Tyson Fury: The Great White Hope?

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“Look at dis shit! Boy, this is slavery all over again. I mean, look at dis shit! Dese men is seriously killin’ each other for a hun’red dollars.”

A glorious piece of journalism in June 2001 by sociologist Loic Wacquant explored the true plight of the African-American pugilist. Entitled ‘The Fight Game: or the Whore, the Slave and the Stallion,’ Wacquant’s words did something all too rare in this cheap age of melodrama and hyperactivity: they pulled you away from the shallow whooping and led you into a Chicago South Side gym where the “queer lottery” of boxing was explained.

Far from the fancy halls, theaters and arenas and the well-spoken ring announcers, this was a punishing world, a pugilistic economy where desperate men sought to carve out careers in order to “escape the status of ‘non-person.’” Boxing would restore their “masculine honor,” it would provide for their family, it would have them challenging for a belt and with it prestige.

But it was one step up from slavery – working the fields, the plantation. They were “beasts to be reared, fed, trained and displayed…in a private, legalized industry.” And very few of them made it out of there with even a modicum of satisfaction, let alone riches. This was the hurt business, a “commerce of manly flesh” and most dreams died early – roughed up by trainers, promoters, ringwork or the hard bastard opposite.

Blacks, Africans, Asians, Gypsies, Whites – their colors merge into indistinct sepia once part of this business. Their origins and traditions become an irrelevance once the bell sounds. Slug it out, hold your own, have a high ring-IQ or wisdom.

The “Great White Hope” isn’t that different from the Chicago African-American. Travelers, Pavee, Tinkers, Gypsies, strugglers, journeymen, low-IQ rapscallions, resourceful and rakish fighters – all are similar in that they need this to work out. They are in essence the same breed of man. Avenues are limited. Asking them instead to become part of the “new service economy,” the carpeted skies of the office world is like asking a ballerina to work in a shoe shop.

The odd, ambitious intellectual makes it into this game, onto the trepidatious and ineffable patch of ring canvas, but mostly it is the real heroes, the mythical scrappers and men of great spiritual depth. Sadness swims in their eyes. Glory beckons them. The belts they hope to fight for are not decked out in gold but rather an endless kitchen feast.

“One more fight, and you’re a free man,” I read recently. It is the archetypal succor delivered to a boxer. You could say the same thing to a businessman, a diamond thief or an actor. And yet a pugilist’s grace, his remarkable staunchness, is that he is all three of these. At times he reads from a lowly script. In other purer moments, he waves a wand – blistering combinations exerting themselves from his limbs in the manner of a train’s crankshaft and piston rod.

I watched Luke Tyson Fury for the first time a decade after Wacquant’s piece. It was his 15th professional fight. And it was against fellow Brit and 14-0 man, Dereck Chisora. The words from the ringside commentators still rankle with my ears: “…turning into a classic”; “Another terrific round”; “…seminal moment”; “…turning into a vintage domestic night”; “…fun to watch.”

The fight was a dud in my mind. And the statement on the back of Fury’s t-shirt (“I found Jesus”) had more legs. I have always preferred a more niggardly fight analysis rather than the effusive, docile type. I demand honest, cutting words from people who are entrusted to relay the events before them – not spoon-fed, TV-sanitized glee (essentially a fear of one’s paymasters and the giants in the ring).

At that moment I made a judgment about Fury. I had him down as a wary, octopus-like fighter – a man with the short, chopping punches of a forest animal (perhaps a squirrel). His hangdog, languid arms seemingly did not possess the requisite bombs and mischief-making of a real heavyweight. There was an awkwardness and stiffness in his demeanor, a plodding openness able to retreat and throw gauze-like, snatched shots yet crucially he was bereft of the clinical force required in this division.

Perhaps I was hoping he’d have the guts of Marciano, the flair of Ali, the steel of Frazier, the tenacity of Holyfield, the roar of Dempsey, the menace of Tyson or Foreman. For a 22-year-old it was a naïve billing – journalistic expectation skewed. Since the Second World War, only a handful of heavyweight champions have been under the age of 25 – Floyd Patterson fighting Archie Moore (a man twice his age), John Tate and Michael Dokes to name two of the lesser known. Apart from these, it is mainly the greats – subrogate freaks of nature – that don the list: Ali; Frazier; Foreman; Tyson.

“Do not judge a man until you’ve walked a mile in his shoes.” It would have been easy to extract the letters ‘L.O.S.E.’ from the Lonsdale corner pads in this fight – somehow imprint them on Fury’s head. The performance was that of a child scrawling on a wall at times or a graffiti-bound hustler. Illicit in his groping and gripping of Chisora, Fury was dominant from the 5th yet the polish and the blueprint finish I did not see.

