There will never be another Muhammad Ali. As Mike Tyson said, there’s no way that other fighters can match him. His legacy, fame, enduring popularity, the reverence in which he is held will never be witnessed again. With that said, I have noticed some similarities with regards to his life and career and that of current WBC, The Ring Magazine & Lineal Heavyweight Champion, Tyson Fury, which I will explore further in this post. The purpose of this blog is not to cover the full careers of the fighters, though much of it will be covered due to the many times similarities can be drawn.
Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. was born January 17, 1942 in Louisville, Kentucky, USA. Tyson Luke Fury was born August 12, 1988 in Whythenshawe, Manchester, England. Both were born with names and heritage that gave a clue as to the men they would become. Cassius Clay was named after a staunch 19th Century abolitionist who freed the slaves handed down to him from his father’s inheritance and survived an assassination attempt such was the fierce opposition to his anti-slavery activism. Clay of course shed the name after conversion to Islam, calling it a slave name, but in fact the man he was named after actually fought for black people’s freedom from slavery. Tyson Fury was named after Mike Tyson, who was World Heavyweight Champion at the time. He was named Tyson by his dad John, who was also a Heavyweight and admired Mike as a hero due to him being the dominant champion of the time. John felt the name of a great fighter perfect for his newly born son due to how hard Tyson fought to make it into the world. Born three months premature and weighing one pound, he was given a 1 in 100 shot of surviving his first night of life. He died three times but came back each time. Tyson’s mother Amber had 14 pregnancies but only four of the Children survived. Tyson was one of them despite the doctors odds and just by getting through the night Tyson Fury had already showed himself to be a fighter.
Clay was a descendant of former slave Archer Alexander who was chosen to be the model of a freed man for the Emancipation Memorial and had the book ‘Alexander Archer: from slavery to freedom’ wrote about him. Many years prior to becoming the most famous man on the earth, his ancestor was also in a famous fight for his freedom. Fury’s famous heritage was a fighting heritage, with top fighting men filling his 200-year lineage, the most famous being two ‘King of the Gypsies’ the highest honour one can achieve in the community. The title was held by Othea Burton a relative on his mothers side who never lost a bare-knuckle fight and Bartley Gorman (considered the greatest bare-knuckle fighter in living memory), on his Father’s side who also never lost.
Both Clay and Fury were raised by loving parents, and had nicer childhoods than most champion boxers. Neither were exactly spoilt but nor were they exposed to the kind of crime and poverty lots of other famous fighters are growing up. Neither was ever in any trouble with the law though both of their fathers were later in life.
Both learnt the value of hard work young, Clay doing cleaning jobs at a College in Louisville and Fury doing labouring jobs as well as a bit of buying and selling. Clay graduated High School aged 18 ranking 376th out of his School’s class of 391. He had dyslexia which gave him great trouble reading and writing. Fury left formal education at the age of 10, such is the Gypsy way to leave education after Primary (Elementary) School. Both men had very little in the way of academic learning but went on to become two of the most articulate fighters ever, with a speed of whit and knack for delivery making them unbeatable in verbal sparring.
Clay began boxing at the age of 12 after being encouraged by a police officer who was also a boxing trainer to take up the sport so he would know how to fight if ever he ran into whoever stole his bike. A young Clay’s breakthrough moment in boxing came when he beat up the neighbourhood bully Corky Baker, forcing him to leave the gym with a blacked eye and a bloody nose. Fury began boxing at the age of 10, though didn’t begin sparring outside of the family home until he was 14. It was when he cracked his Dad’s ribs when sparring with him, that it became clear it was time to take his budding career to the next level.
Growing up, Clay experienced less personal racism than many in the Jim Crow South. However he was refused a glass of water at a diner as a kid on a scorching hot day and saw the newspaper headline of Emmett Till, a 12-year old black boy who was lynched in Mississippi when he was around the same age as him, this affected him greatly. Tyson was made aware of the racism against travellers by his Dad, who experienced it in the 60s and 70s as a kid when it was much worse. Both men would fly in the face of discrimination, Clay by advocating Black Pride, joining the Nation of Islam (often referred to as The Black Muslims) and converting to a ‘Black person’s’ name- Muhammad Ali. Fury by nicknaming himself ‘The Gypsy King’ ensured everyone would know who and what he is, his name would forever be associated with the background he is proud of and had no desire to conceal.
From a young age both men had a strong sense of destiny. Ali said “I always felt I was born to do something for my people. Aged 8,10 years old I’d walk out of my house at two in the morning and look up at the sky for an angel or a revelation or God telling me what to do. I’d look at the stars and wait for a voice, but I never heard nothing. Then my bike got stolen and I started boxing, and it was like God telling me boxing was my responsibility.” Fury said that aged 14 watching the Heavyweight Champion of the World Wladimir Klitschko he would tell people he could beat him. “I always wanted to be a World Heavyweight Champion. Anything less was a failure in my eyes. Aim for the stars that’s what I always did. I always only wanted to be the Heavyweight Champion of the World. And from being 14 years old I never ever doubted myself.”
As Clay and Fury progressed towards that meeting with destiny they both demonstrated a skill outside the ring that is not in every boxer. That of master salesmen and self-promoters. Both touted the press and found themselves as comfortable dealing with them as they were dealing with opponents. Cassius Clay was unlike anything American television sets had seen before. At the time getting boxers to speak could be like getting blood from a stone, with Clay the challenge was getting a word in edgeways. He took the self-promotion and hype building that was more familiar in the Wrestling world and brought it to boxing and the sport would never be the same again. He bragged about how pretty he was, how his opponents were bums who shouldn’t be in the same ring as him, he wrote poetry which he shared at every opportunity, he even predicted the round he’d finish the fight in. And he sold tickets. And got people in front of the TV to watch him fight.
Fury also was never short of a word when the cameras were on. The best example came when he was interviewed live at ringside by Channel 5 and infamously called David Price out in hilarious fashion. Always worth a re-watch, no matter how many times you’ve seen it.
From other press conferences building up to fights with Steve Cunningham and David Haye, Fury showed himself to be this generations undisputed trash-talk King. Against Cunningham he responded to Steve’s claim about him only winning fights “because he’s big” by pointing out that “not only am I big, I’m tall, dark, handsome, cool, calm, collected, super sexy and there’s not a man born from his mother who can beat Tyson Fury.” David Haye had always fancied himself as a trash-talker, and he’d had vastly more big fight experience going into their fight but Fury took him to school, crucifying him at every opportunity. Haye pulled out of the fight twice and called an early retirement from Boxing.
Before they would step into the ring as huge underdogs to fight for the World Heavyweight crown, both men tasted the canvas on two occasions each. On their paths to the title both men experienced concentration issues and were punished. Clay was dropped for the first time in the professional game in his 11th fight against fellow 21-year old Sonny Banks (10-2). He was dropped in the opening round before getting up to return the favour by dropping his man in the very next round. The fight ended in the fourth when the referee stopped the fight, saving a wobbly Banks from further punishment. Fury was dropped for the first time in his 17th fight against Nevan Pajkic. Both men had an identical 16-0 record going into the fight, though Pajkic had won inside the distance just 5 times compared to Fury’s 11 stoppage wins. Fury was dropped in the 2nd round but got up and dropped Pajkic twice in the following round, with the referee stopping the fight after the second knockdown. Clay & Fury were more stunned than seriously hurt in these knockdowns and they used their anger and their bruised prides to spur them on to claim quick stoppages victories.
