It’s a variation on a familiar theme – the heavyweight champion is in a dark place right now, it seems. In grappling with demons while at the top of the world, Tyson Fury is not unique. Many men throughout history have struggled with the weight of the richest prize in sport.
Fans of my age will immediately recall James ‘Buster’ Douglas, from Colombus, Ohio, who achieved the impossible by dethroning Mike Tyson in Tokyo in 1990. Coming in to the fight as a 42-1 underdog he caught Iron Mike at the right time, to score an improbable tenth round KO. The image of Tyson on the canvas, scrabbling for his gumshield, then rising unsteadily with the mouthpiece dangling from bruised lips jarred the boxing world like nothing before.
But Douglas did not cope well with his new role. Having climbed his mountain, he chose to sit on his arse and slide back down it, rather than try to stay at the peak. 8 months after knocking out the baddest man on the planet, he took $24 million to defend against Evander Holyfield and turned up weighing 15 pounds heavier than he had for Tyson. Most of that excess was carried around his waist.
Douglas, one wag remarked, “floated like a buffalo and stung like a gnat.” Legend has it that he ordered $98 worth of hamburgers on room service the day before the fight. He capitulated to the Real Deal inside three rounds and retired.
Twelve years before that, ‘Neon’ Leon Spinks outpointed a version of Muhammed Ali already in serious decline. The light heavyweight gold medallist from the Montreal Olympics took on The Greatest in only his 8th pro bout, buzzed around him all night like an angry hornet and took the title with ease.
But gap-toothed Leon, from St Louis Missouri, didn’t have the right mentality to cope with photo-shoots for Sports Illustrated and celebrity status. He enjoyed himself too much, indulged his flashy, Mac-daddy tendencies, bought a few fur coats and cars and went on chaotic, six-month bender. By the time he rematched Ali in September the same year, his eye was way off the ball, while the 38 year old ex-champion had taken the trouble to train properly. Spinks lost and despite boxing on for seventeen more years, never reached the heights again, his name becoming a parable for wasted talent.
There have been many others – John Tate held the WBA title in 1980, but lost in his first defence, struggling with a Coke problem. Tommy Morrison’s out-of-the-ring troubles were well documented, while Oliver McCall’s sometimes happened in the ring, too. One thing history has taught us repeatedly is that winning a world title is not necessarily a short-cut to happiness.
Tyson Luke Fury found that out last year when he upset the odds to defeat Wladimir Klitschko, becoming the number one heavyweight in the world. This wasn’t a triumph of marketing and salesmanship. This wasn’t using your promoter’s weight to buy a world title from a paper champion. This was boxing.
Fury went over to Germany to take on a man who hadn’t lost for eleven years. He boxed in front of the champion’s fans, in the champion’s adopted country after a prolonged build-up in which various mind games were played. Not only did this require an in-ring game plan, it required enormous mental and emotional energy, along with imperious discipline. Very few people gave him a chance.
Despite the enormous odds stacked against him, he pulled it off. He beat the man. And in doing so, following the ancient law of such things, he became the man.
And what did he get as a result? Tyson Fury did not return home to a civic reception or receive a congratulatory phone call from the Prime Minister. And very little was said about his superlative achievement.
Instead, The Daily Telegraph ran several articles berating him for his politically incorrect comments, as did The Daily Mail and other newspapers. Clive Myrie, a normally restrained BBC newsreader called him a “dickhead” live on air and was met with smug agreement from his studio guests.
A petition was started to have Fury’s name removed from the BBC Sports Personality of the Year contest, which was signed by more than 40,000 people. Shortly after that, the IBF stripped him of their version of the world title for signing to fight a rematch with Klitschko, the obvious choice to make, rather than their number one contender Vyacheslav Glazkov, a pointless defence.
In other words, within a couple of weeks of defeating one of the most dominant world champions of the last 50 years, Fury had lost one of his belts for spurious reasons while being lampooned and criticised across the media in his home country. Even boxing fans were sparse in their recognition of his achievement. Many derided his tactics, called the fight boring or claimed that he hadn’t fought at all, as if it was expected of Fury to hang his chin out and get KO’d for their entertainment.
How galling it must have been, by comparison, for him to see the treatment Anthony Joshua received for knocking over Charles Martin in April, in one of the softest heavyweight title fights ever. AJ became an instant media darling, a feted star with potential crossover appeal. That the title he won only became available because it was stripped from Fury must have added to the frustration.
This is what makes the Fury case so different to the regular champ-can’t-cope narrative. This is not a matter of losing perspective and throwing cash around on drugs and whores. Tyson hasn’t found the pressure of hero-worship too much. If anything, it is the opposite.
With Fury, our politically correct media found themselves faced with a genuine voice from the fringes, who suddenly became a national figure. This was a man from a minority so detached from their metropolitan bubble, they didn’t know how to react. Years of practice and industry training have told them exactly how to write about Jews or Women or Homosexuals, but how do you write about a 6ft 9 traveller with fundamentalist Christian beliefs, who might be outspoken about Jews or Women or Homosexuals? Who might say things they wouldn’t, who doesn’t operate within their carefully defined sensibilities?
They didn’t have a clue. So they reacted with hostility, with hatred. They lashed out.
None of them sought to try to understand him, to examine his background, to discuss the basis for his beliefs. They just pilloried him. That’s what the gatekeepers of our ‘inclusive society’ do. They identify whatever doesn’t fit the current ideal, and attack it. On that basis, is it any wonder to hear that Tyson is struggling psychologically?
That he has found this ordeal difficult is not hard to understand. He’s a fighting man, a genuine man, not a PR creation. He speaks his mind. So what if some of it is deemed offensive. At least he means it. With so many public figures, watching them being interviewed is like seeing a bad actor reading lines. You know they are just saying what they are supposed to. And where is the point in that?
If early reports are to be believed (and his family will make further statements soon), the stress may have been enough to see him referred for residential treatment. If that is the case, our media must look at themselves and not for the first time.
Tyson became the man and they didn’t like it, so they did their best to destroy him.
Maybe they have.
My last book ‘Journeymen, the other side of the boxing business’ has been longlisted for the William Hill Sports book of the year award and named one of the sports books of the year by The Guardian. It is still available from all usual outlets.
Please listen to this excellent and very topical podcast about the darker side of boxing, featuring interviews with Ryan Rhodes, Paul ‘silky’ Jones, Glyn Rhodes MBE and Jerome Wilson.