Unlikely to bulk up to 201 lbs. and tread or walk a Tyson Fury mile, I believed I owed it to this Mancunian heavyweight to at least watch all of his fights – the fourteen before this and the seven after it (and in them his burgeoning repertoire). I wished to understand or sense some of the journey, the pain, the trap-laden path to the big stage. Fury had struck me as a man of false bravado (an insult to the legacy of Ali) and I wanted to disprove this if nothing else.

A lot of fighters fall victim to verbosity, repetitiveness or downright unimaginative swill when being interviewed. There is perhaps a miniature grandeur that the fight game demands – puffed-up words, big statements, lines not quite in keeping with the everyday persona or the eyes that blink back at you. Fury had some of this. His words would run and run – not always intelligibly. And underpinning them was a prehistoric aggression – mannerisms developed from a questionable milieu.

After the July 2011 Chisora showdown, I wrote: “If this is a fight, then Caesar did not exist.” I stand by that. And something in the Nicolai Firtha confrontation – his next gentle ding-dong – countenanced such a thought. Examine him as he raises his arms seconds prior to the fight. There is a hole, a piece missing, something incredibly boyish in his eyes. The camera close-up for a fleeting moment isolates his fear; not fear of his opponent but of what he has come to represent. It is the man looking in the mirror only without one – the man without his chums, assailants and hype fully realizing that he doesn’t quite believe his own expletive-ridden sentences.

A 20-minute interview with an overly-agreeable mic hand in September 2013 (BritishBoxers.co.uk) suggested that Fury had actually regressed in his respect for the game and in his desire to deepen his cultural roots. Bland words a many, he disintegrated for me second by second: “I’m a super warrior soldier…When the chips are down I can deliver…Legacy doesn’t mean nothing to me…I care about money and having a good time…I am the man of all men to fight…I’m the best heavyweight Britain has ever had.”

The longer you look at a man – his ways, his habits, his expression – the more there is to dislike. But an immodest man with little mystery and the brute certainty of Himmler is pretty easy to dismiss. It is unfortunate that Fury does not have a weekly tête-à-tête with Donald McRae, the author of Dark Trade. It would straighten him out a little. McRae would act as a mobile university and perhaps instill some sense into those nomadic bones.

After a cheap, clipped tirade against former World Heavyweight Champion, Lennox Lewis, McRae back in February lamented Fury’s capriciousness and inconsistency: “I’m missing the boxer who spoke touchingly about the elusive art of the hand-written letter.” Inane. Stolid. Moronic. Asinine. Such words barely garner the decrepit, caveman nadir which Fury often brings to the boxing table.

His words can be rotten, bedraggled specimens – two-bit hood descriptions and monikers covertly aimed at his own demons. Leaving school at the age of ten can’t have helped. Normality didn’t know him. It didn’t ponder or hang around long enough to dynamite the coarseness inside of him.

But about those fights: Hungary’s Bela Gyongyosi (3-9-2) was his first willing victim; an understandably average opponent. But let’s not forget that even Ali started out against a man who had been defeated nine times. Fury, beforehand, upon hearing his introduction (“Hailing from Manchester…tonight, he’s making his professional boxing debut…ladies and gentlemen – introducing…”), smirked a little. He found the whole master of ceremonies spiel a shade ridiculous. There was a hint of embarrassment but also the knowledge that the man opposite was no bum steer. Sharp jabs and an uppercut to the ribs were sufficient to gain a first round stoppage.

His second fight was riskier but necessary against the kilt-wearing German bomber, Marcel Zeller (21-3-0). I admired what he did in this. Entering the ring eight lbs. lighter at 253 – possibly his best weight – he made it clear that he could trade shot for shot and ultimately overpower most fighters. Zeller was an ageing pro who mostly fought losers, but nonetheless, Fury prowled and thudded with that vocal exhalement of his. It was variable and solid – one to make you sit up.

Fight three was a two-round fiasco against a man seemingly pulled from his kitchen table minutes before the bell. Russian, Daniil “Shrek” Peretyatko (15-20-0) was on the wane, in decline – a charging mauler that needed pushing off but little else.

Southpaw and Lincoln boy, Lee Swaby (23-22-2) appeared to be Fury’s first fit opponent. His face mangled from twelve years of pummeling following his April 1997 debut at the unsuitably named Holiday Inn (Manchester), Swaby was a boxer with a purple patch between 2002 and 2005 but otherwise very much the journeyman and symbolic of this tough, tough sport. He looked like a boxer. He had the crunched facial features of a man who knew nothing else. But to Fury he was fodder.

Mathew Ellis (20-6-1) was a slop. He looked the part, the record seemed okay, but this was a “facile victory” for Fury. Too easy. Farcical really.

Scott Belshaw (10-1) followed – his first similarly gargantuan opponent. Fury liked it. He could jab straight – angle his arm at 90. You think you can take a man, but then the realization hits you. He is stronger, full of life and has a greater hunger. Such thoughts must have rolled through Belshaw’s mind. And if you have a vulnerable lower body then your demise is sewn up.