Both men endured more serious knockdowns with their second experience when Clay & Fury faced more worthy opponents than when they’d first hit the deck against little known boxers. Clay was dropped in the 4th round in his 19th fight against Henry Cooper (27-8-1), the left hook known as ‘Enry’s Hammer’ connecting clean on Clay’s jaw and lifting him on impact into the ropes. The bell sounded immediately following the fall giving Clay an escape from the otherwise incoming onslaught. As the famous story goes, trainer Angelo Dundee then began to tear at Clay’s gloves trying to rip open further a small tear that had already appeared in order to buy his fighter more time by showing the ref he needed a new pair. He was unsuccessful though and only bought Clay a few extra seconds of time whilst his request was rejected. Clay did however have smelling salts put under his nose to perk him up again and bring him back to his senses. Clay stopped Cooper in the very next round, as the notoriously cut-prone Cooper was bleeding so profusely he was splashing ring-side photographers with his blood. The referee was given no choice but to stop the fight and Clay had came off the canvas to win for the second time, though this time in much more trying circumstances.
America’s Cassius Clay was dropped in his first fight on UK soil against a UK fighter and the United Kingdom’s Tyson Fury was dropped in his first fight on US soil against a US fighter, Steve Cunningham (25-5). Former World Cruiserweight Champion Cunningham dropped Fury in the 2nd round. Both Clay and Fury were taunting their opponents prior to being dropped. Clay had given Cooper a very bad cut after 2 rounds but then in the 3rd and 4th he threw very little instead clowning with his hands down, taunting and dancing. The shock of the huge knockdown made Clay spring into action and he boxed very aggressively in the 5th, busting Cooper’s nasty cut wide open and spreading blood all across his face. Fury suffered a heavy knockdown from a Cunningham overhand right. He too had gotten too confident after a good start and was made to pay for his lack of defence. Unlike Clay, he couldn’t be saved by the bell as there was 2 minutes and 30 seconds left in the round after he’d got back to his feet on the count of six.
Fury had been taunting Cunningham, talking to him telling him to “Come on!” and that his punches were nothing. Following this knockdown, Fury concentrated on making it an in-close dog fight, counting on his much superior size and strength to allow him to bully the former Cruiserweight. This approach was successful as Cunningham was exhausted from the rough fight tactics of Fury, who knocked him out in the 7th round. Cunningham was counted out and it was the only KO loss of his career.
Knockdowns were not the only trials the men would face on the path to their World title shot. Both also faced a tough, contested full-distance fight. Clay had a tough nights work in his 18th fight against Doug Jones (21-3-1) and the announcement of his unanimous decision victory in the fight received boos and debris into the ring. Though Jones was an obvious crowd favourite fighting in his native New York, this was accepted as a tough fight for Clay with Jones standing up to him and pushing him hard. Tyson Fury had a close fight with John McDermott (25-5) in his 8th fight, with the referee’s 98-92 verdict in favour of Fury being criticised. Following this result the British Boxing Board of Control mandated that from then on there must be 3 judges for all English title fights and a rematch was also ordered, which Fury won in the 9th after knocking McDermott down 3 times.
Champion of the World
Neither fighter had exactly pulled up trees before finding themselves in the ring with the title on the line. Clay had a disappointing 1963, with a difficult close fight against Jones and being dropped against Cooper. Fury’s November 2015 meeting with Klitschko, would be only the Englishman’s 5th fight since 2013 in a stop-start career. Both men were mostly regarded as getting their shot due to a lack of other top contenders at the time, the Champions had to fight somebody after all, and it was anticipated both would make easy defences against the challengers who were both seen as crazy clowns without a chance.
Challenger Cassius Clay entered the ring to face Charles ‘Sonny’ Liston (35-1) for his WBA, WBC, The Ring & Lineal Heavyweight Championship belts on the 25th of February 1964. He was a 7-1 underdog. Challenger Tyson Fury entered the ring to face Wladimir ‘Dr. Steelhammer’ Klitschko (64-3) for his WBA(Super), IBF, WBO, IBO, The Ring and Lineal Heavyweight Championship belts on the 28th of November 2015. He was a 4-1 underdog. The creation of more governing bodies may have meant there was more belts on the line for Fury, but 51 years on much was the same. Just like Clay in 1964, to become World Heavyweight Champion, Fury would have to beat the undisputable King of the Division, the top man of that era.
Going into the fight Clay had a 19-0 record, with 15KO’s (78.9% knockout rate) and Fury was 24-0, with 18KO’s (75% Knockout rate). The reason they went into their fights massive underdogs, aside from the vulnerabilities shown in previous fights (see above) was the sheer formidability of the men they’d be stepping into face. Sonny Liston was 10 years unbeaten, he was on a 28-fight winning run featuring 23 knockouts. Wladimir Klitschko was on a 11 and a half year win streak with 22 wins, 16 coming by way of knockout and 6 by Unanimous Decision. Even when he hadn’t stopped the opponent, he’d dominated them, and dispatched them coolly. He’d made a total 23 successful World Title defences, 18 consecutively. Liston was making just his second defence, but it would have been many more if the powers that be hadn’t been determined to keep the title away from him for as long as possible due to his Mob Management and run-ins with authority. Champion Floyd Patterson’s trainer Cus D’amato had been only too happy to go along with this line of thinking to protect his fighter, but eventually the right thing was done and perennial contender Sonny Liston was finally given a chance to become Champion, which he took inside the opening round. Both were seen as virtually unbeatable and two of the greatest Heavyweights ever. Liston’s incredible reach, his jab and extreme power in both hands made him seem invincible and for Wlad it was his size, left jab and punching power that made it so unlikely that he could be triumphed over.
So whilst Liston hadn’t been champion for anywhere near as long as Klitschko, he’d still been established at the top of the division for a long time. Both champions were vastly experienced, Liston being 30-odd (his exact age suspected to be a few years older than his official age of 29) and Klitschko being 39. Both men had seen alot, and maybe felt they’d seen everything. But Clay and Fury were determined to show them something they’d never seen before, both in and out of the ring.
Clay’s mind games going into this fight centered around one main target: make Liston so angry going into the fight that he wants to kill him and is therefore lacking the composure and focus to stick to his gameplan. Clay predicted it would take him 8 rounds to dethrone Liston. We know this because he bought a bus and painted ‘Sonny Liston will go in Eight’ on it. He then drove this bus to the house of Sonny Liston with his entourage and parked up in the middle of the night. He laid on the horn and shouted insults. (‘Big Ugly Bear’ was his favourite of the time, he called Liston that for years as he pursued a fight with him.) The All-White neighbourhood in which Liston resided were not impressed.
At the weigh-in on the day of the fight, Clay worked himself into a frenzy, he was fined $2,500 for his antics as his heart rate was measured at 120 beats per minute. The chief physician of the Miami Boxing Commission where the fight was staged determined he was “emotionally unbalanced, scared to death, and liable to crack up before he enters the ring.” He said if Clay’s blood pressure didn’t return to normal, the fight would be cancelled. A second examination conducted an hour later revealed Clay’s blood pressure and pulse had returned to normal. It had all been an act. Clay later said, “Liston’s not afraid of me, but he’s afraid of a nut.”
Tyson Fury had studied the Klitschko’s since becoming a professional. They’d been dominant World Champions when Fury was first fighting in rinky dink venues all across the UK. He knew Wladimir liked to control everything in the build-up to his fights, he was methodical down to every minute detail. So Fury’s mind games were focused on depriving Klitschko of the control he needed to have. This psychological warfare between the two dates back as far as 2010. The first time the pair met was at a Klitschko training camp in Austria. Klitschko was known for being the longest in the sauna, noone could outlast him in there. It was part of Klitschko establishing his control and dominance over upcoming potential opponents. Fury picks the story up: “there were about 10 guys in the sauna, everyone started popping off around us and it came down to just me and Wlad in the sauna. In my mind I was mentally in a competition with him, I was prepared to die in that sauna, I stayed in for about 40 minutes, and he got out first.” To some it was just a sauna, but to Fury it was 1-0 in his mental warfare with the Champion.
