By Elliot Worsell
PART I: Porridge Should Be Smooth, Not Lumpy
IT was while shivering in the car park of Düsseldorf International airport, suitcase in hand, protected from the bitter cold by a coat too big for me, that I realised the Daily Mail and the pre-fight backstabbers were wrong and that Tyson Fury, hidden inside his own XXXL coat, was every inch the heavyweight champion of the world-in-waiting.
Earlier, I had watched him pose for photographs with cautious Germans at a baggage carousel – some of whom knew his name and goal, others simply in awe of a giant among mortals – and I had seen him then duck his head and slip inside a large people-carrier along with his father John, uncle Peter, cousin Hughie and advisor Asif. It was Sunday, six days from fight night. The team, set to drastically increase in size as the week progressed, were in town and, Asif aside, were abnormally large physical specimens; bad news for any stragglers.
“Sorry, there’s no room in the car,” Asif told me, having just finished loading the last of the Furys’ bags into the vehicle’s boot. “But if you wait an hour, there’ll be another one of these (vehicles) on its way.”
I stepped back and pulled my hood over my head, thankful for its fur rim. The plan initially, you see, had been to travel with the Furys to the same hotel, but, aware of the size of the task facing them, and aware of the size of the human beings inside the vehicle, I wasn’t going to argue this point. Nor for that matter was I prepared to find a spot in the boot. “Okay,” I said. “I’ll wait.”
So, I did. Asif jumped inside the car, various lights signalled its imminent departure, and I connected my hands and blew in the gap created between them. It was nine o’clock at night, close to freezing, and, with no other option, I braced myself for perhaps the longest hour of my life.
It was then, however, a door opened and a large limb came into view. It was a foot, followed by a leg, and both belonged to Tyson Fury. His upper body and face, half of it concealed by a woolly hat, swiftly followed. “Get in here,” he said. “We’ll move some stuff around. You’ll fit.”
Taken aback by the gesture, my initial reaction was to say I would happily wait. (It was after all Fury who had a world heavyweight title fight in a matter of days, not me; it was therefore Fury who needed space and minimal fuss.) But Fury was insistent and Asif, eager for them to get moving, had by now taken hold of my bag and suitcase and was finding space for both in the car. After that, I too was shoved inside, squashed between Tyson and Peter, and we were all on our way.
For being so generous I was quick to thank them, but Fury, eyes on his phone, shrugged it off as though it had been no decision at all. Relaxed, if tightly packed, he preferred to instead discuss our respective flights, the joys of a relatively short one – “better than going to somewhere like Vegas, eh?” – and his many prior trips to Germany, at least one of which was to train alongside Wladimir Klitschko, his next opponent.
Fury, it must be said, was a fan of both Germany and Germans, as I suspected having observed him at baggage claim, but, despite this, was in no rush to stick around and sightsee after the fight. “For some reason I don’t like hanging around after a fight,” he said. “I don’t want to explore the country or do anything like that. I just like to go there, do my job, and leave straight away. If I had a ‘Batmobile’ on standby outside the venue, I’d jump in that and go straight home.”
“Maybe it’s because you associate the location with the fight – something that can be a cause of stress for some people,” I suggested.
“Not for me,” he said. “I once read that Mike Tyson booked his flight from Tokyo to New York for something like two hours after his fight with (James) ‘Buster’ Douglas. He just couldn’t wait to get out of there. I’m the same.”
“It showed the state of his mind…”
“He thought it would be an easy fight; a blowout,” said Fury. “Everybody did, didn’t they? But boxing doesn’t work like that. Every dog has its day and that day belonged to ‘Buster’ Douglas.”
Muhammad Ali once said that kindness to others is the rent we pay on earth and, whether Tyson Fury was going to that weekend cause one of the biggest heavyweight upsets since Tyson-Douglas or not, he was clearly kind and he was obviously intent on pleasing his landlord.
His uncle Peter, meanwhile, who had, I would later learn, prompted his nephew to help me out that night, offered an explanation of his own. “Listen, this is the best version of Tyson you’ll ever see,” he said, sitting in the hotel lobby. “This is the nicest and friendliest he’ll ever be because he’s got something to look forward to and he feels good within himself. He’s fit, he’s healthy, and he’s eating well. But you wait until the fight is over and he’s been home a few days. That’s a different Tyson altogether. It’s hard being around that Tyson.”
