IT WAS once put to a teenage Tyson Fury that, given his size, he might have a future as a basketball player.
“You don’t get many basketball players named Tyson,” he replied. Years later, he would say: “I’ve always known who I was named after.”
John Fury, a former pro heavyweight who fought between 1987 and 1995, decided upon the name for his son after watching Mike Tyson take just 91 seconds to dismantle Michael Spinks in June 1988.
The fight billed as ‘Once And For All’ would decide the lineal heavyweight championship.
Spinks had opted out of the unification series put together by broadcasters HBO to take a lucrative match with Gerry Cooney and in his absence, Tyson mopped up the belts to become the first ‘undisputed’ champion since Leon Spinks a decade earlier.
Spinks was still the lineal champion having dethroned Larry Holmes, as even Jimmy Jacobs, Tyson’s manager, agreed in the build up to the fight in Atlantic City.
“Spinks is the true champion,” said Jacobs, “having won his title in the ring by beating Larry Holmes and can trace his title back to (John L) Sullivan.”
Spinks had come to prominence when, alongside elder brother Leon, he won gold at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal.
The two brothers were very different.
Michael was more thoughtful and disciplined than his wayward, impulsive elder sibling.
He read the Bible aloud in the changing room before bouts, while Leon was known to wobble home after a night out just hours before he was scheduled to fight – and still win.
Michael had no intention of turning professional after the Olympics. He thought boxers were always getting ripped off and that the public viewed them as stupid.
He changed his mind after deciding his job cleaning bathrooms was beneath him and signed with promoter Ronald ‘Butch’ Lewis, a fast talking, chain smoking former car salesman who had been trying to recruit him for Top Rank for months with promises of fame and fortune.
Spinks, an intelligent boxer who called his well-disguised overhand right hand ‘The Spinks Jinx,’ beat Eddie Mustafa Muhammad and Dwight Muhammad Qawi to prove he was the world’s best light-heavyweight before moving up.
For all his ability, Spinks was thought to be fragile.
He said once: “Training is fun, but thinking about the actual fight is scary. Man, those three steps into the ring.”
Those three steps were never more terrifying than when Tyson was coming out of the opposite corner.
Carmen Graziano, the trainer of future opponent Carl ‘The Truth’ Williams, once said: “Tyson wins a lot of his fights in the dressing room.”
Spinks appeared to freeze and strayed from the “hit and move, block and counterpunch” gameplan devised by Eddie Futch, his 77-year-old trainer.
It took 91 seconds for Tyson to drop him twice, the right uppercut that felled him for the count described by some as the most devastating punch thrown in a heavyweight title fight since Rocky Marciano found Jersey Joe Walcott’s jaw with his ‘Suzy Q’ right-hand piledriver in 1952.
The win is remembered as the best of Tyson’s 50-6-0-2 NC (44) career and six weeks and four days later, Tyson Fury was born.
Fury says his first memory of ‘The Baddest Man On The Planet’ was in June, 2000, when he came to Glasgow to fight Lou Savarese at Hampden Park.
Fury was an 11-year-old schoolboy, Tyson was fighting to pay a tax bill. He owed the Internal Revenue Service $18m and his troubles didn’t end there.
He had been advised to undergo psychological therapy and was prescribed drugs to control his mood swings after appearing in court for an attack on two middle-aged men in a road rage incident.
Tyson himself admitted he had become “a freak show” ahead of his British debut, against Julius Francis, the British and Commonwealth champion, at the Manchester Arena in January 2000.
Every one of the 21,000 tickets was sold in 48 hours, despite even Francis appearing to know the outcome.
The 35-year-old South Londoner showed gallows humour by having the soles of his boots sponsored by the Daily Mirror and it proved to be money well spent.
The newspaper had plenty of exposure as Francis hit the floor five times inside two rounds.
There was talk of Tyson fighting Lou Savarese in Paris next, but the fight ended up at Hampden Park instead, on June 24, 2000.