Fury also showed just how unpredictable he was when he turned up to a press conference promoting the fight dressed as Batman. A villain dressed as The Joker then entered the room with Fury rolling around on the floor with him, deliberately knocking all Wlad’s belts off their stand, showing him his disregard for the belts as he said all he cared about was beating him. Tyson promised to rid the Heavyweight division once and for all of Klitschko’s ‘grab and jab’ style, calling him boring and robotic inside and outside the ring.
Neither man was given a chance. Clay was nothing but a mouth, all self-made publicity and all his fast-talking nonsense wouldn’t save him when Liston got his hands on him. Liston was avoided for a reason, this kid must have a death wish. As soon as Liston landed clean he’d be shut up for good. Fury was a clown, as much a joker as the one he beat up in slapstick fashion at the press conference, he’d never been in with anyone near Wlad’s calibre, he’d never fought on box office before and he was going into the lion’s den in front of 50,000 mostly Wlad supporters in Dusseldorf, Germany.
Liston was invincible, a man moulded by violence. Part fighter, part gangster. Klitschko was one of the most dominant champions in history, in all measurements of dominance he was right up there, just behind Joe Louis. The Steelhammer had ruled all who met him with an iron-fist for close to a dozen years. Regardless, the two men remained defiant. Clay rhymed “If you wanna lose your money, be a fool and bet on Sonny” Fury simply said “Come the night, that Klit is getting licked.”
Clay started magnificently, he hit Liston with a fast and effective jab and quick combinations, whilst his dancing and moving left Liston chasing shadows. Clay also stopped Liston’s chasing, forcing him to stop dead as he landed flush with a right hand lead and followed it up with a left, another right, another left, and then a one-two. This was most definitely not in the script. Liston’s greatest asset was his reach which was huge for a man his size, but fighting the taller Clay who also possessed a similar huge reach, this was mostly negated. Aside from his reach, Sonny’s danger lay in what was at the end of those huge, thick arms, his gigantic fists.
Which is what made what happened in the next round just as shocking. Liston began landing on his young foe, but Clay just absorbed the punches. Most people had assumed that Clay was only so elusive defensively because he was scared of being hit and his chin would crumble under blows from the fearsome puncher Liston. It was not so. Soon after Liston was cut for the first time in his career, with blood and welts appearing under both eyes. Clay, who supposedly couldn’t punch was hurting the big bad monster that was Sonny Liston.
He coasted in the fourth, looking to further tire the older man who had trained for a short fight. Just when victory looked close to assured, disaster struck. Whilst everyone with eyes could see the Challenger was going to soon be Champion, suddenly the Challenger lost the use of his. A substance had got into Clay’s eyes and they were burning viciously. He blinked furiously whilst demanding the fight be stopped (he had become convinced the Mafia who owned Sonny would not allow him to win the title without attempting some foul play). It is unknown for certain if the substance had got into Clay’s eyes knowingly by Liston and his team or if it was accidental. Either way it was there and it was down to Angelo Dundee to calm his fighter down, and keep his (now non-seeing) eyes on the goal of becoming Champion.
In the 5th Clay could only see a faint shadow of Liston, he tried his best to stay away, constantly moving and using his reach to feel where Liston was to keep him at bay. He was forced still to take many more shots than he had been up to that point but this kid was tough, he wasn’t going anywhere. As Clay’s physician and cornerman would say “Cassius can’t see and still Liston can’t do anything with him. What can I say? Beethoven wrote some of his greatest symphonies when he was deaf. Why couldn’t Cassius Clay fight when he was blind?” The very next round Clay had his sight back, and he made full use of it, hitting Liston at will. Liston who was unable to inflict any damage of his own at this stage was very tired and very hurt. At the end of the round he went back to his stool where he would sit for the final time that night.
Aswell as Clay, Fury was also wary of anything untoward happening that may hurt his chances. Klitschko wrapped his hands without a member of Fury’s team present, so they made sure the hands were re-wrapped. Prior to this, Klitschko and his team had even put a layer of foam underneath the ring canvas, aiming to hamper Tyson’s movement with a spongy surface. Being the Champion can give you a lot of leeway to claiming small margins that can help keep you champion. But Fury and his team stuck to their guns, even saying they would pull out of the fight if the foam was not removed and in the end after hours of dispute Fury got his way.
From the first round onwards the Klitschko fight followed the same pattern. Fury kept constantly on the move boxing off the back foot and throwing many feints, beating Klitschko to the punch from range whilst not letting Klitschko set his feet to land his own shots. Klitschko himself was used to beating fighters that were smaller than himself from range and then clinching them on the inside. However, Klitschko was unable to adjust his style and continued to clinch Fury on the inside whilst Fury still attempted to punch, this meant that Fury was out-punching and out-landing Klitschko in all areas. Used to fighting smaller men he could bully when clinching, Klitschko was unprepared for someone so much bigger than him who was able to handle him time after time. Despite the fact that it was usually Klitschko on the offensive coming towards him, Fury made himself difficult to be hit with his head and body movement, also switching to a southpaw stance at times to confuse Klitschko.
Uncomfortable in there, Klitschko became gun-shy whilst Fury continued to taunt him by putting his arms behind his back or way out to the sides. Klitschko felt unconfident of being able to land on Tyson so felt he had no choice but to wait for Tyson to get tired from his constant movement. Either his constant head feints and body movement or Fury using his legs to constantly move around the ring had to stop or Klitschko wouldn’t be able to get off. Surely he had to stop eventually? his concentration or his commitment to a gameplan which demanded such constant moving had to break at one point didn’t it? even for 10 seconds, just enough time for Wlad to get his left hand in so he could follow up with the infamous right which had won him so many fights. But Fury didn’t tire. He kept it up. And his ring generalship had to be winning him rounds. Klitschko was hardly throwing punches, let alone landing them. Fury was controlling Wlad!
Like Clay in the 5th, Fury was forced to face some adversity when he had a point deducted in the 11th for rabbit punching, even though Klitschko had turned his head. So close to the end this was a concern, if the referee was against him which he appeared to be for penalising him so harshly by taking a point away, would the judges be similarly bias?
As the fight concluded nobody watching was in any doubt who’d won the fight. There’d been little action but Fury had outlanded the Champion by 86 punches to 52. He’d out-jabbed the jabber and landed comfortably more power punches. But there was the real fear of a robbery, a dodgy decision in favour of the man who’d brought World Heavyweight Championship boxing to Germany and therefore was a popular man there. Such fears were thankfully not founded, and Tyson Fury became the first and only man to defeat Wladimir Klitschko on points, winning a unanimous decision.
Young had defeated Old. Boldness had defeated experience. In an unforgettable post-fight interview Clay said “I knew I had him in the first round. I want everyone to bear witness, I am the greatest! I’m the greatest thing that ever lived. I don’t have a mark on my face, and I upset Sonny Liston, and I just turned twenty-two years old. I must be the greatest. I showed the world. I shook up the world, I’m the king of the world. You must listen to me. I am the greatest! I can’t be beat!” After his victory Tyson broke down in tears such was his delight and relief at getting the decision, as he confessed after the point deduction he didn’t think he was gonna get it. He paid tribute to his deceased Uncle Hughie then in another unforgettable moment he sang Aerosmith- I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing. Both men shook up the world by becoming World Heavyweight Champion as huge underdogs then finished the night off in a way that showed they were unique to all the Champions that had come before them. Clay with his brilliant ‘I must be the Greatest” speech and Fury by surely being the first boxer to hold an impromptu karaoke session in front of 50,000 fans after dethroning one of the best Heavyweight champions in history, singing away whilst his vanquished opponent remained in the ring.