The next day Tyson sat down for breakfast in the hotel’s restaurant alongside his cousin, Hughie, who was nursing an untimely cold and struggling to breathe through his nose. Sitting opposite him, but perhaps not as far away as he should have been, Tyson at one point caught the attention of a waitress and said, “I’d like some porridge, please,” before then looking towards Hughie’s bowl. “But not like his.”
For context, Hughie’s porridge was best described as a lumpy take on an old tradition and evidently not to Tyson’s liking. “I’d like it smooth, not lumpy,” Tyson explained to the waitress. “And could I have semi-skimmed milk instead of that soya milk stuff? I don’t know how you eat that, Hughie.”
Hughie shrugged. His eyes were sunken, his cheeks red and his nose swollen, and it’s unlikely he even knew what he was in that moment eating. “You look awful,” Tyson offered by way of reassurance. “Make sure you stay away from me, okay?”
The porridge returned minutes later and Tyson inspected it as though it were a pair of Paffen boxing gloves. A frown then stretched across his brow. “It’s still a bit too lumpy,” he said. “Can I have it smoother?”
“I’m sorry,” said the waitress, and off she went.
When returning a second time there appeared to now be a different problem. “It’s cold,” Tyson said. “Can you heat it up again? Maybe for a couple more minutes…”
“I’m so sorry,” said the waitress, and with her gone once more Tyson turned to Hughie. “We should be careful what we eat in here, shouldn’t we?” he said. “We probably shouldn’t even be eating here actually.”
“Why’s that?” said Hughie, his face a picture of innocence.
“The Klitschko camp could try to slip us something in our food.”
“They could give me something that makes me box rubbish on the night.”
Soon enough the porridge was back. “I’m sorry for the wait,” said the waitress.
“Don’t be sorry,” said Tyson, smiling at her. “It’s our fault we don’t speak German.”
As a team – that is, as a family – the Furys would throughout the week make a habit of sitting at the back of the hotel’s restaurant gorging on breakfast, lunch and dinner, and whenever they did you could hear the bellowing voice of John Fury from as far away as the lobby. What’s more, from what I could gather from a distance, the conversations around the table were seemingly forever centred on boxing and boxers – they spoke of little else – and the focus got narrower still when now and again they would discuss Wladimir Klitschko. With no fear of the man, clearly, they would each take it in turns to dissect and disregard his record, analysing in great detail previous opponents he had conquered. He was, if only for a week, their specialist subject and this, of all the shocks that week, was for me one of the biggest. It came as a shock primarily because I had long been under the impression that the impending fight was a subject off-limits for most boxers enduring the mental torment of fight week. Yet it was plain to see Fury was, in that respect, built differently from others. Or perhaps, I thought, that’s what the Furys meant when branding themselves “fighting men”. It meant something as simple as this: they had boxing on the brain twenty-four-seven and could think of nothing else. It meant boxing was, to them, a way of life, something with no “off” switch.
There was back then no secrecy with them, either. Passing guests of the hotel, for instance, those lurkers you invariably find at all fight hotels, were more than welcome to contribute to the discussion if rude enough to eavesdrop and never, when this happened, was there any sense of “us against them” or a need to keep things under wraps. It was almost as if Tyson Fury, readying himself for his role, had seen the sense in becoming the people’s champ long before touching any belts.
PART II: Blisters in the Sun
UPON winning the heavyweight championship of the world on foreign soil, in an upset for the ages, all the new champion did was moan. “My foot is killing me,” he said as he sat topless on a changing room bench. “My foot is bloody killing me.”
Though it’s true he had successfully avoided punishment for the 36 minutes he spent in a ring, Tyson Fury was now, less than an hour after receiving confirmation his dream had come true, paying the price for all he had done; the exertion, the focus, the discipline. With his giant socks removed, and two blistered feet therefore liberated, he shared the extent of his pain with those around him, most of whom seemed far more interested in the belts he had wrested from the grip of Wladimir Klitschko than the state of his soles. When sensing this, Fury gave up and said: “Let’s get the tunes going.”
