponent with fast punches propelled by aggression; Wladimir would eventually find his opponent on the end of his jab, propelled by control of range and tempo. This did not work against Fury for several reasons.

Firstly, Fury’s style on that night was, in many ways, a reflection of his personality with all its unconventional tics and twitches. Seething with a physical representation of ADD, he jittered with both hands and feet, stalking back and in a circle, every move a feint to punch. Wladimir has built a career around protecting his questionable chin by control of range and his questionable stamina (questionable, at the very least, to him) by controlling the speed of the contest. Feints are traditionally of little use against him because the virtual threat possessed by a fighter like Chagaev or Haye, probably the two outstanding contenders Wladimir met in his great career, were insignificant due to his advantages in height and reach. Fury was both taller and lengthier than the champion. This imbued his virtual threat with menace not possessed by many of his opponents.

At the end of the first round, Jonathan Banks advised Wladimir that he was “looking for one punch,” a diagnosis but not a cure. In the other corner, Peter Fury told Tyson to “zig-zag, then switch. It’ll put him into his shell a bit.”

This is exactly what happened.

Reticent about combat even when in firm control, Wladimir was pushed right to the edge of his comfort zone by Tyson’s style and then over it by Peter’s strategy. Unable to control the action for the first time since the tenth round of his 2005 contest with Samuel Peter, Wladimir became almost hypnotized by Fury’s mobility and consistently edgy motion. Nevertheless, Fury wasn’t working particularly hard with his hands, nor was he particularly hard to bring into range. Indeed, Fury was not running, he was consistently in or just outside his opponent’s reach. Wladimir had ample opportunities to throw but seemed reluctant. He continued to adopt his strategy of waiting for his jab to take effect, even though he was not landing jabs, testimony to Fury’s excellent defensive skill.

“You’ve got to be more aggressive now,” offered Banks at the end of the eighth. “You don’t need one shot, you need two shots, three shots…you have to stay on this guy.” He did try a one-two in the ninth, but this was the extent of his ambition. Fury’s unlikely punches meanwhile continued to do their work, landing like languid lightning rods on Wladimir’s biosphere and deepening his confusion. The champion did not look old at the beginning of the fight but he looked old long before the end. Like Bernard Hopkins before him, he had established a style that worked despite his advancing years – until it didn’t. Fury’s excellence made Wladimir look like a classically shot fighter, not in the sense that he was physically incapable, but in the sense that he was seeing the openings but unable to take advantage of them due to technical and stylistic reasons.

But there was no knockout. Joshua, meanwhile, has continued to knock over bowling pins with the regularity of the destroyer. This is one factor in explaining the lack of fanfare greeting Fury’s victory; the other is self-made.

Although I in no way condone Fury’s view on homosexuals and women, I was interested to read support from an unexpected source last month, a leftist British magazine most concerned with politics, The New Statesman. Novelist and freelance journalist Ben Myers wrote a stirring piece under the headline “The Wrong Kind of Hero” that explored the rejection by the British people of the Fury story which remains, at core, the narrative most beloved by this island’s people, a “rags to riches” tale. “The simple answer,” writes Myers, “is prejudice.” Fury’s views, Myers continued, “don’t chime with the liberal consensus.” Up until that point, Fury’s most controversial opinions had been expressed over abortion, women and the supposed perversion of homosexuality. Myers quite rightly points out that these beliefs are born of a conservative Christian perspective; that he is expressing religious beliefs, however ugly we might find them.  What he did not say is that the extension of tolerance – right or wrong – to these religious beliefs has not been as forthcoming as they have in support of other religious perspectives. Fury has suffered from something of a double jab in that not only is conservative Christianity underwhelmingly supported by the proponents of free speech in Britain, but that his own ethnic background, that of a traveller, is also under-supported by liberalism. There are words that I cannot write on The Sweet Science, but I suspect that “Pikey”, a derogatory word for a gypsy, or traveller, is not one of them. Fury’s ethnic background remains one of the very few in the western world that remains fair game for the bigoted in British society.

More recent anti-Semitic outbursts are harder to defend. They are also deeply ill-advised and may make doing business in Las Vegas problematic for Fury. But the rush to take him so seriously on his anti-Zionist nonsense was surprising to me. Deeply devout, he proclaimed during the same interview that “nobody was going to heaven because there is no heaven” and in the same week that he hopes he loses to Wladimir Klitschko. I suspect that he does not believe any of it.

This picking and choosing of which Fury statements to embrace as his true belief forms a pattern. At a recent press conference in support of Fury-Klitschko II, Fury stood and exposed his ample gut for Wladimir to inspect. “A fat man,” he informed Wladimir. “That’s who beat you.  Shame on you.  A fat man beat you.  I don’t take boxing seriously, as you can tell.”  Blogs and forums immediately exploded with reports that Fury wasn’t training, that he was out of shape, that he couldn’t beat the former champion. Completely ignored was the relaxed interview he gave to Box Nation immediately after that outburst in which he explained he was eleven weeks out from the fight, had already dropped fifteen pounds, needed to drop a further thirty, but that he was on course to do so. All of this had been documented on Instagram.

“The weight’s my main issue,” he admitted. “I go out and eat whatever I want when I want. All or nothing like everything I do. But when I’m in training mode – I’m in training mode.”

Those of us paying attention are beginning to pick up on when Fury is speaking seriously and when the pendulum has swung in the opposite direction and he is rambling nonsense. Nonsense is his default setting.

This is a source of deep frustration to Peter Fury, who wants the public to get to know “the real Tyson.” He’s gone further in lambasting the press for their lack of respect – relative to Joshua, I suspect – and spelling out in no uncertain terms that this was the reason that Fury has spilled so much vitriol; in the words of Tony Soprano, those who want respect, give respect.

That is a two-way street, however, and I suspect that if Fury could have learned to control himself when he came to the title he would be a happier man today and a richer one upon his retirement. Joshua-Breazeale is literally not worth talking about; unless he manages to bite off his own tongue or blows up his knee, Joshua will achieve another quick knockout before moving on to bigger and better things (I hope). Fury-Wladimir is the only show in town; but do not expect the column inches to reflect that.

Whilst I suspect that Joshua is already much better than Frank Bruno, it is the relationship of Bruno and Lennox Lewis to the British public that mostly reflects that of Joshua and Fury. A perennial loser at the very highest level, the conventional “Big Frank” was beloved in a way that Lewis could never achieve. Lewis had to go on winning for years and years after his stoppage of Bruno to achieve anything like the adoration that Bruno enjoyed. This is now the only path open to Fury. He has to beat Klitschko and then beat Joshua and then go on winning. Not as enamoured by winners as our cousins across the Atlantic, it remains a longer road to the type of popularity and financial rewards that Joshua is beginning to enjoy. I suspect that Fury has neither the self-discipline nor the love of boxing (“sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t”) necessary to enjoy such a prolonged career. But however lunatic his worst outbursts are, he is certainly a better king for the greatest of divisions than Wladimir, who is both unexciting and soon to be retired.

And if Joshua then beats Fury, Joshua becomes the right type of hero, a bad-boy turned sporting Goliath who shrugged off the drug deals to live out his dream; Fury can retire into obscurity, a family man surrounded by loved ones and able to enjoy a financial security his bare-knuckle forefathers could never have imagined.

And if Fury keeps winning? If he keeps winning we all have some adjusting to do. Not least the man himself.