The fight and the fury
If he wins at Madison Square Garden tonight the boxer Tyson Fury will be one step closer to a world heavyweight title, with his Irish Traveller culture at the heart of everything he does
Nomadic impulse: Tyson Fury in Belfast, his mother’s home city. Photograph: Russell Pritchard/Presseye/Inpho
Contender: Tyson Fury fighting Vinnie Maddalone last year. Photograph: Nick Potts/PA Wire
When I was 16, I admired only two fighters: Rocky Marciano and Uriah Burton. Everyone had heard of Marciano, the world heavyweight champion who never took a backward step and never lost a fight. But Burton was known only in the secretive world of the Travellers, a name uttered in hushed tones. He was an ogre, they said. He had the strength of five men. He beat opponents two at a time. He would stop at nothing and fight to the death. He sounded like something from the Dark Ages, more myth than man. Only when I came to know him did I realise the stories were true.
from Bareknuckle Memoirs of
the Undefeated Champion
‘Our lifestyle has been around for 1,000 years, and now we still live in the 1800s,” Tyson Fury declares as he dwarfs his beige armchair in a plush hotel in downtown Manhattan.
Fury is an Irish Mancunian, like the Gallagher brothers or the Smiths, except that he has been driven by a nomadic impulse that will reach completion, he believes, only if and when he becomes the heavyweight champion of the world.
Across the avenue, posters outside Madison Square Garden bear his boxer’s pose: chisel jawed and intimidating. This evening, Fury will shrink the theatre with his physique and showmanship when he takes on his American challenger Steve Cunningham in a fight that, if he wins, will put him just one fight away from a world-title bout against Vladimir Klitschko.
Sooner or later a descendent of the half-rumoured Traveller tradition of bare-knuckle fighting was bound to take all of that mythology and wildness and reimagine it in the tuxedoed world of the Queensberry rules. In civilised fighting. Tyson Fury is that person.
Uriah Burton, Fury’s great-granduncle, once made a prophesy to Fury’s uncle Pat, now his trainer. “He said to my uncle, ‘You know, when your brother gets married to my niece she is going to drive him insane,’ ” Fury explains.
“But a fighting man will come out of those sons he has. He predicted my future a year before I was born. I know it sounds stupid to talk about breeding and classing human beings like animals. But I am fighting royalty. Uriah is on my father’s side and Bartley Gorman, the other undefeated champion, is on my mother's side. I have gypsy kings on both sides of the family.”
Fury moves comfortably through the “settled” world where he now makes a living without losing sight of the fact that, as a Traveller, he belongs to a tribe that, he says, most of us have never understood nor ever will.
Paris, his wife, and several of his brothers sit around listening to him chat affably about what the Traveller culture means to them and why fighting, both spontaneous and organised, has always been so central to the lives of Travelling men.
“We don’t move in normal time. You go back to my great-great-grandfather and we are still doing the same stuff. It is still fighting talk. If you want to fight, you take your shirt off, you go outside and you have a knuckle-up, and the best man shakes his hand and they go off for a drink. That is how things are sorted out in our culture.
“If you have a dispute, you don’t go to the police or else you are known as a grass, an outcast, and nobody wants to know you. So we settle it our way. We don’t get laws involved.
“And we marry our own people. There are exceptions, of course. But mainly we marry our own. A Travelling man goes out to work – buying, selling, whatever he is going to do. It has always been that way. We aren’t an educated race. We don’t go to school.
“We still think it is a man’s world. In our culture it is all about the men. The men can do everything, and women just clean and cook and have children and look after that man. They should be happy with that lifestyle, really. There are no rights for women in a Travelling community, not at all.”
Fury is a peculiar combination, in that he speaks in a broad northern accent peppered with quintessentially English phrases – “cool as a cucumber”, “my dad could talk a glass eye to sleep” – while being acutely conscious of his Irish blood.
His grandfather was from Tuam, where his father was also born. His mother is from Belfast. They wandered to England, and Fury grew up with Travellers from throughout the British Isles and Europe.
When he married Paris, who is of Scottish heritage, they retreated deeper into the old ways, buying a caravan and living in Morecambe for several years. He shrugs at the suggestion that his prevailing views on women are not exactly in fashion, then proceeds to explain why he couldn’t care less for the opinion of settled society.