Now all that remained to be seen was how these two talented young men would fare as Champions of the World..
Joe Louis knew his place. Floyd Patterson knew his place. Even big, bad Sonny Liston kept his mouth shut in moody silence. Jack Johnson didn’t know his place, hence he was forced into exile from the country of his birth for 7 years to avoid jail which was waiting for him when he did return. And Cassius Clay most certainly didn’t know his place. Or perhaps he knew his place a little too well and that was the problem. From the moment the proud Louisville kid was still unable to get a meal in a whites-only restaurant despite the recently won Olympic gold medal he had hanging round his neck, he recognised that something really stunk in America.
Tyson Fury aswell felt like an unwanted, outsider in his own country. Gypsies have long been a looked down upon, disliked and discriminated against race of people all over the world. The UK is no different, and Fury became aware of that discrimination when he began his career in Amateur boxing. He felt it was the reason he was not selected to box for Team GB at the Olympics in Beijing. Without the big platform entering the pro game as an Olympic medalist gives you and believing the British public would never offer big support to someone from his background, Fury believed the only way to make a fast name for himself in boxing was to be the bad guy. Fury said “this made me an outsider and so I felt that for me to get the attention I needed to be an attraction in the sport, I had to play the outlaw. I felt I had to act out a role to seek publicity and to do that I had to be controversial and shock people with how I talked. To some degree it worked. But playing the role got to the point where I didn’t know what was real and what was the act.”
The young Clay searched for understanding and believed he’d found it in the movement known as The Nation of Islam. Clay was receptive to the Nation’s message of self-respect and dignity for the Black Man (meaning no alcohol, drugs or white women) and Black Pride. In the press The Nation were known as ‘the Black Muslims’ and were considered a hate group for being in favour of Black and White segregation (which was also supported by the KKK) and their definition of the White American as a Blue-eyed Devil.
Clay had always divided opinion, his braggadocios statements about how great and pretty he was were out of sync with the humbleness Black fighters were expected to demonstrate in this time (where Black boxers were often still described as inhumane things, more monsters than people) but the peak of his unpopularity coincided with his first reign as Heavyweight Champion of the World.
A storm was already brewing when on the night of the first Liston fight, Nation of Islam preacher Malcolm X, the most hated and feared member of the group, was in attendance to support Cassius. On his first day as Champion, Clay announced he was no longer to be known by that name, he now wished to be known as Cassius X. Clay was in his words a white name given to his ancestors by their slave-masters. Shortly afterwards, Malcolm X left the Nation of Islam after becoming disillusioned with leader Elijah Muhammad’s hypocrisy. He joined Sunni Islam after a trip to Mecca convinced him that blacks and whites could be brothers as he saw them praying together as equals. He wanted to take his best friend Cassius with him. Fearing they would lose another powerful spokesman, Elijah Muhammad renamed Cassius X as Muhammad Ali. Muhammad meaning “worthy of all praise” and Ali meaning “most high.” This new name bestowed upon him by the nation ensured he remained loyal to those who’d given him his new, free identity and purged him of his slave name and wouldn’t leave. He denounced Malcolm X and never made peace with his friend before he was assassinated by three members of the Nation of Islam. Ali later called the greatest regret of his life. Just taking this new name was highly controversial and for years afterwards, up till his return in 1970, most men who covered the sport refused to use his new name and continued to refer to him as Clay.
Usually people’s achievements are prioritised over all else, and any uncomfortable stories about the individual suddenly disappear from the narrative but Tyson Fury found when he returned home from Germany, that he was now more maligned than ever before. Lots of the nation’s media didn’t want to talk about one of the greatest accomplishments ever from a British fighter and instead chose to publish and talk about every controversial thing he’s ever said. Which turned out to be a lot. Some were homophobic which he quoted from the bible and some were sexist which he put down to the reality of how women are viewed in the Traveller community. Undoubtedly, there was a darkness in Tyson at this time. A nastiness and Fury has since expressed regret at the way he came across in this period, putting it down to falling too deeply into the character he was playing. He reflected on this period by saying he was wearing a mask of arrogance to hide and distract himself from the pain he was feeling inside, but it reached the stage he no longer knew what was him and what was the character anymore.
As Champion, the hostility with the press grew rather than shrunk. Father John Fury launched a rant at the press who chose to prioritise the controversy and negativity over his son’s achievement in Germany. He called the attempts to discredit his son jealousy from ‘sicko’s’ who targeted his son for being from the wrong background. Tyson himself, was in a similarly combative mood saying “You don’t like it, change the station. You don’t like it, don’t take photos, you don’t like it, don’t print it in your newspapers.” 140,000 people didn’t like it, as they signed a petition to remove him from the 2015 BBC Sports Personality of the Year Award shortlist due to homophobic and sexist remarks he’d made. He remained on the ballot and placed fourth.
Muhammad Ali and Tyson Fury are the two most religious Heavyweight Champions in History. They proudly flaunt their religion, despite the obvious discomfort this gives interviewers who would rather keep them talking about the fight. Ali was a proud Muslim and Fury a Christian. Both would immediately give praise to their God after fights, which isn’t unusual anymore but both would mention their religion several times in short post-fight interviews. Ali’s religious views made people uncomfortable as his was a minority religion in the United States, his religious views were therefore different from the views held by the majority of Americans. There was a Black Power theme running through the Nation of Islam which scared white people. Whereas Fury’s religious preachings could also make the media uncomfortable as demonstrated here:
Ali spoke at length about religion. When asked about his religions views on segregation and white people, he didn’t tiptoe around the issue. He tackled questions head on. He spoke in favour of separation, believing hundreds of years of ill treatment from whites to people with darker skin was evidence that blacks and whites could never live together in harmony, he also spoke out against interracial relationships. This of course made Ali very controversial, but his most controversial moment was yet to come..
Muhammad Ali was stripped of his WBA Heavyweight title shortly after winning it, as was Tyson Fury of his IBF Heavyweight title just 10 days after winning it in Germany. It wouldn’t be long until the rest of the belts followed, though none would be lost in the ring.
The WBA stripped Ali and refused to recognise him as their champion due to his allegiance to the Nation of Islam and Fury was stripped for being unable to defend his IBF crown against their mandatory challenger Vyacheslav Glazkov due to having a rematch clause in his contract with Wladimir Klitschko. Rockier waters were ahead.
Meanwhile, a lot of the boxing world remained unconvinced with their new World Heavyweight champions. People thought Liston fought injured, he threw the fight, the fight was fixed, he’d took Clay too lightly, he hadn’t trained hard, he’d gone in too angry. The list of excuses for Clay’s triumph were endless. But this time we’d see the real Liston, he’d be determined to erase the humiliation he’d suffered, he’d be better prepared to deal with Ali’s trash talking and mind games, having had the experience of the first fight and he’d train hard this time.
People also suspected the scientific Klitschko would have learnt his lesson from the first fight and wouldn’t fall into Fury’s trap a second time, this time committing to throwing more punches. Whilst it was unknown whether Fury would be able to be as perfectly disciplined two fights in a row.