It was after that “Never Too Much” by Luther Vandross started to play from speakers in the corner of the room and Fury’s friends and family, as though at a wedding reception and not inside a changing room, began to dance. One after another they borrowed Fury’s belts, posed for photos, and told the new champion what they thought of the fight. Fury, meanwhile, seemed content to just listen and watch. Too tired to rise, he remained sitting on the bench in his skin-tight black boxer shorts and moved only to either pick at his feet or flick the ripple of fat resting quite contentedly above his waistband. He joked about Wladimir Klitschko losing that night to a fat man, then grimaced when reminded of how he had made that joke a reality. “Have we got any plasters?” he said, the request aimed at nobody in particular.
“Don’t keep ripping it,” he was told by someone, “because it will just get worse.”
“He had a face on him like John Merrick after the fight, didn’t he?” Fury said, referring to Klitschko.
“He certainly did.”
(Fury, by contrast, was as unblemished as any Klitschko challenger in recent memory. Foot issues aside, there was hardly a mark on his face and certainly no cuts or signs of disfigurement.)
“Give us a bandage and some tape, will you?” Fury then said, which, instead of bandage or tape, led to numerous David Haye jokes being thrown at him from all corners of the room. (Haye, remember, complained of foot problems of his own following an unsuccessful title challenge against Klitschko back in 2011, though, unlike Fury, chose to do so at the post-fight press conference.)
“I think you should stand on the table at the press conference and show your toe,” a family member encouraged Fury from the back of the room.
“Yeah, that was a toe problem, wasn’t it?” Fury said, smiling. “My foot was killing me the whole time. You know when you move a lot…”
Haye, the last British boxer to have challenged Klitschko, had moved just as Fury did in Düsseldorf. He, like Fury, had also invested heavily in feints and head movement and was, to his credit, nailed only sparingly by a gun-shy Klitschko.
Yet, perhaps crucially, the difference between Haye and Klitschko that night – and every other night – was the size. At 6’3, Haye was able to be light on his feet and flashy with his hands but was still only – yes, only – six foot three. This meant he had great difficulty closing the distance on a champion three inches taller than him and it also meant Klitschko remained relatively safe and comfortable in his presence.
Fury, on the other hand, someone just shy of 6’9, was forever in punching range of Klitschko the night he faced him in Düsseldorf. He would step forward and find himself in range and he would step back and stay in range. Always there, right where Klitschko didn’t want him, such close proximity guaranteed that Klitschko, a dictator accustomed to gaining control and confidence from his myriad physical advantages, was for once the smaller man left dangling on a string.
“I was moving, I could see the shots coming, I was very focused,” Fury said. “Peter (his uncle and trainer) was telling me to keep my right hand up because he was looking for the left hook all the time. I could see every time he set his legs that he was going to throw the left hook. I’d then just touch him with the jab and put him off balance again.”
Undoubtedly, what Fury vs. Klitschko lacked in action it more than made up for in layered intrigue. It started early, too, with Fury pocketing most of the opening rounds, and it continued throughout, with everybody ringside expecting Klitschko to at some stage realise the fight was slipping away from him and seek to do something about it.
Rather than that, though, Fury simply maintained his lead by listening to the advice of his uncle in the corner and using his stature in much the same way Klitschko had done through 18 consecutive title defences.
“Everyone start clapping when Peter comes in, yeah?” Fury said in the changing room once alerted to his coach’s imminent arrival. “One, two, three…”
On four Peter, a quiet man with no interest in being the centre of attention, at last entered the room to become just that, his reception both loud and warm. “This foot is in pieces,” Tyson then told him, with Peter now beside him on the bench. “And the other one is even worse. It’s nearly hanging off.”
“That’s just a sign of the effort you put in,” Peter said. “That’s what it means to win a world title. They don’t come easy. Everybody doubted us. They all said we couldn’t do it. Well, we’ve took it in Germany – we did what they all couldn’t do. Now they can all be quiet. They don’t know boxing like they think they know it.”
“Amen to that.”
