Two mighty men in a boxing ring were girded by 60,000 screaming onlookers. The men had little in common. One was a Ukrainian national hero who had gone undefeated for a decade and had won more heavyweight title bouts than anyone in history. The other was a twenty-something Englishman with an unbeaten professional record but poor odds; his look is beer-bellied and bushy-bearded and bald-pated, with the red-faced complexion of a born and bred Anglo-Saxon raised on beer and potato. He is remarkably light on his feet and notoriously slippery in the ring. If the English interloper could beat the Ukrainian, he would win three of the four major titles and become the heavyweight champion of the world.
Three years ago, Tyson Fury did just that, triumphing by unanimous decision over champion Wladimir Klitschko. Fury was only the eighth of his countrymen in boxing history to claim the title, and like Jack Johnson a century before him, the first of his ethnicity to ever achieve it: Fury became the first ever Romany Gypsy heavyweight champion, part of a community that values pugilism like few others. His father had been a bare-knuckle boxer who fought under the nickname “Gypsy”; Tyson Fury wanted an even greater nickname to honor his heritage yet reflect his accomplishments, so he chose one himself. He is the Gypsy King.
One might’ve assumed that the British press and public would have embraced Fury after one of the loudest underdog victories in recent sports history. An everyman in the vein of fellow Mancunian Ricky Hatton, Fury seemed tipped for adulation everywhere he went. Instead, within a year after his win, Fury went from the pinnacle of his sport to reviled has-been. After a litany of outrageous comments to the press and a spiral of mental health and addiction issues, he retired from boxing without defending his title once. He ballooned to 400 pounds. He was publicly denounced, declared mentally unfit for a 2016 rematch with Klitschko, and at his lowest point was on high-alert suicide watch. He became a magnification of the self-destructive tendencies of many young professional boxers.
Fury does have fans, but it’s been tough for them. In the past, he was incorrigible and difficult to defend, even when ostensibly doing well. When he seemed like a serious contender for Klitschko, he turned up to the press conference dressed like Batman. If they asserted that his unorthodox, adaptive fighting style only looks clumsy, old footage goes viral of him accidentally punching himself in the face. As it turns out, for a while that was a pretty blunt summary of Fury’s career.
But in a surprising update of the oldest story in boxing, Fury has made a comeback—just don’t call it that in front of him. Thirty-one months after his retirement, Fury has returned clean, fit, and as something of an unofficial spokesperson on the subjects of depression and mental health. In his biggest return fight to date, on Saturday in Los Angeles he will face WBC heavyweight champion Deontay Wilder, a ferociously hard-punching American. “I don’t look at this as a comeback,” Fury has said. “This is a new Tyson Fury.”
Even his fans can admit that Fury was easy for people to dislike from the beginning. He’s an inveterate shit-talker who fluidly moves from menace to comedy almost without recognition. But make no mistake: Fury may have little formal education, but is a highly intelligent man. To operate with the calculated and strategic moves he did in his triumph over Klitschko requires savviness, and his mind games prior to that fight also suggest a real ability to unsettle an opponent. Before the bout, he waged a madcap form of psychological warfare, taunting and berating the champ and turning up to press conferences in full costume. The heretofore unstoppable Klitschko, known for his stoic manner, was frustrated outside the ring and bamboozled within it.
Fury was big-mouthed, clownish, eccentric; after his win over Klitschko in Dusseldorf, he burst out in a rendition of Aerosmith’s “I Don’t Want To Miss A Thing,” dedicating it to his wife. Behind that bravado, though, was a fragile depressive who spoke with disarming honesty about his dark moods. In a 2011 Guardian interview that felt like foreshadowing, he described the up-and-down nature of what sounds very much like bipolar disorder, which only later would he acknowledge battling.
Besides, the optics were all wrong. In a gym-obsessed era, Fury has had the tendency to look tubby or even downright out-of-shape; at 6-foot-9, he’s square-shouldered but also oddly lanky, giving him an ungainly look that’s only heightened by his awkward movement in the ring. But those long arms give him the wingspan of a small pterodactyl, his footwork is as deft as a lightweight’s, and his switch-hitting approach (he can move between southpaw and orthodox with ease) all make him a force to be reckoned with. Still, the lack of hosannas for his victory went beyond his appearance or his in-ring style—even beyond censure for the offensive remarks he had made. He was marked from birth for public dismissal and disdain. He was a Gypsy.