“We are outsiders. But that is our way. Just like the Muslims have their ways. We have our ways. There are these girls who want to open their legs to every Tom, Dick and Harry. But they are looked upon as rubbish in our community. We don’t do stuff like that. If I had a sister who did that . . . I’d hang her. She would bring disgrace on the family. It is a very, very bad thing to do. We don’t do that. Women have to be pure and respectful. They can’t go out drinking down the town and doing whatever they want to do. Just doesn’t happen.
“People have got to understand that our lifestyle is totally, totally different. We may be the same colour, and we may speak the same language, but deep inside we are nothing alike. We are aliens. What is it? Our goals are different to other peoples. We want different things.”
Fury is an old-soul 24, and when he talks about his life it is as though he has lived several. It is hard to pinpoint what age he must have been when he offers an insight into the darkest period of his life, when he was in the grip of a bleakly violent depression. He was drinking until 5am – “which a married man shouldn’t do,” he adds sternly – and had lost interest in his boxing and felt out of shape.
“Didn’t think there was anything worth living for. Didn’t care about money, fighting.” He often thought of death. “I was thinking like a crazy man. I wasn’t reading the Bible, had murderous thoughts about my wife, even,” he says, looking across at Paris with a smile.
“I was prepared,” she says back.
“It was terrible,” he says. “The devil is very strong and can pull you into thinking terrible things.”
The epiphany occurred when their infant son became gravely ill and they feared they might lose him. He says a voice spoke to him in a way that several trainers, including the legendary Emmanuel Stewart, had been unable to.
“I got down on my knees and asked God to help me. And every night of my life since I was a child I prayed for forgiveness and health and safety for my family and friends and for world peace. That has always been my prayer. And now . . . I just feel I am on the right road and am doing something for a purpose.”
Fighting is what he means. The journey has brought him here to New York: to the city where Marciano and the other gilded names once fought. He is a natural in the fight game. One-liners and quips and headlining threats roll from his tongue. Fury claims not to be educated but talks articulately and with poise.
“You don’t have to be educated to be sensible. There are plenty of educated fools out there who can’t earn a living, can’t do nothing.”
Once the camera lights are off he is reflective and sincere. He shakes his head at the idea that if he does realise his ambition to usurp Klitshko as the alpha male of the boxing world, he will in some way broaden the appreciation of the Traveller tradition.
“You can’t change people’s opinion on Travellers. Maybe one or two but not millions. That’s not up to me. I really don’t care what they think of us. Look. If the blacks can make it out of slavery, I’m sure we can do something.”
Fury’s battles are more personal. He publicly declared that if he doesn’t comfortably defeat Cunningham he will take it as a sign that he is not good enough to beat Klitschko anyway and quit.
But, restless now, he admits that boxing is his livelihood. His brother recently chided him that he couldn’t go back to the buying-and-selling game anymore. Fury took the bait and went out in the van for a few days. He discovered it was true.
“Without boxing, I’m f***ed,” he says, momentarily morose. “And God forgive me for swearing.”
The brothers laugh. The Fury entourage has had an enjoyable few days drifting around in the sunshine and smoked-glass splendour of Manhattan, but there is an impatience too to get on with the main event and hightail it back to the grassy fringes of Manchester, where their myths and stories outreach the tallest skyscraper.
Occasionally now, Tyson Fury will permit himself a night out, but it is always with a group. That way, if any hothead decides he wants a crack at Britain’s biggest and more recognisable boxer, he always has a convenient excuse. Grinning, he explains how he will just tell them that he can’t fight but that any of the boys would be happy to oblige.
“These boys aren’t professional or worried about an assault charge of a fight outside. So then they step up and – smash! – it’s goodnight Vienna.”
And suddenly Fury is in vaudeville mode again, enjoying the drama and raising a few laughs from the other lads as he bashes some imagined foe. Then he leans back in the chair, a huge man in the eternally new city with old-England voices and bare-chested fighting men swirling around his head.
“But that’s my excuse,” he says happily. “That I fight like a lady.”
“Like a gentleman,” Paris calls from across the room.