Ali retained his crown in the rematch knocking Liston out in the opening round with what he named the ‘Anchor Punch’. The Fury-Klitschko rematch however would never happen. After originally being pushed back due to a Fury sprained ankle, Fury postponed the fight again after being declared ‘medically unfit’.
Both men were now to face the biggest challenge of their careers and lives. They would be tested on every level, as each faced the biggest problem facing men of their time- For Ali it was The Vietnam War and for Fury it was Mental Health.
The Vietnam War occupied much of the consciousness of young American men at the time. Thousands were being sent over and not returning, or if they did return they were changed, permanently. There was also the moral question, was what they were doing right? America had no time for such questions, if Uncle Sam said you were to go to Vietnam guess what, that’s where you were heading. When World Heavyweight Champion Muhammad Ali uttered the immortal words “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong” after being informed his draft status had changed and he was now eligible to join the war effort in Vietnam, his life was forever changed. He became public hate figure number 1, perhaps literally the most hated man in America.
When he refused the draft by remaining still when “Cassius Marcellus Clay” was called and then called again, he had sealed his place in people’s minds as a draft-dodging unpatriotic, cowardly traitor. For Ali, joining the fighting in Vietnam was out of the question. It wasn’t fighting, not as he knew it, it was killing. Killing on behalf of a country that wouldn’t fight for his rights as a Black person at home and killing in a non-holy war which set it at odds with his religious beliefs. No it simply wouldn’t do. But nor would he go over there and fight exhibitions to entertain the troops like Joe Louis and Sugar Ray Robinson had done during WW2. He wouldn’t be used as a propaganda tool, to encourage more youngsters who looked up to him to sign up. Hence he was a problem that the authorities had to bring down.
One hour after Ali refused induction, The New York State Athletic Commission suspended his license and withdrew recognition of him as Champion. Soon after, the rest all followed suit. Ali’s 3 year reign as World Champion was over. The 3 years and 9 successful title defences were enough to show the world that he was not going to lose them in the ring anytime soon, he dominated and outclassed all-comers, but those days were over now and the future looked bleak. On June 20th 1967 Ali was tried for refusing induction into the United States Army and found guilty twenty minutes later, he was sentenced to the maximum allowable- Five years imprisonment. Following Ali’s convictions and sentencing, the judge confiscated Ali’s passport terminating his boxing career.
Tyson Fury would also find himself locked in a battle that would put pay to his Championship reign and boxing career. It wasn’t with a government, but with himself.
Since childhood, Tyson Fury had always felt different. He had anxiety without understanding that’s what his feelings of uneasiness and fear were, he had depression without understanding that’s what his feeling of worthlessness and sadness were. But despite being regularly affected by these thoughts and feelings, he had boxing. There was an English title to win, a British title, a European title, an Irish title, an Inter-Continental title, an International title, then finally the World Heavyweight titles. At 27 years old, there was nothing left to win, he had achieved everything he set out to achieve. And after the rise comes the fall. And it was a long way down.
The negative thoughts and emotions Tyson had up to that point managed to keep under the surface, overwhelmed him. After waiting to be world champion for so long, he expected it to fulfil him, it didn’t. He felt a void, pure emptiness where happiness should have been. The tragedies in his life he had refused to confront due to his focus on Klitschko, now consumed him. His wife lost their baby at six months pregnant, which she then had to deliver due to how developed it was. At around this time he had also lost his Uncle Hughie. Fury sank quick. When promoting the doomed Klitschko rematch, Fury told the press he wanted Klitschko to knock him out, and if his sparring sessions were anything to go by, he probably meant it, as he was letting guys hit him in the hope of being knocked out.
In 2016, Tyson was diagnosed as having Bipolar disorder and OCD. He had ballooned up to 28 stone in weight and was having suicidal thoughts on a daily basis, waking up instantly wishing he hadn’t, drinking excessively every day and binging on cocaine. He could only see two outcomes: either he would end up dead from suicide or heart attack from how he was abusing his body, or he would end up in a padded room, as he had taken to arriving in hospitals shouting about how he was possessed by demons. It was all very sad.
The closest Tyson came to suicide was in June of 2016 when he planned to drive his Ferrari at 160mph straight into a bridge. A voice reminded him of his kids, he changed his mind. But the road to recovery was still a long way away. He vacated his titles in October of that year, a lifetimes effort in obtaining them and they were gone in less than a year. But atleast he still had his life, and a chance no matter how slim to turn it around.
During his time in exile, whilst waiting for the outcomes of his appeals Ali toured college campuses speaking out against the war and the teachings of the nation. He appeared in theatre on Broadway. He remained strong, dignified and defiant. The government could take his passport, the boxing commissions could take his license and his belts but no one could take his dignity.
Dignity was the last thing on Fury’s mind on Halloween night 2017. He was a 28-stone man in a glow in the dark skeleton costume, a 29-year old former World Heavyweight champion at a party surrounded by young people. Less than 2 years after becoming champion, he was already finished, his career surely over. But something was different that night to all the other nights of the last 18 months. Tyson had a couple of beers, this would usually lead to drinking until drunk enough to dull the depression, but this night he realised he didn’t want to do this anymore. He went home. He prayed on his knees with tears streaming down his face. He felt suddenly reborn, a weight lifted from his shoulders. But there was still a lot of weight to shift from his belly, the next morning he went on a jog, a short one before he had no choice but to slow to a walk, so out of shape he was. Then he made a phone call to a man who would play a key role in the Tyson Fury comeback story, one Ben Davison.
Muhammad Ali returned to the ring a few months shy of his 29th birthday. 29 being the age of Fury on his return. Ali spent 1,313 days out of the ring, Fury 923. Ali returned in Atlanta, Georgia where he was able to fight due to there being no state boxing commission there. Tyson Fury was cleared to box again and lost 112 pounds for his comeback in the place of his birth, Manchester. Both won in quick fashion, Ali against the game Jerry Quarry after 3 rounds and Fury against the ridiculously over-matched Sefer Seferi after 4. Next up Ali beat Argentine Oscar Bonavena and Fury beat Italian Francesco Pianeta on points. Neither were that impressive in their second fights, or rather Ali wasn’t until the 15th and final round where he scored a stunning KO.
And that was it. After all that time out of the ring and only a combined 32 rounds back in action, both men decided they were ready to challenge the most fearsome fighter in the Division. Both men had fought just twice, one short fight and one longer fight each and been back for less than six months. Ali was in a race against time, his charges still loomed over his head and prison was still a real possibility. He didn’t have time for more warm-up fights in case the worst happened. Fury later called his decision to fight Wilder so soon into his comeback a ‘dare to be great’ move. It was the move of a man who needs the motivation of setting himself huge challenges, and trying to achieve something that people doubted he could accomplish.
Ali would attempt to become a 2x Champion against Smokin’ Joe Frazier (26-0, 23KOs) and Fury against Deontay Wilder (40-0, 39KOs). Both champions had impressive records, were undefeated with KO power but were missing that big win on their CV against a highly rated boxer to really cement their position as a respected champion.
Such was both fighters enormous self-belief, it was hard to bet against either of them, but it was a big ask. Neither had looked anywhere near as good in their two fights back as they had prior to exile. Tyson was also going in with a new trainer, Ben Davison, just 24 years old, untested in this high pressure environment.