Turning to the rest, who had all moments ago applauded him, Peter continued: “Everyone has always said nobody has been able to get inside of Wladimir and nobody has been able to stop his game plan. He’s fought all-comers and various styles and nobody has been able to penetrate. But we worked it out. Tyson went in there and shut him down. He took away his jab. He did exactly what we set out to do. We weren’t looking for power shots. Everybody tries to get to Wladimir’s chin because they think it’s weak. But they make big mistakes in the process. I just said to Tyson, ‘Get in there, enjoy it, and totally outbox him.’”
In the end, outbox him Fury did, the intelligence of their game plan reflected on three scorecards: 115-112, 115-112 and 116-111.
“You can have as many game plans as you want, but Tyson is a very gifted athlete and he was the one who was able to carry it out,” said Peter. “They might say he looks ungainly at six foot nine, but he stands in front of people and they can’t land a glove on him. Even sparring partners say, ‘How on earth can we do anything with this?’ He has a very awkward and unconventional style and he knows how to make it work. He’s very difficult to box.”
Next, camera crews started to flood the room, each keen to get a piece of Fury before he was inevitably whisked off to the post-fight press conference. Feeling all of a sudden ambushed because of this, the paranoid new champion could now be heard warning everybody not to hand him any bottles of water, so fearful was he, he said, of being drugged. “I worked so hard for this,” he then informed one interviewer. “To make it even sweeter, nobody believed I could do it tonight. There were only a select few people who believed I could do it. But from the moment I laced on a pair of gloves I said I’d be heavyweight champion of the world. What are we saying, Shane?”
Shane, his brother, beamed proudly. “You did,” he said. “Signed, sealed, delivered.”
Two years the champion’s junior, Shane had been Tyson’s first sparring partner back when the brothers wrapped their mother’s tea towels around their fists as gloves. They had to make do with one tea towel and one boxing glove each in those days because an old pair of gloves once worn by their father, a former pro heavyweight, were split. Both boys therefore agreed to have one apiece and then, with that sorted, it was on. They designed kits to wear during the duel and finally took to a rug in the kitchen, where the aim was to knock the other off the rug in order to be declared the winner.
“Growing up with a dad as a professional boxer, and being part of a family involved in boxing, you don’t know anything else,” Fury recalled. “I remember hitting my dad’s hands – one-two, left hook – as soon as I was old enough to do it.
“I didn’t have my first amateur fight until I was 16, but, before I even had an amateur fight, me and my dad used to spar in the garden. I was 14 at the time, but six foot five and 16 stone. My uncle Frank (Burton) said he’d never seen anyone move like me before. He thought I’d become the heavyweight champion of the world.”
Thirteen years later, this prophecy came true. Tyson Fury, a resident of the seaside town of Morecambe, population 35,000, was indeed crowned the heavyweight champion of the world.
The following day, while still suffocated by British media, Fury sauntered through his hotel in cheap sports socks – owing, of course, to the pain in his feet – and confessed the magnitude of his achievement had yet to sink in. “I don’t feel any different this morning than I did two weeks ago or yesterday or the day before that,” he said, pawing at a small lump by the side of his eye. “I’m still the same Tyson Fury and always will be. I always said that winning the heavyweight championship of the world wouldn’t change me, the money wouldn’t change me, and being in the limelight wouldn’t change me. It won’t change the person I am. I think the fans and the boxing fraternity expect me to play the act I’ve always played and now I’m heavyweight champion of the world I’ve got the perfect stage, haven’t I?
“As far as I’m concerned, if I never win another fight – if I get beaten in a six-rounder – I don’t care. I have achieved what I set out to achieve in life. I’m a winner.”
Peter Fury, standing off to the side, went one better. “I said before this fight that if he wins the world heavyweight title and I have a heart attack the next morning, that’s fine by me,” he said. “This kid has come to Germany, won this world title, and it means so much to the family.”
Later that morning, as planned, Fury fled the hotel as quickly as he could. He jumped in a car with his wife, Paris, and drove 140 miles to Rotterdam before boarding a ferry to Hull. It wasn’t quite the Batmobile but, in allowing him to escape and leave the scene of what the Klitschkos would consider a crime, it served the same purpose; a getaway vehicle in all but name.