The man who would be king
“If I want a crown, I must
go and hunt it for myself.”
Tyson Fury has always proclaimed himself ‘The Gypsy King’ and spent seven years as a professional steadily putting himself in the position to embed every jewel possible in his unique sceptre, but one major title had eluded him during his fleet-footed saunter to the throne of the heavyweight division.
On 28 November, 2015, Fury became the lineal heavyweight champion of the world by wresting the WBA, IBF, WBO, IBO and The Ring titles away from Wladimir Klitschko.
On Saturday night, Fury will get the opportunity to add the WBC prize to his honours list, but he is fighting for much more than a belt or the monetary rewards that come with it. The undefeated Brit is even fighting for more than his legacy.
This often misunderstood pugilist is fighting for those who struggle with mental health issues every day and he is taking his role as an ambassador for sufferers of depression, anxiety and addiction as seriously as cardio, strategy and technique ahead of his meeting with Deontay Wilder.
For Fury, ‘unbeaten’ refers to more than his success in the ring. He refused to be beaten by a mental illness which almost drove him to suicide in the summer of 2016. He refused to give in after ballooning up to 400lbs due to a diet which consisted of “18 pints followed by whiskey and vodka, pizzas and kebabs.” And he refused to accept pundits’ claims that he was finished as a fighter when he was stripped of his British Boxing Board of Control licence and faced a lengthy suspension for breaching anti-doping rules.
What changed to turn the baddest man on the planet into an overweight, unmotivated former fighter? And what changed to turn that overweight, unmotivated former fighter into the fit, driven, smiling contender that we see before us on fight week?
The answer to the first question is mental health problems. The answer to the second is the acknowledgement of those same issues.
Thankfully, the conversation about mental health is as open as it’s ever been in this day and age but there remains a stigma about that subject in certain cultures like combat sports, whose foundations are based in machismo and the expression of inner turmoil via conflict.
Whether male or female, fighters still have an unhelpful tendency to hide any semblance of weakness from even their gym-mates and given the fact that most high-profile trainers are believers in ‘the school of hard knocks’, progress must be made in the changing rooms of boxing, kickboxing and mixed martial arts gyms because a sincere “how are you?” from a training partner can literally be the difference between life and death.
Tyson Fury is fighting for this change to be made because, as he so eloquently put it in the build-up to the most important night of his life: “If mental health can bring somebody as big and strong as me to my knees then it could bring anybody to their knees.”
Standing 6ft 9in tall and weighing around 255lbs since his remarkable weight loss journey, Fury would have been forgiven for seeing himself as invincible because he has yet to meet his match in the ring. But mental health problems hit him harder than any fist ever did or ever could.
Addiction is not just for the weak of mind. Depression is not just a cry for attention from those unable to cope with the stresses of day-to-day life. Anxiety does not just target the socially awkward.
Mental health issues are pervasive. The man typing these words right now has gone through similar ailments to Fury’s. And Fury has, unbeknownst to him, acted as an inspiration to me and so many others by providing clear evidence that there can be a happy ending.
Maya Angelou famously said, “At the end of the day people won't remember what you said or did, they will remember how you made them feel.”
Fury didn’t just make me feel like there was a light at the end of the tunnel. He made me feel like the tunnel wasn’t as scary a place as I’d imagined.
Victory, defeat or draw this weekend won’t define Fury. His redemption story and new motivation will.
“I think there’s a bigger picture than winning any titles, bigger than winning any number of fights,” Fury said during a recent appearance on The Joe Rogan Experience. “I think my calling in this life is to spread the word of this disease, this silent killer, a killer that’s so ferocious that you can’t see it or feel it from the outside.”
Boxing is a lonesome endeavour. Sure, you can assemble a dream team of coaches, which Fury has in the form of a corner including Ben Davison, Ricky Hatton and Freddie Roach. But the burden of performance lies at the toes of the boxing boots of the men and women who put their lives on the line to test themselves in the ultimate proving ground of combat sports.