The fear from Ali and Fury well wishers was that the fight would be too soon into their comeback. Just two fights against boxers far below their calibre after such a long absence wouldn’t be enough to shake off all that ring rust and have them ready enough to defeat Champions who could actually hurt them. And on some level they were proved right, Ali’s legs and stamina were not yet back to where they needed to be for such a contest and after a few rounds of dancing, Ali was forced to stand and fight with Joe. His lack of stamina also meant that often in the final minute of rounds he had no energy left to do anything other than cover up and take blows. This would be key in Frazier winning a lot of rounds on the judges scoreguards.
For Fury the fight would be too soon due to the huge amount of weight he’d shifted in a short time. His body had not yet fully got used to being such a light weight and his strength had not fully returned. This meant that when he sensed Wilder in trouble after hitting him with a good shot, he wasn’t able to put his foot down on the accelerator and take Wilder out, he tried but could sense he didn’t have the necessary power in him.
Both fights went the distance. Both fighters were hit with the hardest punch of their career. Both hit the canvas in the final round. Both rose to their feet and bravely battled on, but neither were able to claim the World Heavyweight title back at the first attempt.
Both men also experienced some poor judging. In The Fight of the Century, Frazier and Ali beat the hell out of each other for 15 rounds, Ali landing more as Frazier showed no concern for Ali’s punches, walking towards him all night, never moving backwards. Frazier however, landed the harder, more eye catching shots and did the better work in the last minute of rounds, whereas Ali tired in these moments. Frazier really established his dominance in the 11th round and sealed it in the 15th and final round putting Ali down landing flush on the jaw. Despite already fighting 14 brutal rounds, Ali was never going to stay down, by the time the referee had shown Frazier to the corner, he was already up and ready to go again. Ali suffered the first defeat of his career, losing an unanimous decision. One judge scored the close fight poorly scoring it 11-4 Frazier. That was nothing however to what Tyson Fury would endure from the judges 47 years later.
For 8 rounds Fury had Wilder thoroughly frustrated. Wilder missed wildly and missed often, Fury’s constant movement and feints seeming to keep him permanently unsettled. Rather than throwing too little like Klitschko, he threw too much, huge punches when he had no chance of landing them. Fury was making him look foolish, until in the 9th when Wilder for the first time caught Fury in the corner, he’d stayed in there a moment too long and he was punished for it, he was put down but he was okay. He got up and normal service resumed, he landed 10 punches on Wilder in the 10th, who only landed one punch of his own in 3 minutes. It looked as if Wilder’s moment had been and gone. Panic over.
Enter the final round. Fury believes Wilder is tired, he knows he’s had him hurt at moments in the fight, he believes he can take him out to crown the perfect comeback. This round would go down as one of the most unforgettable in boxing history.
“There’s a shake of the head from Wilder as if to say, what is this in there against me?” John Rawling, BT Sport Commentator.
You all know what happened. You’ve seen it so many times and it was so memorable you can conjure it at once in your mind’s eye. Fury lands a crisp right hand, then holds his ground, remaining in range, Wilder launches himself into the pocket and lands a detonating right on Fury and then follows up with a massive left to the jaw of the man who was already heading to the canvas without the follow up blow. A deadly one-two from the man who’s faced 40 opponents, knocked out 40 opponents. And that’s all she wrote. Or at least it was for 5 seconds. 5 seconds in which Fury lay unmoving, with the referee above him counting, surely pointlessly. But at 6 Fury springs to life, he is risen. And rise he does, he beats the count. With precisely 2 minutes and 25 seconds of the fight left Fury’s head hits the canvas and precisely 60 seconds later he has both hands behind his back, daring Wilder to have another go before landing a solid hook of his own. The bell sounds on one of the most thrilling rounds ever seen, before a great night for the sport is ruined by two judges denying Tyson Fury the greatest comeback in boxing, if not Sport’s history. Still his powers of recovery to get up from that knockdown in the 12th will live forever in the memory of everyone who saw it.
Going into their third World title challenges, the world was once again looking at two crazy people. Ali was talking about how he was going to whup George Foreman (40-0, 37KOs) and Fury was telling everyone he was going to knock out Deontay Wilder (42-0-1, 41KOs) and move completely away from his strategy from the first fight (despite it being very successful in everyone’s eyes bar the judges at ringside).
Ali & Fury would be taking on the most fearsome punchers of any era, not just their own, with the KO% to prove it (92.5% for Foreman, 97.6% for Wilder). Both devised the most daring of strategies for their career crowning moment (so far in Fury’s case) against an American knockout artist.
Both had huge question marks against them going into the fights. Ali had his jaw broken and lost against Ken Norton (Who Foreman destroyed in 2 rounds) and had gone 5 fights without a knockout victory (even though one was a points victory over Joe Frazier, Ali hadn’t put him down in 27 rounds, Foreman dropped him 6 times in 5 and a half minutes). Wilder and Fury had two fights each in the interim of their epic draw, Wilder adding 2 more highlight reel knockouts to his resume, whereas Fury came closer to losing against little known Otto Wallin than he ever had in his career before (barring the seconds he spent unconscious in the 12th against Wilder) due to a massive, deep cut above the right eye that Wallin opened in the 3rd with a short left hook. Matters were made worse in the 5th when an accidental clash of heads added another bad cut on the eyelid of the same affected eye. As the doctor was called to inspect it in the 6th, there looked a very real possibility the bout would be stopped and Fury would receive his first career loss due to it being a Wallin punch that initially caused the gruesome wound. Fury was allowed to fight on and won but required 47 stitches.
Ali had no chance. Sure he’d upset the odds before, defeating the George Foreman of the previous era, Sonny Liston. But that was 10 years ago, Ali was much the younger man that night in Florida, this time he was the senior man in the ring by 7 years. Youth, strength, power and form were all in favour of the champion Foreman. The top 4 men of the time were Foreman, Frazier, Norton and Ali. Ali had fought a combined 51 rounds against Frazier and Norton winning 2, losing 2, suffering 1 knockdown against Frazier and 1 broken jaw against Norton, he hadn’t been able to strike a knockdown against either. On the other hand, Foreman had dispatched Frazier and Norton in less than 12 minutes, scoring 8 knockdowns. Journalists were less concerned with whether Ali would lose or be retired by the fight (this was a given) and more that he would just survive it.
Fury, in the immediate aftermath of the Wilder fight, may well have been the favourite for the rematch. Ever the maverick however, in the nearly 15 months between the fights, a series of actions would take place to ensure that going into the fight, Fury would be once again cast in his favourite role of underestimated underdog, by many people. First of all in his final warmup bout before Wilder against a 10/1 outsider, Fury weighing his lightest for 5 years as his weight continued to drop off, was unable to finish the little known Swede Otto Wallin inside the distance, whilst it was his own face that looked to be doing its best Henry Cooper impression.
Next Fury parted ways with trainer Ben Davison, one of the highest rated young trainers in boxing, who had been a key component in Fury’s rise out of the darkness and back to where he belongs. In his place came SugarHill Steward, nephew of the late great Emmanuel Steward, but little known in his own right to UK audiences. It seemed a bold call to replace Davison, a man who had been in his corner when only two poor judges had denied him the ultimate redemption of winning the Heavyweight Championship just six months into his ring return, but also was one of his best friends. To replace him with a man he didn’t know that well and only 2 months or so before the fight date, seemed to be a gamble.
The reason for the gamble became clear as the fight approached and could be summed up by the Kronk Philosophy to ‘go for the knockout and take it out the hands’ of the judges’. Fury made plain he would be embodying this philosophy in the ring, saying time and time again at every interview, at every press conference, that he was coming for the knockout. He promised anyone who would listen he would fight fire with fire, meet Wilder dead in the centre of the ring, back him up and force him to fight going backwards, a strategy which Fury had garnered from the closing moments of their first fight.