Dispelling myths and stereotypes about Romany Gypsies is in itself a gargantuan task. It is not a “lifestyle,” a “subculture,” or a cheerful adjective to describe your free-spirited backpacking cousin. They are a varied and culturally complex ethnic group with their own language and customs, and have lived in Europe for 1,000 years. In England, the term “Traveller” is often preferable, but “Gypsy” is used interchangeably by most. In Europe, the latter has been seen as offensive. Even the terminology can be a muddle, but in this piece, I am using the language used by the English travelling community I know—my friends and family.
Travellers are a minority that has been in Britain for well over 500 years, and have been detested ever since—blamed for kidnapping, petty thievery, and countless other infractions because of their itinerancy and private nature. In contemporary Britain, Gypsies and Travellers still have the lowest educational attainment rates, infant mortality rates, and life expectancies in the country and suicide and mental health issues are high.
This is the world that was entered 30 years ago by one Tyson Luke Fury, armed only with a given name that speaks of both biblical and pugilistic wrath. Still, that a man with this name became the lineal heavyweight champion of the world was anything but fated. In fact, Fury was born three months premature. His father was told he had little chance of survival.
It was the summer of 1988, the summer that a terrifying ring presence named Mike Tyson knocked out an undefeated Michael Spinks in 91 seconds, and long before Iron Mike’s own fall from grace. He was still just the undisputed champion of the world, and his name seemed perfect for a little boy who needed to grow up with a fighting spirit.
“From the age of 12 to 27, I was training,” said Fury in a recent BT Sport documentary. He had been sparring—and holding his own—against British champions in the gym from the age of 15. Bare-knuckle fighting ran in his family history, and Fury went professional at the tender age of 20. He also married his wife Paris the year before, and remains a committed family man. He has two boys and two girls, and a fifth child on the way. Much of this family-oriented attitude is ingrained from Tyson and Paris’s own Traveller background, where tightly-knit communities intermarry and recognize one another through common surnames. Travellers remain insular and relatively beholden to traditional ideas about gender and family roles, as Fury pointed out when he said, “People have got to understand that our lifestyle is totally, totally different. We may be the same color, and we may speak the same language, but deep inside we are nothing alike. We are aliens.”
The other outlier in Fury’s life remains his evangelical Christianity. After a victory, a mention of God or Jesus invariably tumbles from his lips, and his faith has also been cause for considerable controversy in recent years, with a literal interpretation of scripture that seems doom-laden and extreme. In a sport populated by the underprivileged and by ethnic minorities, Fury wore his “otherness” on his sleeve, and that stood out to the British public far more than his white face.
Yet for Gypsies and Travellers in Britain and beyond, Fury’s championship win was cause for overwhelming joy. In the family I married into, made up of Travellers from Northern England, I remember the face of my father-in-law, almost misty-eyed with pride amid the din of spilt beer and shouted cheers. He does not know Tyson, but his sons are about the same age, and grew up in much the same sort of community. In this part of the world, that meant they were close-knit, well-loved, but also externally despised, transient, and raised tough as a defense mechanism from a mainstream Britain that would rather they go away. There is such little recognition of Travellers in the media that seeing a proud Gypsy man reach the pinnacle of organized sport was cathartic.
The public tone was something different. Boxing pundits and fans detracted from Fury’s title victory, claiming he hadn’t fought Klitschko at his best, that he was less a world-class athlete than a fluke. Columnists made fun of his religious views, the unusual names of his wife and children, and his “boasting” of being a Gypsy. In Grazia, a fashion magazine, one writer casually remarked that Fury had “the idiosyncrasies of a personality—he’s a gypsy, [and] he’s named after boxer/convicted rapist Mike Tyson.” Why Mike Tyson’s crimes have any relevance to Fury’s character—or, more pressingly, why Fury’s ethnicity has been reduced to a mere personality trait—remains a mystery.
