LOS ANGELES — The bigger the fight, the more relentlessly produced is its prologue: tour, pressers, interviews, media days, an endless stream of snippets and bytes eventually blended into a video collage. No, it’s not the fight, merely a high-tech vaudeville, choreographed in the name of commerce.
But it’s real. And it matters.
“Every second,” declares Tyson Fury. “I’m living in Deontay Wilder’s head. Rent free.”
This was October in a break room at LA Live just before Fury would take the podium again to resume his histrionic hostilities with Wilder. It was the final installment of their international junket, an eventful promotion for an excellent fight that arrives this Saturday at Staples Center.
Our meeting was a mismatch: the game’s most verbally dexterous fighter with an easily charmed columnist now wanting an exclusive from inside the confines of Wilder’s head.
“There’s a whole lot of nonsense floating around in there,” says Fury, his accent in full effect. “And I’m the man controlling it all.”
“A whole lot of mentalness,” he says.
Ah, of course, mentalness, a Fury-esque term if ever there were one. Only in boxing would a fighter coming back from depression and anxiety issues call out his opponent for being psychiatrically vulnerable. Then again, given his struggles, maybe Fury is uniquely qualified as it pertains to, well, mentalness.
“My whole life I’d worked so hard to win the title, and when I finally got it, there was just this massive, gaping hole of emptiness, darkness. I just felt so alone in the world and so worthless. I had glory, money, good looks and a [euphemism for great virility]. I could have whatever I wanted with a click of my fingers. But the whole time I had everything, I had nothing. I felt like everything I ever did in my life was rubbish.”
“Wilder has only one style: come forward and knock out you,” Fury says. “If he doesn’t do that, he’s lost. He’s only been the distance once in his whole career. That means he’s inexperienced at the championship level. I don’t believe he has the stamina to do it, the mental energy.”
Fury’s making a believer of me … almost.
For almost four years, Wilder has been a neglected and undersold heavyweight champion. The conversation centers on what he can’t do instead of what he can, which is taking guys out with lightning-crack power. Wilder’s last outing ended with a knockout of the previously undefeated Luis Ortiz, while Fury hasn’t faced a real opponent — at least in the ring — since 2015, when he beat Wladimir Klitschko by unanimous decision.
“If a 6-foot-7-inch Olympic gold medalist, and 11-year champion fighting in his adopted home country, the most well-schooled heavyweight with the best footwork in the division, if he couldn’t beat me,” he says, followed by a dramatic pause as he musters the proper disdain. “Then what chance does this swinging windmill have?”
The Klitschko fight was, in fact, a show of great skill in a division where it’s too seldom seen. Not only did Fury make use of his freakish 85-inch reach, but he kept moving right, away from Klitschko’s power. He envisions the same against Wilder, while finding an angle for his overhand right.
“Deontay’s style will work into my hands,” he says. “The more he pushes, the quicker it ends. The more he wants to impress the fans, the quicker he loses. He’s feeling the pressure already. He’s very on edge around me.”
Is that your doing? I ask.
“I don’t need to do anything to Deontay Wilder,” he says. “Just be myself. He can’t figure me out. I’m a man of many, many faces. He’s got one way, one path. It’s all he knows. But he doesn’t have the ability to set up the knockout against me, doesn’t have the schooling. And we all know what happens when the knockout doesn’t come. All Wilder’s opponents have been scared of him, looking for a comfy place to rest on the canvas.
“I will take his power and use it against him.
“If I can defeat depression, I can defeat anything.”
You’ve seen athletes come back from orthopedic ruin, drugs, booze, even incarceration. Returning from what the world perceives as “crazy,” however, is a different matter. While Fury has come to see himself as a mental health advocate, he’s still not entirely sure what was going on in his own head, merely that the black dog of depression struck after Klitschko.
“I did everything I was supposed to do,” he says. “My whole life I’d worked so hard to win the title, and when I finally got it, there was just this massive, gaping hole of emptiness, darkness. I just felt so alone in the world and so worthless. I had glory, money, good looks and a [euphemism for great virility]. I could have whatever I wanted with a click of my fingers. But the whole time I had everything, I had nothing. I felt like everything I ever did in my life was rubbish.”
Was it fame? I ask.
“No. I grew up with fame. I’d been on TV since 2008. Even as an amateur, I was famous in the UK.”
“Most of us who suffer from mental health problems, if we knew, we’d fix it. But we don’t know. That’s where is spirals into darkness.”
Fury drank, by his own estimate, between 80 and 100 pints a week. He ballooned to 380 pounds. Then there were failed drug tests, vacated titles and a series of increasingly bizarre rants about Jews, gay people, bisexuals and pedophiles.
“Off the rails, completely,” he says. “I hated that person — the person I’d become.”
What saved Fury wasn’t an epiphany, but several. They’d typically arrive after a night of drinking. He’d fall to his knees, tears streaming down his face, and pray: “Please God, if there’s any way to bring me back, show me the plan, show me the way …”
Divine or otherwise, the way illuminated itself gradually. He found a new trainer, Ben Davison. At 25, Davison was already training Billy Joe Saunders, who, like Fury, is a fellow Gypsy with great boxing style who vacated his title after a failed drug test. Then they got back in the gym. There have been two tune-up fights, and he’s down 130 pounds.
“I weigh 258,” Fury said in October. “I’ll be 255 on fight night.”
Therapy helped immeasurably, though the Gypsy King is less than specific about the mental health regimen that brought him back. Fury doesn’t remember the last time he did drugs, though it was more than a year ago. He hasn’t had a drink in several months.
“I’m not an alcoholic,” he says, all but winking. “Just a devil for the drink.”
In other words, the coke and the booze were symptoms of something deeper. Hence, whatever triggered his depression, the cure — temporary or otherwise — seems existential.
Tyson Fury has been reunited with his purpose. If getting the belts were one sanctifying quest, then getting them back would be another. Once again, he has something he’s supposed to do.
The Furys — a clan of Irish Travelers — have been in the fighting business for generations.
“Well, back into the 1800s,” he says. “We fought in smokers, dance halls, down mine shafts, quarries and fairgrounds. Anywhere there was a few quid involved. My dad never lost a bare knuckle fight. Ever.”
John Fury was a different sort of fighter than his son: an aggressive, brawny southpaw. At 6-9 with that impossibly long reach, Tyson is a natural craftsman. But he learned early the first principle of pugilism.
“Always the money,” he says. “No money, no fight.”
In a moment, he’ll excuse himself from our conversation. Soon, he’ll be tussling onstage again with Wilder, whom he rather likes. It’s not the fight, but it matters. This is more than provocation in the name of profit. You want to live in your opponent’s head? The rent may be free, but that doesn’t make it easy.
For Tyson Fury, it’s time to get back to work.