Savarese had been on Tyson’s radar for a while. He was mooted as a possible comeback opponent for Tyson when he returned from a spell in prison in 1995.
Savarese, 30-0 (27) at the time, was overlooked and Peter McNeeley was instead sacrificed.
By the time Savarese got the fight with Tyson he was a 35 year old with a 39-3 (32) record that showed points losses to George Foreman and Michael Grant in his previous six fights.
Savarese was 6ft 5ins tall and could punch. His 13 first-round victims included James ‘Buster’ Douglas, 18 years after he burst Tyson’s bubble in Tokyo.
John Coyle remembered being “excited” after being asked to referee Tyson-Savarese, but sensed it would be no ordinary night after visiting Tyson’s dressing room before the fight.
“He was surrounded by his goons, so I told them to move because it had nothing to do with them,” Coyle told me years later. “I told Mike what I expected of him, but I don’t know if he heard a word I said. I believe the saying is: ‘The lights were on, but no one was home.’ He was looking at me but didn’t seem to be seeing or focusing. I knew he was a complicated man.”
Tyson had enough sense to realise his usual sleeveless robe wasn’t going to be enough to keep out the Glasgow rain and cold and, after peeling off a tracksuit top, he paced around his corner waiting for the bell.
Savarese was described as having “matinee idol looks” in the programme and soon looked to be in danger of losing them as he hit the canvas within 10 seconds of the opening bell.
Tyson jumped in with a lead left hook that grazed Savarese on the temple and swept his legs from under him.
Up quickly, Savarese swayed drunkenly before pulling himself together sufficiently to convince Coyle the fight should continue.
Savarese tried to hold but couldn’t prevent Tyson pummelling his body before taking aim at his chin.
Coyle told me: “A left hook landed bang on the button, Savarese’s body sagged and his hands dropped.
“I didn’t want Tyson to have any free shots, so I called: ‘Stop boxing’ and physically stood between them. I was about to say: ‘Sorry, kid’ to Savarese to console him and then wallop! I felt a crunch on my shoulder and I was down.”
Tyson was so intent on smashing Savarese into oblivion that he simply ignored Coyle’s demand to stop boxing and carried on punching until he spotted his corner men entering the ring.
The fight lasted all of 38 seconds. “I must have stopped hundreds of fights,” said Coyle, “and it was the only fight when it was the winner who wanted to carry on!
“Usually the loser says: ‘Come on, ref, I can carry on’ and the winner walks away happy enough with his money. Tyson had another agenda. He really wanted to put the guy away. I had to stop him doing what he wanted to do – and he took some convincing!
“I read a few comments saying I should have disqualified him. But the fight was over the moment I shouted: ‘Stop boxing!’ and after that it’s up to the governing body to take action if something happens.
“The sad part from Tyson’s point of view is that if he had stopped punching when I jumped in, people would have said he looked back to his old self and he would have walked away with a lot of credit.
“That was the only trouble I ever had with a fight, but at least I can always say that I shared a ring with Tyson and got put over. It’s a shame I got paid less than the others.”
Tyson wasn’t finished there. After the fight, he gave a bizarre interview to Showtime reporter Jim Gray.
His jumbled words had the restless crackle of a radio when its owner is trying to locate a station. His tone switched from sorrow – Tyson had recently buried his best friend – to rage and then he settled on his subject, Lennox Lewis.
“Lennox, I’m coming for you,” he started. “I was going to rip his heart out. I’m the best ever. I’m the most brutal, vicious, ruthless champion there’s ever been. There’s no one can stop me. Lennox is a conqueror? No, I’m Alexander, he’s no Alexander. I’m the best ever. I’m Sonny Liston, I’m Jack Dempsey. There’s no one can match me. My style is impetuous, my defence is impregnable and I’m just ferocious. I want your heart. I want to eat his children.”
With that, Tyson turned his back on the cameras. He didn’t attend the post-fight press conference and, in his absence, one of his representatives sought to smooth over the controversy by saying: “Mike loves children.”
“How does he like them?” came the reply. “Grilled or fried?”