But were people listening? was Fury really to be believed? The much superior technical boxer was going to forgo his elusiveness established by boxing from range to stand with and try to out-punch and overpower the hardest punching Heavyweight of all time? Was this all just an elaborate mind-game? Who after all tells their opponent exactly what the game plan is? Wilder was one of many who didn’t believe it, dismissing Fury’s fists as pillows. Though even some of Fury’s fans struggled to understand why Fury would want to move completely away from a performance that established him in many people’s eyes as the best Heavyweight in the World. That performance was vintage Fury, could he really change it up so drastically to show people a side of him in the ring they’d never seen before?
From the moment Muhammad Ali and Tyson Fury ran out of their respective corners and took centre ring, they controlled the destiny of their fights. Both used their opponents weaknesses to devastating effect and from Round 1 on it looked inevitable they would confound the critics.
Ali, expected to dance and move away from George for as long as he could and keep the fight in the middle of the ring, instead spent much of the fight with his back against the ropes, but he leaned so far into the ropes, he could see Foreman’s punches coming from a mile away. This allowed him to either block, deflect or turn most of them away, or roll with the punches by moving back into the ropes and letting the ropes absorb the force. Ali took a few shots that hurt, but Foreman’s swings were often so big that Ali could brace for when the contact came. Foreman frustrated, switched to body attacks, but this was fruitless. Ali’s middle which was already in tremendous shape had been made too strong from weeks of sparring, where he had allowed partners to hammer at his mid-section in preparation for the fight. Foreman who had stopped his last 24 opponents, 22 in the opening 4 rounds thought himself to be invincible and didn’t believe Ali had the power to hurt him. So occupied was he with attack and destroying Ali, he barely bothered to think about defence and Ali was able to bounce lightning quick counters and combinations off his face all night and win rounds.
It wasn’t until the 5th round we got our first clear sign of how Ali could stop Foreman. It had been the first round of the fight that was clearly Foreman’s when suddenly his energy had sapped and Ali sprang onto the offensive, hitting his man at will with lefts and rights whilst Foreman staggered, his arms extended drunkenly in front of him. It was the biggest warning to date of the fate that awaited the Champion.
Deontay Wilder’s fate became clear earlier in the fight, from the moment he was floored in the 3rd round, it was only a matter of time. As in the first fight Fury’s constant feints distracted Deontay from his rhythm and prevented him from ever relaxing and growing into the fight. However this time, Fury would have far more to trouble the Champion with. Fury fought with a bend in his back leg which he used to lean back and out of range when Wilder threw, then spring back off to launch an attack of his own. Instead of mostly counter-punching, this time Fury usually threw first, and he forced Wilder to constantly walk backwards, just as he said he was going to do.
As he anticipated, this made Wilder extremely uncomfortable and visibly confused. Aswell as due to weighing 17 pounds heavier than the first fight, another reason Fury was able to hurt Wilder so much, was his all angle attacks. If you can’t see the punch coming, it will hurt a lot more and Wilder never seen Fury’s punches coming. This was due to the variety of Fury’s punches, he attacked from all angles. He punched around the guard, through the guard, he digged at the body, he switched to southpaw. Wilder the man, whose sole weapon is his overhand right was in with a man who has so many weapons, he had no way of dealing with it, he had been totally overwhelmed.
Foreman and Wilder were both put out of their misery in the 1st round of the second half of the fight. Foreman in the 8th of 15 and Wilder in the 7th of 12. Ali’s knockout came suddenly, even though the fight was going his way, there had been nothing about the 8th round to that point which suggested this would be the final round. In the last minute of Round 8 Ali was backed up in a corner, very much on the defensive, Foreman was concentrating on headhunting and Ali’s gloves were up protecting his face. Foreman’s pawing, blocking motion was stopping Ali from throwing any punches at this point and there was a lot of pushing and holding. Then suddenly with 20 seconds of the round remaining Ali absolutely exploded into a life, cannoning a combination off Foreman’s face, Foreman came forward again only to be caught by a hard shot and then another, then circling round, the sudden use of movement confused Foreman and Ali then landed a 5-punch combination. Whilst Ali punches he dances away, circling as he throws keeping Foreman off balance. A powerful whipping hook that Ali threw from behind his back is the most effective punch of the lot and at this point Foreman is done. Ali finishes the job with a cross and Foreman is sent towards the canvas for the first time. He would fail to beat the count and after 2,619 days without the title he never lost in the ring, Muhammad Ali is the Heavyweight Champion of the World, again.
Fury had spent the opening 6 rounds, moving Wilder backwards around the ring, but keeping him away from the corners. He didn’t want to trap Wilder in the corner as he wanted him constantly having to his move his legs backwards, draining more and more energy out of the man. But by the 7th round, he was exhausted enough and the fight would end in a corner, with Wilder forced to absorb a Fury assault for the umpteenth but final time of the night, with his corner finally deciding no mas. And 1,595 days after he was forced to relinquish the World Heavyweight title he never lost in the ring, Tyson Fury is the Heavyweight Champion of the World again, becoming the first man since Muhammad Ali to regain the Ring magazine Heavyweight title.
Both recaptured their crown with a career defining performance, the best of their careers, to knock out the knockout artists. For Ali there may be other contenders, but I’m not sure he ever combined speed and strength as well as he did that night in Zaire. The fight showed everything that made him the greatest, his speed, his chin, his self-belief, his in-ring psychology. For Fury, it was the perfect win. For a man who loves to prove his critics wrong, who believed he doesn’t punch hard enough at world level, it doesn’t get much better than dropping Wilder twice and forcing his corner to throw in the towel. And both men’s career crowning moment came on the perfect stage for them. For Ali in Zaire, Africa in front of an almost all-black African audience and for Fury in Las Vegas, which the entertainer has always felt is the only stage big enough for him.
Aside from the similar trajectories of their respective careers, there are also similarities between Ali and Fury as fighters. Before Fury’s stoppage of Wilder, an identical 66% of their wins had been by way of KO, both produce their best when fighting the best and relish the role of unfancied underdog against an all-conquering champion. Both are at their most vulnerable against much lesser opposition, when they can under-perform.
Both fight in a way that has never been seen in another man of their respective size. Ali’s hand speed and footwork was that of a welterweight or lightweight, not of a 200+ pound man. And the tallest, heaviest men of the division have traditionally been stand-up plodders, Fury should not be able to move like he does and be as slick as he is, both men’s skill-set defies their genetics.
Both fighters are so unorthodox and unique, there’s no way an opponent could know what it is to fight them until they’re in the ring with them. There’s no opponent similar enough to them to prepare you. And both men’s in-ring intelligence is so vast, so well do they know their sports that even if you could prepare for everything you’d seen them do in the ring previously, they’d just come up with something else you hadn’t seen before.
Because of their always superior size to their opponent, they use their excellent foot movement to move in and out of range, meaning they are able to use their speed to land their shots before being back out of their opponents range before he has a chance to retaliate. Both also like to use fast head movement to slip and evade shots. For big men, their reactions and ring IQ makes them very elusive targets.
