It is hugely disappointing that Tyson Fury isn’t fighting again this weekend. Or indeed, that he isn’t fighting every Saturday and midweek too, part of a 68-game Tyson Fury fixture pileup, bookended in summer with four weeks of Tyson Fury tournament competition.
It is still worth saying. How good was that fight? How good was the buildup? How good was it watching Fury sit behind a table saying stuff, looking like some ancient mulch-stinking ogre, driven out of his cave, hosed down, crammed into a tracksuit and asked to offer his thoughts on belts and rematches, on maypoles, solstice and the vengeful ways of the earth goddess.
The answer is very good indeed. Not to mention strangely affecting. Big title fights have always had a well of mainstream interest to draw on. But there is something remarkable about the spread and the depth of Fury’s popularity.
This isn’t about belts. It isn’t really about sport. People love Fury. Write something sympathetic about him and you get letters, confessionals, stories of consolation and personal struggle. This doesn’t happen with any other sports person. It always happens with Fury. Why?
It doesn’t make sense in pure sports marketing terms. What are we selling here? Fury might look like a wild man, but he is in fact something more esoteric and difficult. His chief skill is a mastery of angles and combinations, arms coiled like forklift truck pistons, slippery bald head bobbing, feet flapping with a weird nimble grace.
It’s not about the delivery system either. To watch Fury in action you have to pay £25, stay up until 4am and gamble on the fact one bad fight kills the whole thing for six months either side.
Plus, as part of his wider personal marketing scheme Fury has said all the wrong things, expressing opinions about women and gay people so hostile they’re likely to offend even people already predisposed not to like women or gay people.
He’s been booed in public. He’s been “cancelled” on the internet (who comes back from a cancelling?) and petitioned by almost 100,000 people not to attend the BBC sport personality jamboree. And yet he is right now the most popular English sports person.
This is no small thing for boxing, which has been assumed at various points to be in terminal decline. I love boxing as a spectacle and a discipline. But let’s be honest, it wouldn’t exist in its current form if we were to start again now from scratch.
In other sports we worry about concussion protocols, about restricting the heading of a football on medical advice. In boxing the entire show revolves around asking the best people in the world at battering you in the head to batter you in the head as hard as they can.
Not that this is illogical in itself. Humans like violence: look around. But boxing has taken this somewhere else right now, has plastered itself right across the main stage. Fury the man, Fury the person is central to this. The deep, soulful craft of Tyson Fury. The redemptive sculptural violence of Tyson Fury. People crave this. It is probably worth asking why.
The most obvious thing to ask about Fury Love is: is it really OK? Does it come from a weird place? Is it a bit, you know, “Incel”? A bit male power? Looking at the fervour of his support some part of me wonders if Fury is acting as a kind of Muhammad Ali figure for angry white bald men.
This isn’t an easy thing to say, because he is separately a hugely inspiring figure, a source of comfort and strength for those who have also struggled with problems in their lives.
Fury has come back from a place people don’t come back from. We know about that cycle of pain and vilification. Fury tried to drink himself to death. For years he seemed stuck in a moment, overwhelmed by his own defeat of Wladimir Klitschko, a fight he’d been planning since he was 14 years old. He still struggles. He tells other people it’s OK to struggle.
Still, though. We as a society don’t usually forgive like this, let alone cherish and adore those who have previously offended. Fury has said he would hang his own sister if she was promiscuous. The evangelist creed he espouses equates homosexuality with paedophilia. He has said “a woman’s place is in the kitchen and on her back”, which, even treated on its own dubious merits, definitely isn’t the best position to prepare any kind of snack or light meal.
You can be pretty sure Fury hasn’t changed his mind about any of this. And yet here he is all the same, the most obviously loved, oddly hopeful figure in British sport.
Perhaps the point here is that Fury comes from a place so leftfield it forces you to understand and engage with him. So much of modern life is spent shouting pointlessly at those with whom we disagree, or whose views threaten us. What do we want them to do, really? Where do we want the angry disagreeable people to go? To die or vanish, or become re-educated by the force of our disapproval? How do we reconcile this and make it stop?
At which point, enter Fury, the ultimate deep, damp toxic male; and yet also somehow an advocate of gentleness and understanding, someone who still feels like he’s your friend.
Like boxing itself, he comes from the margins, from a place where people really do say and think things we might not like or agree with. Fury has suffered. Fury gave up on life. And yet, here he is, still alive. Not like me, or you perhaps, but still somehow strangely redemptive – and far from finished yet.