As Ben Myers pointed out in his insightful piece for The New Statesman in 2016, Fury is a rare thing—a working-class white man who is the victim of racism from other white people. In a Rolling Stone interview from 2016, Fury admitted he had been refused service at restaurants in Britain because of his ethnicity. Given his tendency for grandstanding and exaggeration, Americans reminded of Jim Crow history might assume he was fibbing. I can vouch for the fact that he isn’t—Travellers I know have been turned away from bars, restaurants, and even bowling alleys in cities and towns across the breadth of the country.
Romany Gypsy poet and author Damian Le Bas about Fury’s reception told me, “I sadly think that if he’d hidden his background, like other elite Gypsy and Traveller sportsmen, he’d have been seen as a hero. But he didn’t hide it. It’s embroidered on his shorts and gloves. In gold.”
Fury also has his demons, some of which began within his own upbringing and a culture’s resistance to change—a perfect storm of a hyper-masculine, hyper-traditional background and a spiraling loss of mental stability. A fortnight before his fateful victory in Dusseldorf, Fury was interviewed by The Mail on Sunday, a British tabloid. Going off on a disjointed and strange tangent, he spoke about his faith and said: “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 pedophilia.”
It was indefensible, and a dam of rage burst. The ridicule Fury had always faced had hardened into something closer to hatred. The British Boxing Board of Control were asked to investigate Fury for hate crimes; he was denounced by MPs who claimed his remarks would lead to suicides; a petition was created to have him removed from the BBC’s annual Sports Personality of the Year in 2015 was signed by 75,000 people. No mental health or drug problems can explain, excuse, or circumvent the damage he did with these comments to the many women and LGBTQ people who had to hear them. At his worst, Fury’s tirades were both homophobic and misogynistic, making bad jokes about women belonging on their backs and deadly serious ones about gays causing the oncoming apocalypse.
No one will forget he said these things; many people will understandably never accept his apology. But there is more context to this story than some cut-and-dry case of an idiot athlete with extreme religious views.
“No one cared that Tyson was being racially abused in the worst terms, all over the media,” Le Bas told me. “Overall it left me with two feelings. That Britain didn’t want a Gypsy champion, and that you can say what you like about Gypsies but the same rules don’t apply to us.”
The proximity between athletic stardom and toxic masculinity has always been a fact of sporting life, and it’s not unique to boxing. Abusive, hateful, and violent personalities have often dominated professional sports, each with a unique ability to wobble our sense of traditional heroism. The publicity machine and the public itself usually loves turning mainstream figures into bad guys, adding drama and flair to what, without pathos, would simply be feats of strength. Crowds will hurry to see someone they hate lose nearly as often as they will to see someone they love win. But the level of ire directed at Fury undoubtedly took a further toll on his unravelling; he went from a figure of mockery to a bonafide target of loathing in only a few short weeks.
In an avalanche of news stories and editorials, Fury was vilified endlessly. He was held up as an avatar for everything contemporary Britain wanted to escape: a macho type in an unfashionable sport, from a Gypsy upbringing, spouting views so bizarrely out-of-step with mainstream values that he became more “other” than ever before. It didn’t make what Fury said any less wrong, but it did throw into sharp relief how quickly someone can become a symbol of all that is backward and editorialized out of their humanity.
The whole affair calls to mind the mainstream response to Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion, over a century ago. His victories felt like watershed moments for an entire marginalized group, but he was portrayed, by those who didn’t want him to exist, as a caricature; that always makes it easier to hate. I make this comparison not out of some misguided moral relativism, but to draw attention to the paradox of race, progress, and morality in boxing. In a sport full of extremes, there always seems to be one step forward and two steps back.
One thing worth taking onboard is Fury’s scattershot, almost-constant stream of words. He’s always talking. He has a tendency to shift moods abruptly, use non sequiturs, joke, and then become serious. It makes his meaning difficult to appraise on paper. In the same breath as he aired his homophobia, he referred to Klitschko as a devil worshipper. It’s evident that the man in that Mail on Sunday interview was not of totally sound mind.
