Tyson Fury won what was for all intents and purposes a fixed fight in his ESPN+ and Las Vegas debut on Saturday night, beating the technically “undefeated” but deeply non-threatening Tom Schwarz in a second-round TKO. Against a no-name boxer who’d never fought outside of Germany or the Czech Republic before, Fury’s goal was to put on a show, and he absolutely achieved it through his complete domination of the fight. By the second round, Fury wasn’t even bothering to put his hands up, and even against a Magikarp like Schwarz, there was something deeply pleasurable in watching a 6-foot-9 guy with this kind of agility.
For Fury—who was fighting his first fight since signing a reported $100 million deal with Top Rank Boxing, the promotion that gets broadcast by ESPN—this whole affair was a sadly transparent brand-building exercise. He sang Aerosmith after winning, for Christ’s sake. But for anyone who’s been following Fury since before the thrilling draw with Deontay Wilder that marked his mainstream comeback in December, the way ESPN uncritically hyped him up as not just the “lineal heavyweight champion,” but also a fun-loving, charismatic entertainer was both massively disappointing and a depressing reflection of a fractured boxing landscape.
Those checking out a Fury bout for the first time after a week of promotion on ESPN would have been completely unaware of his past, which is filled with homophobia, transphobia, misogyny, and anti-Semitism that all caught scrutiny when Fury first got famous around 2015. Here are some of his old hits:
- “There are these girls who want to open their legs to every Tom, Dick and Harry. But they are looked upon as rubbish in our community. We don’t do stuff like that. If I had a sister who did that … I’d hang her. She would bring disgrace on the family. It is a very, very bad thing to do. We don’t do that. Women have to be pure and respectful.”
- “I believe a woman’s best place is in the kitchen and on her back. That’s my personal belief.”
- “There are only three things that need to be accomplished before the devil comes home: one of them is homosexuality being legal in countries, one of them is abortion and the other one’s paedophilia.”
- “It’s like you’re a freak of nature if you’re normal. You’re the odd one out — nobody else. What’s normal? I’ll just get myself changed into a woman. That’s normal, isn’t it? Today call myself Tysina or something like that, put a wig on. I don’t think it’s normal. I think they’re freaks of nature. I think it’ll be perfectly normal in the next 10 years to have sexual relationships with your animals at home — you know, your pets, your cats and dogs and all that — so that will be legal.”
Fury has never meaningfully apologized for these comments. His blanket statements about his words have emphasized his Christianity and denied his bigotry, but he has done nothing to show that the core of his beliefs has changed. (I reached out to an ESPN spokesperson for an official statement on Fury’s past comments, and will update if they respond.) There are reasons to feel sympathy for Fury, who has been open about his struggles with depression and discrimination as a member of the Traveler community, but at this moment in time, he is a very rich, very powerful man who’s only intensified boxing’s long-standing hostility to gay people and femininity at a time when much of the rest of the world is trying to evolve past it.
Any honest portrayal of Fury has to show this side of him, but outside of the last 30 seconds of Around The Horn, ESPN has done the opposite, building him up as a lovable everyman who, despite a thin résumé, deserves to be compared to boxing’s all-time greats. Here’s the promo that ran on ESPN+ just before the beginning of the fight, in which Fury is made and then puts on a suit literally woven with images of great fighters from the past. “If the suit fits, wear it well, Tyson Fury,” the narrator says.
And then there was Fury’s ringwalk, which even in its complete disregard for what happens to Apollo Creed in Rocky IV still worked as pure spectacle. First, Fury somberly walked through the tunnel of the MGM Grand, passing images of former “lineal heavyweight champions” while play-by-play announcer Joe Tessitore eagerly played hype man. “Wait’ll you see this,” he said giddily as Fury reached the fans, stripping off his black outfit and dancing to James Brown in a red, white and blue robe and Uncle Sam top hat.
“He wants U.S. sports fans to feel he is their champ,” Tessitore said. “Statement made.”
I get Tessitore’s excitement, to an extent. Fury is a hell of a fighter with a couple of classic battles to his name already. But as a trans woman as well as a boxing fan, my main reaction to the Schwarz fight was one of frustration. There was such an enormous contrast between how ESPN portrayed Fury—“the ultimate personality,” to quote Tessitore—and how I feel when I look at him—keenly aware of my own vulnerability. I would not feel safe talking face-to-face with Tyson Fury, or any fighter who shared those beliefs, and ESPN’s disregard for that truth as they stumbled over themselves to lionize Fury—during Pride Month no less, when every other brand is practically begging for the LGBT community’s money—undeniably shakes me up.
There’s plenty of precedent for awful people to be turned into heroes by the boxing media—just watch the way every Showtime broadcast fawns over Floyd Mayweather when he sits ringside for one of his promotee’s fights—and ESPN+’s relationship with Kobe Bryant had already shown where their priorities lie. But a non-champ like Fury’s brand-new symbiosis with the Worldwide Leader is notable because it reflects the deepening fractures in boxing that make each famous fighter the king of his own small realm. The heavyweight division is currently in chaos now that Andy Ruiz holds most of the belts, but at the time of Fury’s signing with Top Rank, there were three major players—Anthony Joshua, Deontay Wilder, and Fury. Joshua had signed with DAZN, Wilder was tied to Showtime, and Fury ended up with the remaining major broadcaster that wasn’t Fox.
For any boxing fan, this situation is frustrating for the way it inhibits the best match-ups—I’m not holding my breath for a Wilder-Fury rematch if both sides have to squabble over who gets to televise it. But for ESPN in particular, or any other broadcaster, it means their guys have to become the main attractions, regardless of skill level. It’s not exactly news to say that ESPN gives more promotion to the events that it broadcasts, but unlike, say, the NBA getting more love than the NHL, the way boxing is split up truly warps the hierarchy of the sport. Imagine, for instance, if ESPN only had rights to broadcast games from the NBA’s Eastern Conference, but not the West. Whose MVP campaign do you think would get more coverage, Giannis Antetokounmpo’s or James Harden’s?
If ESPN had the ability to show Anthony Joshua’s fights, the British ex-champ would have received the exact same treatment in the lead-up to his bout against Ruiz. If ESPN had Wilder, they would still be showing his knockout of Breazeale on an endless loop. But ESPN, instead, has Fury, and all the problems he brings with him. And if they want people to watch the Top Rank fights they broadcast, they have to act like he’s the best. They have to sell him.
Because they can’t do comprehensive coverage of the entire boxing world, ESPN—the most-watched sports network in the country—has a clear investment in making sure Tyson Fury is both well-liked as a person and highly respected as a boxer, and any aspiring fighter or fight fan who doesn’t fit into traditional masculine norms suffers for it. This Fury situation closes off what’s already a niche sport to far too many more people, and it only looks to get worse. Fury’s contract calls for two fights a year, and it’s rumored that his next one will take place against Kubrat Pulev. Pulev, a 38-year-old Bulgarian heavyweight who’d be another warm-up partner for Fury, grabbed a female reporter and forcibly kissed her on the lips after he won his last fight in March. Joe Tessitore probably won’t have time to mention that incident during the leadup to the fight; he’ll be busy once again trying to convince us that Tyson Fury is worthy of our respect and admiration.