“An era can be considered over when its basic illusions have been exhausted.”
– Arthur Miller
Like him or not, we all owe Tyson Fury a debt.
A mere three years ago, his career winding down comfortably, Wladimir Klitschko could look back at a body of work that defined an era like few before him. Jim Jeffries, the fin de siècle kingpin; Jack Johnson, with his controversial stranglehold on the heavyweight title; Jack Dempsey, the roughneck American genius of the interwar period; Joe Louis, whose 25 successful title defences make him the Ukrainian’s only superior in that respect; Rocky Marciano, who beat everyone there was to beat and retired undefeated; and Muhammad Ali, who stood atop perhaps the most talented top weight class of all time, are the only names who could rival Dr Klitschko as masters of the heavyweight division. After many years of being written off as boring, mediocre, too reliant on his big jab, too safe a player, the one-eyed king of the land of the blind, it felt as though Klitschko was finally getting his due as Louis’s record came within grasping distance. After all, didn’t Jeffries and Marciano also preside over uninspiring competition? What about Louis’s “Bum of the Month” club?
A year before in September 2014, Klitschko had been included in Ring Magazine’s pound for pound list at No. 2, an unbelievably rare achievement for a heavyweight, and Boxrec audaciously did him one better. Perhaps he was an all-time great, befitting his tremendous record, and shouldn’t we naysayers be ashamed that we refused to acknowledge a truly great boxer when he stood and fought right before our eyes?
In 12 intensely dull rounds, Tyson Fury thoroughly disabused us of such fantastic notions. By being someone the champ couldn’t bully, Fury reminded us Klitschko had always been one. No shame in that – anyone who steps between those ropes is fully encouraged to use whatever physical advantages they possess. But they’re also advised to have a plan B, and when the 6’6” Ukrainian with the 81” reach came up against someone taller and rangier for the first time, he had no idea what to do. Shockingly, Fury toyed with Klitschko…
..switch-hitting for fun and taunting him by placing both hands behind his back. Fury used every inch of his frame and every mote of awkwardness in his style to nullify the erstwhile unbeatable “Dr Steelhammer,” taking his titles (including, vitally, recognition as lineal heavyweight king) with relative ease.
The significance of this victory is only intelligible within the wider context of the self-styled “Gypsy King’s” career. Until this point, he had been a middling talent at best, becoming mandatory challenger only by beating previous Klitschko conquest Dereck Chisora in 2014. Chisora, whom he also beat in 2011, was by far the most significant name on his then 24-0 record. No rare thing for a potential contender to have a padded undefeated streak in any day or age, especially this one. But despite this less-than-stellar competition, Fury hadn’t always had things his own way.
He was clearly beaten by John McDermott in 2009, and he was buzzed bad in 2011 by unfancied 32-year-old Nicolai Firtha, who had taken the fight on two weeks’ notice. (Until Firtha, the hardest shot Fury had withstood was from himself – he famously ate his own uppercut against journeyman Lee Swaby in his fourth fight.)
In his next fight, unknown Canadian Neven Pajkić floored Fury with an overhand right in the second round, only for the fight to be prematurely waved off by the referee in the third. After a dreadful performance against Kevin Johnson, the big man was knocked down once more in 2013 by blown-up cruiserweight Steve Cunningham.
A year later, observers had begun to question Fury’s dedication to the sport. A harbinger of what would happen post-Klitschko, after negotiations with David Haye fell through a dejected “Gypsy King” allowed himself to fall completely out of shape. He turned up for the American tomato can Joey Abell looking like an overstuffed settee turned on its end. While he’d managed to pull himself more-or-less together for his second bout with Chisora, the fiasco with Haye seemed to have aged him prematurely. Fury transformed from a handsome young man with tousled jet-black hair into a glabrous porker almost overnight.