“I think my calling in this life is to spread the word of this disease, this silent killer, a killer so ferocious that you can’t see it or feel it from the outside.”
At his nadir, Fury discovered what every long-time sufferer of mental health problems is well aware of by identifying loneliness as one of the main triggers for depressive periods and the seemingly simple solution that works best for him – setting goals, keeping busy and exercising regularly - has worked wonders in returning stability to his life.
The odds have been stacked against Fury, who is a slight underdog against Wilder, since the beginning as he was born eight weeks premature, weighing just 1lb on 12 August 1988.
But Fury is a born fighter and his performance against Steve Cunningham in February 2013 proved that when the going gets tough, ‘The Gypsy King’ does not wilt, with Fury climbing off the mat after being floored to hand Cunningham his first ever knockout defeat.
It was that same defiance and determination that inspired him to pump the brakes when he came within moments of taking his own life two years ago.
“I bought a brand new Ferrari convertible in the summer of 2016,” Fury said. “I was in it on the highway and at the bottom I got the car up to 190mph and heading towards a bridge.
“I didn’t care about nothing. I just wanted to die so bad. I gave up on life but, as I was heading to the bridge, I heard a voice saying: ‘No, don’t do this Tyson. Think about your kids, your family, your sons and daughter growing up without a dad.’”
Fighting is in Fury’s blood. His father, uncle, brother and several cousins have all competed to varying levels of success so boxing was always going to come naturally to Fury. But talking about mental illness has taken some getting used to.
Now Fury is living proof that an open and honest discussion about problems is the first step to finding the best-suited solution to feeling better.
While comedians might joke about their struggles as a defence mechanism, or writers might pen memoirs about their experiences with feeling down. Fighters’ primary means of expressing themselves involves pummelling their fists into an opponent’s face, meaning it can be difficult for them to open up a conversation on mental illness, particularly when that very subject is still perceived to be a fragility by the uneducated and when fighters do everything possible to make themselves appear unbreakable.
Fury has broken the mold in that regard because though comedians, writers and fighters might have different approaches to dealing with the same problems, the commonality is the relief that follows once a discussion is opened up.
Speaking to bipolar disorder sufferer Mauro Ranallo, Fury explained: “Having a family and having a supportive family, it helps. But it’s not just family because we don’t choose our family. We choose our friends. People may not have great friends, people might not have top friends or people may not have any friends. But you always need to speak to somebody and I believe talking is the key to everything.”
In the build-up to Saturday night’s main event, Fury not only helped fans through spreading the word about his journey but he has also physically sat down with certain sufferers of mental health issues to promise that there is help out there.
Ahead of his most recent fight against Francesco Pianeta in Belfast, Fury ignored the concerns of his team after being approached by an erratic and unfamiliar individual in the fighter hotel. The man was going through problems in his marriage and had attempted suicide on several occasions. All he wanted was to have a chat with Fury, who managed to calm the man down simply by listening and offering accomplishable advice.
The man had driven hours to confide in Fury and he is not the only one to reach out to the heavyweight since he became an unlikely mental health advocate.
Fury said: “I get messages from all over the world from different sportspeople and different types of people asking for information and help and how I got through mine and what I did. I’m happy to help so if there’s anybody out there who is struggling in silence, which a lot of people are, then I’m always here to help if I can.”
You might not like Tyson Fury because of certain things he’s said in the past or how he’s behaved towards opponents, but it’s hard not to be motivated by how he’s managed to turn his life around and it’s impossible not to admire him for his tireless attempts to make fighters aware of the fact that it’s okay to not be okay.
Fury’s legacy does not depend on his perfect record nor any number of belts draped over his shoulders or strapped around his waist. The real victory for Fury is his hard-earned happiness which is attainable for everyone, no matter how down.
As William Shakespeare said: “My crown is in my heart, not on my head; not decked with diamonds and Indian stones, nor to be seen: my crown is called content, a crown it is that seldom kings enjoy.”