Tyson Fury is a fighter who boxes only for money yet cares nothing for it, a special talent in his own estimation yet unfit for purpose when compared with the greats of the game, a God-fearing nihilist in a daily battle with the devil and the demons within. He is a great, lumbering ox of a man with surprising agility, an erratic bundle of contradictions living on the edge of reason. I was lucky. I caught him on a good day.
The Fury fighting emporium in Bolton, modestly badged “the home of champions”, occupies a former public house. It sits on an old trunk route leading north out of the town towards the foothills of the Pennines. It is a bleak aspect in high summer. On a cold February afternoon it desperately wants for cheer.
The gym is something of a surprise, Spartan yet spotless, airy and bright. A cluster of boxing’s historic figures bear witness to the sparring from a fresco that decorates a wall behind one side of the ring. Jack Johnson, Jack Dempsey, Harry Greb, Joe Louis and Muhammad Ali all feature. And at the end of that auspicious line, Tyson and Hughie Fury, the fighting cousins from the Travelling community, take their place, irony-free.
It is Thursday, the last spar of the week. Fury follows his cousin into the ring. Fury’s uncle Peter, father of Hughie, hollers learned prompts from ringside. Fury offers squat Irish heavyweight Sean Turner some advice as he taps the heavy bag before the session begins. “Aim for the body, not the head. It’s a bigger target. You are a small man. It’s pointless you trying to smash me in the face. You’ll never reach.”
Fury didn’t mean offence. This is a hard school, no place for sensitive souls. Turner knew where he stood in the food chain and simply nodded assent. The opportunity to respond would be his soon enough. And he did, giving Fury every inch of his attention when the bell went.
The session closed with the dreaded iron bar, a length of metal a metre off the deck requiring the boxers to vault back and forth. Fury did all he was asked before stepping bollock naked on to the scales. “Yessss,” he said in confirmation of a needle moving in the right direction.
It was by turns an indignant and reflective Fury that submitted to scrutiny on the ring apron. I put it to him that there were welcome signs of maturity in recent months. The victory over Dereck Chisora last November was a disciplined take down of an awkward lump, and the announcement of his fight with Christian Hammer at the O2 on Saturday was notable for an absence of bombast. “I’ve not tried to change anything. I am what I am. I get fined all the time; £20k, £25k, £15k, £10k, £12k. I could have spent that money on sweets and chocolate,” he said, knocking the premise flat. “Every time I speak out I get fined a lot of money. Couldn’t give a fuck, to be honest. Fine me another £20k. It’s only money. You can’t take it with you, can you?”
This then was the first volley of a fiery beginning, an opening gambit in which Fury was demonstrating just how little he cared for authority or the interview process. I pressed on with a second stab at the idea that there was more to Fury than the inner hooligan with the foul mouth.
“Let me tell you one thing. I’m a gypsy, no education, no schooling, nothing. I don’t care what people think of me. I don’t care about being a hero, a role model, a champion. I’m doing this for money and money alone. If I didn’t box again, who cares? I can’t stand it [boxing]. But I can’t think of another job that pays me five or six million a year.”
Come on, Tyson, you are encyclopaedic about boxing. You know about records, your opponents and stuff. Of course you love it. “I used to but now I don’t. I’m not interested in it. It’s a business, not a sport. For me it’s about making money. When your hobby becomes your business it doesn’t happen. It doesn’t work. That makes it hard but when you know you can’t earn money any other way…”
I felt like a sparring partner, trying to establish a foothold in the engagement. I switched stance to break his rhythm. What do you care about, Tyson? “Not much really. Obviously, I care about the kids. Family, all that sort of stuff. But really, I don’t care about life, don’t care about death. Nothing. That’s the kind of man you are dealing with. That’s why I can’t be beaten. When you don’t give a fuck about nothing or nobody you are a hard man to beat.”
What are you scared of? “The devil. Well, I’m not even scared of the devil. If the devil confronted me I’d confront him as well.” Does that make you dangerous? “A dangerous man is a man on the way to jail, so I’m not dangerous, no. I’m a one-off type of a fella.”
This I interpreted as a breakthrough, a slight lightening of the mood. I tried to pay him a compliment. You say you have no education but you are a bright bloke. You get it, don’t you, Tyson? “I get life and it’s shit, basically.” Any other interests? Movies? “I do like going to the movies, but I like eating tons of sweets and ice cream so I can’t go to the movies any more.” Stop eating the sweets? “What’s the point of going if you can’t do that. My whole life revolves around eating. My idea of a good day out is going for a nice bit of food, going to the movies, stuffing myself full of a load of shit.”
Fury is fighting a deeply ingrained negative reflex. Any positivity he might muster soon turns to mush. “I’m a bad person, a very, very bad man. I’m going to go straight to hell. I’ve a one-way ticket, unfortunately, and nothing is going to stop me. I’ve tried to walk with God and all that sort of stuff. I try to tweet about good things. But there is not a lot of good in badness, is there? All filth and dirt. It’s all from the devil. Temptation happens and bad takes over good.”
What was supposed to be an interview with a boxer had morphed into a symposium about the meaning of life. The gym had gradually emptied, Peter shouting his goodbyes as he headed out for dinner. I was alone in a small space with a big man talking religion and suddenly felt the weight of the occasion. Time to feint to the left and throw a boxing question.
Now is a good time to be a decent heavyweight, I offered. Can’t miss with that, surely? “A good one would take the lot of us out. One decent heavyweight with a backbone could take the whole division on. That’s because we are all useless. The whole of our era is crap. No good. The heavyweights of the Seventies and early Eighties would have destroyed us all.”
Blimey. Riddick Bowe? “He would have set about me in seconds. Too good for me.” Lennox Lewis? “Again, flattened. I’m lucky to be in the era I’m in. Don’t get me wrong, I’d have fought any one of them but how long would I have lasted? Take any of the top 10 these days, in any of the organisations, they are all pretty crap. I have beaten most of them. What does that say about the division if a fat gypo can smash them right in?”
Surprisingly, Fury feels no deep attachment to his background or community. “It is not something I’m interested in or care about. You get people saying, ‘Oh I fight for my nation’ or ‘I fight for my people’. I fight for myself, to pay my bills, because nobody fights for me.”
We were back in the deep stuff. Back to God. I hit him with my atheism shtick, went low with a sneaky existential dig. “I believe and I think you should, too. Without God what have we got? All the money, all the women, the drugs, they can’t make you happy. Every single day my battle is with myself. My opponents are what they are, just boxers with a pair of gloves on. I’m battling between good and evil within every single day of my life.
“I’m one of those people who can be in a really good mood and the next minute can’t be bothered living any more. Sometimes I wake up and think, ‘Why did I wake up?’ Or if I walk across this road, ‘Why doesn’t a bus just run me right over?’ I always think what’s the point? Why do we live every day to go to bed and wake up again? What is life about? I’m just a human being, a dirty sinner. I’m not worthy of God’s grace.”
It was time to leave. We shook hands. Fury said he would pray for me. I slipped through the door to take my chances with the Bolton night.
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