He’d also emerged from the experience with a steel he didn’t seem to possess before. His next three performances (vs Chisora, European-level gatekeeper Christian Hammer, and Klitschko) are his best to date. His supporters will point to these contests as proof that, while he may not be the most flash fighter, he is very effective at his best.
The problem with that is it makes him sound like a heavyweight Bernard Hopkins, which he most certainly is not. It’s somewhat stupefying that a gangly, ungainly, feather-fisted, plexiglass-chinned 6-foot-8er has such strident advocates, but they do exist – and in numbers. After a recent interview with Fury, Radio Raheem found that out when he was denigrated for the crime of asking a fair question. For someone who loves the banter and pre-fight mindgames, Fury is extraordinarily devoid of natural charisma and cuts a nervous, awkward figure next to a microphone. How has a personality cult formed around someone without a personality?
Maybe it’s this contradiction that people find compelling. It could also be his ability to get back up, both literally and figuratively, after knockdowns. His very public breakdown after becoming world heavyweight champion was a deep well to climb out of. While it’s always unwise to expect prizefighters to be role models, it’s difficult to think of comparable precedents for Fury’s unpleasantly homophobic, antisemitic and misogynistic behaviour around this time. This, and his ballooning to around 28 stone, should have meant the end of him as a top-level boxer. That might still be the case – wins over Sefer Seferi and Francesco Pianeta don’t exactly prove that he’s back – but that he’s come through it more popular than ever must be testament to a personality of sorts. (He should be commended for coming clean about his depression, which his famous namesake Iron Mike also suffered from and didn’t address until it was very nearly too late.)
Fury’s supporters are also right about one thing: he has a better claim to be the lineal (and therefore, let’s face it, genuine) world heavyweight champion than anyone. Anthony Joshua and Deontay Wilder may hold the physical belts between them, but they’re mere ornaments until you’ve beaten the man who’s beaten the man. It’s more accurate to say there is no lineal champion than for either of these men to claim it. There has been an attempt to elevate Joshua to this position in Fury’s absence, as if beating Klitschko after Fury had in a far better fight somehow nullified the earlier and more significant bout. It’s not hard to understand why: young, handsome, charismatic, unassuming, and probably the best heavyweight around, Joshua looks like the saviour of a division that’s been in the doldrums since Lennox Lewis, Evander Holyfield, and Mike Tyson hung up their gloves.
Perhaps even longer than that. The 90s and early 2000s certainly weren’t considered a great era at the time; simply when compared to the Klitschko Age that followed. That we’re now beginning to look back on the Klitschkos’ reign fondly is partially the fault of Joshua and his promoter Eddie Hearn. It’s Hearn who got cold feet at the prospect of Joshua unifying the belts with Wilder after the latter impressively dispatched Luis Ortiz, someone Hearn would never have allowed Joshua in the ring with. A Wilder fight, naturally followed by a Fury fight at Wembley stadium, would not only have made everyone involved very wealthy but also brought legitimacy and unity to the heavyweight title, if not genuine talent to its division.
Fury agreeing to fight Wilder doesn’t make unification impossible, but it does delay it. If he’s anywhere close to the level he was three years ago, Fury will shut Wilder down and bore him to death over 12 easy rounds. At that point, simply too much money will be at stake for Joshua not to fight him. But, if Fury has diminished, Wilder can switch off someone who struggled with the power of Neven Pajkić and Steve Cunningham. In such a scenario, Joshua/Wilder is still a big deal, but it’s not the all-British clash of the titans we should have had.
No matter how much we might wish it otherwise, Fury is still the man right now. It is he who dethroned Wladimir Klitschko and dented the Ukrainian’s legacy in a way comparable to what Michael Spinks (an infinitely superior boxer) did to Larry Holmes.' While purists have often considered the top division the weakest in terms of skill, in a wider context boxing needs a strong heavyweight division and a strong heavyweight champ. If Joshua is unwilling to accept the crown, it will be an era defined by Tyson Fury and the chaos in his wake.