Both also always dominated clinches, never allowing the opponent to get the upper-hand. For two masters of the sweet science, they’re both Kings of the Clinch, never overlooking the opportunity to use the clinch to their advantage. Arthur Mercante, a regular referee of Ali’s fights said: “Ali knew all the tricks. He was the best fighter I ever saw in terms of clinching. Not only did he use it to rest, but he was big and strong and knew how to lean on opponents and push and shove and pull to tire them out. Ali was so smart. Most guys are just in there fighting, but Ali had a sense of everything that was happening, almost as though he was sitting at ringside analysing the fight while he fought it.” Wladimir Klitschko was a renowned bully in the ring using a ‘jab and grab’ style, holding his opponents for much of the fight and draining them by making them exert energy to get the bigger man off them. Against Fury, he came up against someone too big and strong to hold and bully, and instead Fury was able to control all of their clinches. Fury again used clinching to excellent effect in the Wilder rematch, leaning his massive frame all over Deontay, making him hold him, applying locks and holds, so even when they was in too close to punch, he was still refusing to let Wilder have any respite at all.
Ali and Fury opponents also find that even if they can give them a physical fight, the mental fight is just as tough. Their self-belief, mental strength and will to win, no fighter has been able to match them in these areas. Simply put, they can dig deeper. As deep as necessary to win, when their minds are 100% fixed on victory, denying them that victory is an improbability. When Fury says the only way to beat him is to “nail him to the canvas” you believe him. Ali could push his body to places that other fighters wouldn’t go, the best example being in the Thrilla In Manilla, when despite describing the aftermath of the 9th round as the “closest I’ve ever been to dying” and nearly losing consciousness between rounds due to exhaustion he kept on fighting until Frazier’s corner pulled their man out with 1 round remaining. Fury also cannot be outlasted physically in the ring, this is down to his extraordinary lung capacity, he takes in 21 litres of air in the same time frame another fit man of around his weight takes in 12. For this reason you will never see Fury look exhausted in a fight, evidenced by him still being the fresher man in the latter stages of the Wilder fight, despite it being his first competitive fight in 4 years.
There is also similarities in their boxing personalities: the trash-talking, the bold confidence, unshakable self-belief and absolute certainty in the outcome of their bouts. They know they will win and they say as much, but they don’t have to. It’s written all over their face and in how they carry themselves in the build-up to a fight. Ali’s famous quote “It’s just a job. Grass grows, birds fly, waves pound the sand. I beat people up.” also sums up Tyson’s approach and mindset towards the sport. It helps explain why so close to the ring-walk he is relaxed enough to dance around, clown with his people and at times be practically asleep as he waits for the preliminary bouts to conclude. Boxing at the highest level is what both men were born for, so what is there to worry about? They know how great they are so see absolutely nothing to fear about being in a boxing ring with another fighter.
In interviews and press conferences both are always quick witted, entertaining and interesting in ways that most boxers cannot be. They’re very charismatic and funny, but neither are people pleasers. They both speak their mind, always saying what they actually think, rather than giving the answer they think audiences want to hear.
The term ‘People’s Champ’ could have been invented for Muhammad Ali. He was the most famous boxer ever, whilst at the same time being the most accessible. Ali had an extraordinary love of people. He would sign every autograph, shake every hand, speak to anyone who spoke to him. He wasn’t a presidential candidate, there was nothing to gain from meeting people like this everywhere he went, but for Ali meeting people was reward in itself. He was the most famous person on earth, traveling around with one bodyguard and refusing to leave a place (usually making him late for wherever he was scheduled to be) until everyone was satisfied they’d had their own individual fix of The Greatest. His patience for people was limitless as was his time that he would offer to others so willingly.
“Ali was different to every champion ever, his training camp was open to the world. Floyd Patterson had an armed guard with a rifle where he trained. Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano, Larry Holmes they all shut people out. But anyone could walk into Deer Lake (Ali’s camp) at any time. One day, a rope was put up to keep the people away from Ali and outside the camp. When Ali found out who put it up, he told them to take it down and never put it up again. That’s just the way he was, absolutely everyone was welcome.” Ali loved all people, but he had a special affinity with children. “One time, children with cerebral palsy came into his camp. Ali stopped training, got out of the ring, grabbed each one of those kids. They slobbered at the mouth, couldn’t control themselves, most people would have pulled away but he kissed each one of them dead on the mouth, slobber all over him. The kids were laughing waiting to be kissed by this man, and you could see how much they loved him.”
Ali was a hero to millions of black people, he showed them they didn’t have to dilute themselves down to suit white people, in a world where white people (especially then) were held up as the image of beauty, he showed them that their skin could be seen as beautiful. His moral stance against the Vietnam war, showed a champion who could stand up for himself, his religion and his people outside as well as inside the ring. He gave up over 3 years of his career at a time when he could scarcely lose a round, let alone a fight but If his sacrifice was what his religion taught to be right and if by rejecting Vietnam he was getting millions of Americans who looked up to him to think about whether the war was something they thought was right and wanted to be apart of- then it was worth it.
He was as generous with his money as he was with his time. It would be impossible to add up all Ali’s charitable contributions as he did not publicise them, all we know is from stories that we’ve heard from his friends. And from what they’ve shared we can gather he was a man who recognised and truly understood the importance of being a high profile person and he valued and made use of his position.
Ali was the rarest of people. A man who met leaders of countries from all over the world and the poorest people living in extreme poverty, and treated them as equals.
Tyson Fury didn’t set out to become the People’s Champion. As an outspoken traveler, for a long time the mere notion of it would have seemed laughable to all. Not least to the man himself, who was convinced the only role for him was the role of the bad guy, who people tune into only in the hope he’ll be knocked out and finally shut up.
But all that was to change when Tyson opened up about his lifelong battle with mental health, which had sunk to its lowest ebb following his win over Klitschko and had kept him locked in its grip for 2 years. Mental health and the dangers it poses is something that exists inside everyone. It takes only one trigger and you can find yourself in a similar boat and many people do. The worst struggles with my mental health coincided exactly with Fury’s, 2016 and 2017.
Fury’s struggles struck a strong chord with people because he’s 6 foot 9, 270 pounds, the Heavyweight Champion in a masculine sport and from a macho family and background. Everything about him would suggest he would be too ‘tough’ and ‘strong’ to be affected by mental health problems, but he has played a big role in breaking the stigma that these problems only afflict weaker people and that big, strong, successful people can not just suffer with these issues but be taken past breaking point.
Fury is able to articulate his thoughts and experiences with mental health extremely well and demonstrated this (amongst other places) on his appearance on the Joe Rogan Experience. He understands his thoughts and feelings very clearly and is able to explain them in a concise way which allows his words to really chime with people. It is of course not just his words but his actions which includes speaking to suicidal people including one who actually came to his house, and taking him for a run. Tyson has been in contact since and the guy recovered from his suicidal moment.
In his iconic moment of rising before the count of 10 after being knocked unconscious by one of the hardest punchers in history, Tyson achieved the perfect metaphor of his battle with mental health. To the world it looked like he would have to stay down, after a great start he would have only been remembered for the end. Just like in life, if depression had kept him down, that’s all he would have been remembered for, not being Heavyweight Champion of the world. But he rose up and in doing so, showed the world that there is a choice between staying down and getting up. And he chose to fight on in the ring and in life, before dedicating it to fellow sufferers saying “I showed the world tonight that anyone suffering with mental health, you can come back and it can be done. Everybody out there who has the same problems that I’ve been suffering with, I did that for you guys. If I can come back from where I come from then you can do it too. I did it for you guys.”
As well as depression, anxiety, bipolar and OCD, Fury has dealt with others things which a lot of people also struggle with: addiction and weight. Fury attempted to eat, drink and drug himself to death, not caring which one it was that eventually took his life. These addictions and obesity is another thing that has connected him to the people. Suffering is universal and though we usually turn to sport and sports stars to escape our problems by having something to distract us for a while, it is less common to see a sportsperson struggling and suffering with so many issues, yet fight them off and return to the top. It is an inspirational effort matched by little in sport.