Aleksandrs Selezens (3-6) – the “never been stopped” Latvian – was a spoiler with the boobs of a young Kylie Minogue. Awful to watch – like an Audley Harrison promise – this fight was worthless, like witnessing an overgrown baby slugging it out.

But then came fight number eight: “Big Bad” John McDermott (25-5). Fury was worked inside, his finely lacquered hair made to look ragged. By round seven this had become a meaningful encounter. McDermott no longer seemed overweight, just tough. The belly was part of his armor able to cushion shots. Fury showed his dirty side in this – offering his gloves at the beginning of the sixth, only to jab a millisecond later. It was impolite, desperate – worse than his holding the corner ropes in the final round against Chisora in an effort to pen him in, get a few Zzzs. The verdict (98-92 in favor of Fury) from referee Terry O’Connor was from the land of bent Italian football. It was on a level with Ray Tinkler’s handling of Leeds United / West Brom in April 1971.

Mrazek (4-22-5), Blasko (9-3), McDermott (the rematch), Power (12-0), Page (21-32-2), Nascimento (13-0), Chisora (14-0), Firtha (20-8-1), Pajkic (16-0), Rogan (14-2), and Maddalone (35-7) all danced the canvas. I was largely indifferent until fight number twenty. What had uncoiled and prevaricated before me was Fury’s speckled growth as a fighter and his still-searing vulnerabilities. The weight – it had swung from 245 to 270 during this period, up/down, up/down – implied indiscipline. It was a worry along with his dropped guard and his general casualness.

Norman Mailer once said: “…the closer a heavyweight comes to the championship, the more natural it is for him to be a little more insane, secretly insane, for the heavyweight champion of the world is either the toughest man in the world or he is not, but there is a real possibility that he is. It is like being the big toe of God…”

Was Fury the big toe of God? His WBC and IBF title eliminators against Americans Kevin Johnson (28-2-1) and Steve Cunningham (25-5) meant he was finally entering his Blue Period where his art would be more austere and uncompromising. A subdued professionalism seemed to be his. These were the fights when he belonged, when he teetered on greatness or at least the respect of the crowd. The pre-fight fluff was still there – the dancing, grinning, stepping over the ropes and looking cool – but it had been compressed by the increasing seriousness of each fight.

Johnson stalked opponents. His record was that of a man with a fine center of gravity. He was difficult to put on the canvas, a seasoned pro and when Vaselined-up had the look of a pained Paul Robeson. The victim (or gudgeon) of back of the head shots and blatant shoulder leaning from Fury though, his “reputation for getting lazy” ultimately cost him. There is an inconsistent marching quality in Johnson – an on/off desire – that occasionally plays with the tempo of the fight. This is clearly meant to mitigate the risk of him punching himself out, but as Fury wisely declined the thin chance of obliterating him, Johnson’s plan was doomed. “Just win baby,” from his corner at the start of the 12th represented a dreamland scenario, an all too late wish.

And so Fury entered Madison Square Garden – a great stage and huge step up from plying his trade at Bethnal Green’s York Hall, Wembley Arena and Belfast’s Odyssey Arena. Cunningham, the bulked-up cruiserweight imagining life as Evander Holyfield, was quick and powerful but didn’t dance sufficiently. Fury was felled in the second and was the willing recipient of a lenient count (Eddie Cotton hesitating at “eight” as if transfixed by the need to keep things rolling). It reflected the often arbitrary nature of boxing results yet also in that moment, that worrying nadir, Fury’s rebirth, his rope-a-dope methods and maturity a la Ali.

It was said of this clash that Cunningham was unable to set his feet and land the hard punches required. That is testament to Fury’s formidable jab, his uppercut and the hint of street fighting which has added a roughness to his repertoire.

Was Fury the real deal then? Too many factors suggested not: lack of credible opponents; the John Cleese legs; the “loss” against McDermott; the wobble against Pajkic; his weight going into his last fight (275 vs. Joey Abell, 29-7-0); his motor mouth overcompensating for his still ungainly boxing style; the hubris which has obviously afflicted him; his not being exposed to a clever and sustained attack.

Against Cunningham he did supremely well, but something still rankles in trying to rate him as a great fighter. It seems too early. There is an inchoate aura around him. He is not yet in a position to really survey his work with any level of assurance. He may well perversely become World Heavyweight Champion, but I have not seen enough to know whether this is fanciful or plausible.

The ten-month gap between Cunningham and Abell has hurt Fury. A win against David Haye, however unlikely, would have cemented his reputation nicely – it would have lifted him another peg.

Fury vs. Chisora II (July 26, 2014): does it matter? In the sense that the winner gets a title tilt – yes. As a spectacle? There will have to be a whole lot more on show than the last time. No octopus routine. No lording it up with the crowd. Just controlled, head down adrenaline.

Fury came of age against Johnson. Now, he must find something he did not know he had. And it ain’t false bravado.

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