It’s tragic that Fury’s own marginalization has not let him feel more solidarity with other marginalized people. It’s also tempting to see him as some nadir of wounded masculinity, lashing out from his cloistered cultural background against people he likely knows little about. But both of these things rely on viewing Fury from a safe perch of well-educated liberalism. This is for those who have the time and inclination to ponder constructed masculinity—as if it’s something that can be discarded as easily as grasped, and not something that’s bred into and inherited by scrappy little boys who have to fight their way through life.
It would then also be too simplistic to call Fury’s comeback any sort of redemption. But in his whirlwind international press tour ahead of the Wilder bout, Fury has put himself forward as an advocate for mental health concerns, and his story is an earnest one. In a recent interview with Mauro Ranallo, Fury said, “I think it was very plain to see in the press conference before the second Klitschko fight, which got cancelled, that I was... people could see I was very unwell at that time. Being world champion means nothing when you’re not well on the inside.”
He went on to describe how his extended family struggled to understand how someone so successful could be depressed, so he turned to alcohol instead. “I just didn’t care anymore. Even when I had to vacate all my belts. I used to go out for three or four days, trying to kill myself with drink and drugs. I’d never done drugs before the Klitschko fight. Everything I stood for didn’t matter anymore. The critical point was when I was driving home one day and I had a massive panic attack. [...] I felt everyone was against me. I was so afraid. All I could see was my children with no father, them knowing [...] I’d took the easy way out.”
After 18 months of this, Tyson sought intensive therapy and a steady program of weight loss. He claims that focusing on his physical health kept him from the abyss, and he lost something like 140 pounds with the help of trainer Ben Davidson. He partially credits Wilder with the motivation for his return, encouraging him to get fit and prove the WBC champ wrong. Few thought it could be done, but Fury returned to his first professional bout this summer. After only two matches, his championship title fight came along quickly.
Certainly, Americans seem more welcoming to Fury, with his hulking frame, grinning demeanor, and his whiff of approachable-yet-exotic foreignness. In Britain, even if he triumphs gloriously, there will be naysayers and dismissals. It’s hard to give him credit: he’s too much the hot potato, too easy to exist as a way to make progressives feel better about themselves.
In the meantime, Tyson Fury remains as unpredictable as ever. Since I started writing this piece, Fury has promised his $8 million fight purse to build housing for the homeless, a decision he says he made after seeing so many Americans sleeping rough. When asked what he takes most satisfaction from, he says, without batting an eye, “Taking my kids to school. It’s better than anything.” And with characteristic mischievousness, he’s still antagonizing Deontay Wilder to no end: “There isn’t a man born from his mother that Tyson Fury is afraid of, and especially not a man who wears pigtails every day.” Fury has never been able to abide by a neat consensus: his personality, his in-ring style, and everything in between has always been unwieldy, hard to categorize, enraging, vulgar, and sometimes thrilling.
If Fury conquers Wilder, more stateside fame appears to await him, and he seems more ready for it than he used to be. He’s not veering wildly off-topic in interviews, and most vitally, he looks and sounds healthy. Gone is the frighteningly glazed-over look he sometimes had not long before his unravelling. Instead, he is upbeat and witty, with a jack-the-lad grin and a wily sense of antagonism. “If I can beat depression, I can beat anything,” he tweeted. Perhaps in America—a country that more than any other on earth loves loves an underdog, a no-hoper, a comeback kid, and a big mouth—he will get his due.
And, if Fury does beat Wilder, he will almost certainly be in line for a long-awaited title reunification bout against Anthony Joshua, who holds the rest of the major heavyweight titles. Imagine that: A black Briton vs. a British Traveller for the undisputed heavyweight championship of the world. Imagine that.
Christina Newland is a journalist on film, pop culture, and boxing at Sight & Sound Magazine, Little White Lies, VICE, Hazlitt, The Ringer, and others. She loves ‘70s Americana, boxing flicks, fashion, and old Hollywood lore. She was born in New York and lives in Nottingham, England. She tweets @christinalefou and you can find her work at www.thebetamaxrevolt.com.