Boxing: Travelling tyros settle in for white-knuckle ride
Gypsy kings in the making are proud of their scrapping roots as they turn pro
Tyson Fury and Billy Joe Saunders have more in common than evocative names which stand out on boxing billboards. Both are young prospects with antecedents steeped in Romany fighting folklore, descendants of bare-knuckle scrappers who settled differences in fields and fairground booths. The former amateur buddies are now freshmen professionals in rival camps, vying to become the first Travelling man to win a world title.
"Travelling" might be something of a misnomer, as they have lived on permanent sites since childhood; Fury, 20, a barn-door-sized heavyweight towering a fraction under 6ft 9in, comes from near Wilmslow in Cheshire; and the 19-year-old welterweight Saunders lives in Hoddesdon, Hertfordshire. Both are immen-sely proud of their Romany roots.
They will appear on the same night, Saturday 28 February. But not on the same bill. Fury has his third pro fight for the promoter Mick Hennessy in Norwich, Saunders makes his debut with fellow Olympians James DeGale and Frankie Gavin for Frank Warren in Birmingham. But the careers of this personable pair of Gypsy Kings will have fascinating parallels.
Luke Tyson Fury is not only a name to watch, but one to conjure with. He comes from a bloodline of fighting Furys dating back to the 19th century. His 44-year-old father, Gypsy John, did a fair bit of bare-knuckle stuff himself but was also a gloved British heavyweight contender, losing in a 1991 eliminator to Henry Akinwande.
Fury Snr gave Tyson his fighting name. "He was born on a rainy night in August 1988, eight weeks premature and so small I could hold him in the palm of one hand," he says. "He weighed about a pound and a half and they told me he hadn't much hope. A doctor said: 'What are you going to call him?' I said: 'Tyson – after the heavyweight champion of the world.' He just smiled, but I always hoped in my heart that one day my lad might be world champion too."
Now a massive 18 stone plus, Fury won 30 of 34 amateur bouts, 26 by knockout, and both of his pro fights to date. Fury Snr admits he wants to see his son achieve what he couldn't."I had no education, I came from a large working family. So what did you do for money? Fought among travellers. Prize fights, pick-up fights.
"It was a brutal business. Brutal. You could have got killed. I had me jaw broke, teeth missing. When you are out there you are a gladiator, my friend. It's you and him. It's the worse thing in the world and all you want to do is be safe and win and get paid."
His son says he was "heartbroken" at not being selected for the Olympics. "I believe I could have won the gold medal. I'd have whupped that Italian who beat David Price. I like to get in there and have a tear-up. If they want it, they're having it. It's in the blood."
He says that Iron Mike is not his fistic inspiration. "I've got his name but I don't really box like him. The guys I look up to are Lennox Lewis and Larry Holmes. People don't understand that I'm only 20, my body hasn't set yet but they expect me to be a sort of David Haye and Muhammad Ali rolled into one. I'm not going to try and be something I'm not. I am proud of what I am, and that's a traveller, Irish, whatever you want to call it. But I'm here and I'm fighting for GB."
Fellow traveller Saunders, who keeps horses and races against them as part of his training, also sees his appeal stretching beyond his community. He is the great-grandson of one of Britain's most famous gypsy bare-knuckle champions, Absolom Beeney. His father, Tom, a former amateur, admits to being in a bare-knuckle scrap once "to sort things out, the way the travelling community does".
Both he and Fury are young family men, Fury newly married, Saunders with an 18-month-old son. And they are not the only prospects from a community that also produced former domestic champions Tony Sibson and Johnny Frankham. Michael McGuire, an 18-year-old bantamweight from Peterborough, has turned pro with the Hayemaker organisation.
All three were podium candidates for London 2012. Saunders says he had no option but to quit the amateurs after the ABA's treatment of the Beijing boxers, including his ill-timed suspension for what was later deemed to be a "minor misdemeanor". "What they did over something that was months old, and now sacking a nice honest guy like Terry [GB team coach Edwards]... it shows they can't be trusted. I'm well out of it. It's their loss, not mine."
Now Saunders is hoping he and Fury will provide some positive publicity for the travelling kind. "But we are not fighting for our community but the whole of Britain."
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