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Steve Bunce on Boxing: For Tyson Fury and Billy Joe Saunders, fighting is simply in the blood


In New York last week Tyson Fury shocked one or two people with his honesty at a press conference to promote his 20 April fight at Madison Square Garden against Steve Cunningham.

Fury let the people know that he was a "fighting man, a fighting man with generations of fighting men before me in my family. That's all we do, we fight." Fury is a Traveller, a fine Gypsy brawler, the unbeaten former British heavyweight champion and the Americans were a bit shaken by his words; he sounded more American than the Americans.

"I have heard it all before from you lot [Americans] about how you all grew up surrounded by drugs and shootings," Fury said. "Well, fighting is in my blood, I don't have to invent a story about fighting – it's what we do in our community." Fury's father, brothers, uncles and cousins all fought or are still fighting, but not all the contests took place with gloves, ring and a bell. There is, however, always a referee when Travellers fight.

Fury has been shielded by his brothers and uncles from the scraps and challenges that any Traveller male has to deal with and it has not been easy. "There is a new so-called 'King' of the Gypsies at every gathering. I could fight every day if I wanted to!" Fury claimed.

In New York, Cunningham, a former world champion at cruiserweight, seemed genuinely annoyed with Fury's words and the underlying insults. "I'm from Philly, a great boxing city and I grew up street fighting – that was my introduction to boxing. This guy talks too much," he said.

There was a time, many years ago, when promoter Mickey Duff would convene a press conference at a casino near Russell Square in London and introduce a sad-eyed Mexican or two. The fighters were here to lose at either the Royal Albert Hall or Wembley and their backstory would always be the same: little Pancho was one of 16 kids and had been shining shoes on the streets of Tijuana since he was five. Fury does have a point; most American fighters do seem to share a familiar hardship, but it is not unique to inner-city survivors in America.

Fury is just one of dozens of professional boxers from the Traveller community and there are also thousands competing as amateurs. On Thursday night night Billy Joe Saunders, who lives on a site in Hatfield, will defend his British middleweight title at York Hall in London against Manchester's Matthew Hall; Saunders wants to go one further than other Gypsy fighters and become the first to win a Lonsdale belt outright.

"I have always had to tread a fine line when it comes to people challenging me," said Saunders. "I'm a fighting man, but I'm also the British champion and I need to support my family. If I whacked somebody I would lose my licence. I have to tell you that it is not always easy to walk away from some of the idiots that want to fight me."

Saunders is also part of a rich Traveller tradition and races his beloved horse Roy's Boy on roads at dawn. The horses take off pulling their buggies on two-mile dashes after a convoy of cars have stopped traffic by blocking the road. It is a glory to watch, taking place with such speed that most drivers are unaware that a race has just started and finished.

"I have an old jeep and I like to keep up with the horses and make sure the winner is the winner," said Saunders. "If I lose, I pay up. A bet is a bet and nobody wants an enemy in our community." Saunders is also the great-grandson of perhaps Romany culture's finest bare-knuckle fighter Absolom Beeney. Like Fury, fighting is what Saunders does.

Both Fury and Saunders have lost their way at times. Saunders had hand problems and was drinking too much and admits that without boxing he would probably be in prison. Fury uses his excesses as motivation – it also works well to shock the Americans: "There was a time not long ago when I was up until five in the morning drinking and shagging myself silly. I was on a mission to self-destruct." The American press loved him, which further angered Cunningham and will only add to the fight's selling power.